My Childhood Sucked

Ah, memories! When I think back on all the great music, movies, and television that I was privileged to be surrounded with in my childhood, it gives me the warm fuzzies. With that in mind, I’ve recently begun to revisit the wonder of my youth. I mean, who had it better than me? It’s time to pay homage to the awesomeness that was my childhood!

Having been in middle school and high school from the late 70s through the early 80s, I had achieved the perfect age to enjoy all the best the entertainment world had to offer. I was there for the opening of all three original Star Wars movies, was able to see all those classic Spielberg films in all their cinematic glory, and saw some of the best horror films made when they were first run.

On TV, I used to watch classics like All in the Family, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley.

Stephen King books kept me up at night, and I’m pretty sure that I was far too young to be reading a book like Salem’s Lot at the age of ten. I’ve got a shelf of books that I’ve read over the past forty years that I consider my favorites of all time, all in hardcover first edition, and most of them signed. These are the touchstones of my youth, and about ten or twenty years ago I felt the need to revisit them. To remember how wonderful they were the first time I read them.

Big mistake.

I couldn’t even make it past the first hundred pages of Salem’s Lot. Sorry, Steve, but the writing in it was just bad. Stephen King has come a long way since then (I think he’d agree), but his stuff from the 70s is almost unreadable now. Other books that I’ve tried to reread just haven’t had the same effect. The magic of connecting with a book has as much to do with the writing and story as it does with where you are in your life at the time that you read it. You’ll take different things from a book that you read as a teenager than you do when you’re thirty years older.

If you remember reading something that was wonderful, I’ve found, it’s best to leave it alone. Enjoy the memory, and don’t ruin it by trying to relive it.

I should have taken my own advice.

When I saw that HBO was going to do a remake of Westworld this fall, I got really excited. The movie, made in 1973 with Yul Brynner as the bad robot, was one of my favorites as a kid. It was $5.50 on Amazon! How could I go wrong! And look! Logan’s Run was on sale, too! That was one of my favorites! And there’s the original Tron!

I scooped up the Blu-Ray editions of all three movies, anxious to share the excitement I felt as a child with my wife.

When I tell you that, while watching those movies, both of us wanted to claw our eyes out and were longing for the solace that death would bring, I’m not exaggerating. They had to be the worst things I’d ever seen, and I was embarrassed to have put my wife through that. It was Salem’s Lot all over again!

Like the punchline to a bad joke, it got worse. Last week, I went to a local retro arcade. I played Tron, Asteroids, Donkey Kong, and a host of other video games. And guess what? They suck. They suck just as bad–or worse!–than the movies did. Oh, how I longed to be home playing my Xbox One, where people looked like people and not little blocky-looking boxes made up of thick horizontal lines!

And then there’s the TV. You can always accidently come across a rerun of Happy Days when you’re flipping through the channels. One night, we did … and boy, were we sorry. “Did this suck so bad when we were kids?” I asked my wife. She agreed that it did not. We used to look forward to the show every week, but now, it was just unwatchable. (In all fairness, I still think All in the Family is a great show and has stood the test of time).

Okay, so I’ve come to the realization that my childhood, in all probability, sucked big time. But there were some highlights as I’ve mentioned before. At the time it seemed great, but in retrospect? Not so much. And we did spend a lot of time outdoors playing with other kids and inventing new games to play with junk lying around, like coffee cans, hoops, and sticks. You don’t see that very much anymore.

But you know what was great about my childhood? The music. If you didn’t grow up in the 70s and 80s, I’ve got bad news for you: Our music kicks your music’s ass. And still does. I think the worst thing to come out of the 70s was disco, and that’s still way better than what’s on the radio now. Only in the 90s did music start going to hell in a handbasket. And as for music today? Forget it. I feel bad for kids growing up now. Imagine people in their forties going to a 25th high school reunion and saying, “Hey, DJ! Put on that awesome Kanye song we grew up with while we reminisce about the Kardashians!”

Not gonna happen.

So my humble advice is this: If you have fond memories of something in your childhood, leave it back there where it belongs. As I said before, don’t ruin it by trying to relive it. And if you’re under 20, get yourself a greatest hits collection from Queen, ELO, U2, David Bowie, Boston, Kansas, even Blue Oyster Cult. I could go on an on. There’s a reason a lot of songs from my generation are used as samples in today’s songs. They sound even better today than they did when I listened to them on vinyl through crappy speakers, so if you’re a kid, that’s something to be thankful for.

I’ve learned that sometimes it’s good to be old.

 

 

 

5 Book Reviews

It’s been a really busy summer, what with a new book in the works and another pinball restoration, but I’ve had time to squeeze in a few books. Here are the most recent five:

BOOK REVIEW: Here’s an example of when reading reviews turns out badly: I had been hearing so many good things about A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay that I had to try it. Not only did I buy that book, but I bought his most recent one, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. I’m always in the mood for a story with a supernatural twist, so I figured his books would be right up my alley. Ghosts is about a family with a daughter who may be possessed by spirits, or may be just plain nuts. Think The Exorcist for the reality-TV crowd. But the problem is that I wasn’t connected to the characters, and the reality TV sections were so annoying that I had to skim through them. There was a huge twist at the end that I enjoyed, but it was a chore getting there and I wound up putting his new book on the “For Sale” pile. Two Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Do you love Seinfeld? If so, then Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the book for you. It follows the development of the show, from conception to completion and the years since. You’ll find yourself laughing at the descriptions of scenes you know so well, and the stories about internal struggles behind the scenes are fascinating. Some chapters felt like padding: the chapters about superfans, for instance, and I found myself not caring as much once the book turned its focus to the years after the show. But all in all, and really entertaining read. Four Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: I loved the premise of All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. Two girls go missing, decades apart, and a woman who knows both of them returns to her hometown to try to figure it all out. The kicker? The story is told in reverse. I found the first half of the book to be confusing, though, and had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t reading the next day with the start of a new chapter, I was reading the day before. The reasons for the reverse chronology don’t become apparent until the second half of the book, but when it’s used to great effect, it’s stunning. The problem was that too much of the book felt like a slog. A great beach read, though. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: A new book by Joseph Finder is always an event for me, so I write this review with a bit of bias. Guilty Minds is another book with his returning hero, Nick Heller, investigating claims of a chief justice of the Supreme Court having relations with an escort. Of course, bodies turn up, and the plot rockets along. But while many love the Nick Heller books, they’ve never been my favorite, and I’ve just figured out why. Heller is Finder’s take on the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. He’s a tough guy that seems to be part James Bond and capable of doing anything. That’s great, but I prefer his books like Paranoia where you have an everyman-style character who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. But that’s just me. A great read nonetheless. Four Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Dark Matter is the new book by Blake Crouch, better known for having penned the Wayward Pines trilogy, the basis for the new TV show. This is a sci-fi thriller that deals in alternate realities, and if you had stopped me halfway through the book, it would be getting five stars and I’d be calling it one of the best reads of the year. But there’s a point where the two main characters keep injecting themselves with a chemical and walking through doors into so many separate realities that the effect wears off and you just wish he’d get on with the story. The entire middle section seems like it was written to achieve a word count. Knock out that section, and it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve read, period. But with it, it’s only worthy of Four Stars.

4 Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is a book told from the point of view of one man’s dog, Enzo. That may sound stupid, but it’s not. And the book doesn’t spend a whole lot of time having the dog ponder his dog-ness. Instead, it’s about the tribulations of a race car driver’s life as viewed through the lens of his faithful companion. There’s a viewpoint that I wholeheartedly agree with: Dogs have souls. If you don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, you’re probably not a dog owner, and this book probably isn’t for you. But if you do understand that there’s a “person” inside of every dog, then this book will make you laugh, cheer, and, ultimately, break your heart. But if you think you know how it ends, you don’t…and you’ll never see the last chapter coming. Good luck trying not to cry. Five Stars.

BOOK REVIEW:  Steve Hamilton is one of those authors that is much loved by reviewers and major crime writers as well. With the start of his new series, The Second Life of Nick Mason, I decided to give him a try…and I wasn’t disappointed. A guy is released early from jail. The catch? The guy who got him out is a career criminal who “owns” him now and demands he pick up the phone when he’s called. To repay his early release, he becomes a hired hitman, and about halfway through the book, everything goes off the rails and the rules change. It’s a well-written and entertaining book, but I never felt like I couldn’t put the book down. Perhaps it’s just because I’m burned out on crime thrillers and felt like I’d read books like it before. Four Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: The Royal Succession is the fourth book in The Accursed Kings series by Maurice Druon, and is famously the model for Game of Thrones. If it was difficult to see the parallels in those two series in the first three books, this book leaves no doubt that George R.R. Martin was inspired by this series. Once you introduce infanticide into a plot, pretty much all bets are off. This is a series that makes political intrigue fascinating–even politics from 16th century France. Probably the best entry into the series, and it leaves you anxious to read books five through seven. Five Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: I’ve been reading Stewart O’Nan since his first book, Snow Angels. Each book is short and deals with wildly differing locales, characters, and plots. His newest book, City of Secrets, is no different. This time, we’re witness to the Israeli underground in the aftermath of WWII as refugees made for Palestine. The problem with this book is that you can never get attached to any of the characters. They’re far too distant, so when they’re in peril, you really don’t care. And the fact that the plot relies on knowledge of the history of this little-known period–and isn’t explained at all for the unenlightened–makes this not only a difficult book to understand, but also a pretty dry one to read as well. Two Stars.

Memorial Day: Why It’s Not Enough

A few years ago, my wife and I were on a trip to London for a long weekend in November. People everywhere were wearing red poppies on their lapels, and when they were offered to us for a small donation, we gladly accepted and wore them for the remainder of the trip. We were informed that Remembrance Day was coming up on November 11th, and that the nation as a whole wore the poppies in advance of the holiday to pay their respects to their nation’s fallen soldiers.

We wore our poppies for the remainder of the trip. It was a ridiculously small thing to do in honor of Britain’s servicemen, and whenever we travel, we make it a point to do follow the “When in Rome, do as Romans do” style of travel.

But the point I want to make is this:

One morning, as we were walking through the Underground station near our hotel, there was one of those very loud and garbled announcements that you can hear in just about any subway station in New York City. I didn’t hear exactly what they said, but I did notice the effect it had on the people around me: People with briefcases in hand that had, moments before, been racing to whatever appointment they had, were now standing stock still in absolute silence.

Every. Single. Person.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop in that station for a full minute. In fact, the silence and stillness was so sudden that my wife and I were the only ones still walking and talking and–feeling like complete jackasses–we stopped dead and shut up.

I was confused. I didn’t understand for a moment why everybody was doing this. I looked up at the station clock…11:00 AM. And it dawned on me: At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the armistice that ended World War I was signed. This was Armistice Day, which was now Remembrance Day, and what I was witnessing was a national moment of silence. Every person in the country was taking one full minute out of their day, regardless of how inconvenient it was, to remember the people who had died for their freedoms.

And realizing this, I admit I got a little weepy. What a wonderful way to pay respects to one nation’s fallen. And then I wondered why America doesn’t do the same. And I got angry.

Here, we have a parade, maybe hear a mention on the television about what day it is, and then go back to ordering our cheeseburgers medium rare and slapping on some more sunscreen. It’s deplorable, really, especially in light of the fact that we’ve probably lost more people in combat over the years than any other country.

So here’s my suggestion: A national moment of silence on Memorial Day, perhaps at a symbolic moment for our nation, like at 9:11 or something. But there should be something more. Anything.

Sadly, I’m not sure many in America would even pay attention–or part with their burger for a full minute. Or perhaps it would just be considered politically incorrect, somehow.

And that, in my opinion, is a national embarrassment.

4 “Meh” Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley sounded like such a promising book when I read the jacket copy. In nineteenth century London, a watch that mysteriously shows up on a guy’s pillow saves his life from a bomb blast…apparently predicting blast somehow. He tracks down the Japanese watchmaker, and we learn of the watchmaker’s beginnings through flashbacks. Part steampunk and part magical realism, it’s a book that should have been a joy to read. But the terrorist bombings–and mystery about the person behind it–never fully engaged me, and it just seemed to move a little too slowly for such a short book. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, One Second After by William R. Forstchen is the book for you. It’s about what happens when an EMP pulse knocks out all the power in the United States, and how common townspeople fight (literally) to survive the following year. It reads just like The Walking Dead looks (minus the zombies) – everything is broken down and abandoned. People are dying in hospitals and on the streets, and roving gangs are killing people to get their supplies. The horror here is that everything could actually happen, and many fear that someday it will. My only complaint with this book is that it seemed to go on for far too long and the writing at time seems forced, but an entertaining read nonetheless. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift is a short book about a maid in an English country house in 1924 who is having an illicit affair. Something happens after one of their trysts (no spoilers here!) and the book traces how those events effect her life, both immediately after as well as later in her life. I must admit that I had to restart this book twice because I hated the beginning, but I eventually fell into the rhythm of the book and found it a quick and enjoyable read. But would I recommend it to somebody? Um…no. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Yes, I know…Don DeLillo is considered one of the greatest writers of our time. I don’t know if it’s me getting older and more impatient or what, but reading books like Zero K are seriously beginning to try my patience. This book is about people getting cryogenically frozen for reanimation at some later date. Intriguing, yes. But it just turns into people just talking about it or thinking about it or–in one short section that I admittedly skimmed–what one frozen body is thinking while in the cryogenic state (???). I love a great, well-written book, but given the choice between this and a pulp thriller, I’ll take the thriller every time. I’m giving this one Three Stars simply out of respect.  

5 Mediocre Books…

I honestly don’t know why I keep following Entertainment Weekly‘s book recommendations when it almost always ends in disappointment. Three of the books below were read because they were “must-read” books (or at least touted that way), and the other two are by a couple of my favorite authors, both of whom had a misstep this time out.

BOOK REVIEW:  Shaker by Scott Frank opens with a hitman arriving in Los Angeles after a devastating earthquake. He’s supposed to remain undercover, do the job, and get out. But he gets caught up in a local politician getting killed by a gang and winds up on the evening news. Soon, a hit man is after him. Sounds good, right? But the story is dragged down with flashbacks, the importance of which is only evident at the end, and too many ancillary characters creep into the mix in the second half. Give me a hero I can root for throughout the entire ride, and I’ll be a fan forever. But this one gets Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW:  I’ve been reading Michael Chabon since his first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and I’m pretty sure Telegraph Avenue is his weakest effort. It follows a couple of guys running a record shop in San Francisco and their struggles with someone who wants to buy out their shop to put in a mall…or something like that. We’re also forced to follow one of the owner’s wife’s problems with her job as a midwife. But all of it is rather dry because I never really felt connected to any of the characters. True, this is Michael Chabon, who is a gifted writer, but when he threw in a 15-page section that was all one sentence, I found myself annoyed rather than impressed. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW:  Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo seems to be another one of those short books that he puts out to kill time between Harry Hole books. Blood on Snow, his last short book, was a more entertaining read than this one is…although it’s not terrible by any means. A hitman is hiding out in a cabin in northern Norway. He befriends a single mother and her son, and–you guessed it!–they fall in love. What happens is anybody’s guess, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably just find yourself between the sparse action scenes just asking yourself, “Where’s Harry?”  Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW:  Keep Calm is a first novel by Mike Binder. It has trouble getting started, and trouble finishing…but the middle is a fun read. An American is invited to give a presentation at 10 Downing Street in London. He’s handed a package to bring to the meeting and–wouldn’t you know it?–the package contains a bomb, which goes off. Soon, he and his family are the subject of a manhunt. That part is the fun part. But the book is weighed down by ancillary characters I didn’t care about, a lesbian relationship that didn’t ring true and seemed unnecessary, and an ending that just takes way too long to get to. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW:  If you’re a believer in reincarnation, The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin might be the book for you. It concerns a boy who begins exhibiting signs of adult memories he should have no reason to possess at the age of four. His single mother takes him to a doctor (and, of course, they fall in love), who then analyzes the boy for evidence of past lives. Soon a murder mystery from his past life is uncovered, and by book’s end, solved. It’s a good tale, well told…but with just problem. The author cites work from Jim Tucker, who wrote Life Before Life and Return to Life, including passages from those books as if to support her story. The problem lies in the fact that the real stories from those two non-fiction books are far more compelling, and it leaves you wondering why you’re not reading those books instead. Three Stars.

I Should’ve Learned Ukrainian

I’ve always had the greatest respect for people who are bilingual. If you are fluent in more than two languages, you’ve achieved God-like status in my eyes. Kids who can speak more than one language just make me feel dim and inadequate by comparison. My parents are bilingual, and they tried to instill the same talent in me from an early age. Much to their chagrin and disappointment, I turned out to be a linguistic loser.

I suppose my father wasn’t too interested in having me learn Hungarian, or perhaps he just realized that I was too much of a moron to handle such a difficult language. My mother, on the other hand, would not allow her son’s apparent stupidity to dissuade her from forcing him to learn–of all things–Ukrainian. After all, her Ukrainian friends down the street had two perfectly wonderful sons, both of whom could readily converse in that language at a moment’s notice. Even my sister could rattle off a few well-spoken sentences at the appropriate times, which really annoyed me.

So off I went to Ukrainian school. In my memory, it was held in a small elementary school in a neighboring town all day on Saturday, with only five minutes set aside for food, drink, recreation, and bathroom breaks. That’s what it felt like anyway. In truth, the classes were probably held at night for two or three hours with a half hour set aside for recess. But it felt like entire days of my life were being stolen from me week after week.

I knew things wouldn’t end well as soon as I was introduced to the Cyrillic alphabet. What the hell is this? I can remember thinking. I was soon asked to read such banal sentences as The tall reeds grow in the muddy river in horribly butchered Ukrainian. The aforementioned golden child of the people down the street excelled in all facets of the class while I sat there staring at the clock and wondering how the red second hand could move so impossibly slowly around the clock’s face. How did you say, Get me the hell out of here, I wondered.

I do have some happy memories, though. Recess was a wonderful thing. I remember throwing a tennis ball against the wall of the gymnasium in some game that we invented that involved a tennis ball and a wall. Hey…back in the day, we had to be inventive with the things we had. There’s a lot of truth to the rumor that us older folk could make do with a stick and a hoop, and I’m pretty sure we were the generation that found an old coffee can and invented that front-yard classic, Kick the Can.

Pretty soon, my parents realized they were wasting all that money for me to throw a ball against a wall, and were smart enough to know that I could probably do the same thing for free at home. (Perhaps it was the F on the report card that tipped them off as well.) Whatever the case was, I was withdrawn from the school, and I’m happy to report that it was one of the greatest days of my childhood. Victory for being a complete failure! At last, all my dreams were coming true.

Ah, but those of you who know me are well aware that God hates me. Fast forward to 1993. My Ukrainian-born grandmother was dying in the hospital. My mother had urged me to visit, but I had been avoiding it. My grandmother and I were close, and I wasn’t wearing my big boy pants quite yet. Who wanted to see somebody you love in such an awful state?

I eventually visited. She was asleep in the bed. I spent a few minutes trying to wake her up. After all, if I had made the effort of going to visit, I was going to be damn sure she knew I was there. Eventually, she came around. In a daze, she began speaking to me in Ukrainian. Of course! What were the chances, really? Well, like I said … when God hates you, the chances of things like that happening are pretty good.

We went back and forth for about ten minutes, my grandmother speaking Ukrainian, and I all the while trying to tell her that I didn’t understand a word of what she was trying to say. There was no way I could allow this to be our last time together. I had to make her realize I was there, to see me and acknowledge my presence.

And then, finally, it happened. In one brief moment of lucidity, after I had just said, “But Grandma, I don’t understand what you’re saying!”, she rolled her head and looked at me. She took a deep breath and spoke the last words she would ever say to me in this life … and I’ll never forget them.

“What good are you,” she said, “if you don’t know the language?” She closed her eyes and went back to sleep, and I never saw her again.

And now you understand the title of this story.

 

3 Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: I never know what to make of Michel Faber. Each book he writes is completely different, and The Book of Strange New Things is no different. This book concerns a minister who is sent to a distant planet to teach the alien civilization about Jesus and the gospel. Meanwhile, back at home, his wife is struggling with natural and man-made disasters. They communicate through a kind of email system, and at one point in the book, his emails become censored, which lends a dark tone to the narrative. You keep expecting something to happen, but nothing ever really does. And while that may be enough to keep you turning the pages, ultimately, it leaves you feeling disappointed. Three Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: I should know not to listen to reviews in Entertainment Weekly. Judged as one of the ten best books of 2015, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch by Daniel Kraus, this overbloated brick posing as a young adult novel runs out of steam well before it runs out of pages. Never heard of it? There’s a reason. The premise is that a 17-year-old boy working with the criminal underworld in Chicago is gunned down on the shores of Lake Michigan in the late 1800s. He is then resurrected as a walking corpse that, I suppose, looks normal enough to pass for quite alive but only somewhat sickly. We follow Zebulon through important periods of the 20th century, only to find out after not caring for over 600 pages, that it’s only half of the story and we’ll have to find out what happens in the sequel. No thanks. Two Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Not often does a book piss me off as much as The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson did. First things first: I’m a huge Bryson fan. I’ve followed his career since Notes from a Small Island, the book to which this one is a sequel. But as Bryson has grown older, he’s grown more curmudgeonly–that I can accept. What I can’t stomach is the condescending tone that has developed over the course of his career. Everyone, it seems, is an idiot…except for him, of course. A little humility from time to time goes a long way towards fostering sympathtic readers. And look…if you’re going to travel around England again because you’re out of new ideas, at least be sure to go see everything before calling it quits. He gets called away on a legal matter at the end and skips an entire section of the country. But the worst part? The endless political drivel that rears its ugly head, completely unnecessarily and annoyingly. I don’t like when anybody starts politicizing in a book, either for the right or the left. Shut up and tell me the story, not your political views. I returned this book, and will be Ebaying every Bill Bryson book I own. Anyone interested? One Star.

Santa Hates Me.

I hope you had a great Christmas. Mine was pretty good, but I’m at the age when it’s all about the kids and grandkids at this point. When people ask me if I’m excited about Christmas, I just shrug. “Not really,” I’ll say, and most people–kids especially–will look at me like I have three heads. But my relationship with Christmas–and Santa specifically–didn’t really start out on the right foot. Here’s a picture of me at three years old, presumably meeting “Santa” for the first time:

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Things didn’t get any better as I got older. There’s a story I’ve told for years to those who know me: “As a kid, I only got socks and underwear for Christmas.” That’s not really true, of course. I got toys from time to time. Nothing too expensive, you understand; my parents were never rich. But they did well by me, and in retrospect, I have no complaints. (I still question their judgement in getting me Lawn Darts–as chronicled in a previous post–and am still convinced they were trying to take me out of the Raab equation.)

But the thing is, when I asked for something that was on the expensive side, I never usually got it. What I got for Christmas instead was a life lesson … and one that I never forgot.

One year, there was something I wanted really badly. I can’t remember what it was anymore, but I do remember that it was really all I wanted for Christmas, and it was big. Like a TV box-sized big. And that year, there was a TV-sized box under the tree. I curbed my enthusiasm as best I could and forced myself to open all the packages of socks and underwear first. (“Be careful with the wrap!” my mother would caution everybody as they opened the packages. “We can reuse the wrap for Randy’s birthday.”)

When I finally got to the big box, I unwrapped it only to find a smaller, gift-wrapped box inside. And inside of that, a smaller box. And, like those Russian dolls nestled within each other, the boxes got smaller and smaller until I got to the final box, which seemed only big enough to hold a wallet. Maybe it’s a wallet with money! I may have thought (who can remember after this long?).

No such luck. It was a small wooden plaque with a picture of a sad dog–the price tag from Woolworth’s, red-tagged at ninety-nine cents, was still affixed–and a legend that read: Happy are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed. When I looked up at my mother and sister, they looked very amused; to this day, they still think this story of my crappy Christmas is a funny one. But it goes a long way to explaining why I buy myself everything I want, when I want it. I’ve learned not to count on anybody to make me happy, and I’ve learned that Santa–wherever he is–probably isn’t thinking of me too much.

That’s why the irony of this year’s Christmas was too obvious to ignore. When my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told her I really needed some socks and underwear. And while Santa may have sucked throughout the years, Mrs. Claus was very good to me this year. I got everything I asked for. But that paled in comparison to the best gift my wife got me.

She had brought home a Santa costume, and informed me I’d be playing Santa Claus for our granddaughter this year. I grumbled. I cursed. Could Christmas get any worse? But come Christmas Eve, I dutifully donned the outfit and played the part to a T (video of which is floating around out there on the interweb). As she sat in my lap, shyly avoiding my questions about what she wanted for Christmas, I told her what she wanted (“A BIG choo-choo!”) and her eyes grew big as saucers…especially when I handed her a big, gift-wrapped choo-choo.

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She’s probably too young to ever remember this special Christmas, but that doesn’t matter. For me, it was the greatest Christmas present I had received in a long, long time. After my horrible experiences with Santa, I was able to make just one child (and a very special one at that!) truly believe in Santa Claus.

And what did my granddaughter give me for Christmas, you might ask? Well…two days later, I learned I had contracted a stomach virus from her, and my body turned into a double-ended fire hose.

There’s a strict no-return policy on gifts like that.

3 Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Robert Crais doesn’t seem to follow the same book-a-year schedule as most authors, so when he puts a new book out, it’s cause for celebration and high expectations … and The Promise delivers. This book brings not only Elvis Cole and Joe Pike back together, but also unites them with other characters from his non-Cole/Pike books. The plot–which concerns terrorism and explosives–moves along at a whirlwind pace … except when Crais feels the need to interject chapters written from the bomb-sniffing dog Maggie’s perspective. Hey…if I want to read a book from a dog’s perspective, I’ll read The Art of Racing in the Rain. I found myself skipping those chapters, and enjoying the book a whole hell of a lot more as a result. Four Stars if you skip the Maggie chapters. Three Stars if you read them.

BOOK REVIEW: The Crossing is the latest Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly, and it’s another solid book. (How he keeps it up, I have no idea…) It’s got a plot that will grip you from the get-go: Bosch’s half-brother, the Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, needs him to look into a murder that will help him clear his client of the crime. Doing it will mean that Bosch has to cross the aisle to the defense side of things, and perhaps burn bridges with the police department in the process. The only annoying thing about the book was that Connelly seemed to try to work different meanings of “The Crossing” into every facet of the book, and I found myself getting distracted each time he did it. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Four Stars.

BOOK REVIEW: Ever read a book that you thought was great, but you had this feeling that you’d be disappointed by the end? That’s what I felt about Trust No One by New Zealand author Paul Cleave. What a great premise: a crime writer with Alzheimer’s starts having bodies pile up around him .. and all signs point to him as the murderer. The title comes from the fact that everybody around him seems to be lying to him and manipulating him … and it’s almost a certainty that one of them is involved in the murders, if not the murderer him or herself. But around page 100, I was pretty sure who the culprit was, and by the end, I realized I’d been right. And with the exception of a small twist after the climax, that was enough of a letdown for me to put this book squarely in the mediocre category. Three Stars.