Friday, December 29, 2017

Furies of Calderon (a book review post)

Any of you who have been around here for a while will know that I have a fairly high tolerance for reading -- let's say -- poor books. Sometimes really poor books. Sometimes really poor series of books. It's not that I enjoy it -- the pain of reading bad books -- I just don't like not finishing something that I start. Also, I tend to hold out the hope for some of them that they'll get better.

I suppose I was hoping this would be one of those, one that gets better, because I like Jim Butcher. The Dresden Files are great, at least the first dozen or so that I've read are, so I was expecting that The Codex Alera would be at least somewhere in the same range of quality.

But no...

Let's make a sports analogy, just for fun. If The Dresden Files were a major league baseball team, Furies of Calderon would be, like, a little league team. Except it would be grown men playing at a little league level and trying to go up against a major league team. It would be something worse than the Bad News Bears.

This book was bad.

Seriously, there was nothing in it that I enjoyed. Not even a single character. The plot was a pretty cliche. And don't get me started on the magic system.

Let me give some context:

I picked up the first two books when I got Furies. See, I really did expect to like it. Jim Butcher, right? By halfway through, I'd decided that there was no way I was going to read anymore of the books, and I hate not reading a book that I've already bought. It's a waste of money. But it was so bad I knew there was no way I could do it.

But I decided that I would, at least, go ahead and finish the one I was reading. I mean, Jim Butcher! It could get better! There was a chance, right? So I forged ahead... and got to within a hundred pages of the end of the book (and it's a long book, so 100 pages was, really, close to the end) and...
Well, I decided I'd had enough. Even with just only 100 pages to go, I couldn't bring myself to finish it. It wasn't worth wasting that much more time to do.

Here's my insight into this series:
Butcher has said that he always wanted to write epic fantasy. It was what he started out trying to do when he was a kid after reading Tolkien. I think this is the story he came up with when he was a teenager, maybe a middle schooler. Once he got famous enough off Dresden, he went back to this story he dreamed up when he was a kid and began writing it without any changes. Because it reads like it was written by a kid, and I've read enough stories by middle schoolers to recognize the style.

Oh, and possibly the worst thing in the book?
He uses the word "pace" all the time! No one walks; everyone paces. And it just doesn't mean the same thing. It broke me from the story every time he used it, sometimes three or four times on a page. It was awful. That wasn't the only word he used repetitively, but it was by far the worst.

All I can really say is don't read this book. I mean, I couldn't finish it. I couldn't finish it, and that's pretty significant.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Rebels: "Stealth Strike" (Ep. 2.09)

"Just so you know, when I escape, I won't hurt any of you."

Well... It's actually been a couple of weeks since I watched this and it's not exactly fresh in my mind. The Last Jedi is fresh in my mind, but I'm not going to talk about that until I've seen it again.

Here's the thing, Kanan and Rex don't exactly like each other. More to the point, Kanan doesn't like Rex. You kind of can't blame him considering that Kanan was a Padawan when Order 66 was enacted, and he watched his Master killed by clones and had them try to kill him, too. There's a lack of trust going on despite the fact that Rex has stated he removed his control chip prior to Order 66.

Kanan and Rex do have a thing in common, though: their affection for Ezra. So, of course, when Ezra is captured, Kanan and Rex go together to rescue him. I mean, neither of them can let the other guy get the credit for it.

Yes, this is another rescue mission... but it's not exactly the kind of rescue mission you'd expect.
And it's a lot of fun to have Rex and Kanan together.

"This armor doesn't protect you from anything!"

"So much for stealth."
"It's not like they don't know we're here!"

Monday, December 18, 2017

Girls of the Golden West (an opera review post)

Here we are at the end of another opera season...
It's short this year because of next summer's presentation of The Ring Cycle. WooHoo! I can't wait.
...and I was really hoping it would end with a bang. Maybe something like a gunshot, considering this last opera being performed, but, if it was a gunshot, it was a popgun.

It's too bad, too, because I really wanted this to be great. For one thing, it's cool to get to go so world premiere operas; this makes our third. For another thing, after our gold country tour back in May, we felt a connection to the subject matter. However, one thing I've learned in my opera going is that I don't enjoy operas done in the modern style. It's the music: I just don't enjoy it.

So, yes, as with Elektra earlier this season, I couldn't get into Girls of the Golden West because the music proved too much of a barrier.

Not that it didn't have a few moments...

Have you ever tried to fly a kite on a day when there's not quite enough wind? There's almost enough, but it's just not quite enough to keep the kite up. So you run and you run and the kite starts going up and it keeps going up and you think you have it and you slow down to start feeding the kite some string... and it crashes to the ground.

That's how the music was for me in Girls. Someone would begin a beautiful aria, the music would start to take off, then it would be over and back to the driving rhythms.

It was disappointing, to say the least.

Having said all of that, the performances were great, and the opera has an interesting story. A compelling story about three women during the California gold rush. True stories, even. However, the writing was not quite compelling as the librettist frequently fell back on narration to tell you what happened rather than showing it. For instance:

There's a hanging. The lead up to the hanging happens onstage but, then, as the hanging is about to happen, one of the characters turns and, basically, tells the audience that the hanging happened and that's the end of it. There are several moments like that in the opera.

So... I'm glad I saw it. It was far from horrible, but I don't feel like I would want to watch it again. I am interested in seeing some of Adam's earlier operas, though, especially Nixon in China, which is quite famous.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"You Didn't Do Anything Illegal"

That's what the cop led with when he pulled me over, "You didn't do anything illegal." That was probably in response to the look of bafflement on my face because I didn't know why I was being pulled over. What he said didn't clear that up because, then, my mind immediately went to, "Then why am I being pulled over?"

He answered my unspoken question, "You made someone else do something illegal."
What the fuck?
Someone else broke the law and I'm the one being pulled over?
Not that I said any of that.
He was already going on, anyway, about how when I pulled over at the curb to drop my son off someone else had, instead of waiting, gone around me. They went around me in a no-passing area so crossed the double lines to do it.

Here's what was happening:
It was raining, so I was taking my son to school. Normally, he rides the city bus, but it's a pretty long way to the bus stop, and I didn't want him to have to walk in the rain, especially since it had turned out that he had outgrown his jacket, something I didn't know about until the rain started. [Yes, he has a new one now.]

I drop him off on this side street down by the junior college because it's a relatively close point to the building he's going to. Just to be clear:
There is no red painting on the curb.
There are no signs prohibiting stopping or dropping off/picking up.
There might be a "no parking" sign somewhere along the street, but, obviously, I didn't park. I might have been pulled over to the curb for something like 10 seconds, long enough for my son to hop out and shut the door.

So I pulled over and he got out, and some car went around me while I was doing it. However, that was the only other car on the road. It was a pretty light traffic morning. After my son got out and I began to pull away, the cop turned on his lights and bwooped his siren at me. I actually looked around for other cars that he could be flagging down, because what had I done?

Nothing illegal.

But, seeing as I was the only car, I pulled around the corner on the next side street and pulled over. the cop came up to my window and said, "Don't worry; you didn't do anything illegal." Then he went on at great length about how I had caused the other driver to make an illegal action, then went on to say how I should be grateful that he was only giving me a warning because he could give me a several hundred dollar ticket...
What the fuck?
He was saving me from a ticket from a non-illegal action I took?
What could he have even given me a ticket for?
But I didn't say any of that.
I learned the hard way a long time ago about what it gets you to argue with a cop, especially when the cop is in the wrong. It doesn't matter if what a cop is doing is wrong or illegal: The cop has all the power. Kind of like when your dad punishes you for something your brother did because your dad likes your brother more (true story).

Here's the thing:
What the cop did was illegal. Pulling me over and taking my license and registration without just cause was an illegal act. You can't just stop someone for driving. Or for walking down the street. Or for whatever thing a cop may decide to do to you for whatever spurious reason he has. Unfortunately, I didn't have the presence of mind to get his badge number or anything. At that moment, I was just being glad he wasn't making up a false ticket and wanted to go.

This is the kind of thing that cops count on, though, and it's why they feel empowered to do... well, whatever they want to do. Look, I'm a white dude, and that cop felt completely within his rights to pull me over. Illegally. But, you know, maybe he thought I was going to be some mom dropping off her kid, which is probably much more frequent, and he thought he could get a little bit of intimidation going on. [I have heard -- literally listened to -- cops bragging about how they will pull women over for no reason just to see what will happen. And, yes, sometimes "things" happen, and they always happen because the woman feels intimidated.] And it's because cops feel empowered to do this kind of thing that black men wind up shot.

And Trump (#fakepresident), especially, has made cops feel emboldened to do as they please. [Yes, I listened to a cop talk about that, too, about how now that Trump was #fakepresident cops wouldn't have to worry so much about following the rules.

People who work for the public, whether they be cops or politicians, should not feel like they are the ones running the show. The GOP, especially, feels like they get to make the rules no matter how the public feels about what they're doing. They're playing "daddy" with the whole country, and it's time to put an end to it. This whole patriarchy thing really has to go.

Cops should be held accountable when they do illegal things.
Here's an idea, cops who shoot people should automatically lose their jobs. Maybe that would make some of them stop and think about whether there's a better solution than a gun.
Pedophiles shouldn't get to hold office. Or even run for election.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Pocketful of Marbles

Remember marbles?
Not, do you know what is a marble, but do you remember marbles? Like from when you were a kid. Back when marbles were magical and sprang into existence through spontaneous generation and you only acquired new ones by finding them, trading for them, or having some benevolent Being gift some to you. When I was a kid, I did, in fact, have a special bag just for marbles. And acquiring new marbles was always cause for trading with my friends, some of whom also had marble bags though some just had jars.

Marbles were like trophies. When you're a kid, trophies also are like magical totems that come into existence for the sole purpose of being awarded to kids who have risen to the level of trophydom. After all, you can't buy trophies at the store, so they must be special. Unless, you know, there are special trophy stores... which there are... but you don't find that out until you're older. Like that whole Santa Claus thing.

But marbles! Marbles were better than gold. Of course, mostly, you could only trade them for other marbles... unless you had some super-cool marble, and, those, you could trade for almost anything. They were magic baubles. You could do a lot when you were a kid with a pocketful of marbles.
Not so much anymore, probably, but the philosophy is sound.

Because, in the end, marbles are worthless. Just bits of polished glass.

Dazzling, polished glass.

Right now, Republicans, the voters, are being dazzled by these bits of polished glass. GOP congressmen have filled their pockets with marbles and are trading them for your freedom. For our freedom, and you Republicans keep handing us over to them in exchange for shiny baubles that mean nothing.

They offer you a wall to keep out all of those dirty illegals,
and you give them your healthcare.

They offer you a tax break,
but they raise your taxes so that the rich can continue to get richer.

They offer you jobs
but give you a ruined environment.

They offer you guns
but give those to you as mass shootings, because the US is #1 in the world in mass shootings, the GOP is determined to keep us that way. After all, America has to be great at something, right?

They offer you marbles,
and you give them your freedom.

Unless your idea of freedom is the freedom to pay them more money. For everything.
Because that's what the GOP is all about, pricing the poor out of life and making slaves of them. And if you're not super rich, you're the poor. In the Republican world view, there is no middle class, and they're doing everything they can to siphon all of that money up to people who already have too much.

So if you're a Republican or if you vote Republican, especially if you voted for Trump (#fakepresident), I hope you have fun playing with your marbles. Maybe one day you'll open your eyes (or get your heads out of your asses) and see that you gave away everything of value for a few bits empty promises and polished gas.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Rebels: "Blood Sisters" (Ep. 2.08)

"It was mostly just an accident."

I've mentioned before the lack of attention given to the female characters and who they are and where they came from. We got origin-type material for Ezra and Kanan and, even, Zeb fairly early on, but, until now, there's been very little background provided about Sabine or Hera. Not that there's a lot in this episode, but it's something.

So what do we know now?
Sabine used to be a bounty hunter.
I don't know; she seems a little young to have used to have been a bounty hunter, but I suppose that explains the Mandalorian armor.
She used to have a partner. And they... split up, not on the best of terms.
Which, of course, makes their reunion less than pleasant.

I wish I could say that there was some kind of moral dilemma in all of this -- I'm going to be spoilery here -- some kind of dealing with past emotional trauma or... something..., but there's not. The Empire conveniently shows up and puts the two "friends" back together again. In some ways, it's a "Han Solo scenario," but it doesn't quite go that far.


It's a fine episode. Lots of action. But it's another reminder that Rebels fails to tackle the difficult questions.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Rebels: "Wings of the Master" (Ep. 2.07)

"We lost the transport! We lost the transport!"

When I was a kid, I never had any of the starships from Star Wars. In fact, almost all I had was action figures. My mom didn't believe in supporting my Star Wars obsession, so I had to buy all my toys with my own money, and money isn't the easiest thing to come by when you're eight years old. So I would save up for one of the ships but, any time I had enough money for one, I would compare the one ship to all of the action figures I could get with the same money, and I would buy the action figures, the one exception being the Rebel transport from Empire, because it doubled as a storage case (and it was cheap).

All of that changed when the b-wing fighter was released. I thought b-wings were so cool after Jedi came out, and I loved the way the cockpit turned on its own as you rotated the ship. When that came out, I bought it. It was my first ship. Of course, I was 13 by then and had much better avenues for earning money.

You can imagine, then, my surprise and delight to discover that this episode was about the origin of the b-wing. It was very cool, and that's all I'm going to say about it. If you're curious, you should just watch it.
And, yes, I do still have my b-wing, and I still love it.

"I just hammered it together, young pilot; you made it soar."

Monday, December 4, 2017

Coco (a movie review post)

This turns out to be a difficult movie for me to review. Seriously, I've been contemplating the review for two days and still haven't figured out how exactly I want to approach this.

The easy thing to do is just to say that it's a great movie, because it is a great movie. In fact, since Toy Story 3 came out in 2010, Coco is one of only two great movies that Pixar has released, the other being Inside Out. The story is well-told and heartfelt. Heartfelt enough that it brought a tear to my eye. The aforementioned Toy Story 3 was the last movie to do that to me, as far as I remember.

As per Pixar, even in their less than good movies, the animation was fantastic. And fantastic in a way that we really haven't seen before: It was fabulously colorful. Like a sugar skull:
In fact, there's not anything I can point to that I would say would make the movie better. No improvements necessary.

And, yet...

And, yet, I am uncomfortable with the message, the message that family always comes first and is most important. More important than anything. I just... well... That's just not true.

I could get into examples of why that's not true, but it's probably not really necessary. Either you agree with the statement or you don't and nothing I say is going to matter one way or the other. Besides, any examples I could make could be entire posts, and I don't want to get into trying to summarize things in a way that is succinct. For instance, I could say:
When my grandmother died, my uncle, through unethical and possibly illegal methods, stole all of  the land my grandparent's had owned, leaving my mother and my aunt with virtually nothing.
But, then, you're going to want me to explain that, and I don't feel like getting into it. The short of it is that family shouldn't get any special passes just because they're family.

However, my disagreement with the message doesn't detract from the movie itself; the movie is great, and you should certainly go see it. At the theater even. It's really a movie which should be enjoyed on the big screen.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Manon (an opera review post)

Before I get into the review, let's have some background.

One of the ways my wife and I are able to afford the opera is that we sit in the cheap seats. The San Francisco Opera House has multiple balconies, and we sit allll the way at the top. Well, close enough. We also buy season passes, because that's much cheaper than buying show by show. Because up at the top is so far up at the top, for certain performances, they have screens that lower for the upper balcony and they broadcast close up shots of the performers for those of us too far away to see faces. It's way better than having to use "opera glasses" the way people used to have to do, though we still see those from time to time.

The screen provides some advantages to sitting up at the top. Occasionally, we get to upgrade our seats (for free) and move down to lower balcony. In front of the screens. So, yes, we're closer (much) to the stage and what's happening and don't really need the screens to see what's going on, but you don't get close ups of the performers faces with your eyes alone.

All of that to say that Ellie Dehn was excellent as Manon, and I know because we were up at the top and had the benefit of the screens and were able to see her facial expressions throughout the performance. And, sure, opera is about the singing -- she sang great -- but it has to also be about the acting or there's no life to the performance, and Dehn was amazing.

And I only bring up any of this because one of the things my wife and I do on our drive back home after the opera is look up reviews of that opera to see how the reviews compare to what we thought. Generally, reviews for any given opera are pretty similar, either everyone loved it or everyone hated it, but reviews for Manon were mixed, and they all seemed to center around Dehn. Either the reviewer thought she was great, or the reviewer thought she was flat and lifeless, which made me wonder if those particular reviews were just unable to see how expressive she was.

Maybe where you sit at an opera is more important than I previously thought?
Or maybe those reviewers went on an off night for her? It's hard to tell with live theater.
Whatever the case, we thought she was great.

Michael Fabiano, as Chevalier des Grieux, was also great, but I would say he was not quite as good as Dehn. [That's them above.]

I also really enjoyed David Pershall as Lescaut, Manon's cousin.

The set for this one was interesting. It used a combination of reflective surfaces (including Lescaut's shiny pants in act one) and shadows to lend atmosphere. Mostly, it was a minimalist set design, but the frequency of the large shadows of the actors on the wall behind them made it seem as if there was more on the stage than there really was.

But the real strength of this opera, for me, was the story. Because of the necessity of music, opera stories tend toward, let's say, straight forward and tend to have one dimensional characters. It's difficult to get more involved than that when your entire piece is around two hours long and it takes a six minute (or more) song to deliver a brief dialogue that would only take a few seconds to speak. The characters in Manon, though, were suitably complex even while dealing with what could be seen as a typical tragic love story. It was engrossing.

Of course, it was also long. Three hours. AND they cut out the ballet sequence; I have no idea how long it would have been with that. By the way, did you know that the origin of ballet is within opera? Well, it is.

I really liked Manon. It's not my favorite because the music wasn't quite compelling enough for that, but I would gladly watch it again, which is something I'm finding is a measure of how much I like things.