Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

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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