Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading: July 2019

I read Martha Wells' All Systems Red last summer. I've had the second novella in her Murderbot Diaries series, Artificial Condition, in my "to read" pile since them. I finally picked it up last weekend. In short, it was a fun read.

As with the first in the series, it was an entertaining story. This book gets a little more personal with the main character, an A.I. security unit, and delves deeper into its mysterious past. So far, the first two books in this series have all been shorter works. I think this was a very conscious decision for Wells. The books feature the internal thoughts of the main A.I. character, murderbot, who is sarcastic, sassy, and cynical. Murderbot has a distinct voice, which is humorous, particularly when you think about it coming from a constructed, computer lifeform, not a natural-born person. But the personality also gets on my nerves a bit after a while. This is completely a matter of taste. I guess I don't like to walk around looking at the world pessimistically all day, so hearing this character's thoughts eventually grows tiresome. Thankfully, the story is as mentions, short. And thus, the tale wraps up about the time the voice has worn thin.

As for the plot, it was interesting and gave the A.I. character a chance to exhibit its newly free personality, while also learning of its own dark past. I wasn't wowed, but it kept my attention. There was a little fighting, a lot of computer entities talking and bickering with each other (which is an admittedly novel idea), and sufficient tension. As with the first book, I'll be giving this one 4 stars, and maybe after a few months, I'll pick up the next int he series. They're undoubtedly easy, fun, and quick reads.

What I've Been Watching: July 2019

You may have heard of Rip Torn's recent passing. I've long been a fan of his work. If you've never seen it, go check out Forty Shades of Blue (2005). Many of the mentions of his death referenced his performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), alongside the late David Bowie, but I'd never seen the film. I've also been making an effort in my reading to pick up a few classic, pentacle sci-fi titles, trying to better familiarize myself with the foundations of the genre. Thus, tracking down this movie seemed destined.

I want to say I loved it. However, I think this is one of those movies which is too layered and cryptic to merely react to. I think it's going to take some mental digesting to truly form a take on it. I know it is based on a novel by the same name, which I have not read. The story, if I try to outline it, is a relatively simple one, of an alien visitor (Bowie) trying to find a way home, but then the 2hr 19min film piles on layer after layer of the visitor observing, learning, and engaging human. I suspect there is some criticism of our society wound in there, but I have to admit it isn't jumping out at me a profound insight into our contrary nature.

The story reminds me of the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which I read earlier this year. I'm sure I'm not the first to make such a link, and that book definitely tried to take humanity, our society, our religions, American capitalism all to task, but the film version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, didn't seem to do so, so handily.

The performances were great, especially for me, Candy Clark's, and indeed Rip Torn's. So I'm at a point where I need this movie to settle in a bit. Maybe I'll dig more. Maybe I'll go look into the novel. Maybe more depth will come to me. We'll see...

What I've Been Listening to: July 2019

A friend tried to get me to listen to the Mountains Goats about a dozen years ago. For whatever reason, they didn't grab me, and I probably forgot all about them until recently. I saw a clip of Stephen Colbert jumping on stage and singing with the band on facebook, and gave it a listen. I liked it, so I pulled them up on iTunes, and I have to say I was immediately captivated.

Musically, they're pretty good, but the themes and lyrics are origianl, sometimes off-the-wall, often socially critical, and frequently sardonic. In this aspect, the Mountain Goats remind me of my favorite band, Steely Dan. A few of their songs took me back to when my friend tried to get me to listen, and I wish I had.

Their sound is more folksy, which has not historically been my favorite. My guess is that I wasn't hearing the lyrics well enough and snap judged their sound as not up my alley, but that was a mistake. I say, go give them a listen, listen close, and then listen over it again.

What I've Been Reading: May 2019


Since I write fiction, most of the time I post reviews about fiction, but I'm a big advocate of reading a wide variety of genres and subjects in order to cultivate a multifaceted and unique sphere of influence on oneself. Thus, I certainly pick up non-fiction from time to time. Lately, I haven't written about those titles much because they've seemed to lean toward topics relating to being a self-published author. For example, not so long ago, I read a book about writing compelling author newsletters. If you happen to subscribe to mine, how am I doing?

This month, however, I came across a new book by Dr. HenryLouis Gates, Jr. called Stoney the Road, Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. I've been interested in Dr. Gates's genealogy PBS series and specials for quite a few years. After hearing a bit about it, I supposed Story the Road would be a challenging book, emotionally, personally, and academically, but it sounded interesting and while heavy, an important topic. My intuition was right, of course. It is challenging, but more than worth the read.

Parts of the book were surprising. For example, with what is probably an above average concept of American history but by no means a scholarly mastery, I came into this book with a loose understanding of a timeline between slavery in the United States and today. That includes antebellum plantation slavery, pre-civil war abolitionist movement, southern resistance, of course, the civil war and emancipation, but also the Jim Crow era, segregation, integration, and the ongoing battle for civil rights. However, I must admit that my working understanding probably saw that history as a mountain. Slavery was at the bottom, true equality was at the top. A difficult climb, no doubt. One that has not yet been summited, no doubt, but a fairly straight incline.

This I suspect is where the title is derived, a stony road is full of bumps, some parts are rougher than others, there are a lot of ups and downs, and progress is slow. As to what came as a surprise, was the rights that were essentially granted post-civil war, and then taken away during and after reconstruction, either directly, or simply through a failure to protect the supposedly given rights. I don't mean to imply that I didn't think the progress was difficult and many times achieved through tremendous personal sacrifice, including lost lives. I knew that, but I don't think I understood how many times it appeared a step of progress had been made, only to be pulled back time and time again.

Some elements of the book were not surprising but are worth revisiting. Stony the Road did not spend much time establishing the pitfalls of slavery or the horrors of its practice. Those things are worth discussing, but this book was more targeted on the ways African American's were attacked after emancipation and how in many cases people were driven back to a life more akin to slavery than our notion of living free. One topic of example was how depictions in literature and film were used to disparage African Americans and aid in an intentional war of ideas against them. This topic was not unfamiliar with references to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and several period novels where white authors depicted freed slaves as either monsters or as essentially wishing they could go back to the lives they had before emancipation. As a student of history, at least a little, and more so a student of film and literature, this didn't come as a revelation but was still powerful, and as I mention, well worth exploring again and perhaps with more depth.

Finally, some elements also challenged my thoughts beyond the discussion of race. I'll pose another very personal example. Many people are aware of the anti-vaccination movements in the US and globally. I am a devout science lover and often take issue with the un-scientific thinking and research backing the anti-vax sentiment. Stony the Road, however, delved into a topic I was only tangentially familiar with, that of scientists, doctors, and social scientist of the era it focuses on using scientific words, loose if not intentionally misleading applications of emerging principle of science, and even miss-guided and out-come oriented experiments and observations to bolster anti-African American sentiments with scientific-sounding conclusion. Horrific and miss-guided as that is, which it is. It led me to imagine how the targets of such junk science would almost certainly feel deep mistrust for the institutions who supported the ideas.

Now, such ideas have been discredited and disregarded by credible medicine, scientists, and institution, as is the process of science. Also, I haven't changed my mind about vaccine conspiracy theorists. I still think they're wrong, but I am perhaps more open to considering why they might feel that they have been targeted with what they believe is false science. While I still disagree with them, maybe I'm more willing to forgive?

At any rate, the book is very well researched, very well written, eye-opening, immensely powerful, and remarkably topical to current affairs, both racial and non-racial. I'm glad to have experienced it.

What I've Been Watching: June 2019


By total coincidence, I think, my pick for what I've been watching lately also deals with race issues in the USA. The Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, premiered about a month ago, and I heard good things immediately. The series is a dramatization of the real-life incident which became known as the Central Park Jogger Case and the alleged attackers being known as the Central Park Five. I was only about 6 years old when the real incident occurred, and if it was making the news in rural Iowa, I wasn't aware of it. I only really learned of the topic when Ken Burns and Sarah Burns made a documentary in 2012. If you're not familiar, long story short, several teenagers' rights were trampled and were falsely convicted of the crimes, only to be exonerated and released years later, and racism was the primary factor in why there were targeted, mistreated by police, and ultimately falsely convicted.

In this series, Ava DuVernay delves deeper into the lives and relationships destroyed by the case. Not just the lives of promising young men, but their families and friends, and how the convictions haunted them inside and outside of prison. The story is compelling, but all the facets DuVernay shows are profound and gripping.
Subject aside, I was incredibly impressed with the acting talent on display in this work. With this being an ensemble piece, with each of the five boys' lives on display, it is inherent that the spotlight will be shared, but through the episodes, we see all five boys as teens, then as adults. One actor, who portrayed the oldest of the teens, played his adult counterpart as well. All the others were portrayed by two actors, one a teen, the other an adult. On top of this, we get to know a dozen or more family members, a half dozen characters in the police and prosecution, plus fellow inmates, prison workers, defense lawyers, and people the five encounter after release. Through all these characters, in my opinion, you won't find a weak link in acting talent. That's not astonishing from such longtime veteran names like John Leguizamo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Joshua Jackson, Niecy Nash, Felicity Huffman, and William Sadler, just to name a handful, but through all the other roles, which vary from unknown character actors to the youth talent, the performance never lapses for a moment. And remember, this is a straight to Netflix piece, not a Marvel blockbuster, or a network product.

The themes are important, the subject touching and thought-provoking, the direction stellar, but the acting talent was flooring. No wonder it boasts an average of 9.1 out of 10 with over 27,000 viewers via IMDB. Go watch it!

What I've Been Listening to: June 2019


I was listening to the Coffee House station on SXM while chauffeuring my six-year-old to one place or another and song, Anxiety, by Julia Michaels featuring Selena Gomez came on and caught my attention. Of course, I knew who Selena Gomez was, though she became famous in pop music a bit after I was the type who stayed current on pop music. SO I wouldn't call my self a fan or even very familiar. I'd heard of Julia Michaels from her song Issues a few years ago but didn't know much more. But, I was impressed enough to go look her up on iTunes when I got back to my desk to do some work. I'm glad I did.

The song Anxiety is catchy and a lovely duet, but also has a fairly meaningful message about psychological struggles in today's society. The song appears on an EP called Inner Monologue, Pt. 1 which came out sometime earlier this year. It's only six songs, but Anxiety isn't even my favorite one. The song Happy, from the same EP carries on the ear-pleasing pop sound, with a very introspective theme and lyrics, reflecting a self-destructive impulse that accompanies the ideas form Anxiety well. Besides liking the songs, I think what really impressed me enough to want to write about this EP is how linked and complimentary all the songs are. Again, only six, but they walk us through a range of emotions through a struggling mind, and it's very gripping storytelling.

After I decided I'd likely use this for my Listening post for the month, I went to give the EP one more listen and discovered a new EP, called Inner Monologue Pt. 2 (if you can believe it) had already come out. I've only given it a little time, but can already see the consistent quality and depth with the song Falling for Boys standing out for me early.

Releasing so close to one another, I'm forced to wonder why this material appears as two EP's in two parts, rather than simply an album. With 14 tracks between them, it would have been a reasonable release, but I think the emotional connections are the reason, and I appreciate it. I mention liking the ties between songs in theme as if they're extensions of the same conversation, and while part 2 carries that format, the root themes shift a bit. It seems Michaels wanted a distinction rather than butting them together, and it works.

Bonus points: As I looked into this artist, I found she started her career writing songs for several other big pop stars. That's cool and all, but also that she originally hails from Davenport, IA. That's right, a fellow Hawkeye.

Worth a Mention: Orville Peck.

Think David Lynch meets Roy Orbison. I heard an interview on NPR and had to look this artist up. He sings in a mask, uses cowboy imagery, employs Orbison's almost operatic, vibrato-rich tenor, has unapologetic homosexual tones, and all his videos feel like excerpts from David Lynch movies. Even the general sound motif is Lynch-esque. I can't say I would sit and listen to an album, go to a concert, or groove to this music in any way, but as an artist, I have to appreciate it. It's clear Orville Peck is inspired by country classics like Cash or the previously mentioned Orbison, as well as visually inspired by the likes of the masterful Sergio Leone. His material is so very demands attention, is interesting, but is also exceptionally odd - Lynch anyone? It's good that this exists even if it isn't my jam, and I'm interested out of pure curiosity to see where it goes from here.
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