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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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To. September 2018

Reading:

This month, I've started a couple of books but haven't finished any, not that they aren't good, so I'm sure I'll be talking about them soon. However, I've also been reading quite a bit with my son who just started Kindergarten, and he has been interested in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, so I've read five installments in as many weeks. Therefore, this month my recent reads section will have to fall to Lemony Snicket.

This is not a consolation, I think these books are delightful, but I usually strive to talk about books which are intended for an audience as mature as that which I imagine for the books I write. That said, though these books fall under children's literature, anyone who has read one can tell you they lean mature in theme and content for the children's genre.

On a personal note, shortly after finishing college I spent about two years working in production in local news at a network affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. I don't recall what year it was, but at some point during my tenure, our morning anchor did a series of short live interviews with Lemony Snicket (the author in his character) via satellite. I wasn't familiar with the books, at 22-23 y/o I didn't have my thumb on the pulse of children's literature, so I don't even recall what in particular the author was promoting. By looking at the years of publication, I can suppose it was the release of one of the last two books in the series.

What I do recall is that the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, acted superior, and was even a bit cruel to our anchor. I imagined he was behaving in character, as I knew the author wasn't really Lemony Snicket, that it was a pen name packed with its own personality, and found it a bit funny. Our anchor tired to be a good sport, but even when the camera wasn't on, and the author was getting technical cues from our producer before, and after each interview segment, the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, and acted superior to our staff as well. It left a bad impression for me, but one I didn't give tremendous thought to as I wasn't that interested in the first place.

Fast forward ten years and Netflix adapts the books for a series starring the one and only NPH. Given my respect for the actor, and with the series continuing into a second season, I had to reconsider my casual stance against the author (his persona) and the books. Thus, I started one with my son. We are both glad I did. The books are a little difficult at times for a kindergartener but touch on subjects worth discussing. They promote children building advanced vocabulary, building strong character, and building new inventions, plus the stores are just plain entertaining. I'm thoroughly enjoying these books, and even if my son decided he wanted to stop the series, I think I'd finish it.

One confusing thing, however, is that I was expecting the narrator (Lemony Snicket) to be a terrible, insulting, and judgmental voice, just like the man we interviewed. True, the narrator, talks about dark themes and doesn't baby the reader through it, but he is empathetic towards the hardship of the characters, is matter-of-fact about their troubles, explores a bit of dry humor, but ultimately seems caring about both the characters and us the reader. In fact, the persona I saw interviewed seemed much more like the villain, Count Olaf than the narrator.

Who knows? Maybe after a long day with dozens of interviews, someone challenged Daniel Handler to do one set with the bumkins in Iowa as Olaf instead of Snicket, but no one let us in on the joke. Now my feelings are mixed, but I'm glad I'm enjoying the books. Maybe one should never judge a book by the insults it's author slings at you. (Or rather, those around you.)

Watching:

I rarely ever truly binge-watch anything. With a five-year-old and a one-year-old the opportunity to let Netflix just cruise on into another episode is pretty rare, especially in a month where MLB races come to a head and College Football Kicks off, but the closest I've come to a binge as of late was taking in the full season of Altered Carbon in under two weeks.

First of all, I love the sci-fi basis for this show. For those who haven't dabbled, Altered Carbon's narrative hinges on the existence of technology that lets people hold their consciousness in quasi-bio storage disks which can be downloaded or physically transferred into new bodies. It's like one's mind held in a thumb-drive with a seemingly endless ability to hot-swap. The idea was entirely original to me and set my imagination running in a thousand directions.

The characters are interesting, engaging, and diverse; the storyline is exciting, high-concept, and yet believable; but what the show does best is transcribe recognizable social problems (from economic inequality to gender-targeted violence to religious fanaticism) into engaging story arcs— as most good science-fiction seems to do.

I'm very excited to see this show go into another season, which leads me to my final point of praise, the show's concept of body-hopping sets the stage for an endless freshening of the cast and plot. Characters can be killed off, then return in new bodies without significant plot-holes, the cast can be swapped out seamlessly without compromising continuity. In fact, major characters could be moved into children, elderly, or opposite-gender bodies to create drama, humor, relationship issues and much more. For that matter, characters could swap each other's bodies to create compelling mystery or unsettling hilarity. Heck, the same protagonist could be moved to a different body (different lead actor) only to meet his former self (original lead actor) as an antagonist. The possibilities seem limitless.

I'm anxious to see what the future holds for Altered Carbon.

Listening to:

Just like many people do when Christmas nears, in expectation of Halloween about a month away, I lean toward mood-setting tunes. Unlike the Yuletide season, Halloween music is a bit harder to cultivate, especially if one wants to look beyond Danny Elfman scores and different versions of "The Monster Mash." I'm glaring at you Pandora. Thus, I currently find myself queuing up the 2013 Dan the Automator and Emily Wells collaborative album, Pillowfight.

The music features eerie instrumentals, dark themes, and ghostly vocals to create a scary atmosphere, not for a horror blood-letting, but more of a solo walk through the graveyard at night. Let me also add; its unobtrusiveness works wonderfully for having in the background while I'm cranking away writing a new spooky story.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listing. August 2018

Reading:

I'm just finishing Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals of Delicious Living by Nick Offerman. Usually, my reading tends toward fiction, and when it doesn't, it usually involves non-fiction that related to a fiction story I'm writing. Or in other words, research. However, I'd had this book way back in my "to read" pile for years. I think the world of Nick Offerman's acting, and find him to be an exceptional humorist when out-of-character as well. I caught a part of Offerman's new reality series about crafting and was drawn back to check out this book.

Let me tell you. It has been a delight. Offerman addresses his youth and his journey to acting success, with many tidbits of blue-collar philosophy to boot, and every bit of it hit home with me. His growing up in rural Illinois, though a decade or two before my own formative years, does not seem to have differed much from my own rural Iowa youth. This built an immediate connection for me.

Offerman follows that with an insistence that hard work, not pan-handling to entertainment trends, and keeping his life rich with non-acting endeavors were all keys to his career success. This spoke comfortingly to my own striving toward a writing and screenwriting career on a ladder to success which I'm personally still trying climb.  Best of all, every statement of wisdom is accompanied by at least two instances of deadpan hilarity. This book was good for my spirit and for my heart.

Watching:

I finally carved out the time to watch the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. I'm careful not to call it a "reboot," because most of the time I'm not in favor of rehashing old entertainment properties when there are plenty of original ideas waiting to see the light of day. In this case, however, the new season picks up where the original left off, addresses some of the unresolved issues left dangling (though not particularly resolving them) and features many of the original characters, with as far as I can tell, all the original actors and actress reprising their roles. Not everyone from the original Twin Peaks returns but my compliments to Lynch and Frost for writing around those characters, rather than re-casting any. It also brings an entirely new set of characters into the story, many of which are fielded by actors with whom David Lynch fans are familiar.

Perhaps a more significant distinction in my mind, between a reboot and a revival, is that I don't consider Twin Peaks to have been a major commercial property, in the first place. It had its cult following and continued to gain fans over the years out of cinephiles and film students, but altogether it's not a blockbuster property. So to me, the fresh season didn't seem to be cashing in on the fanbase but instead feeding them what they've been hungry for low these many years.

Outright, I must say, I loved this new season. Through my eyes, it was prime David Lynch. One could label what sets Lynch apart, as weirdness, abstractness, deep symbolism, what-have-you, but to me, I equate it metaphorically to salt. Just as a little salt can make manilla food a little better, a little weirdness can make an average story a little better. A bit more salt can make your average snake a delicious treat, though you might want to watch how much you eat. Likewise, a lot of weirdness can make a story a unique and enthralling treat, but it probably loses it appeal if everything you watch is that way. And to follow the metaphor to an end, salt alone does not make a supremely delectable dish, and in turn, a story which is all weirdness and abstraction without at least the vestige of a followable plot which seems to be heading somewhere coherent makes for dismal viewing. In Lynch's canon, I believe you can find all three. A few projects which flirt with weird, a few which go way too far, with more weird than plot, and many which fit deliciously in the middle. And I found the New Twin Peaks to hit that sweet spot dead center.

I'll even go farther to say, there were moments of what I'm going to call "meta-Lynch" at play. Where I felt Lynch, and let us not forget his partner Frost, gave a little more than usual in order to show the foundation that led up to some of the particular abstraction. For example, in the new season, we see a character come running down the road with a gold-painted shovel to pronounce she's "shoveling her way out of the shit." Another point, we see a woman and her young son, worried, sitting by the side of their comatose husband/father in a hospital only to have a dazed woman in a poofy cocktail dress bring in a tray of sandwiches as if they were at a party. Both of these moments sound very Lynch-esque, but where the new Twin Peaks departed is that each of these moments had a half dozen scenes laying the groundwork for why this ends up occurring, as odd as it is. It's important because it changes the effect. Where once the shoveler or the waitress may have simply appeared and the viewer would be left to ponder, "what was that? Why did that happen? Was I supposed to get that?" Instead, we received a stream of scenes where first we say "that's odd," then we build to "this is getting weird" then "is this going somewhere," only to have it reach a quintessential Lynch scene of intersection only instead of saying "that's weird" we say "ah ha, so that is where that was going." And then proceed to giggle with delight. That's why I call it "meta-Lynch" as if Lynch were poking just a bit of fun at the weird, pop-up abstractions that have been hallmarks of his career.

I stayed away from the new Twin Peaks for a while because I was worried I would be disappointed, but it was magic. If they go on to do any more, as has been rumored, I'll be eager to indulge.

Listening:

Let's just call my music taste eclectic. Some years ago reggae crept up on this small town mid-westerner as my favorite genre, Steely Dan is my all-time favorite group, and I'm just as likely to groove to the Mamas and Papas as Childish Gambino (even though This is America was both catchy and profound). My taste encompasses just about anything except electronic and country, but what's playing on my iTunes as a craft this post is Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy."

A few things I like about it. First, it is catchy. Several tracks have different toe-tapping beats, Ms. B's vocals are pleasing and pretty tight. I don't listen to rap all the time, but some, and there is a list of rappers I love to which I'm not necessarily adding Cardy B.

One weakness for me is the all-to-common boastful self-aggrandizing present in the lyrics, but once you look past that, Cardi B has a compelling story spanning the tracks of the album. Her personal story as a stripper turned successful rapper, doesn't necessarily deviate far from all the drug-dealer turned rapper stories we've seen before, but it definitely has a new flavor and one unique to the female perspective in her work.

What I like most, is the presence of a consistent and interlocking theme to the album as a whole. Every track ties into the others and weaves a story across songs. It seems rare to see that sort of cohesion in the age of surfing the latest hit singles on shuffle mode, so it is pleasing to stumble onto it once in a while.

Good. Now anyone googling "David Lynch and Cardi B" finally has a result to pull up. You're Welcome, internet.
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