on David Mitchell, writing lyrics, and celebrity deaths

Between Bowie and Rickman alone, I’m just shredded to bits.  I have work to do, and I can’t focus.  I have emails to respond to, and I don’t know what to say.  I’m writing this post if only so that I can remember how to put words together.

I have completed my chronological journey through David Mitchell’s work, tidying up my second read of “Bone Clocks” during this morning’s commute.  Even though I’m a little sad that this “project” is over, and that there’s nothing of his imminently appearing on the horizon (even if there are a ton of things coming out eventually), I’m glad that I took the opportunity to read it all.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that he’s become my new favorite author.  I haven’t felt so overwhelmingly book-nerdy since finishing “Infinite Jest” back in college.  Certainly my 2nd reading of “Cloud Atlas” was much more enjoyable than the first, if only because I now have a much better sense of the grander scale that Mitchell is working in.  And seeing familiar characters pop up in different contexts is always neat, and yet it never felt particularly gimmicky; given that all these books are connected, it really just makes them feel somehow truer.  For example:  you already get a really thorough sense of Hugo Lamb when you read his chapter in Bone Clocks, but when you read Black Swan Green, you see him as a teenager through the worshipful eyes of his cousin, and suddenly you have a greater sense of how deep Hugo’s charm is (as well as a brief glimpse of his cunning manipulations).  Similarly, it’s only once you read everything that you see how deep a character like Marinus actually is; it’s one thing to hear him recount his history in Bone Clocks, but it’s quite another to actually be with him in the 1800s in “Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”.  And it’s also interesting to see how larger-scale events correspond throughout his work – one can suddenly see that the futuristic, very troubled Earth presented in the two late sections of Cloud Atlas are part of the same cataclysm that takes place in the coda of Bone Clocks.

Speaking of which – against the recommendations of all my Facebook friends who are also hard-core Mitchell nerds, the wife and I ended up watching the filmed version of “Cloud Atlas“.  Although, if I’m being honest, we only made it through the first hour or so, before we both started fading out.  I have seen enough of it to know that I probably don’t have to finish it, and my wife (who hasn’t read the book) had little to no idea what the hell was going on, and so I don’t think she’s inclined to finish it either.  That being said, I don’t outright hate it, though there’s plenty of things to be intensely disappointed by.  Yes, the chopping up of the book’s structure is terrible – though I suppose I can understand why the filmmakers felt that they had to do it, given that the book is not necessarily jam-packed with excitement and that fitting this entire book into a 3-hour package is going to mean you need to amp up the pacing a bit.  I suppose I can even get behind the idea of having actors playing multiple roles, although that’s not really what the book is about, and it also means that Tom Hanks is horrendously miscast in nearly every role he steps into.  (To be fair to Tom Hanks, though, I’m also dangerously close to overdosing on him, because my son is obsessed with “The Polar Express“, another film in which Tom Hanks plays multiple roles; I think I’ve seen Polar Express at least 30 times since Christmas.)  And to the film’s credit, I am somewhat astonished at how closely some of the film’s visuals matched my own imagined set design – the Frobisher segment in particular is nearly note for note.  Indeed, for all the film’s flaws, you can’t say that the filmmakers weren’t passionate about the project; this is clearly a labor of love.

The problem, really, is that the book’s most visceral appeal (for me, at least) is in its use of language, and in seeing how language evolves in each of the story’s eras, and in the futuristic sections of the film the viewer is never really given an opportunity to let the language’s evolution sink in.  This is most notable in the post-apocalyptic future, which is damn near unintelligible without subtitles.  If I were scoring this using Nathan Rabin’s “World Of Flops” system, I might feel generous enough to give it a “Fiasco”… but I haven’t finished the film, and it’s probably best if I don’t.  But in reading Rabin’s WoF column about the Wachowski’s “Jupiter Ascending“, this paragraph seems pretty close to capturing what’s up with Cloud Atlas:

…the Wachowskis are auteurs whose failures are as audacious, ambitious, heroically sincere, and achingly romantic as their extraordinary early successes.

As far as filmed adaptations of David Mitchell go, though, I would very highly recommend checking out the 13-minute short film “The Voorman Problem“, which is an adapted excerpt from Mitchell’s second novel, “number9dream” (and which is also later referenced in “Bone Clocks”, as a matter of fact).  It’s very short, excellently cast, exceedingly faithful to the source material, and feels very much like some sort of Twilight Zone nightmare.


 

I was home with my son on Tuesday – he had a bit of a fever – and during his nap I downloaded and started playing Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India.   I’m playing it on XB1 instead of PS4, if only because, for whatever reason, it was available for download on XB1 several hours before it was on PS4, and I needed something to do.  (I suppose I also bought it there because I needed to further justify my purchase of the XB1’s Elite Controller, which is, without a doubt, the greatest game controller ever made.)  I like these sorts of 2.5D stealth platformers, and I just wish I wasn’t so goddamned terrible at this particular one; I can’t tell if the game is really difficult, or if I’m just very bad at it.  It could be both, frankly, for all I know.  It’s certainly very pretty to look at.  If nothing else, it makes me very hungry for Mark of the Ninja 2, which I very much hope is a thing that exists.

I’m not really playing anything else, though, which I’m strangely OK with.  Like I said at the top of this post – I’ve been very much a book nerd for the last few weeks/months, and I haven’t felt so excited about reading in years, and it’s a really pleasant feeling to have.


I’m hell-bent on getting some lyric-writing done, because once I have lyrics I’ll be able to finish this album, and I need to get it out the door while I still like the music.  Have I talked about my struggles with writing lyrics here?  I might have, which is why I’m reluctant to repeat myself.  In any event, the album was conceived under some heavy-duty emotional stress, and even as I’ve managed to extricate myself from within all that baggage, I still have to look at it in order to write about it.  And it’s hard to write about parts of your past when you’re not particularly proud of yourself.  I feel like I need to apologize to everyone I know, which is difficult when the two people I most need to apologize to won’t respond.  (This is actually true; last year I sent out some emails which were quite difficult to write, and never ended up hearing back.)  That said, it’s still gotta get done, and so I’m pleading with whoever’s in charge of this stuff to PLEASE STOP WITH THE DEATHS OF IMPORTANT PEOPLE.  This is hard enough as it is.

 

Weekend Recap: The New Year

1. In case you missed it, I wrote up some quick off-the-cuff thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night.  Now that I’ve slept on it, I can say with confidence that I still feel the same; it’s a very good Star Wars movie, and as far as rankings go I’d put it in my top 2 along with Empire.  In fairness, that isn’t necessarily saying all that much; the prequels are garbage, and both New Hope and RotJ have moments that we’d all rather forget.  Even if Episode 7 is simply a reboot of Episode 4, it’s really well done, and I feel like it’s OK to be excited for Episode 8 now.

2. My wife had attempted to buy me the Xbox One Elite Controller via Amazon, but even 3 weeks later there was no sign of it shipping any time soon.  As it happens, though, I was running some errands over the weekend and happened to be in a Best Buy and – lo and behold – there were three (3) Elite Controllers just hanging out, ready to be bought.  I bought one.  I had a tough time justifying the expense, especially since the XB1 isn’t my primary console, but.. I mean.. goddamn, once you hold this thing in your hands it makes as strong a case for itself as you can imagine.  It’s pleasantly heavy, the buttons and triggers have a remarkably more pleasing feel, and even if I never use the alternate buttons and back-panel triggers, I’m happy to know they’re there if I change my mind.

2a.  On a related note, I now feel contractually obligated to get back into Halo 5.

3.  I also bought Rock Band 4 for the XB1, and my old drumset and 1 of my 2 guitars still work, so there’s that.  I’m happy to have Rock Band back in my life, but HOLY SHIT the game feels barely half-built at this point.  How is it that in 2016, I can’t program my own setlist?  And the process of re-downloading songs I already own is beyond tedious; thankfully, I only have to do it once.

4.  I’ve read all the David Mitchell novels now, and so I’m back to re-reading Cloud Atlas, which was the first one of his that I’d read.  I didn’t necessarily see what all the fuss was about the first time out; I could certainly recognize his talent as a writer, and I appreciated how each story tied into the next one, but I didn’t really understand the point.  (I also felt similarly about Ghostwritten, his first novel, although the interconnected stories in that novel at least have a vague sort of butterfly-effect thing happening.)  This second time through, however, I’m feeling much more at home with it – and I also recognize many more of the characters from other novels, so that stuff makes it a bit more interesting.  All that aside, I feel like I need to read Bone Clocks again, and immediately.  I know I’m one of the few people on Earth who prefers Bone Clocks to Cloud Atlas, but what can I say?  That book affected me in a deeply profound way that few books ever have before.

5.  I’d been meaning to put up a Music of 2015 post – I even have a draft here, but I’m not particularly happy about it, and in any event all the navel-gazing I was doing about it is probably less interesting than all the other navel-gazing I do here as it is.  So, instead, I’ll cut to the chase and post two Spotify playlists:

 

 

My Year In Reading: 2015

Way back in January – another life ago, it seems – I wrote that I’d hoped to read 30 books by year’s end.  As it turns out, I made it to 35 – and I’m working on 36 at the moment.  I gotta say – my new commute makes reading a hell of a lot more convenient, but it also helps when you’re really enjoying what you’re reading.  I’d like to say I could make it to 40 next year (which would be neat, given that I’ll also be 40 years old), but one never knows how these things go.

Still and all, here’s what I read in 2015, in something approximating chronological order:

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber  A-
Technically I started this in late December, but the book is long.  I found it rather beautiful, but also quite heartbreaking.

The Martian, Andy Weir  B-
I still haven’t seen the movie, and my initial impulse was to leave it that way, since I found the book rather dry, overly technical, and surprisingly devoid of tension given the circumstances.  But hey, people seem to love the movie, so maybe it’s worth checking out.

The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips  A
One of the best books that I read this year – at once funny, mysterious, and moving, and featuring one of the most dark, twisted and unexpected endings I’ve ever come across.  The less said, the better.

Your Face Tomorrow (trilogy), Javier Marias  B+ (combined)
I’d wanted to read these for a long time, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Kindle versions were made available; I promptly devoured them, or at least attempted to devour them – as interesting as they are, they can be slow and tedious at times, and his endless sentences, while deliberately stylistic, can be exhausting.  Of all the books I’ve read this year, these probably got under my skin the most – even if, during the reading, I found them slow-moving.  Still, when I put up my Favorite Sentences post, a great many excerpts will appear from this series; even though the people and places of the book couldn’t be further removed from my own experience, there were whole sections that felt ripped out of my own life (for better and/or worse).

Silver Screen Fiend, Patton Oswalt  B+
Patton is a tremendous writer – his best stand-up routines succeed in large part because of his ability to pick the perfect words – and I found this memoir of his early stand-up years to be rather affecting.  That said, it didn’t get nearly as dark as he kept insisting it would, and the last third of the book is simply a list of all the movies he watched during the relevant time frame, without providing any additional insight beyond the specific few he talks about in the book proper.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler  B+
I’ve been a Poehler fan for, what, nearly 20 years now, back when the UCB was a cancelled Comedy Central series and a free weekly improv show instead of the all-powerful comedian factory of today.  I was going to enjoy this no matter what.  I think certain sections are a little phoned in – her Parks & Rec chapter might as well be a multiple-choice quiz – but other sections are deeply powerful and resonant.

Orfeo, Richard Powers  B
As with games, I keep a spreadsheet of the books I read; it helps tremendously for posts like this, but also just to better remind myself of what I read and what I was thinking about at the time.  My comment this year’s spreadsheet, alongside this entry, simply says “remarkable prose, & remarkable grasp of the act of listening, but what did I actually read?”  I suppose I expected more of a plot that was advertised as some sort of hybrid between a technological thriller and a study of avant-garde classical music of the 20th Century.

I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes  B
One thing I need to do for these spreadsheets going forward is to figure out why I bought certain books; I have no memory of buying this (or the next two books on this list, for that matter), or what might have made me get it.  It’s a solid thriller, very much the sort of thing you’d buy at an airport, and I seem to recall enjoying it because it wasn’t trying to be something that it wasn’t; it’s an espionage thriller and that’s all it wanted to be, and to that end it’s a fun read.

Submergence, J.M. Ledgard  C
My spreadsheet comment:  “Beautiful writing, but what is the point of this book?”  Even now I have trouble remembering what happened here.

Skinner, Charlie Huston  B-
“Fast-moving technobabble”, I wrote, though in retrospect I do seem to recall liking this more than the B- I gave it at the time.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell  A
I’d bought this when it first came out, but was reluctant to start it given that I’m not really a big fan of historical fiction, especially during a time and place that I know literally nothing about.  But I’m glad I finally got around to it, because it’s beautiful and absorbing and has one of the best and most satisfying endings I’ve ever read.  I wrote a little more about it here.

The Disaster Artist, Greg Sistero and Tom Bissell B-
I’m a “fan” of the “movie”, and I’m also a huge fan of Tom Bissell, and so this seemed like a slam dunk – an insider’s account of not only being a part of one of the most legendarily terrible movies ever made, but as a close confidant of Tommy Wiseau, the film’s star, writer, director, bankroller, and all-around weirdo.  Alas, it’s not as illuminating as one would hope; Wiseau remains as opaque as ever, and the behind-the-scenes stuff mostly ends up being depressing.

VALIS, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick —?
I’m not sure how it happened, but I realized I’d never read any PKD before.  I’ve seen a bunch of film adaptations, and one of my favorite books from the last few years is The Cardboard Universe (which is a fake encyclopedia about the fictitious Phoebus K. Dank), but I’d never gotten around to the genuine article.  A good friend gave me a copy of Timothy Archer a few years back, and then Amazon apparently had some sort of PKD bonanza because I bought, like, a whole bunch of his stuff on the cheap.  To that end, I decided – for some reason – to start with the Valis trilogy.  Maybe not the best choice?  It’s paranoid and angry and feverishly written – although I suppose it’s a better place to start than the Exegesis, which I must admit I did not finish, or even really start.)  In 2016 I’m gonna try to read …Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, which I also picked up in that Amazon sale.  (And if you have other recommendations, I’m all ears.)

The Song is You, Arthur Phillips B-
As noted above, I loved the hell out of The Egyptologist and felt compelled to check out Phillips’ back catalog, and when I read this book’s synopsis – an unrequited love story told through music – I felt like this book was literally made for me (especially as I was trying to write lyrics about the same subject matter).  I suppose my expectations were too high, then, because I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped – even if the writing is still excellent.  There’s some unintentionally creepy bits to the story, and there’s also some very unnecessary and distracting side-plots that add the wrong sort of tension.  I will get around to the rest of his stuff next year.

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu B+
Having never read Chinese science fiction before, I didn’t really know what to expect from this highly acclaimed first volume of an award-winning trilogy.  The prose is a bit dry – and it’s hard to tell if that’s the translation or just the source material – but it’s certainly very fascinating, and it’s quite a treat to read a familiar genre from a radically different socio-economic perspective.  I learned a lot about Chinese history, too, which helped flesh out Susan Barker’s The Incarnations (which I’ll get to shortly).

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Pasi Jaaskelainen C+
So one of my projects this year was to tackle my ever-increasing backlog, which is the sort of thing that happens when you own a Kindle and have poor impulse control; you buy stuff and then forget you have it, because you can’t physically see it.  I don’t remember buying this, or why I might’ve bought it, but I felt obliged to read it for some reason; I don’t remember reading it.  My Google notes say:  “a ghost story with no ghost and very little story.”  And yet I gave it a C+, so I guess it had something appealing in its atmosphere.

Going Clear…, Lawrence Wright A
This had already been on my to-do list even before the HBO documentary came out; the documentary was stunning, and the book is even more exhaustive in its story-telling.  It’s riveting, meticulously researched, objective, and scary as hell.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson A-
I’d worried a bit about Neal, frankly.  His previous book, Reamde, was rather dull and disappointing – I recall hearing that he’d intended it to be the sort of thriller you’d pick up at an airport, but it was still dreary and unexciting – and his recent foray into videogame development ended on a sad note.  I might’ve been hedging my bets heading into this one, but I came out feeling like he’s on top of his game yet again.  It’s hard (and occasionally dry) sci-fi, but it’s also truly thought provoking and interesting, and the meticulous attention to detail in the first two thirds of the book results in a final third that is simply breathtaking.

The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato B-
This book had a bit of hype surrounding it, as well as an intriguing set up – a Lady Gaga-esque singer suddenly goes missing, and the quest to find her reveals a whole bunch of secret-society-ish stuff within a hidden underground train system – and as such this ought to have been in my wheelhouse.  It’s an entertaining enough read but it doesn’t quite go anywhere, although the ending is pleasingly enigmatic.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz A
So glad I finally got around to this one.  It’s magnificently written; Diaz is enormously talented and the prose nearly leaps off the page.  Enthralling and intoxicating.

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway A
And here began my obsession with Nick Harkaway; if I hadn’t read this book, I probably would’ve continued on my Arthur Phillips spree.  A good friend had raved about him for years and I finally gave it a go, and I’m really glad I started here, because this one is the best of the bunch.  Without question, the most fun I’ve had with a book in years; my Year In Sentences post could easily have been twice as long if I’d elected to quote everything I’d highlighted.

Angelmaker / Edie Investigates!, Nick Harkaway B, B-
Angelmaker is another fun romp, though reading it immediately on the heels of Gone-Away World probably did it a disservice; Edie Investigates is a very short side-story with one of Angelmaker’s characters which I finished in about 30 minutes.  It’s fun, but didn’t feel necessary.

The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes B
A fabulously intriguing premise (surviving victim hunts her time-travelling serial killer), not quite as well executed as I’d like.

My Struggle part 1, Karl Ove Knausgard B+
I’m not sure if I’m going to get around to the other volumes – there’s only so much navel-gazing I can take, and I already take quite a bit, and it’s not quite the earth-shatteringly brilliant thing I’d been expecting.  But as far as memoirs go, it’s absorbing and his descriptive abilities are really quite stunning; I remember this book visually more than anything else.

A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay B
A creepy little ghost story with a dark and horrific twist of a tableau at the end; it had been brought to my attention as something that a fan of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves might enjoy, and that’s certainly true, though the book’s structure might get in its own way a little bit.

Tigerman, Nick Harkaway B+
As with Angelmaker, it’s fun and well-written and with a gut-punch of character reveal and a heartbreaking ending; also as with Angelmaker, it’s not quite as magical as Gone-Away World.

The Rook, Daniel O’Malley B-
As with most of the B-minuses on this list, The Rook is a really interesting premise (an amnesiac soon discovers she has supernatural abilities and is part of a secret organization that battles other supernatural monsters and such), which isn’t quite well-executed as it could be.  I might stick around for the inevitable sequels, though; the world is pretty neat.

The Incarnations, Susan Barker B+
A Chinese taxi driver receives a series of anonymous letters documenting his previous lives and how they intersected with the letter-writer.  It’s a bit more heavy and dark than I expected it to be – which is not a knock on it at all, I just wasn’t prepared for how fucked up it is, emotionally speaking.  As noted in the entry for The Three-Body Problem, there’s a lot about China’s history that is also pretty fucked up.  (I’m also learning a bit more about it at the present moment, as I’m reading David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which talks a bit more about 20th Century Chinese history and how deeply, deeply fucked up it was.)

Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir, Terry Gilliam B-
Entertaining but also a bit scatterbrained – much like his films.  Not nearly as detailed as I’d have liked it to be – for instance, I might’ve blinked and missed the part where he joined Monty Python.

Slade House, David Mitchell A-
This is a short novella, which I believe may have started as a Twitter experiment before turning into a rather haunting series of interconnected stories.  Hard to say if it’s necessary to have read The Bone Clocks before starting this one, but I can’t imagine anyone reading this who hasn’t read Bone Clocks, so take that as you will.  If nothing else, this also inspired me to start reading Mitchell’s complete works, in chronological order, because it’s become apparent that every single one of his books is connected to the other.  And considering that almost all of his books contain interconnected stories inside of themselves, I feel compelled to see just how far the rabbit hole goes.  (As noted above, I’m already 3 or 4 stories into Ghostwritten, and I’ve already seen brief glimpses of characters I know.)

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg A-
THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, screamed the advance hype, in addition to the gigantic advance the author received and the subsequent bidding war over the film rights.  I’m happy to say that it does live up to the hype; this is a 900+ pager that never feels self-indulgent or overly clever.  It’s vivid and memorable and extraordinarily well-paced (which I believe I’ve mentioned here several times over, but it’s worth mentioning again if only because making a 900+ page book move quickly is a rather impressive feat).  Maybe it doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it could, but I can’t hold that against it too much; the book itself is a wonder.

 

The Thousand Autumns

I finished David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet this morning.  I’m still sort of swimming in feelings after that ending – my god, that ending – but I’m too impatient to wait until the coffee kicks in to write something real and meaningful.  So some quick bullet-pointed reactions are as follows:

  • Nobody on this earth writes more satisfying endings than David Mitchell.
  • It’s very interesting to read this book after Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, both of which span multitudes of time and space and narrative points of view.  JdZ is much more self-contained, confining the vast majority of its story to one specific place and over the span of just a few years; and yet, upon completing it, it feels no less epic in scope.
  • His writing patterns are interesting in that he starts out drawing these meticulously well-developed characters and putting them in very detailed places, and then he sorta just lets them do their thing, and one’s attention may start to wander as one tries to figure out just where on earth everything is going even as the writing remains engaging, and then there’s an inevitable HOLY SHIT moment when everything suddenly ties itself together and you realize that you’ve been taken on an incredible journey.
  • Why did it take me so long to start this one?  I liked Cloud Atlas very much, and Bone Clocks has become one of my all-time favorites… and I’d bought JdZ right away when it first came out but couldn’t bring myself to start.  Perhaps my disinterest in historical fiction was stronger than my affection for his writing, but I shan’t make the same mistake again.  If he writes it, I’m reading it.

I am trying to figure out what to read next.  I’ve been making excellent progress on my backlog; JdZ is a tough act to follow, so perhaps I should go with something short and ridiculous like Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist… or maybe I should start reading one of the 5 Philip K. Dick books on that list.  Or maybe Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers?  Not really feeling up for more Murakami, which is something I never thought I’d ever say; 1Q84 was a huge, huge disappointment.  If you have any ideas, let me know.

Weekend Recap: Noodling Around

MUSIC:  If we’re judging the new album’s progress solely by how much I’m uploading to my Google Drive folder every week, then obviously I’ve slowed down rather considerably since February.  But I’m still working / thinking / contemplating / scribbling down lyrics whenever they pop into my head, nearly every day.

My beta listeners might disagree with my analysis, but as of right now, out of the 20-odd demos I’ve uploaded, I’ve narrowed my attentions down to 10 of them.  One of those 10 is a brand-new thing I recorded the other night, which I was tempted to upload and share immediately after I bounced it to mp3, even though I probably shouldn’t.  I really like it, but I also am fully aware that it’s a nearly 5-minute-long guitar noodle, similar to the looping stuff I was doing about 15 years ago; and if it were to actually make the cut and appear on the album, I’d be doing some drastic edits in order make it a bit less self-indulgent.   (Ironically, this is why I’m tempted to post the original version in all its noodle-tastic glory, given that it’s almost certainly not remaining in its current form.)

I’ve also reached the inevitable crippling self-doubt phase, which is what happens when I listen to these demos too many times and end up either (a) hating them or (b) getting too attached to their rough-draft imperfections and wanting to keep them as is.  That second part is also why it’s hard to make second drafts out of these things sometimes; even though it’s a relatively minor thing to simply cut/paste sections over a few measures to insert some extra time for a verse or whatever, I’ve gotten so used to how these things already sound that even though the adjustment makes the song better, I don’t like it as much.

I might need to take some time away from the demos and simply listen to this stuff in my head for a while.

I also might go ahead and post this new thing anyway, or at least a little snippet of it.


BOOKS:  I realize I haven’t talked about what I’m reading in a while; I’ve been slowly going through David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for the last few weeks; last night I started Part 3.  I was always apprehensive about starting it (which is why it’s been in my backlog for as long as it’s been), given that I’m not particularly drawn towards historical fiction, especially in an era that I have absolutely no prior knowledge of (in this book’s case, the Dutch/Japanese trade of the very late 1700s).  But Mitchell is still a hell of a writer, and I suspect that his reasons for setting this book in this very specific period and place will make sense, and in any event it’s very cool to see characters from his other books show up in this one.


FILM:  I don’t usually talk about movies in this blog, if only because I simply don’t have the time to consume film the way I used to.  But I did want to take a few minutes to talk about Interstellar, which the wife and I finally saw over the weekend.  I’ve been a devout Christopher Nolan fan ever since Memento exploded my brain – that’s one of the few films I’ve bothered to see in a theater twice – and I’ve enjoyed everything he’s made ever since, despite their varied flaws.  (My biggest problem with Inception, besides the fact that it gave me a panic attack when I saw it in the theater, is that there’s no character development in any line of dialogue; everything’s flat and expository and it’s a credit to his actors that you feel anything at all towards them; a similar line of attack could be levied towards the Batman films, too.)  In any case, I’d heard mixed things towards “Interstellar” but I knew I had to see it for myself anyway, and so I did, and I absolutely loved it.  It’s not without its flaws (though I wouldn’t dream of taking issue with its science; it’s out of my depth anyway, and whether or not it’s 100% scientifically accurate is somewhat besides the point, I think) and I saw certain twists coming, but I still gasped at their reveal, and I can’t help but admit that Matthew McConaughey (an actor I’m not terribly fond of) was really, really, really good.

Side note:  in the wake of the Marvin Gaye/Robin Thicke lawsuit and the troubling precedent it could set, I can’t help but think that Philip Glass could sue the pants off of Hans Zimmer for essentially ripping off Glass’s soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi.  Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the “Interstellar” soundtrack immensely; it just sounded somewhat familiar to me, and then I listened to it on Spotify and realized why.


GAMES:  Lots to talk about.

1.  I finished The Order: 1886.  I stand by my earlier faint praise, though now that it’s all over I can see why people would be disappointed:

  • The game’s premise is still very intriguing – the Knights of the Round Table are quasi-immortal knights currently engaged in a war with vampires – but nothing particularly interesting is done with that premise.
  • For all the game’s cinematic aspirations, it doesn’t stick the landing at all.
  • Any game, film or book that contains a scene between adversaries that has a variation of the line “We’re not so different, you and I” is now getting docked a full point in my arbitrary and non-existent rating system.
  • The combat system never really evolves.  You mostly fight human soldiers, usually head on although there are some stealth sequences here and there; maybe three or four times you fight some beasties, who have a much different attack pattern; and then I think there are two “boss” fights against these monsters which are mostly QTE-enhanced.  I don’t hate QTEs as much as most people, but I don’t necessarily like them all that much either; I don’t mind them here, but that’s also because they don’t pop up all that often.  (That said, the very last shot in the game has a QTE prompt in the dead center of the screen, which robs the moment of whatever gravitas it was aiming for.)
  • The “hidden collectible” aspect of the game is dumb and underdeveloped and a waste of time.

But:  it is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s relatively bug-free (which is very impressive in today’s AAA space), and I think a sequel could be something truly special, if it’s done right.

2.  During this weekend’s 2K sale on Steam, I ended up buying both Civilization Beyond Earth and Sid Meier’s Starships.  I keep forgetting that I need to be in certain moods in order to really get into Civ games, and I was not in those moods this weekend.

3.  On a whim, I decided to get back into Shadow of Mordor, which I’d put aside a few months back.  Decided to start over, from the very beginning, to remember how to play it properly.  Lo and behold, I’m enjoying it about a thousand times more than I did the first time; I don’t know what happened to my brain between then and now, but something about it finally clicked, and now I’m really enjoying it.  I’m also much better at it this time around, for whatever reason; the first time I was getting my ass kicked left and right, but in this second go-round I’m holding my own much better.

4.  My almost-2-year-old son is infatuated with the Lego Movie – and given that I enjoy it as well, I don’t mind him watching it over and over again.  So I decided that this would be as good a time as any to replay the game again, if only so that he could control Emmet directly.  The game is still buggy as hell, but whatever – if Henry wants Emmet to jump, Emmet jumps, and he gets quite a kick out of it.  (Also, my dog Lily is an expert-level photobomber.)

press x for ethics in game journalism
press x for ethics in game journalism

New Album Progress Report

MUSIC:  So:  I’ve been busy.  audioThe attached .jpg represents almost everything I’ve uploaded for my beta listeners since I started this recording project in late-January; there’s still a few more sketches on my hard drive that I haven’t uploaded yet, mostly because there’s not much to them.

I’m working on a bunch of things at once; I’m writing brand-new stuff, and also revisiting some much older stuff that’s never been properly recorded, and I’m also now starting to examine everything as a whole, and am beginning the process of separating the keepers from the b-sides.  And at some point I need to start working on lyrics.

All things considered, this is as productive and prolific as I’ve been in years.  For the longest time – like, the last 20 years – I was too complacent and lazy to ever get my ass in gear.  I’ve always wanted to record an album, but couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything, or let myself get into a songwriting routine – I was focused on other things, or just simply too unmotivated to get off the couch.  Hell, I have a hard time even calling “Untrue Songs” a real solo album – it was recorded over the course of 8 years and I wasn’t ever sure if any of it was going to see the light of day at all, and basically I put it out because I wanted my newborn son to know what all the instruments in the office sounded like.

For whatever reason, though, this time is different.  This time I’m genuinely excited to get home and start working.  Even on nights where I say to myself, “you know what, it’s been a long day, let’s take it easy tonight and switch off”, I still end up going into the studio and start tinkering with something.

So even if I technically failed the RPM Challenge, the overall experience has been nothing short of a fantastic success; I’m making music again, and I’m as happy about it as I’ve ever been.  I don’t necessarily have a timeline for finishing this thing, but believe me when I say that I’m as excited to get this new stuff out into the world as anything else I’ve worked on, possibly ever.

GAMES:  Because I’ve been so music-focused lately, games have obviously taken a bit of a back seat.  Obviously, given the current release calendar, I haven’t necessarily been missing all that much.  I treated myself to a bunch of well-regarded indie games last week but haven’t really given myself any time to play them:

  • I did the opening tutorial for Helldivers, and I think that’ll be a lot of fun in co-op.
  • I did the first 3 levels in Pneuma: Breath of Life; it’s an interesting (and beautiful) 1st person puzzler that’s trying just a little bit too hard to be self-aware and meta, taking inspiration from something like Stanley Parable as an obvious example.  It also offers up achievement points like CRAZY; even though that’s a thing I’m not really paying attention to anymore, I couldn’t help but point out that finishing the first 3 levels gave me a whopping 300 points.
  • I played about 30 minutes of the very stylish noir adventure White Night, but can’t offer any insightful commentary beyond its graphics.
  • I bought Never Alone but haven’t yet fired it up.
  • I downloaded OlliOlli2 because it’s free for PS+ members, but I must admit I was afraid to get started on it, because the first one was so fiendishly difficult.  And yet, for whatever reason, I’ve figured this one out, and even though I’ll never be a Jedi master at it, I can get all 5 stars on the early levels, and I’m enjoying it immensely.  It could be simply that there’s no narrative to get lost in; all I have to focus on is level geometry and the proper timing of button presses, and after a while it’s very easy to zone out.

I did end up renting The Order 1886, though it hasn’t arrived yet; I also rented the DmC HD remake, if only because I really like that game and would like to see how it could look even better than it did on my aging PC.

Side note – I am still kinda curious about those upcoming Steam Machines, and if I can get one with great specs for a relatively reasonable price, I very well might buy one and have it replace my PC.

BOOKS:  I finished Charlie Huston’s Skinner this morning.  I liked it, I think?  I don’t know.  It moves quickly, and some of the action set pieces are pretty exciting, but for an action-spy-techno thriller I never felt any danger, and the main characters are impossible to relate to (given their very plot-necessary personality quirks).  Now I’m finally reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I’ve been meaning to get to (and yet was very intimidated by, for reason I can’t explain).

of Aliens, White Vans and Bone Clocks

Probably not a lot of posting this week, for reasons I can’t quite get into.  I mean, it’s Wednesday already, you’ve probably figured that out.

I’m not quite ready to do a First Few Hours of Alien Isolation, though maybe later this week I’ll have played enough to give a solid impression.  It’s super-creepy, incredibly immersive, and it hits all the right notes for fans of the first Alien movie (of which I am one).  A short, gut impression is that it feels like Dead Space set in the Alien universe, with the best ambient sound design since the first Bioshock.  Headphones (or a good soundsystem) are mandatory.

I finished reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van the other night, and it is remarkable; certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year.  I went into it more or less blind; I knew of the author’s reputation as one of the best lyricists of this era (though I must confess I haven’t listened to his band, The Mountain Goats); I have a few friends who think very highly of him.  And as for the book itself, I was dimly aware that the narrator had been in a terrible disfiguring accident in his youth and that he runs an interactive role-playing game through the mail; that’s pretty much it.  To say much more is probably too much.  It’s startlingly well written and uniquely insightful, and that ending.

Currently reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I had been intimidated by for months but finally started yesterday, and it’s already knocking my socks off.  Man, it’s really nice to be in one of those grooves where every book you read is really enjoyable and satisfying, isn’t it?  I’m looking over my “2014 Books Read” list and of the 13 books I’ve finished, I can’t give anything lower than a B-.  That’s a nice run.

Your mandatory reading for today – if you didn’t read it yesterday – is Kyle Wagner’s piece about Gamergate.

And your hashtag of the day is #StopGamerGate2014.