Best of 2017

Last year I put together a short list of some of my favorite things from the past year. I’ve done it again and here they are in no particular order –

A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming – This one is a little selfish. I won a auction to have my name appear in the final book of Charles Cumming’s Thomas Kell trilogy. I’ve been a fan of his books for a long time and his Kell trilogy has been especially strong. Cumming gave my last name to a Jeff previously mentioned in the first book in the series, so it ended up being a reverse appearance too!

The Safehouse/Escape Room

For a spy nerd, the idea that a spy themed bar is opening up in your town is something of a dream come true. The Safehouse is a bar/restaurant that originated in Milwaukee, Wisconsin over fifty years ago. They are branching out and just opened a new outpost in downtown Chicago. You enter via a nondescript door and once you make it past their “security” head down to a underground bar/restaurant. For any other type of restaurant being in the basement with no windows would be a negative, but for this theme it’s like having your dinner in a Bond villain’s lair.

Spy themed paraphernalia is throughout the space and they have a back area where the bartenders also do magic. It’s well worth a visit.

In addition to the restaurant they offer a spy themed escape room that is a lot of fun.

Operation Finale

I wrote a review of this exhibit looking at the Israeli spy operation to kidnap the Nazi Adolf Eichmann after my visit. After several months this still stands out as a powerful experience. If it tours anywhere near to you I recommend visit.

Spybrary

Bursting on the spy fiction arena this year was the Spybrary podcast hosted by Shane Whaley. I’ve made a fewappearances so I’m a bit biased but it’s been a great way to learn about spy fiction and hear from other spy fans. The Facebook group has been the scene of some in depth conversations between really knowledgeable people on various aspects of spy fiction.

Road Trips

I was lucky enough to take two amazing trips this year. The first was a road trip with my wife to the Washington D.C. area. It involved stopping at multiple book stores, many museums, middle of the night hotel fire alarms and a lot of driving. There was a long visit to the Spy Museum which I reviewed. I also had the good fortune to see two authors speak whose work I greatly admire, Joseph Kanon and David Grann. Their most recent books, The Defectors and Killers of the Flower Moon respectively, are must reads.

Meeting authors

Similar to last year, I have to say that meeting some of my favorite authors or seeing a spy author talk is always a learning experience. This year I had a nice little conversation on le Carré’s upcoming book with Greg Rucka, watched Don Rosa (the best Uncle Scrooge writer and artist after Carl Barks) sketch, and got to hear a talk by spy author Daniel Silva. I also sat with a group of thirty other people and listen to Roddy Doyle talk about his latest book, saw a lecture on environmental fiction by author Jeff Vandermeer and learned about the process of writing Nero Wolfe continuation novels from Robert Goldsbourgh. All that plus the aforementioned talks by Joseph Kanon and David Grann. In all of these cases I was able to get signed copies of those books by those authors which was a bonus but just being able to hear from these others was a treat.

The Trip to London

I’ve now writtenseveralpieces on different aspects of my visit to London to see John le Carré’s lecture on Smiley. It was truly an experience of a lifetime. I was traveling overseas on my own for the first time and it allowed me to indulge in all my geekiest spy fan tendencies. I hit many bookstores, museums and searched out various fictional spy locations. I also got to connect with many folks I only knew from online contact so that was very fun as well. It was a great time and I’ll be indebted to my wife forever for pushing me to go.

This is what happened by Mick Herron

One of my new favorite authors has been Mick Herron and I was lucky enough to read his latest prior to its release in early 2018.

It’s billed as a bit of a spy novel, no doubt due to Herron’s recent success with his Slow Horses series, but it’s really a psychological thriller with a feel closer to his previous mystery series set in Oxford. Herron had me cringing as you see characters you’ve come to like making supremely poor, yet believable, decisions. I literally had to put the book down and walk away a couple of times because it was making me so uncomfortable, but in a good way. He also created a evil, almost Dickensian, villain.

More than anything the novel reads as a meditation on the loneliness of murdered life in a big city and starting over. It’s a thriller, so of course there are some twists and turns. Some of these work more than others but it’s his quite witty observations on modern life and the quirks that make people tick that keep me coming back to his books.

United Flight 232

The theater is by definition ephemeral. You either saw it when the show was running or you missed it. You have to be there, experience it live, see someone acting just in front of you without a second take.

The House Theatre, a Chicago based theater company, produced an adaptation of the book Flight 232 by Laurence Gonzales. That book explored the crash of that flight in a cornfield just outside of Sioux City, Iowa. The footage of that crash is seared into the memory of any American of a certain age and this play put the audience on that plane for the most terrifying minutes those passengers ever felt in their lives.

It was an emotional show that found a way to make you sad, hopeful, angry as well as laugh, sometimes all at the same time.

I’ve seen a healthy amount of theater over the years and the direction, cast and tech for this show were all outstanding. It is one of the best theatrical productions I’ve seen.

This production was a remounted version after its initial run had ended but collected several awards. I’m sure it will reappear again and if it’s anywhere close to you I would not miss it.

Going to the Movies

I’ve gone to the movies more this year than the past several and two stood out from the pack –

Baby Driver

Although now tainted by the involvement of Kevin Spacey, Edgar Wright’s film took the heist movie to new heights. If you can overlook the aforementioned Spacey, I saw it before news of his actions broke, check out this exuberant movie.

Wonder Woman

I’ve always been a sucker for the history of World War I and Wonder Women took full advantage of that setting. With great action and a relatively fresh take on the superhero story it was a quite a success. I saw it with three women and I know they were glad to finally see a woman take the lead in one of these types of movies.

Frisbee Golf

With two active and different young children it can be a challenge finding something that interests the whole family. A local park recently put in a frisbee golf course and we have already used it more times than I ever would have thought. Frisbee golf is, like it sounds, golf with frisbees but you aim for a basket rather than a hole. I’ll admit it’s kind of silly, but when you boil it down, it’s no less silly than the sport it’s based on. Seeing my seven year old fly a frisbee as far or farther than I can is pretty amazing. Since It gets the kids outside and running around to work out some energy without killing me, so I’ll mark it in the win column.

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