Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading: March 2019

I recently finished Stephen King's 2018 release, The Outsider. I've got a few King books on the shelf, but I don't consider myself a superfan. I'm a casual fan, with the Dark Tower series being my favorite of his work, though as an author who writes horror he would obviously be a difficult author to ignore.

In this case, my main reason for picking up this title was a suspicion that the story idea might overlap with a story of my own, which I'm interested in developing in the near future. I like to look around and be sure I'm not inadvertently rehashing old ideas, or too similar to another work before I get deep into development. As it turns out, I was pretty far off base with The Outsider, and that is no criticism of the book. It simply didn't resemble my new idea in the slightest. It goes to show how inadequate a back cover blurb can be in conveying the theme of a book.

Now, as for the book, I found it to be an entertaining read. The story had flares of older King works, such as a villain which brings two other King antagonists to mind, first, It, and second the laughter consuming creature from the Dark Tower series (which also reminded me of It.) So in a way, King dips into one of his most trusted wells for a third time (at least) for this one, but it is satisfyingly creepy. There were many other direct and suggested nods to other works in the King canon which devout fans will appreciate.

There were details loaded into the story which I would best describe as criticism of our current US president, of whom Mr. King has been an outspoken critic. However, this criticism seems mostly background detail, window dressing if you will, and is only lightly present, though I'd rather have seen the societal faults the author sees have a more direct impact on the events of the plot.

That aside, one aspect I loved was that an early decision from the story's protagonist, police detective Ralph Anderson, which he felt was justified under overwhelming evidence and in reaction to a heinous crime, turns out to create a cascade of tragedy. There is a murderer in this book, so people die at the killer's hands. People die in pursuit of the killer. But people also die in the fallout of how Detective Anderson handles the case, and I believe that element achieves the highest body count. To me, this was an interesting notion, a practical aspect of an otherwise fantastic plot, and the most original and compelling piece of the story.
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What I've Been Watching: March 2019

I'm a devout Star Trek fan, so in the last week or so I've been catching up on Star Trek Discovery, season 2. Though I have a few qualms, on the whole, I've enjoyed this newest entry into the Star Trek canon, and I was anxious to dig into the new season.

Broadly, I think the characters from the start of this series were interesting, the re-imagining of Klingons was compelling, and the anti-hero at the center of the show Michael Burnham was deep, conflicted, and engaging. Thorugh season 1, Discovery abandoned the episodic format of previous Trek series, in favor of a more 15-part-movie structure, which I think worked just fine. I can see where another voyage of discovery as past series have been built around, might be the most exciting reboot, so instead, Discovery cuts right to the action and drama with a war beginning in season one, episode one. It also seems to build more around a primary character, with several fascinating support characters around her, rather than the ensemble cast of Star Treks of old. This too, was alright with me, as we got to know many Burnham, her past, her troubles, and internal conflicts very quickly. The previous series might have taken five seasons to dole out what we learned of Burnham in one, though of course, they were showing us just as much about other characters as well, where Discovery cut back.

All that said, Discovery season 2 seems to be pulling back from both of these aspects, at least a little. The season still appears to be following one central story arch; however, it has been compartmentalized as the crew of discovery comes upon seven unprecedented signals and begins investigating each. As they travel to one signal's point of origin, they become involved in a subplot with its own conflict, climax, and resolution, and then move to the next. Thus the episodic format returns, at least in part. I'd call this format a hybrid.

Likewise, we pull back from Burnham and have episodes which strive to bring some of the supporting characters to the front and develop them further. We get one episode which goes deep on Saru, the only member of his race to leave his planet. Another focuses on Tilly and her battle with an alien entity which has infected her and thus shown itself to her in the form of a person from her memory. There are a few more examples.

One aspect I find new, or at least far more prevalent in season 2, is a tendency to throw back to other parts of the Star Trek franchize. We begin the season with Captain Pike taking command of Discovery. Trek fans, of course, know that Pike commanded the Enterprise before Captain Kirk. He wasn't a significant character, so bringing him back as a link between old and new, and getting more depth and personality from him works well. But we also have Spock return, a character who was prevalent in the original series, all its subsequent movies, all the recent JJ Abrams reboot movies, as well as bridging into TNG.

Don't get me wrong, I love the character, and as Vulcans live longer lives than humans the Star Trek Universe allows for the widespread reach of this character. However, I feel like it lessens the originality of the new series to fall back on such a primary pillar of the other series and movies by giving him such a pivotal part. So far it has been a new use of the character and a conflicted and interesting one at that. But I think I'd rather see more new ground broken. I might even say it pulls the series backward towards the likes of fan fiction, rather than a next step in the evolution of Star Trek.

My other complaint about Discovery is it pulls away from science. Something I felt was of utmost importance to earlier series, which it seems to take lightly. In season 2, Discovery only continues to stretch away from science grounding.

All that said, I've found the series entertaining and compelling. I find it far more true to the spirit of Star Trek then the JJ Abrams movies. I'll be watching for the rest of the season's episodes to see how it turns out, and I'll tune in for season 3 if there is one. Plus, for my money, any Star Trek is better than no Star Trek.
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What I've Been Listening to: March 2019

Around the time I finished college, I became aware of and subsequently a fan of Andrew Bird. I even saw him perform at eh Englert in Iowa City, in 2007. But for some reason, I stopped following him a year or so after that. Then, earlier this month, without any provocation I'm aware of, Andrew Brid came to mind. Thus, I pulled him up on my unlimited iTunes and set to rediscover him. It has been delightful. It's also made me think about art and performance in general.

For me, Bird's older stuff seemed experimental. It showed tremendous command and musical proficiency, originality, as well as being downright obscure. No one else I was aware of was using violins and whistling consistently in their music. Pretty cool for a just-out-of-school, would-be writer.  But, Bird's newer offerings, at least what I've managed to hear so far, seem to have given up some of the experimental and obscure factors in favor of more traditional lyricism and what I'll call flowability, as in ease of listening even though there's still whistling aplenty.

Now I could see where one might survey the two and come to an opinion that Bird has leaned more mainstream, and perhaps see that as a criticism. "I liked his older stuff," nay-sayers, if-you-will. To which I would praise the heart and emotion which seems to have developed in course.  And thus we come to a more general thought on art and performance.

Technical proficiency and a willingness to draw in new elements have merit, and certainly, have a place in art, but can those alone sustain an artist? And my thinking is that, no, they can't. Imagine, if you will, a painter who can paint such lifelike portraits that one couldn't tell the difference between their painting and a photograph. One one hand you could say that the artist was a master or the medium, but one could also argue the artist wasn't providing anything which a photograph can't: no emotion, no opinion, no feeling outside of what we get from the photo. Seeing such an artist would be a neat parlor trick, but I don't think it sustains much artistic praise.

Separately, let's consider a musician who plays the rims of glasses of water, stroking their finger around the glass to produce notes. This instrument would be obscure, maybe experimental, and it would be a cool trick to see them play Beethoven or Mozart on the glasses, but I'll go out on a limb and assume no glass-rim musicians have ever cracked the top 40 with their latest track. Listeners would prefer here someone bring a new feeling or at least pour their emotions into a piece than to hear it played in an obscure way for the sake of obscurity.

So, back to Bird. Yes, he's left some experimental sounds and glorious proficiency behind, but he's gained so much more, a real voice, an authentic style. Perhaps all that experimenting paid off in developing this mature style. The result may be more mainstream, but I find Bird as enjoyable to listen as ever.
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What I've Been Reading: February 2019

I'm not always great at sticking exclusively to a book once I start it. I don't like to abandon a read, but I have other things come up sometimes because they relate to something I'm writing, like last month's Re-animator. Similarly, I'll pause on a book to read non-fiction for research applicable to a story I'm crafting. Sometimes, something pops up that friends and family are talking about and I want to read it before I forget, or they move on.

Anyway, I started Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of months ago, and as described above, found a few distractions along the way; however, I finally finished it a few days ago. I don't want anyone to think this means I think the book was dull, far from it. If anything it is merely a reflection of it one, being a long book, the longer, the more likely I am to get distracted, and of two, not being a particularly topical book, at nearly 60 years old, it wasn't going anywhere if I delayed a week here or there.

One of the reasons I was interested in this book in the first place, besides it notoriety, was that I've been interested in classic sci-fi literature and predictions for a future time which we have now come to live in. Often sci-fi has been used as a lens to examine social problems and exaggerate them to expose their folly. (Think 1984) It interests me to look back at such works and consider if they hold any relatability to today. Stanger in a Strange Land fit this interest perfectly.

The story begins at a time when humans have already traveled to Mars and found life there, and consequently a human boy having been born there, orphaned, and raised by the Martians. Early in the story, the human from Mars returns to Earth as a stranger to our world, culture, and ways of thinking. The man from Mars finds our politics foreign; meanwhile, the politicians of the time heatedly try to control him in order to try to sway what human or human entity will have rights to Mars. As if they can lay claim to it even though it is a sovereign populated planet. It reminded me of European colonialism when countries competed for claims in the Americas even though indigenous civilizations already populated the continents.  Apparently, Heinlein felt we hadn't advanced very far since those times, we just ran out of new places to try to claim, and I have to admit I think he was and is correct.

In the story, new, fictionalized religions try to recruit masses by claiming new insights while using all the same old tactics religions and cults have used through history, and guess what it works. The first fictionalized religion the Man from Mars encounters "Fosterites" made me think of Scientology, a little of Mormonism, but was clearly critical of all religions.  Heinlein seems to feel that as we advance as a society, we think we throw away old superstitions and problematic beliefs, but we really just recycle them and use the new incarnations to go on mistreating one another. In this, I think he is mostly correct as well.

I could go on to a half dozen topics at least, but then I'd end up with a term paper, not a blogged book review, so let me cut to one area I think the book truly fails...women. I've been peppering my reading over the last year or so with some classic sci-fi like this, and I'm starting to see a consistent them. While these authors are very adept at seeing many of societies problems, and predicting how those will either turn into forgotten nonsense, or haunt us over and over again, all fairly accurately imagining the future, none seem to have predicted that Woman might one day step out of supportive roles to men and become accomplished, independent equals.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, there are a dozen noteworthy female characters. The most spoken of is a nurse who turns into a surrogate mother to the Man from Mars, then later into his lover. (Apparently, he was not a stranger to the Edipus complex.) A handful of others women are live-in maids and secretaries to the Man from Mars' surrogate father. A few others are priestesses in either the Fosterite church or later in the Church of all Worlds, but in both cases, they are described by their goddess-like physical appearances, and it is clear their sex appeal goes hand-in-hand with their positions. By the end of the story, most of the women we care about reach the end of their character arcs by finally getting pregnant. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a female character having that goal, but it is a problem when that is the only goal that the author could imagine for his women and so just used it again and again.

It gets even worse. The Man from Mars possesses powers to manipulate objects and people with his mind. Thus, he can change people's physical appearances. He uses this to make most the prominent female character look younger, and to alter their physiques to fit specific measures and standards of beauty: larger breasts, trimmer waists, and curvier hips, he even changes faces. At one point he helps one woman to see herself through his and other men's eyes, and she has a profound awakening of appreciating women's bodies as a man does, and in turn, grows a desire to be lusted after and has a sexual awakening, boosting her libido into overdrive.

Ready for the worst of it? She also at one point casually mentions that most women who get raped are partially responsible. I'd say Heinlein did not detect a problem of gender inequality in the society in which he lived and certainly did not foresee women's liberation or any subsequent social developments in that area. Forgive him. He was not alone. The book also touches briefly on homosexuality, in one place implying that only effeminate men lean that way, but in another place suggesting it was a good thing at least in the confines of communal orgies. The book offers nothing in terms of exploring racism.

As legitimate and even troubling as all of these complaints are, I still have to say I appreciate the book. It is perhaps so layered that one can see these problems, but also see all the apt issues it correctly diagnoses, and feel that the scale tips to the positive as a whole. I can't give it five stars because of the issues, but I can't sink it when it gets so much right.

One last thing to take away; I loved that the Man from Mars was always encouraging people to wait. When issues arose, he would never make snap decisions, instead always tell people to wait until they "Groc the fullness" in other words, understand all the intricacies. This is a fleeting notion in our society. We expect our politicians to have immediate answers and never to change their minds. We expect the same from teachers, clergy, celebrities, parents, reporters, and basically all people all the time. Seldom do we accept people who say, "that's an excellent question and a difficult problem. I need to understand it fully before I comment on it, so I'll get back to you." But you know what, we should. In fact, maybe I will need the rest of my life to truly groc the fullness of Stranger in a Strange Land. I guess I reserve the right to edit my review in 50 years or so.
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What I've Been Watching: February 2019

I've wanted to catch Hulu's Castle Rock for a while now. I'm a casual fan of King, not devoted, but I certainly have a handful of his works which I love.

I thought the series delivered a very eerie feel which I associate with King, that small town which should be a family driven haven from big city hustle and bustle but turns out to be a pertri dish for evil or at least the very weird.

I thought the characters were interesting, some of the faces where throwbacks to older King motion picture adaptations, some of the stories points were throwbacks to King books. All this was what the show promised in concept, and I think it came through nicely, but it was far more than a nostalgia piece.

The drama built well, the underlying unknown creepy factor was nicely built, executed, and revealed to surprise the audience. We even get presented with a sort of villain, who (mild spoiler) then get given a pretty freaky but believable alibi to make us think he is more victim than villain, only to be thrown a curveball in the last episode of the season to make us rethink our newly discovered sympathy for him. Meanwhile, the reluctant good guy turns out to make some decisions at the end which are not too kind. Maybe he is really the villain... It's all definitely worth a watch whether your a King fan or not, and I'll be looking forward to a season two.
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What I've been Listening to: February 2019

I heard the members of Mandolin Orange interviewed on the radio and thought I'd give them a listen, so I pulled up their new album, Tides of Teardrops on iTunes. I'm glad I did.

Their sound is interesting, they have great lyrics, wonderful voices, and splendid harmonies, plus the music is very chill, perfect for casually listening to while hammering out a couple of days of editing. I think Mandolin Orange's entire sound reminds me of the song "When I Paint My Masterpiece," be The Band. I love The Band, I love that song, so they are in excellent company in that thought.

One trouble I find, not that I want to call them a novelty act, is that all the songs kind of run together for me. I think this can happen when one relies on some specific musical point, for them the mandolin. It's in their name, but where The Band who I previously compared, can rely on guitar, keyboard, bass, or Levon Helm on the drubs, as well as acoustic or electric versions of most of those, plus several distinct voices, all capable of driving a song, Mandolin Orange seems to have just the one sound, one dimension. Over a couple listens through the new album, I dig it. Going back and listening through all their albums, it got a bit stale, and all kind of runs together.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Dec. 2018

Reading:

Two works to mention this month. First I took on Joe Lansdale's short work The Night They Missed the Horror Show. Back in May, I met Mr. Lansdale at a convention and actually sat on two panels with him. Before that, I was only familiar with Bubba Ho Tep. I found Joe to be a fun guy to chat with and was interested in looking at some of his other work. I hadn't gotten to it yet, until recently when I saw folks on a horror facebook group talking about this one, so I had to go for it. Full disclosure, I actually listened to this one on audible, and it was read by the author, so that was pretty cool.

As for the story, I found it compelling. It had a clear theme regarding racism. I didn't get too engrossed with any characters, but that didn't pose a problem for the short. It was graffic. Probably more so than I gravitate toward, but I can forgive gore with purpose, which this story had. What I found most interesting was the dichotomy the story gives which highlights the illogical mentality of racism. The primary characters don't want to see a movie with an African-American actor but are ok with an African-American teammate on their football team because he is a good quarterback. Other characters are so racist and morally corrupt, they treat an African-American as less than human, disposable even, and with extreme violence. Meanwhile, they see the perceived mistreatment of a dog as reprehensible, so they're not without moral. The take was interesting and sadly quite apt for a great many people, though perhaps to an extreme. 

The other aspect worth mentioning for this book is the setting. I've never lived in rural Texas, and I'm a was likely born twenty or thirty years after the point in time depicted, but Lansdale quickly places readers in a vivid setting that was rich and captivating. I felt like I was there, or that I'd been there. It was impressive to do so with relatively short space in which to work.

The other book I wanted to mention is  Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. I've been making a point to find pick up some classic sci-fi titles. As a kid of the 80's my sci-fi roots are in Star Trek the Next Generation, Star Wars, and Back to the Future, but I've wanted to explore the genre's foundation. Earlier this year I read Asimov's Foundation (aptly named). So far, I'm a little over halfway through the book so this discussion is more of a teaser for a review to come, but already I'm seeing two things which remind me of other sci-fi of the same era. One, an unnervingly modern parallel to politics and superstition trampling science and reason, almost to the point that one feels the author had a window to the future. Two, such a clear adherence to gender norms of the 50s and 60s that such windows to the future most have been limited to man's locker rooms. Still, I'm enjoying the book so look for more on it in January's run down.


Watching:

Since I don't want to over-analyze the array of Hallmark Christmas movies I've taken in with my family through December, I'm going to have to reflect on the movie I watch on the airplane while traveling for the holidays, which was Pacific Rim: Uprising. Now, I thought the first Pacific Rim was worth the watch, and I was interested in seeing the second, but I heard so many poor reviews at the time of its release I was detered from hitting the theater.  Now that I saw it, I don't think the reports were necessarily apt. Was it an action movie with little to challenge viewers' emotions or intellect? Yes, but so was the first. Did it have shallow characters that were barely enough for viewers to side with them? Yes but so did the first. But did it have kick-ass, giant robot fighting-suites? Heck yeah. It also had Charlie Day which is basically a given delight for me. This movie wasn't high cinema, but it delivered what I was expecting, the only fault I have with it, which I would also say is true of the first Pacific Rim, is that it wasn't Robot Jox (1989).

P.S. If Hollywood insists on cranking out sequels and remakes by the scores, please, please, please, can we have another Robot Jox?



Listening to:

I don't know how I came across the Minnesota based rapper, Prof in the recent weeks and I'm not even sure I'm glad I did, but I am a bit captivated. His voice doesn't seem to match his body. His shirts don't seem to match his pants, and his style and boisterous personality from one song don't even seem to match his persona in the next song, but all of it is eye and ear-catching. It seems clear that Prof is a character more than a straight-up artist, and a fluid one at that, but he touches on some compelling thoughts. 

One song called Motel bares a theme of not mixing up the need for deep emotional connection with the need for physical gratification (motel sex). Crass as that sounds, the song is gritty but also realistic regarding human emotion and behavior. But don't let that lull you into thinking Prof isn't a madman, because other songs are simply absurd. I'll also note, though it would be more of a "watching" thing, many of Prof's videos are equally compelling to watch as to listen to.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching and Listening To: Nov. 2018

Reading:
After watching the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, and thoroughly enjoying it (see last month's Watching) I decided to delve into Shirley Jackson's original book. Though I haven't quite hit the final page, I can comment on many sparks of delight, though overall I've not been as wowed as I was with the series.

Part of the difference, through no fault of the book, is that some of the shocking reveals of the book were telegraphed, or portrayed directly in the adaptation. Thus, I give the book a lot of credit for execution though my experience has been a bit flat. The other significant difference I've experienced is in the book's limiting the perception to mostly one character where the adaptation took time specifically to show each character's point of view. All the pieces of the puzzle only came together once we'd seen how each of the seven characters remembered the house. I have to say I found that variety more satisfying.

Perhaps the reason I haven't raced to the end is due to this lesser interest in the book than the series drew from me. In any case, it is a well written and eerie story, which if nothing else provided a superior foundation for the adapted story I enjoyed so much. I'll likely be giving it a 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads.


Watching:

Turnabout is fair play. Last month I wrote about reading American Gods and watching The Haunting of Hill House, this month my reading is The Haunting of Hill House and my watching is... Season one of the Starz adapted series of American Gods.

I was excited to see this series. I've been aware of it for some time. After reading the first quarter or so of the book, indulging in all the unique and fantastic characters, and having some notion of the superior cast involved in the series — such as the always compelling and mysterious Gillian Anderson, the exuberant and undeniably talented Kristen Chenoweth, the scene-stealing Ian McShane, the eye-grabbing oddball Chrispin Glover,  and the iconic (and pride of my home state of Iowa) Cloris Leachman — I was eager to see this adaptation. I behaved myself and saw to finish the novel before queuing up episode one. However, I found the series fell short for me.

I can't say any character in-particular let me down, in fact, I felt like Pablo Schreiber, an actor I wasn't familiar with as the character Mad Sweeney, who only commanded a few scenes in the book, really stood out as intriguing in the series, but still, I've been left wanting. Maybe one issue is the scene sharing of all the cast. In the book, the characters are self-contained and only as deep or important as the author makes them. In the series, actors come loaded with expectations, and if they are only cast in a sparse roll, we viewers might feel slighted, when we readers did not. But, I think there is more trouble than that. I think the directing comes up short as well.

The series feels like it's reaching for the edginess of an HBO knockout but never quite gets there. Forcing grittiness that doesn't land.  For instance, the story begins with Shadow, the main character, in jail, and of course, the prison will be dirty, cold in color and motif, and tinny in sound design, but it seems that look and feel extend to every other location and scene. I didn't get that impression from the book.

I pictured Wednesday with more polish, he wants to trade out a crappy car for one more suited to his liking, hustles to get bumped up to first class, for me that means a cleaner, snazzier feel, not one just as gritty as the prison, at least not all the time. The story takes place moving across the country, so the locations vary greatly as well. I think this lack of cinematic variety robbed the character and location variety of individual uniqueness, producing a one-dimensional presentation when the book was thoroughly multi-faceted.

It seems a second season is due in order to complete the book's narrative, and I am interested in the series enough to give the next installment a chance, especially since we can assume the story will wrap up on one more season. I'm also interested to see some of the characters yet to be introduced, and who'll portray them. Still, I think with the resources at hand, the series could have been significantly better.

More Watching:
I've also just finished Westworld, Season Two (HBO). I really liked the first season and was excited for this one to arrive. However, while the first season was a bit confusing in jumping time and place, it had nothing on season two. That's the reason it took me half a year before I finished the season. Now that may sound like disparaging criticism. However, I really did enjoy this season as well, it just made it harder to watch, or to find the time to watch. One couldn't just throw it on after getting the kids to bed, and the dishes washed, hoping to get a full episode in before falling asleep. It wasn't a show one could pause halfway through an episode and pick up tomorrow. It needed a degree of focus to follow which I don't always have the time and energy to give.

Not to spoil but here's a tidbit of how confusing it could be.
1. We're following at least five characters' season-long storylines.
2. We have at least a half dozen secondary character's story arcs bridging the main ones.
3. We're jumping at least four story time periods, often without knowing which one we're in and whether it comes before or after what we recently saw of a character.
4. Did I forget to mention there are dozens of flashbacks? So that makes the story time periods more like 20.
5. We jump between reality, and at least two digital false realities, sometimes without knowing which, or that we've jumped.
And then, of course, there is...
6. We have characters who we aren't sure if they're human or android.

Now, all of this is done with good reason to create mystery and intrigue. In fact, if I try to imagine sorting it out into a more linear flow, it becomes clear rather quickly that many of the delightful revelations at the end of episodes or the end of the season would be tipped too early, so I think all this jumping and confusion was necessary. Plus, once I reached the end of the season everything (well mostly everything) fell into place for a complete picture, a better understanding of the whole, with many satisfying reveals. I loved it. What few questions remained unanswered seemed intentional to usher our attention to the third season.

Furthermore, this season explores themes of understanding one's self, of what truly constitutes reality, what free will means in theory and in practice, what darkness humans are capable of, and likely a dozen more existential questions, picking right up where season one left off and pushing these quagmires even further. This I also loved.

Thus, all totaled I give Westworld Season 2 a glowingly positive review, though you can see how it is far from casual viewing.


Listening to:
If you happen to have been following my listening section the past few months, you might want to brace for a hard turn. I've had Cardi B (hip-hop), Pillowfight (cinematic/dance/hip-hop), and Logic (hip-hop), but with the creeping of Christmas, and two small children nearly always with me in the car, my listening for November has grown dominated by Burl Ives Christmas tunes. 

That's right, a corny singer (and actor) who's popularity probably peeked more than 50 years ago, and long before I was born. I have to wonder if Cardi B would even know who Burl Ives was. But for her, and for those reading this who aren't familiar, you probably know his voice from the beloved stop-motion, animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) in which he not only voiced the snowman narrator, Sam but also sang the title song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as the songs "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Old Burl, of course, recorded several other Christmas carols in his many decades of recording, with about 30 singles and appearing on over 50 albums according to his Wikipedia discography. Now I'm not about to claim I'm a fan of his work in general, there's little edgy or challenging to be found there. But, at Christmas, when the mind turns to warmer thoughts, family memories, and nostalgia, I'm alright with Burl's Christmas collection on repeat.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To: October 2018

Reading:

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I hear his name thrown around a lot in fantasy circles and as it just so happens I put out a fantasy novelette this very month. 

I didn't initially set out to write a fantasy piece, but when you work in horror and sci-fi, the other two branches of spec fiction, I guess you can find yourself slipping down that road. It was only once I was collaborating with an editor when I thought the horror I'd written was nearly finished that I realized I had a dark fantasy work on my hands, and I decided to finally delve into that literary world with one of the heavy hitters. I am also looking forward to giving the adapted tv series a shot now that I've finished the book.

Now for my thoughts on the book. First, I found the ending, the main conclusion of the gods' war to be both unforeseen and satisfying. Sometimes those are hard to accomplish together, to give readers something they didn't flush out already, but have all the pieces laid along the story for it to make perfect sense. Gaiman did that very well.

Second, as I started the book I was finding the main character, Shadow, a bit dull, an empty body to which bad things were happening, but that turned out to be intentional and a necessity for the character to grow beyond. So in the end, that turned around, and I found the character more interesting. Well done.

But finally, I have to say I don't think I liked this book as much as I thought I would. The original premise was exciting and had my mind running with all the possibilities, but I guess I found the story hefty on research (and I felt it came off as exceptionally well researched) but ultimately lacking on drawing me into exciting happenings. Even the god war near the end was all but glossed over with little intimate detail what-so-ever.

 I think what I found most compelling were the little tangential stories of characters who brought certain gods to America. Maybe my trouble is that building a character on known mythology risks seeming unoriginal. Then if you don't take that character into new and exciting places, you wind up dull. The characters were no doubt twists on established mythologies, and the new gods were original ideas, but it just never reached the level of excitement for which I hungered. I still found it a good book, and will likely give it four stars on my book rating accounts, but with all the hype I thought it would be a five star read for sure.

Watching:

As of this post, I'm three episodes into the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and I love every minute of it. Full disclosure, I haven't read the original Shirley Jackson novel, though I think I'm likely to do so in the near future. I was familiar with the story by word of mouth and previous adaptations, but the new spin of a family reflecting on the event of the house, after the fact, and the very contemporary personal problems each character is already dealing with at this point in the series has me enthralled. I think I'm fast becoming an S. Jackson fan as well as a fan of the series director, Mike Flanagan. Horror buffs should not miss this one.

Listing to:

Is there something to listen to in October besides the soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not if my kids are around, but I caught someone posting Logic's "Wu Tang Forever" on facebook. I wasn't familiar with Logic, but I was hip to the Wu Tang which is indeed forever, so I gave it a listen.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Logic slides right into the classic through-back to Wu Tang heyday. Excited, I gave some of the other works of this new (to me) hip-hop artist and was thoroughly confused. Confused that I'd somehow never come across him before. So now, I guess I'm a fan of Logic's too.
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