Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

BonfireBonfire by Krysten Ritter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I listened to an interview with Krysten Ritter (on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me), I was expecting some discussion of her acting, from shows like Jessica Jones and Breaking Bad. There was some of that, but I was surprised to also hear that she was promoting a book called Bonfire. So I had to check it out.

Bonfire is set in rural Indiana, where Chicago lawyer Abby Williams is returning to her hometown to investigate the local industrial firm for failing to comply with environmental regulations. It's not a happy homecoming for Abby, who left behind unhappy memories and broken relationships when she left after high school. Conducting the investigation dredges up the unwelcome
past, and in the end reveals both current and past misdeeds.

Abby's mental state is just as important in Bonfire as the facts of her investigation. There are points in the book where she seems on the brink of complete collapse, and she certainly leans heavily on the booze to deal with her situation. Abby is a flawed character who doesn't always choose the best option for dealing with her problems, but I thought Ritter did a fine job of bringing her feelings and struggles to life.

I enjoyed Ritter's writing style, which I found easy to read and engrossing. She makes good use of short chapters that encourage the reader to keep going for just one more...and one more, and one more. The momentum of the storyline built fairly consistently, such that I never felt impatient for something new to happen. I did feel that the last twist that revealed the final villain was a bit obvious, but I enjoyed the journey enough that it didn't bother me.

I already knew that I liked Krysten Ritter's work in front of a camera. Now I'll be keeping an eye out for her work with a pen as well.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Thor: Ragnarok

It occurs to me that Marvel Studios has set a really high bar with their MCU movies. Thor: Ragnarok is a solid effort, well above average and miles better than anything that I'd have expected a decade or so ago. And yet I found myself disappointed.

Thor Ragnarok poster.jpg
(Warning: Spoilers below, on the off chance that anyone else is as late to the party as me.)

This is the third Thor movie, and the seventeenth in the MCU. All the usual things that I've come to expect from MCU movies are here: impressive effects, interesting characters, plenty of interpersonal drama, and a plot that holds together if you don't think too hard about it. There's plenty of appearances by other Thor-adjacent characters, most notably Loki and Odin from earlier films, and new introductions of their long-lost sister Hela and a new Valkyrie ally. The Hulk plays a big role as well, which is nice since he's been missing since Avengers: Age of Ultron. And there's a bit of Doctor Strange, following up from the teaser bit at the end of his movie.

So why the disappointment? First, my expectations were sky-high. Several people in my circle of friends raved about this movie, calling it the best to date in the MCU and possibly the best superhero movie of all time. Critics loved it, ratings were high, hardly a bad thing to be said about it anywhere. Thus, I was expecting incredible things. When I got only above-average, it felt disappointing, even though I know that's not really fair.

Second, the primary reason that I think Thor: Ragnarok falls short of excellent and thus below my expectations: the overdone, constant slapstick humor. The first few times it's funny: someone falls flat on their face, accidentally knocks themselves over, insults their opponent to his face, etc. But after you see it again and again, you start to expect something embarrassing, and then it's just tiresome. By the time Bruce Banner does a belly flop out of a spaceship near the end, it was so obvious what was coming that I was cringing. Clearly I'm in the minority on this, given how much everyone else seems to love the movie, but the humor aspects just felt excessive to me...and it's not funny when it's overdone.

There were a few other minor things that didn't click with me. Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster character annoyed me, largely because I felt that Goldblum's style clashed with the role of manipulative, heartless tyrant. The loss of Mjolnir (that's the hammer) felt almost trivial in how easily it happened. The mighty Thor begging Stan Lee not to cut his hair was pathetic. And there wasn't nearly enough of Fenris (the giant wolf).

Having said all that, Thor: Ragnarok is a fine movie. I'm glad that I've seen it, and likely will watch it again someday when I happen across it on a streaming service or something. Don't avoid it, just temper your expectations a bit going in.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Of Mice and Rockets - A Long Weekend in Central Florida

I spent a long weekend down in Central Florida this month, escaping the Michigan winter for a few days. I've been known to do this sort of thing on occasion. (If you'd like to see more pictures than those shown here, I've got that covered.)
The Leaving

The idea for the trip came out of a conversation with my lady friend Sarah, as we were both bemoaning the long slog through winter weather from the new year until spring. She's mostly a Michigan homebody, with just a few trips elsewhere, and none that were near an ocean. Seemed like a perfectly good excuse to go south in February! Convenient Valentine's Day present, too. We flew non-stop from Grand Rapids to Orlando - the availability of a direct flight was a major consideration in the choice of destination! Flight got us in late Friday night, so the real trip didn't start until the next day.

Day One: The Coast

It's only about an hour's drive from Orlando out to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, which I greatly enjoyed visiting. The Space Shuttle exhibit with the Atlantis orbiter was particularly impressive, in my opinion. I've seen the full-size mockup orbiter that they have in Houston, but it was awfully cool to see the real thing in person! There's plenty of other space flight history as well, plus exhibits about current action in areas like Mars exploration and cooperation with private companies like SpaceX. We missed the SpaceX heavy launch by about a week, but that's probably just as well since it would have extremely crowded.

In the afternoon we drove down to Cocoa Beach and spent a few hours at the shore. Beautiful day, in the upper 70s/low 80s with a nice breeze. Plenty of other folks out enjoying it as well! Particularly nice since it was Sarah's first time at an ocean beach. Lake Michigan beaches are fine, of course, but it's a very different feeling with that salt water breeze and looking out at an entire ocean!
After driving back to Orlando, we cleaned up and took a nap. Being at the beach is hard work! For dinner, we went over to the Universal City Walk. Tons of restaurants to choose from and various live entertainment around the area. And most importantly, a very large cookies-and-cream milkshake for dessert.

Day Two: Non-Mouse Orlando

The second day was spent seeing some sights around Orlando that aren't theme parks. The Harry P. Leu gardens are part of an association with the Meijer Gardens here in Grand Rapids, which is how I heard about them. The grounds are beautiful, though be warned that the parking is very limited! We happened to visit when they had an exhibition of Lego sculptures around the park, which made it even more fun.
Later, we headed over to the Orlando Science Center and spent a few hours there. My favorite part of that was their wetlands habitat, which had fish and turtles and some small alligators. We even happened to catch feeding time for the gators, which was cool to see.
In the evening, we had a nice Valentine's Day dinner (a few days early, avoid the crowds) and went downtown to Orlando's Wall Street plaza area to see the nightlife. I particularly enjoyed the entirely Christmas-themed Frosty's Christmastime Lounge, where pride of place over the bar is given to a days-until-Christmas countdown clock.

Day Three: House of Mouse

We picked Epcot as our Disney park for the trip. We could have tried to hit a couple more parks in the first two days, but decided we'd rather not overdo it. I've been to Epcot before, but that was so many years ago that I hardly remembered the details, and what I did remember was all good.
You can schedule up to three rides ahead of time with the Fastpass program and skip the longest part of the line. Sadly, I wasn't able to sign up for the Frozen ride since it was already fully booked, but we did get into both Spaceship Earth and the Finding Nemo Aquarium ride. Both of those were great, though for different reasons. Spaceship Earth is fun mostly for the ride itself: going up into that big globe, through some (extremely simplified) history, and into a planetarium-style space view. The Nemo ride wasn't that impressive, but the aquarium afterward is excellent with some nice big tanks and plenty of underwater species to observe.
We walked around the World Showcase a couple of times. Went pretty quick at first, heading straight to Italy for lunch (which was excellent). Once we were less hungry, we took a bit more time and looked around several of the country pavilions. I liked Japan and Italy particularly, but they're all great.
It so happened that we picked a day during the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, so in addition to all the usual sights, there were a bunch of artist pavilions set up around the area. We saw lots of paintings, sculptures, and various other artistic pieces as we walked around the area. A few live displays, too, such as creation of specially dyed scarves and other clothing items.
Near the end of the day, we caught several live performances. Acrobats at the China pavilion, drummers at the German pavilion, and a performance of several Broadway songs by Ashley Brown and Josh Strickland. The Broadway performance was particularly fun - my favorite was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins, and Sarah really enjoyed Let It Go from the upcoming Frozen Broadway show.
Finally, at the end of the day was the nightly fireworks display. It was a little underwhelming, to be honest. Possibly we were just too tired to enjoy it, and certainly we didn't have the best viewing location. Nonetheless, even an underwhelming display of fireworks is still pretty impressive.

Day Four: The Bonus Day

We were supposed to leave very early on a 7 AM flight, but we were late to the airport and missed our scheduled flight. Entirely my fault, that was - I'm so used to smaller airports with lower passenger volumes, as well as traveling with only a carry-on bag, that I assumed an hour before the flight would be enough time. And it would have been, if we weren't trying to check bags and get through security in the hectic mass of people that is Orlando International. We ended up with four days in the warm weather instead of three, which isn't a terrible thing, and had no trouble on the second return attempt. I was very glad that I'd paid for refundable tickets so changing flight times was a simple process!
So after our misadventure at the airport, we had an extra day to fill. As boring as this sounds, about half of it was spent sleeping. We'd been up early to catch our flight (though obviously not early enough) and were tired after that full day at Epcot.
In the afternoon, we went over to the I-Drive 360 entertainment area. There's a bunch of restaurants and gift shops surrounding the main building with the Sea Life Aquarium and Coca-Cola Orlando Eye Ferris wheel. We enjoyed both, though I definitely think the aquarium came out as the most fun. It's small, but had lots of good displays and a hands-on section. Sarah liked the various types of rays particularly, and I was happy to see that the hands-on part had a selection of northern Pacific tide pool creatures...not so different from what I used to see on the Oregon coast.
Finally, we took one more trip into the mouse lair to visit Disney Springs. Had some dinner at the House of Blues, saw a few different live musical performances around the area, and of course saw any number of gift shop displays.

The Return

The next morning we slept in, with our flight scheduled for the afternoon. Well, Sarah slept in. I went out jogging, promptly got lost, and ended up going about three times farther than I'd intended. Missed breakfast, but no harm done. The airport experience this time went smoothly. We actually had about an extra hour to kill, which is par for the course with air travel. Arrive when you're supposed to, and end up waiting. Arrive later, and not enough time. We had to rush a bit when we landed in Grand Rapids to get Sarah to work, but that's to be expected when your plans change by an entire day.

All told, it was a very enjoyable trip. Everything from the space coast to Epcot was a fun adventure, and even our air travel fail was only a fairly minor hassle. The rest of winter will be a little less depressing after a few days in the sun!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Amazon Music Unlimited

I've been trying out Amazon Music Unlimited for my music streaming needs. After a couple of months, I've decided that it's decent but has a way to go to catch up with Spotify.
Like just about every streaming service, Amazon Music has multiple tiers of service. There's Prime Music, which is included with an Amazon Prime subscription. Then there's Amazon Music Unlimited, another $7.99 per month on top of that, or $9.99 if you're not a Prime member. (And there are always promotions, like three months for $0.99 that was offered when I decided to try out Unlimited.) That's cheaper than just about anything else comparable in the market if you've already got Prime, which is exactly what you'd expect since that's how Amazon seems to be marketing just about everything these days.

The Prime Music version is extremely limited in terms of what music is available, not really worth considering in comparison to other offerings out there. Unlimited is better, but I still found myself coming up empty on searches quite often. Partially that's due to the fact that I tend to look for some pretty obscure stuff, weird metal and the like. But there were also some strange holes where parts of an artist's catalog is missing. The same happens on Spotify, too, but it seems to me that there are fewer gaps there.

Basic music streaming features are all present and accounted for. Playlists, saving your favorite artists and albums, apps on just about every platform, offline downloads in the mobile apps, and so on. I didn't have any trouble with any of the basics.

Where Amazon Music Unlimited differs most from Spotify is in the details, the little things that go beyond simply playing your favorite playlist. Examples:

  • When you close the Amazon Music app (on PC or mobile) and then re-open it, it remembers what playlist/album you were on, but not which song. So it always restarts from the beginning. Spotify remembers the song position.
  • There's no feature to suggest songs to add to playlists (or at least it's not obvious).
  • Similarly, there's no "Playlist radio" feature with suggestions based on a playlist.
  • Searching for a specific band or song name sometimes won't bring it up. Try "Bride" for instance...there's lots of stuff with Bride in the name, but the actual band "Bride" isn't listed in the results. You have to search for something like "Bride Troubled Times" (that's one of their signature songs) to find it.
  • When using the phone app in the car with Android Auto, there are very limited options. If I want to find a playlist that I haven't listened to recently, I have to leave the auto app.
  • Daily or weekly suggestion lists are a great feature that I can easily find in Spotify but not here.
  • Song volume isn't normalized. Often songs in the same playlist will be significantly softer or louder than the others.
  • You can share playlists with non-Unlimited members via web links, but they won't be able to listen to most of the songs without subscribing to Unlimited. By comparison, Spotify does let people listen even if they're not subscribers to Spotify Premium (but with ads).

Amazon is making a good effort to match up with Spotify in the streaming music arena, and it mostly does the job. But it's definitely not as mature yet, and in my opinion has quite a bit of work left to do. Even with the slightly higher price point (assuming you have Prime), I think Spotify is still the better choice for now.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White HouseFire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's pretty obvious from the outside that the Trump administration is more than a bit chaotic. Fire and Fury is a long and detailed confirmation of that impression.

Michael Wolff describes in an author's note to begin the book how he was more or less left to his own devices inside the White House, gathering information from a wide variety of actors. Confidential conversations would often be later repeated in public by one of the parties, official statements would reveal contents of previously confidential discussions, and pretty much no official restrictions were placed on Wolff's access. This alone is very strange, as strict information control is a pretty basic tenet of modern government.

Much of the book describes the maneuvering of the various factions within the administration. Most notably, three top advisors to the President: Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner (and Ivanka Trump), and Reince Priebus. Priebus' impact is minor, but rivalry between the Bannon and Kushner camps is a recurring theme throughout. There's no need for me to detail the specifics - plenty has been written about that already - but Wolff draws a pretty clear picture of constant undercutting of the competition from both sides.

There's a lot about the President himself, of course, and very little of it is complimentary. Again, plenty has been written about the specifics already, but I'll say that it's pretty clear that (at least from Wolff's point of view) Trump cares about little beyond his own image. Whether that's how the media portrays him, what his billionaire friends are saying, or the opinion of world leaders, it all comes down to Trump either wanting attention or reacting to some (real or imagined) slight. His actions make sense viewed in this light...even if they look completely illogical from any other angle.

Wolff doesn't stop at describing events and statements as he witnessed them. He includes a lot of speculation about the reasons behind various actions, about what was going on the heads of various figures as they made decisions. Most of it makes sense to me, but I can't help feeling that at least some of it has to be overstated. Wolff is an entertainer as well as a documentarian, and it seems to me that he knows very well that more spicy gossip sells better.

After the 2016 campaign and a year of the Trump administration in the headlines, I can't say that I was particularly surprised by anything in Fire and Fury. There's a lot of crazy things described that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. It's disappointing to see that a behind-the-scenes view confirms that things are just as crazy as they seem from the everyday headlines...disappointing, but not surprising.

Friday, February 2, 2018

11.22.63 (on Hulu)

11.22.63 is an eight-part miniseries about an English teacher who goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. It's based on the book 11/23/63 by Stephen King.

11.22.63 TV series.png
I'm a fan of time travel and alternate history in general, so when this show popped up in a recommendation list it was a natural choice. I haven't read the book, so I didn't have any preconceived notions about the plot going in.

The series uses a very limited form of time travel in which a person can go through a "rabbit hole" in space-time and emerge in 1960. There's no other destination, and any changes you've made in prior trips are erased if you go through a second time. And if you try to make a major change to history, unlikely events will conspire to prevent you. There's no effort made to explain how it works or where it comes from, which is fine since it's just a plot device to enable the real story.

The protagonist is Jake, an English teacher who is recruited by his friend Al to go back in time and stop the assassination of JFK. Al is motivated by his experience in Vietnam, which he hopes will be prevented by changing history. Jake is a reluctant recruit, but eventually becomes dedicated to the cause.

Al gives Jake plenty of advice on how to avoid trouble while he's in the past, most of which is ignored. Just about everything Al warns Jake about...spending too much money, getting into close personal relationships, drawing attention to his future knowledge, overdoing his money-making scheme of sports betting...ends up happening. Honestly, I found it a bit silly just how inept Jake turns out to be in his role. But it makes for good drama, so it's not too hard to ignore.

The vast majority of the series is spent describing everything that happens with Jake from the time he arrives in 1960 until November 1963. While dealing with his self-inflicted issues from failing to follow Al's advice and bad luck from trying to change history, Jake follows the threads of various theories about what lead up to that day in Dallas. Russians, CIA, FBI, and of course lots about Lee Harvey Oswald. There are quite a few directions that the story could have gone, and I thought the one chosen made sense in the end.

The last episode wraps up Jake's time in the past and sends him back to his own time. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that he doesn't manage to create a utopia. It's a recurring theme in the series that good intentions don't always lead to the best results, and historical change is no exception.

All told, I enjoyed 11.22.63. It probably could have been a couple of episodes shorter, but it didn't drag out too long. I thought the portrayal of the 1960s was well done, and the cast did a fine job with all the characters. Worth a few hours to watch if you like drama and suspense with a historical twist.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"The Eastern Stars" by Mark Kurlansky

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de MacorisThe Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of The Eastern Stars is accurate, but incomplete. As with just about everything Kurlansky writes, there's a whole lot of background leading up to the main theme. The book is certainly about baseball changing San Pedro, but it's also about everything else that impacted San Pedro and the rest of the Dominican Republic, as well as quite a bit of baseball history.

The early chapters are largely about the origins of the city of San Pedro, and how it became a production powerhouse in the sugar industry. That industry helped form the city's baseball roots in many ways, including factory-sponsored teams that were early places to discover talent. The middle and later chapters focus more on baseball, including quite a few stories of individual players. There's still plenty about the changes in San Pedro, though, and how the city has changed over the decades.

For me personally, the subject matter is a perfect match. I've visited the Dominican Republic a few times, and baseball is easily my favorite sport. I found Kurlansky's meticulously researched details fascinating: about the town of San Pedro and the Dominican Republic, the sport of baseball, and many of the key figures involved with both.

Having said that, I could see how someone who isn't quite as interested in one or both subjects might not find this book as interesting as I did. If you're not into either of those subjects, this book probably won't change your mind. But I think anyone curious about either the Dominican Republic or baseball history would find The Eastern Stars a good read.