Television: True Detective, "Night Finds You"

No, he's not dead.

Of that I'm pretty sure. Though I'd really admire the move if he were dead.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, it's the shooting of Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) at the end of the episode. While it appeared relatively definite, many astute viewers have pointed out that trailers for the show featured scenes of Farrell we haven't yet seen, and even the Next Week reel had James Frain (and his nose) talking about one of his men being "shot" not "killed." (I know, I know, I give Frain such sh*t about that nose. I don't know why. I'm not nice.)

Anyway, I'm still feeling a bit meh about this season. I don't find a lot of chemistry between Farrell and McAdams any more than I did Farrell and Vaughn last week. None of these characters interest me either. And for me a compelling show is built on character and interaction.

Consider the horrific story of being locked in a basement that Frank (Vaughn) tells his wife. For one thing, how long have they been together and he's never told her this? She must know a few things about his childhood, right? This seems like the kind of thing one would confide, not on a first date or anything, but not years into a marriage either. And then, there was a definite feeling the story was being told for the shock value (to the audience) rather than for any character development. It didn't make me connect with Frank, didn't make me more compassionate toward him . . . Though maybe that's me more than the show. Dunno.

It's a tangled narrative, too, that I don't feel all that driven to follow. Frank is out a lot of money. ::shrug:: The dead guy was into prostitutes. ::shrug:: There's probably a cult element (that maybe loops back to Ani's family?). ::sigh:: Paul (Taylor Kitsch) has some weird history with "Black Mountain." ::shrug:: Ray's ex-wife is petitioning for full custody of their son. (And here I roll my eyes though this is probably one of the more interesting plot lines.) The city of Vinci is under scrutiny. ::shrug::

I'll watch next week largely to see how Ray survives what appeared to be a close-range shooting. And who knows? Maybe something interesting will actually happen, too—and earlier than the last two minutes of the show.

Aside: I gave up on Ballers and The Brink. The first couldn't hold my interest and the second just wasn't making me laugh.


Books: Faithful Place by Tana French

This is the third in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and I sailed through it. I mean, I loved In the Woods, and I liked The Likeness (despite its stretching my ability to suspend belief), and this was another great one. Frank Mackey, who was a secondary character in The Likeness, is front and center for this one. After twenty-two years away from his family, he's drawn back in when it's discovered his sweetheart never ran away but was actually murdered. When one of Frank's brothers dies under ambiguous circumstances shortly after, Frank is doubly determined to get to the bottom of things.

My only quibble with this book is Frank's daughter Holly. She's supposed to be nine but behaves more like a six- or seven-year-old. (I know this because I have a nine-year-old and a daughter who is now almost seven.) I don't know what the laws in Ireland are, but my nine-year-old is far too big for a booster seat in the car and gave up dragging stuffed friends around a year or more ago. Still, I suppose I could chalk it to character and the girl leading a sheltered life resulting in a sort of stunted growth. I know French was working to jar Holly from her protected existence to something harsher, so maybe she was exaggerating Holly's childishness for sake of drama.

I am glad French didn't go the way of "child in danger!" For a moment in the book it looked like she might, and I would have been severely disappointed if she had. It's such a cliché. I'm gratified French sidestepped it and chose a more interesting path.

Too, one almost understands the culprit's anger and motives in the end. Frank is not an infallible hero, and it's clear some of his choices have been selfish.

The short answer, this was a great book that I swept through faster than The Likeness (which for me started a bit too slowly). In every one of these books, though, French creates complex inner worlds for her narrators and does a fine job of it. Faithful Place is solidly entertaining without being fast and cheap when it comes to plot or character.


Movies: Inside Out

Voices By: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling
Directed By: Phil Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Written By: Meg LaFauve, Josh Cooley & Pete Docter; Story By: Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen
Pixar, 2015
PG; 94 minutes
3.5 stars (out of 5)


I wanted to like this movie more than I did. Which isn't to say it's a bad movie; it's not. But there is something necessarily amorphous about dealing with feelings. The action in Inside Out is . . . not very action-y. And all the jokes are pretty low-hanging fruit, so I felt this one lacked Pixar's usual cleverness.

Outwardly, this is the story of 11-year-old Riley dealing with a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her parents are understandably stressed, and Riley is, too. A new school + difficulty making friends + pre-adolescence = not a fun time. Riley ping-pongs between excitement and optimism and feeling angry and sad.

But as we all know from the trailers, the "real" story is of Riley's emotions trying to cope with this new situation. Joy (Poehler in Parks and Rec form) is generally understood to be the leader, and therefore we're given to understand that Riley is usually happy and upbeat. Joy works hard to keep Sadness (Smith) at bay, but the changes in Riley's life—at least, I assume this is the catalyst—provoke Sadness into wanting to touch all Riley's happy memories and tinge them in, well, sadness.

At some point Riley's "core memories" end up . . . sucked into some other part of her brain, I guess? And Joy and Sadness go with them and are tasked with returning these memories to Headquarters. With them absent from the control room, Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader) must attempt to keep Riley happy though they are ill equipped to do so. The result: Riley tries to run away back to Minnesota.

The bottom line is, for me, the whole thing was a bit too vague. While it's a fair stab at the moodiness of pre-teens, and might even have made a good pseudo-story of depression, the final result lacks something. There is nothing particularly compelling about the story. It's an interesting, high-concept idea that falls flat in execution.

Joy and Sadness work their way through Riley's long-term memory and are eventually guided by an old imaginary friend (Richard Kind). They visit the place where Riley's dreams are manufactured, they ride her Train of Thought, and it all suits the plot as they are trying to get back to Headquarters, but . . . ::shrug::

Slowly, the story reveals that Sadness (and sadness) has her (its) uses. This seems to be the moral of the story, but the resolution is so watery, it doesn't come through with any punch. I'll admit I teared up a few times, but no Pixar movie is complete without those moments in which they turn the screws, and certainly a movie about emotions is going to have its fair share of those.

The end credits prove that less would have been more as we're treated to quick insights into other characters' minds and emotions. These are the funniest moments in the movie, sadly happening after it's over, with Lewis Black coming in as first runner up, and that obvious-but-still-funny boy's brain joke taking honorable mention.

All that said,  I'm sure I'm being far too analytical about it. If I just allowed myself to feel . . . Ah, forget it. Bottom line: I was excited to see Inside Out and was ultimately slightly disappointed by it. But I guess they can't all be winners. Ribbon for participating.


Lenormand Silhouettes

From the folks who brought us the lovely Under the Roses Lenormand comes this deck derived from Victorian silhouettes.

I'm not sure what it is about this deck that caught my fancy when I saw someone using it on Facebook. Perhaps the simplicity, or maybe my love of all things Victorian. In any case, it's a nice balance against the ornateness of my Enchanted Lenormand deck.

The cards came packed in no particular order, so I was obliged to sort them and make sure I had them all. No worries, and it didn't take long. There are some alternate cards to this deck as well:

I'll admit I'm a cat person, so . . . Nice touch. Though when reading for loyalty and friendship, the Dog card still feels more appropriate.

Sometimes I leave all the alternate cards in and assign them different meanings. For example, one Lady card might mean me while the other means "some other woman." The Dog card might mean a specific friend whom I see regularly versus the Cat meaning a friend at a distance whom I do not see often. And as I have a daughter and two sons, the children might be divided by gender, or else I'll assign one to mean actual children and one to mean "a new start" or "a new project."

Instead of coming with a booklet, this deck comes with additional cards that give instructions and keywords. I'm guessing this was less expensive than producing a booklet, though it is a tad unwieldy to shuffle through separate cards. Below, two sample 5-card spreads with the Lady and Gentleman cards as significators:

I will say I was surprised and pleased with the promptness of my order since it was originally marked to be sent out on 30 June but shipped sooner. The cards are of good stock and size akin to the Under the Roses deck. During practice readings, the clear and simple images gave an overall feeling of directness and no nonsense, and I found I was able to interpret the cards relatively easily, though that may be due to plenty of practice in general. In all, these make a lovely addition to my collection, and I look forward to reading with them.

Television: Mr. Robot

Thanks to the success of shows like House and Sherlock, the latest trend in television is to have an awkward, unlikeable character with bad and/or strange habits and worse social skills at the center. This is fine so long as it's done well, but (as with so many things) it's much harder to do something like this well and very easy to do it badly. A balance must be struck. The character either has to have some redeeming qualities and generally needs at least one, sometimes a crew of supporting characters through which the audience can experience him and see that he's at least human.

I say all this because Mr. Robot falls into this category of show. Central character Elliot (Rami Malek) is indeed strange and awkward and very conscious of it. He's brilliant with computers it seems, but he's terrible with people. He takes morphine to dampen his bouts of depression. He doesn't like to be touched. And he has one somewhat good friend, Angela, whom he works with at a cyber security company. But in his spare time, Elliot targets bad people by hacking them and turns them over to the police. So there: his redemption.

Usually I wouldn't much care for a show that relies so heavily on voice over (we get Elliot's thoughts as he goes along), but it works here. Elliot's supporting crew includes a therapist and what appears to be an illusion of Christian Slater as the titular Mr. Robot. But in reality, it's not 100% clear which of Elliot's experiences are based in reality and which are hallucinations. This is done extremely well in the show, all quite seamless so as to illustrate Elliot's experiences. He is an unreliable narrator, to be sure, but he's also well aware of that. His final words in the pilot: "Tell me you're seeing this too."

For the curious, a quick summary of said pilot: Elliot's company handles cyber security for the massive Evil Corp (yes, really), and when EC's servers go down, Elliot is called in to fix it. He does and finds a message waiting for him in the server, then Mr. Robot (Slater) hits him up on the subway and takes him to "F Society," a hidden group of hackers. Elliot is given an assignment designed to bring down one of Evil Corp's top men, thus starting a global revolution that will allow debts to be wiped out and wealth to be distributed evenly. Elliot does this only to discover there is no F Society—that or they've cleared out quick. And then Elliot is taken by men in a black SUV to the top of a high rise where he is greeted by men in suits, including one Evil Corp lackey who shares Elliot's love of coding.

Based on early buzz, USA Network gave Mr. Robot a second season even before the pilot aired yesterday. Good call. The pilot plays like a movie, if only it had been longer and had a closed ending. One can only hope the show can sustain its intensity, always a trick. But this one has plenty of twists and turns, and I'll certainly keep watching to see where things go.


Television: HBO Sunday

So last night featured the new season of True Detective and the debuts of Ballers and The Brink.

I'm not sure how I feel about True Detective. In part, the show is likely suffering from heightened expectations. The first season was so phenomenal that it's almost impossible to recapture that. Also, I have ties to Louisiana, and even to the particular case in which a woman was found murdered in a cane field in Erath, so . . . There was no way a series set in SoCal was going to hit me the same way. Finally, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey just had such great chemistry, and it's not clear that Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell do (or even that they will share the screen that often).

What this season does serve up is a similar tone. The same dirty camera filters and yellowish lighting that suggests a haze of nicotine over everything. Still, I'm not sure I care about any of these characters. And there are almost too many of them this time around: Vaughn and Farrell and McAdams and Kitsch, and then of course McAdams and Farrell each have partners, and Vaughn has a lackey, and Kitsch has a girlfriend, etc. etc.

There are hints of Pizzolatto's fascination with cults, and there is a central murder that sets the stage for something that may be interesting, but on the whole I wasn't wowed. Maybe it will stitch together in a weird and wonderful way; I'll keep watching for now.

I wanted to try Ballers because (a) I had somewhat enjoyed Entourage back in the day (and Ballers is just Entourage with football players), and (b) I do love Dwayne Johnson. But I didn't find this one that entertaining or funny, so I don't know if I'll bother to watch it again.

The Brink was slightly funnier. Barely. Maybe HBO's humor just isn't my humor (Mr John Oliver being the great exception because I adore him). And, yeah, I do dislike the gratuitous sex and naked women that HBO serves up so regularly. A lot of it seems to be there for the sake of being there, sort of a, "Hey! We can get away with it because we're not network!" Sigh. Still, I'll probably give The Brink another go, more likely to stick with it than Ballers.

I guess if HBO gets its wish, I'll just leave the TV on between True Detective (assuming I keep watching this season) and John Oliver. It's a possibility.


Movies: An Honest Liar

I don't know how I grew up without knowing of "The Amazing Randi," though I can hazard a guess. Still, I'm glad this film acquainted me with him.

James Randi is a magician who made a name for himself as a Houdini-like escape artist. But his secondary occupation is as a debunker of so-called psychics and faith healers, or basically anyone who uses trickery to deceive the public. One of Randi's biggest feuds has been with Uri Geller. He also went after Peter Popoff, revealing how he and his wife used radio to make it seem like Popoff was receiving information from God during revivals.

Here's the part where I figure I never heard about Randi: I grew up in a religious household. Tent revivals and large Christian conferences were pretty common in my youth, and then . . . They sort of trickled away. Now, looking at Wikipedia, I see the cessation happened around the same time Randi unveiled the truth about Popoff. My guess is Randi was not a welcome name in my family's circles.

So this is an interesting little documentary about Randi's work as a magician and debunker, though we learn very little about him as a person. Maybe that's the great obfuscation here. We do hear of his partner (now husband) and the long-running lie that entails, so there is an interesting juxtaposition of this man whose crusade for truth and honesty is partially rooted in deception. But it's a lie of another kind; Randi does not lie about his work. Nor does he reveal the tricks of his trade. While the movie demonstrates several tricks in order to prove so-called psychics are only doing simple stage magic, it takes care not to tell how the tricks are done.

And the film is remarkably even-handed. Though Randi is the central focus, An Honest Liar does not actively appear to choose sides. Uri Geller is featured, defending his position. Audiences shout down Randi, telling him his disbelief is what keeps him from tapping into his natural psychic abilities. I think the lesson here is that people don't much appreciate having their beliefs ripped away from them.

I do wish there were a bit more cohesiveness, more narrative to the movie. It touches on the Geller thing, the Popoff thing, some Stanford "experiments," but lacks true structure. Rather like a sandcastle, crumbling at the edges.

On the whole, it's an interesting film that runs slightly too long and would have benefitted from more solid content. But I'm glad to have learned (very late in the game) about Randi and his work. Will probably look up a few of his books to see if they have more to offer.

Tooting My Horn

Fiona Mcvie interviewed me about my forthcoming novel! Read it here!


Books: Us by David Nicholls

I really loved One Day (the book, not the film), and this was a good book, too, but I didn't enjoy it as much. And maybe that's because of the whole raised expectations thing where, after one really good book, you anticipate the next one being as good or better. But I think, for me, this was more that One Day, despite its tear-inducing ending, was hopeful in tone and this one is rather hopeless.

Douglas Petersen is on the brink of losing his wife of nearly 25 years. His 17-year-old son Albie hates him. It's not a promising start, and watching Douglas struggle to hold on to everything—everyone—he has is somewhat painful. As Albie graduates from school, Douglas plans a Grand Tour and envisions how much fun they will have as a family, how this trip will bring them together. But of course it goes all wrong.

Meanwhile, the story of the disastrous holiday is interwoven with the tale of Douglas and Connie's past: how they met, moved in together, married. All the footprints that lead to the current day and age. The resulting tapestry makes Douglas's fantasy of setting things right all the sadder as it is made patently clear that he and Connie are something of a mismatch. From the start, the relationship bears the ticking of a countdown clock.

There are, of course, some truly outrageous moments, but nothing I found particularly funny. Just gradations of sad and depressing, really. Shades of ridiculous and pitiable.

But Nicholls draws characters marvelously well. They are well-rounded, fully formed people. One easily sees oneself, or people one knows, in the outlines of Douglas, Connie, Albie, Kat, Freja. This is Nicholls' true talent.

Well, and he's a fine storyteller. This is a good book. Just not a very upbeat one.


Television: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

I tried to read this book a very long time ago because so many people were raving about it—people whose opinions I generally trusted. Still, I didn't make it very far. It's a massive tome, for one thing, and I was perhaps not in the right frame of mind for that kind of story.

I hadn't much planned to try the television series either, but again I heard it was "so good." So I decided to give it a try. And it is good, if a bit dense. By which I mean there are a lot of characters and a lot going on. Which is not a bad thing—I'm not saying I can't keep it all straight or anything—but it's something that has to be done very carefully else it becomes (a) confusing, or (b) simply irritating.

Maybe I come from the old school, or at least I was taught by the old guard. While I comprehend a certain amount of jumping around, can see fine reasons to do it now and then, I do get annoyed when shows do it simply for the sake of keeping things moving. Some shows do it because they think the audience will get too bored if they stay with any one thing very long. Some do it in order to obfuscate, thinking they'll keep viewers coming back by leaving various threads hanging. And "threads" is the right word; a story with many characters and plots must be carefully woven into a larger picture. Else it's a mess. A colorful mess, perhaps, but a mess nonetheless.

Game of Thrones is a show that weaves threads well. There are a lot of characters and a lot going on in that show, certainly, and some of the plots I enjoy more than others, but at least it all has the feel of having purpose. None of it is wasted. (It's too expensive to produce for them to waste anything.) I would guess, based solely on the first episode, that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will be similar. Though dense, thus far I've seen nothing extraneous. Hopefully it will remain dense but lean, maybe only a little fat for flavor now and then.

If you're wondering about the show itself, it's set in England during the Napoleonic War. Both title characters are magicians, and there is a prophecy that two magicians will return magic to England. Norrell has long been a reclusive, self-taught magician. Strange is a novice who falls into magic while looking for an occupation in the hopes of convincing his sweetheart to marry him. Ostensibly the two men will be rivals of some kind (a mirror meant to show Strange his "enemy" produced a vision of Norrell reading beside a fire), but we haven't gotten there yet.

There is also a street magician named Vinculus; a bit of a nut job, he's the one to cite the prophecy. He goes on about "The Raven King" which keeps reminding me of The Yellow King they kept touching on in True Detective. Though of course this is very different. (Or maybe it isn't? Might be too early to tell.)

In any case, I'll keep watching for the time being. And maybe I'll even be inspired to go try reading the book again. But I might rather get a paperback copy, since the hardbound one really is hefty.

Peter to Tirgearr

A quick announcement: My novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller has been contracted for publication by Tirgearr Publishing. Now the "fun" part: editing! Release date set for 20 January 2016.


Books: The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley

It probably requires someone who both likes history and literature—particularly detective stories—to really appreciate this book, but as I am such a person . . . I really enjoyed it.

Worsley works her way through the literary history of crime stories from the kinds of pamphlets and broadsides that came out with news of murders and hangings, on through Gothic literature, the "Golden Age" of detective stories (i.e., Agatha Christie), and finally touching on the decline of same in favor of the rise in thrillers. At the same time, Worsley parallels all this with true crime stories that inspired the kinds of writings that were popular at any given time. She reflects on the draw of Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors and the general psychology behind why we love death (and the more gruesome the better).

Engagingly written and filled with interesting tidbits, I sailed through this book, often choosing to read rather than get any of my own work done. Now I'm only sorry that I've finished it and so don't have an excuse to procrastinate any longer.


Movies: Tomorrowland

Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy
Directed By: Brad Bird
Written By: Damon Lindelof & Brad Bird (screenplay), story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird & Jeff Jensen
Walt Disney, 2015
PG; 130 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


Decided to avoid the Jurassic crowds and hit up this one instead.

There's a lot going on in this movie, and it's both mildly entertaining and a tad heavy handed. But if you're worried about how scary it is for kids, my 9-, 6- and 5-year-olds were all fine with it.

If you've seen the trailers, you know the story: There's a Tomorrowland, a utopian future. Except not really because [spoiler alert] the pin she touches in the trailer is just an advertisement for something that never got built.

"She," btw, is Casey Newton (cuz of course she needs a science genius last name). Her dad is a NASA engineer about to be out of a job as they finish dismantling the Shuttle launchpad in Cape Canaveral. But Casey then gets tapped by Athena (an engaging Raffey Cassidy), who sneaks the pin into Casey's personal affects prior to Casey getting arrested for messing with the NASA site.

One assumes that part of the reason this movie was made was because Disney's Tomorrowland is outdated and has no real purpose any more except to house the semi-futuristic Buzz Lightyear stuff. Now there's a new movie which will surely lead to new rides and/or tie-ins at the park. Though, considering the film has underperformed, maybe not.

Still, given the various ride-like moments in the movie, one guesses that "rides" were on the minds of the writers and filmmakers.

Also on their minds: messages about optimism and being proactive in changing the world.

Okay, so Athena chooses Casey because of Casey's optimism and belief that even one person, one simple action, can change the future. (Butterfly effect with a rainbow highlight.) Some fifty years ago, Athena had chosen a young Frank Walker for the same reason, but he failed miserably and became jaded then was kicked out of Tomorrowland (which exists in another dimension) and back into the real world. Still, Frank is able to monitor Tomorrowland's "feed" and has a countdown clock to the end of the world.

Yeah, it's kind of muddy in the middle there, but the general point is: The world is going to hell in a handbasket and we're all kind of fine with it. We need more people like Casey, people with faith and vision. These are the people who can and will save the world. It's not about fighting the future so much as it is about fixing it, starting with the here and now.

But that's just the beginning. Tomorrowland is nothing if not layered with messages. 1. Save the world by doing something now, today! Don't just sit there! You CAN make a difference! And you should! Climate change is real! We have obesity here and starvation there—fix it!

2. Don't let the media get you down.

This one comes from the fact that Governor Nix (Laurie) of the massively underpopulated Tomorrowland has been broadcasting the forthcoming apocalypse. The intent was to galvanize the people of the world into action, but instead they [we] have done pretty much nothing. In the face of so much bad news—ice caps melting, floods and earthquakes and wars and famines—we've become at best paralyzed and at worst we're media junkies who'd rather watch crap reality television and read celebrity tabloids. Nix argues that, if the world knew Tomorrowland existed, they would only bring all their "savageness" with them and it would fail to be the utopia they'd planned anyway. Better to leave the place empty and let the people of the world deal with the consequences of their behavior.

Frank and Casey argue that turning off the monitor—the thing broadcasting the hopelessness—will enable people to look at the bright side again. People would act out of hope and faith and . . . Well, whatever. But it basically reads as an argument against 24-hour news channels that focus on disasters and bad news.

It's not an altogether wrongheaded argument either. Psychologists show that people who focus on the positive (i.e., who write down at least three good things that happened to them each day) grow to be happier and more optimistic over time. They train their brains to see the bright side. But that's hard to do when we're inundated with bad news all the time.

3. We've lied to Generation Y/Millennials

Casey gets really angry at one point and complains that she was promised this great future and it never happened. It's the cry of a generation, actually (go and read Generation Me for details). She also gets mad when Frank and Athena keep calling her "special." Again, something that entire generation has been told only to wake up and realize (one of Brad Bird's favorite themes): If everyone is special, no one is.

What's a little disturbing is that the endgame of the film is to send out recruiters to find "special" people. Casey and Frank take over Tomorrowland and use their power to cherry pick the right people to populate it. Unlike Hitler, it isn't about looks or breeding, but the whole selection thing still made me a tad uncomfortable. (I'm sure I'm overthinking it.)

At least Casey finally realizes that the future is hers to make. No one is going to give it to her; she has to create the future she wants.

Generation Me also talks about how Millennials aren't invested or involved; they are jaded. They don't vote and don't believe they can affect change. Tomorrowland seems to be set up to directly refute that belief. Too bad, then, that so few of these kids are going to see the movie. Their disenchanted attitude actively prevents them from seeing something so hopeful, meaning they really are stuck in a negative feedback loop, the very self-fulfilling prophecy Casey and Frank try to break. 

Television: The W's: Wayward Pines and The Whispers (and also Proof)

We've entered that pseudo season in which our usual television shows have ended and weird new ones take their places. Two of those I've tried are Wayward Pines and The Whispers.

Wayward Pines is based on a book or series of books, and the show definitely makes me curious to read the source material. Matt Dillon plays Ethan Burke, a Secret Service agent sent to find two agents who went missing only to get into an "accident" and end up in a town he can't leave. The show could have dragged things out, but instead answers questions at a fair pace, resolving issues only to create new ones. I much prefer this. For example, Ethan's wife and teenage son were naturally wondering where he was, but rather than drag out their search for him, they landed themselves in Wayward Pines within a handful of episodes thus upping the game. So far it's proved an interesting enough show that I'll stick with it.

I'm less sure about The Whispers. This is the show with the kids who have an imaginary friend that tells them to do bad things. The friend is, of course, an alien, and the show is ham handed and predictable to a groan-inducing degree. The dialogue is clunky in the extreme. And it was clear from the start that so-and-so's missing husband would be the one they would think was the perpetrator, etc. Ugh. I've watched a couple episodes, and it's not a bad idea, just poorly executed. I can't decide if it's worth enduring the terrible writing and see-through plot.

Finally, I tried Proof, which formally bows on the 16th but is available On Demand. A few years back I read Connie Willis' Passage, and all I could think while watching Proof was, "Did Connie Willis get any credit for this?" The book was about a doctor searching for proof of an afterlife through NDEs. The show is about a doctor searching for proof of an afterlife through NDEs. There's even a boat in the show (in the book it was the Titanic) . . . I don't know, but though Jennifer Beals as the lead is incredibly unlikable—it's another in the new fashion line of "brilliant but antisocial" main characters—I did find myself invested in the show and will probably watch the second episode (also On Demand) tonight.


Ursula K Le Guin v Amazon

Cross posted from PepperWords.

A Facebook post sent me to this essay by Ursula K Le Guin about how Amazon promotes a disposable culture.

The argument goes more or less like this: Amazon [and other publishers] are now solely interested in the next big best seller. They don't care if the books themselves are any good; they only care whether the books will sell. It's a lowest common denominator kind of market, really. Le Guin likens it to fast food and sweets. People love the taste, and these things are cheap besides, but are these aren't the makings of a good diet.

She's got a point. And I think there are a number of cultural problems in the same vein, but that's another discussion altogether.

Really, churning out only what people "want" to read leads to a homogenous literary culture, and one that, again, is high in calories and low in mental nutrition. There's a place for those kinds of books, of course, but we need a diversified "diet." We need literature, a wide variety of it. Instead, what we get these days are basically different toppings but it's all pizza underneath.

Meanwhile, as far as Le Guin's essay goes, I'm mostly surprised at how many of the commenters (a) profess to love Ms. Le Guin then (b) go on to tell her she's wrong.

A lot of the commenters admit to being self-published through Amazon, so one might cite bias. They argue, not entirely incorrectly, that Amazon allows more voices versus fewer because it gives everyone a voice (via self-publishing). So maybe it's the traditional publishers that are serving up such poor menus. After all, these are the ones who want only more of the same stuff because it's that "same stuff" that sells. (And based on my experience in trying to sell a very different kind of book, I'd say there's merit to that argument; I've been told flat out my manuscript is "great" and "well written" but, the agents say, "I can't sell it.")

Still, Le Guin's essay appears to largely target marketing. Yes, Amazon allows anyone and everyone to publish his or her masterpiece, but it does little to nothing to promote good literature. Because in the end it is a commercial company mostly interested in its bottom line. And this is true of all other publishers as well. In this day and age, none of them want to take risks on something new or different, on an unknown author. They swear up and down they LOVE debut authors, but really, they only love the ones they believe can be the next big hit. Not even a modest hit. Not a steady seller. No, this is: go big or go home.

But again, I think cultural issues are to blame for most of this. The root is in what is being demanded by readers. Most readers seem to want . . . Well, whatever is selling these days. The market doesn't leave room for narrow channels, those few readers who like a very small and specific genre. While television has increasingly gone narrower and narrower as channels split so that there's something for everyone (history buffs, people who like cars, cooking, soap operas, etc), publishing has gone the other way. We have fewer "channels" and those channels (publishers) are inclined only to choose "shows" (books) that appeal to wide audiences. Because that's how they make money: selling books. They aren't in it for the art. [I've had this same discussion re the tidal wave of blockbuster movies and the hope that eventually we'll all be sick of them and clamor for something else. But as long as we keep going to see those movies, and as long as those movies keep making billions of dollars, that's what studios will make.]

Ms. Le Guin can bemoan the lack of audience for better books—if more people were demanding them, maybe they would get published. She can equally bemoan that publishers and big corporations like Amazon won't publish and promote better, smaller books—if they did, maybe those books and authors would develop bigger platforms. But no one is willing to put in the time and effort, or wait that long for results. As she points out, it's all about get the book up the charts then toss it aside and make space for the next big thing. Books, ahem, no longer has as much of a shelf life.

And neither, it seems, do actors or musicians . . . Again, I would argue that our pop and celebrity culture chews up and spits out much faster than ever before. We are voracious but nothing sticks to our ribs. Sure, Amazon and publishers contribute to this because it's good for their businesses—to say they should change "for the good of the people and the sake of our culture" is like asking a hungry bear not to eat a fish because "that isn't nice to the fish"—and they will continue in this way until our demands change. But will that ever happen? Until we rally at large for lasting works of art (be it in words, music, or movie form), why should they give us any such thing?


Hot Sauces

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I enjoy spicy food. I grew up French Creole, and we spice up everything. That said, I also like to be able to taste my food, which means I don't particularly enjoy hot sauce that is so hot my tongue goes numb.

We ordered several hot sauces from Heat Hot Sauce in Berkeley. Just a wide variety of things to try. And it arrived yesterday, so we did a tasting.

I'll say right up front, my favorite (of the ones we tried) is the Zulu Zulu Garlic Peri-Peri. It's a medium-to-mild sauce with, as the label says, garlic. I don't always want garlic as a flavor, but this one sure is a nice blend.

If you do really like garlic, the Mr. Blister Garlic Extreme won't disappoint. Well, except for the "blister." I didn't find this one to be especially hot. It's chunky, though, and very garlicky.

For something a little different, The Wizard's Original Hot Stuff is interesting. It's not hot but definitely has a unique flavor, just bordering on Asian (probably due to the miso). It's organic, too.

Another interesting flavor: Cry Out Chili Sauce. Though you won't be crying out due to any heat; it's not very spicy. You'll mostly taste the chipotle, but it also uses soy sauce to good advantage.

If chipotle is your thing, then El Chipotle Roasted Tomatillo is for you. I'll admit I had been feeling kind of "done" with chipotle—there for a while it felt like everything had chipotle in it—but this sauce could make me come back to that flavor.

The Blue Owl Vines Salsa Verde is definitely mild, but has an amazingly fresh taste. It reminds me of the kind of salsa you'd get fresh made at a Mexican restaurant.

You're probably looking at this list and thinking these are all pretty mild sauces, and they are. But I like being able to enjoy the flavor of the sauces rather than just feel the heat. Still, we did also get Hotmaple Smokey Habanero sauce and . . . It was my least favorite. Not because of the heat but because I'm not a person who enjoys the sweet-hot blend.

I don't usually enjoy mustard that much either, but Lottie's Barbados Style Hot Mustard Sauce? Yum! And pleasantly hot.

Finally, we tried Dia Del Perro Serrano Sauce with Tomatillo and Toasted Onion. There's a mouthful for you, but it's a great one because I really liked this sauce. It was probably runner-up to the Zulu Zulu in my book. I hope to try more Lucky Dog Sauces in the future.

Alas, we had a casualty in shipping: Tears of the Sun broke open en route. For what it's worth, it smelled fantastic! But we couldn't risk tasting any because of all the glass.

In all, a pretty good haul. Much thanks to Dylan at Heat Hot Sauce for shipping so promptly. Summer's here; 'tis the season for heat, ya'll!