Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Watching: May 2019

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I found the first season of True Detective compelling, surprising, well cast, and deliciously gritty, but like many, when the second season came out a year later, it failed to capture my interest or live up to its predecessor, in spite of boasting an intriguing and veteran cast itself. For those who aren't familiar, each season of the show functions as a mystery mini-series with a new case and independent characters. Then, after over three years, the third season premiered in January of this year and starred the ever-engaging Mahershala Ali. It piqued my interest, but with the dig of season two, I didn't race to my TV to get started…I should have.

Season three begins with the disappearance of two children in a small Louisiana town, and we're quickly introduced to Detective Wayne Haze (Ali) and his partner Roland West portrayed by Stephen Dorff, who I'd always considered more of a B actor and wasn't even aware was cast in the series until I started watching. Ali is excellent from the start as a solemn, tortured soul, but a dedicated detective who puts his whole self into his work, particularly this case. What surprised me early, however, is that Dorff matches Ali's chops beat for beat even though he plays more of a supporting role and we don't follow him nearly as much off the job as we do Ali's character. Whenever Dorff is on screen, the two detectives' chemistry and partner loyalty are evident along with palpable strife that feels akin to the bickering if a married couple which comes off as wholly believable.

Dorff wasn't the only surprising stand out of that cast. Carmen Ejogo, who plays Detective Haze's wife, Amelia Reardon provides a counterpart with whom Haze brings his work emotions home to, causing inevitable relationship pressures. But Ejogo and her character go a step further, as she is an author, who is separately endeavoring to write a book about the same missing children case. The character proves to be a shrewd investigator herself, and thus not only do Haze and Reardon butt heads in their home life, but they also step on one another's toes in their respective investigations as well.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating layer of complexity which season three brings to the table is jumping in time through the life of Detective Haze at three points in his life, all tied to the same investigation. We see him as a young detective when he first caught the case, about ten years later when the case resurfaces and he gets involved again, though he is a family man by then, and finally, another twenty-five years later, when he is retired, and the case rears its ugly head once more. I don't want to spoil a great deal. The show creates moments of mystery in Haze's life by showing how one timeline leads to what we see in another. One aspect worth sharing is that the oldest version of Haze, in his seventies, is suffering from significant memory issues, as many aging people do but more severely than average, and thus his best chance for finally laying all the aspects of the case to rest, comes to him only when his mind is at its weakest.

Suffice it to say, I loved this season of the show. It's compelling, at times gut-wrenching, and totally worth the watch.

Furthermore, I said that I started and never finished the second season of the series, however as I looked up some actor names and such on IMDB, I noticed that the episodes of season one of True Detective all carry around a 9.0-star rating out of 10, which is fantastic. The season three episodes carry about an 8.5, which is still great and comes as no surprise, but season two actually has a better than 8.0 rating across all the episodes, which is surprising.  Thus,  I tempted to give it another chance. Maybe it picked up interest a few episodes in, and perhaps I let some early negative reviews in the press affect my opinion a bit too much. Who knows? Maybe I'll write about it in

Final thought: Besides murder, there's another element that appears in all three seasons, ethyl alcohol. If you didn't already suspect as much, all the seasons of True Detective drive home one consistent notion, murder detectives are booze hounds, big time. Now, don't you forget it.
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What I've Been Listening to: May 2019

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This is one that totally came from catching my eye on iTunes. Billie Eilish wasn't on my radar before her new album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, came out a little over a month ago. I have an eclectic taste, but the pop and club influences I can detect in Eilish's music don't usually draw my attention. However, the haunting quality of Eilish's musical sound, voice, and lyrics are all captivating.

Her music gives me more the feeling of a horror movie soundtrack than a dance club, but her lyrics and themes go quite a bit further than horror background music. They have a life of their own. Since my writing encompasses horror, as well as darker sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy, Eilish's music is right at home in my office filling the room with an eerie mood as I crank away on a particularly dark story. I'm sure I'll return to Eilish again when I'm in need of such a musical muse.
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What I've Been Reading: March 2019

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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

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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

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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

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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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