Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading: Sept 2020



Devolution - Max Brooks

I'm a fan of World War Z. I thought the epistolary story structure was exciting and a refreshing take for the zombie subgenre. I also appreciated that it was more of a collection of social case studies rather than frantic horror. In Devolution, Max Brooks turns his eye to sasquatch or bigfoot. Still, the book has a similar structure as WWZ, telling the story through the protagonist's journal entries, supplemented by interviews with her brother, park rangers, etc. 

At first, I thought the story was a bit slow getting off the ground. Unlike WWZ, this is much more focused on a single protagonist, so we spend a lot of time getting to know her. In another story, we might have gotten to the action sooner and picked up more character depth along the way. However, in this structure, where we're reading from her journal, those get-to-know-you details are front-loaded. We have her entries before stuff goes wrong, and after. In the former, we learn of her everyday life problems, getting all the mundane out of the way early. It also serves the story that she is a pretty regular person, not some exceptional character. With this style of structure and this type of character, it had to be this way. 

That said, while it was slow early, it all paid off. Once the story gets going, and we aren't learning about the character, the action takes the driver seat and runs away. Having gotten to know her early, we delve deep into how the story's events change her drastically.

Best of all, like WWZ, there is an underlying theme that has nothing to do with the fantastic, like zombies or bigfoots, but rather is an indictment of real-life and society. Perhaps, here we see how dependent most of us are on our network of goods and technology. When they fail, we're far from prepared, and many lack the resourcefulness to get by. 

I would have loved this book and theme no matter what; however, given the recent and ongoing supply chain difficulties from the COVID pandemic, the book hits close to home. There are also a few theme elements I've turned an eye to in a couple of sci-fi shorts of my own. So I felt a bit of unity while reading. 

Suffice it to say, I think this book is well worth the read, and I'll be eagerly awaiting whatever Max Brooks has up his sleeve next.


More What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020


I didn't know what to expect from the new Perry Mason series, only that it would involve some sort of mystery, investigation, and trial, and that with HBO producing, it wasn't likely to be as clean as the old black and white network show. I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm not a huge fan of reboots and remakes. I'd rather see something original that stands on its own. However, when one ventures down that road, I think you'd better at least have something new to say with it. Thankfully, that's precisely that the new Perry Mason delivered.

Unlike the old episodic show, this series takes one case and delves deep into it, stretching across the whole season. This lets the show dig into the characters. They give Mason, and other familiar names,  complex backstories. And introduce a handful of new, engaging characters. Meanwhile, the show touches on themes of sexism and gender roles, specifically professional limitations for women, PTSD, discrimination against LGBT, and racism. All this, plus rich period details from being set at the same time as the blossoming Golden Age of Hollywood, between the world wars, and during prohibition, which comes with its organized crime and police corruption, to name a few.

Altogether, I found it enthralling, and I won't miss it if it goes into another season.


What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020


I've followed the Westworld series with interest through its first two seasons. The themes of AI, how it might become sentient, how people might control it and potentially abuse and subjugate it, and how it might react or fight back, are all fascinating, along with some excellent storytelling.  I eagerly awaited season three, in which the AI were set up to leave their captive world and start bringing the fight into human society.

(Spoilers Ahead) One thing I liked right off the bat is the new focus on corporations collecting vast data on every citizen and, in turn, using that information to control, limit, and generally manipulate people. This is a very topical notion, albeit taken to an extreme in Westworld, it has a very 1984 "big brother" sort of vibe, and it works. Season three also ups the stakes exploring the practical possibilities, with the nature of the AI beings, of copying one personality, something humans can't do and putting one AI's core "AI brain" into another AI's body. Where the earlier seasons played with telling the story out of continuity to keep us guessing, season 3 uses this cup-and-ball game of identities to deceive viewers. This increases the challenge of keeping everything straight beautifully. Altogether, I liked this season.

One gripe I have is that while Westworld has always blended the abstract and intellectual with high action, Season 3 gets a bit out of balance in the very last episode. Basically, all the cerebral, thought-provoking elements are strung-out through the first seven episodes, along with some decent action. However, episode 8 becomes just an action-packed, violent, grueling slugfest, with every reference to anything intellectual a mere rehash of what we've already discovered, and thus almost nothing to mull over. I don't think any of the action doesn't make sense for the story, but the tone shift makes it seem like a different show entirely. I feel like some of the action climaxes could have been spread over the last two episodes in order to keep reserve some challenging ideas for the finale.

Overall, I give the season fair marks, but if you're going to drop the ball on one episode, it stinks for it to be the end. All that said, I'll still be tuning in for a season 4.


What I've Been Reading: July 2020


 How to Be an Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi

This book was challenging, enlightening, maddening, discouraging, inspiring, hopeful, and occasionally humorous all at the same time. If that sounds a little manic for your tastes, I'd argue that it is symptomatic of the topic and having a serious conversation about it. There are symptoms of racism which are horrible, but also advances that give hope and some ideas so dumb, but persistent that one can't help but laugh at them. Point 1, everyone should take away, however, is that issues of race in the United States are anything but resolved.

One approach Kendi, an African American, took throughout the book, which I applaud, was admitting to ideas and actions of his own, which he sees as racist. He walks readers through his growth and acquisition of wisdom, and what mistaken and misguided ideas he held as he grew up, and in turn actions he took, that in retrospect, he believes to have been racist. It disarms the reader, and helps one put down their shield of "I'm not racist" and consider that they might be acting in a racist way unwittingly if they care to cast a critical eye on themselves.

Point 2 everyone should take away, is actually stamped right in the title, that thinking you are not racist because you don't seek to hurt people is not the same as being antiracist. Kendi draws a distinction, in which antiracist is acting to combat and eliminate racism. Kendi asks readers to put aside the idea that a racist is full of hate. While, people like that exist, instead consider that being ignorant, and sometimes willingly ignorant of racial disparity is really racist as well. When one adopts that definition, then the importance of being antiracist becomes clear.

One personal thought I found myself returning to again and again as I read this book was how at the forefront, or even ahead of his time, I think my late father was regarding racial America. He was both a psychology teacher and a practicing psychologist throughout his career, which means he studied, taught about, and treated social problems, he even had a class of that name. Given his career and education, he probably developed his empathy far beyond the average man on the street. However, even when I was a little kid, I remember him discussing debates he'd have with students. The students at the community college where he taught, much as the community where we lived, were predominantly white. Some would go something like a student when presented with racism as a problem saying that "they can't see race" and dismissing the discussion, as if they couldn't even fathom it because they were so beyond race. My dad would more or less call BS on that notion and call it a shield that lets an individual who is benefiting from racial disparity pretend the problem doesn't exist. Kendi, more or less, draws the same point in his book.

Another example, which is pertinent today is policies that discriminate in order to favor minorities. One might call if affirmative action. Students would argue that those policies were racist against whites and shouldn't continue. Kendi states that if a policy creates or helps perpetuate racial disparity, whatever the intent, it is a racist policy. If a policy actively equalizes racial inequality, then it is an antiracist policy. In different words, my father advocated the same thing, and that's the position I've held throughout my grown-up life.

Don't consider this some sort of brag. I'm not trying to say I didn't have anything to learn or to personally criticize myself about, I did, and I still do. But I'd say, this connection was personal and brought a heart-warming aspect to book for me.

Other people will have different connections, but I promise, if nothing else, this book will be a deeply personal and emotional read.


What I've Been Watching: July 2020


Unbreakable Series (or the Eastrail 177 Trilogy)

I saw Unbreakable, the first movie in what turned out to be a trilogy from M. Night Shyamalan back when it came out in 2000. I was still in high school, and I remember thinking the movie was cool, but that I wasn't particularly wowed. Shyamalan was riding high in popularity after The Sixth Sense 1999, but I don't think Unbreakable captured the magic he'd found in The Sixth Sense. Sixteen years later, Shyamalan released Split 2016 with James McAvoy. I have a lot of respect for McAvoy and was interested in the movie as a thriller, only to later learn it tied into Unbreakable. Perhaps it was that tie-in that kept me from seeing it right away. Then, of course, Glass came out last year (2019), which unmistakably referred to Samuel L. Jackson's character from Unbreakable. I'm a fan of Jackson and remember thinking his role was the most interesting of the first film. At that point, I was pretty sure I'd watch the series, it just took me a while to get to it.

Now 20 years out from seeing Unbreakable, I thought it was best to go back to the beginning. I'm glad I did, but it meant finding 6-7 hours to dedicate to the series. Altogether, I think the trilogy works very well, and I really enjoyed it. Unbreakable holds up. McAvoy was great in Split. Anya Taylor-Joy, who some might know from The Witch, was an unforeseen delight in Split.  Bringing all the fascinating characters crafted through the first two movies, including Taylor-Joy's, to a collective head in Glass was fantastic.  On top of that, without giving any spoilers, it's worth discussing the series connection to comic books and, in turn, comic book movies. Obviously, comic book movies have dominated the box office over the last ten years, with Marvel's colossal franchise.

The Unbreakable trilogy is meta, unlike the blockbusters. They're internally aware of comic books and of comic book culture. Marvel and DC movies aren't. Once more, similar to Watchmen (Both the movie and series), Unbreakable takes a dark but realistic look at how regular people react to superpowers or superheroes when they encounter them. In Marvel's movies, the government wants to control the Avengers so that there are some restrictions and accountability for the team's actions. That's a fair notion. In some Batman and Spiderman movies, the police or governments all the heroes vigilantes.  However, the people, and secretly some of the authorities all root for them.

In the Unbreakable series, people are not so welcoming. They're more likely to be scared and label "super" differences as marks of insanity.  This fear-driven reaction to something different comes off as far more realistic, sadly, in our worlds, making this series of films feel quite a bit more mature than other big-name franchise installments. The X-Men series also shines a light on how people treat those with differences poorly, and people who are radically different terribly, which is why I've enjoyed some of that franchise. It just feels a bit more grown-up. James McAvoy appears in that one too...coincidence?

My enjoyment of the series also forces me to look back at why I wasn't so impressed with Unbreakable back in '99, and I think there are a lot of problems. First, the movie revolves around David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realizing his unusual strength and health, being told by Jackson's character, Mr. Glass that he is a superhero like in a comic book, and then wrestling with whether or not to believe it. It seems like Dunn is in limbo and wrestling with many things in his life, including his marriage. If that is the story, seeing him either reject the idea and willfully go back to a mediocre existence, or seeing him accept it, and become the hero seems to be the endings the movie is building toward, but that is not where the movie ends.

Dunn does go out and do one heroic act, using his powers to save a pair of endangered teens and catch a killer, but we get no indication that is what he plans to keep doing. The movie ends (spoilers) with Dunn telling Glass, and then a big Shymalan, quintessential twist, where Glass reveals he committed mass murders in order to find Dunn, and that Glass is essentially a comic book mastermind type villain. The movie, for me, just ends but does not finish. And that is not better illustration than that the last minute is literally, paragraphs on the screen telling us that Dunn had Glass arrested and sent to jail. Dunn can become a hero, Glass believes himself a supervillain, and all we get is a few paragraphs telling us Dunn reported Glass. It was just a big let down. I think, just five more minutes showing Dunn deciding to become a hero, and acting like one; or, showing Glass and Dunn in conflict, and then GLass flee, so we know the story will continue, would have been far better.

Now, once the other films are taken into account, this ending isn't such a big problem. We know the story is just getting started. The end of Unbreakable just signals the intermission, so to speak, before act two. In this way, it now serves as a setup to a larger story, and it works far better.

In short, Unbreakable was so-so as a stand-alone in 2000, but it turns out it was a compelling start to an exciting and deep trilogy.


What I've Been Listening to: July 2020


Everything just comes together so well on RTJ4 by Run the Jewels.

I've been a Run the Jewels fan for quite a few years now. First, Killer Mike and EL-P are exceptional musicians. It's been true of the other Run the Jewels albums and of each's solo work. That said, I feel like RTJ is more than the sum of its parts. The rappers complement and play off one another to reach a higher level. One gets the impression that the two rappers are truly and deeply friends, as interested in supporting one another as they are in taking the spotlight, and that comradery comes off as unique, refreshing, and uplifting.

Second, the beats are fantastic. Each track grabs your attention and makes you want to bob your head, but each has a distinct sound. This is another type of musicianship, but I see it as distinct from the vocal performance. For some tracks, this probably means they reached out to other collaborators to bring new or refine sounds, but to me, this means Killer Mike and EL-P picked the right collaborators and put in clear effort to make every track pop.

Speaking of collaborators, RTJ4 calls on a handful of heavy hitters who dip in to compliment the duo perfectly. Sometimes it seems like groups, hip-hop groups, in particular, rely too heavily on guest appearances and featured artists. On this album, you'll see names like Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, and DJ Premier, and while their contributions are distinct, to my ears, they're low key. In some cases providing a back-ground hook or beat. In others, providing reinforcing the lyrics, but only after Killer Mike and EL-P have developed a song. In short, you never hear the guest upstage the artist, but rather lift them up, and it's wonderful.

One couldn't talk about RTJ without mentioning their social and political relevance. You won't hear bragging about how dangerous or cool they are as a lot of rappers lean on. Instead, RTJ 4, as with previous albums, Killer Mike and EL-P seem to want to look at society. This album speaks to racial issues, speaks to the power struggle between people and authorities, and speaks to poverty and income inequality. It really couldn't be more politically or socially topical.

That said, what really sets RTJ apart, is that with all their earnest and serious topics and feelings, they are masterfully humorous. It is a fine line to walk when coupling social problems and trying to be funny, think Dave Chappel, etc. But RTJ does just that. On the one hand, they ask you to "look at all these slave masters posin' on yo' dollar," on the other, they have a tough deep-voiced refrain chanting a very silly "ooh la la, ah, oui oui."

For RTJ, these are serious matters and serious times, but they can't help but be goof-balls, and boy, it makes it easier to swallow.

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