Culture Consumption: January 2024

My month in books, television, and games.

Books

The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro is a gorgeous horror novel. On the surface, Alejandra has a picture perfect life — a handsome husband, three beautiful children, and a large house in which to care for them. But the image presented doesn’t tell the whole story. Alejandra is dragged down by her life and the expectations placed upon her, with the daily tasks of caring for her husband and children allowing no space for her to be or think for herself. Worse is the sense of guilt she feels for being unhappy in the first place, because what does she have to be unhappy for. As the depression oozes around her, it dredges up something deep, deep from darkness, something ghostly and deadly stalking her and feeding her despair — and if she can’t face what haunts her, then it will destroy her.

The Haunting of Alejandra explores the nature of healing through therapy, connecting with ancestors and loved ones, and finding one’s inner strength. Alejandra’s journey is beautiful and moving. This is a book that on the one hand presents the horrors of ancient monsters, generational trauma, and depression, while on the other hand giving me such a sense of hope.

Obliterations by Jessica Piazza and Heather Aimee O'Neill is a beautiful collaborative collection of poetry. Each piece is found poetry pulled from the pages of the New York Times and each poet worked separately to draw their poetry from the news story. It’s fascinating to see the different ways each poet utilizes the words and develops their poems, and the poems side by side evoke different aspects of the story, different forms of poetics. They’re are explorations of love and sorrow and the beauty and harshness of the world. Lovely.

Before, I slept.

Now, I wake
in the dark, my body
misused, love squandered.
I hold my my fear so fiercely
in the ghastly night.

Speak to me about blessings or
silence my stories, my failures.

— from “Health: Living with Dark”

A slant of light bifurcates the night, light silvering
the night, shaft of light and time, stalled sight.

Waking in the dark, dark night I wake
tense as a verb. Ghastly night, a heightened

bitterness. Hard not to feel, or fail.
Harder still, my scarred attachments.

— from “Health: Living Dark”

Described as "a fin-de-siecle epic of the barrio," Love After the Riots by Juan Felipe Herrera is a collection of poetry that explores intimacy and revolt across a Thursday and Friday during police riots in L.A. Each poem (titled by the time of day or night) feels like a snapshot, a small vignette of a moment that simultaneously reflects the chaos of the riots ("—outside, yes, there is / chalkdust & eighteen wheelers on fire."), the cameras that "keep getting in the way," the societal oppression of "vested cops", while also capturing the intimacy of lovers exploring the strange realities of each other ("She digs into me. / Nervous snails / on her bellybutton, / my tropical tongue."). What makes this collection beautiful for me is this intersection between the wide world and these private moments.

Hear the footsteps. The flower shriek in my hand
sways the flood down the stairs.
We talk about red sirens and wonder
about our tongues. I wonder.
In this apartment everything is possible.

— from "9:40 pm"

While I was expecting more of a book on writing, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing turned out to be more of a memoir, with the author sharing stories of how he came up with the concepts certain works, how travel and life experience influenced his writing, and his general writing process. It was a quick and easy read, largely due to Bradbury's crisp, clean style — and it did provide a few interesting gems on writing.

For example, Bradbury advocates for having passion in what you write — if you are only writing for the money or for prestige, then you are going to have a harder time of it. However, if you are fueling the writing fires from a place of joy, curiosity, and passion, then you'll be approaching from a place in which you can write meaningful stories from your own unique perspective — and hopefully by coming from this place, the money and prestige will come along with that.

Another bit the advice that I found interesting involves two ways of looking the process of writing. One, be like a lizard — move fast and then be still. Two, is his version of Zen in the art of writing, in which work leads to relaxation leads to “don't think”. Both of these versions of the advice emphasize doing the work, sitting down and writing (as fast as you can). The process of working (for Bradbury, this was everyday) and writing as fast as you can eventually brings a rhythm that allows the writer to reach a state of stillness or relaxation in which the inner critic, expectation, imitation, and other aspects of doubt slip away. The writer can essentially fall into a kind of flow state (as I would call it). I'm not sure every writer can achieve this, but I enjoy the concept and have experienced a flow state while writing myself, and it's pretty rad when it happens.

I don't necessarily agree with every aspect of Bradbury's words in this book, but it was interesting to learn more about his life and process — since he's one of my favorite short story writers.

Books Finished This Month:

  1. Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (translated by Takashi Kojima)

  2. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

  3. Obliterations: Erasures from the New York Times by Heather Aimee O’Neill and Jessica Piazza

  4. The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro

  5. Love After the Riots by Juan Felipe Herrera

  6. Skies of Wonder, Skies of Danger: An Isle of Write Anthology, edited by John Appel, Jo Miles, and Mary Alexandra Agner

  7. The Heartbeat of the Universe: Poems from Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact 2012-2022, edited by Emily Hockaday (forthcoming from Interstellar Flight Press)

Total Books for the Year: 7

Still in Progress at the End of the Month:

Beirut Blues by Hanan al-Shaykh (translated by Catherine Cobham), Even Greater Mistakes: Stories by Charlie Jane Anders, Professional Techniques in Video Game Writing, edited by Wendy Despain, and Wandering Games by Melissa Kagen Fullerton

Short Stories & Poetry

A selection of works I recently read in journals and online publications, with a few lines from the text shared here.

"Milk Teeth" by Annika Barranti Klein (Weird Horror):

The first time Father went away was the week of my twelfth birthday. He left without warning and was gone for three days. It was before Grandmother’s palsy, before I met Jeet, before the teeth and so many other things. It was even before the wolves.

"Possession" by Taylor Jones (Reckoning):

Khopesh tugs against her harness, ready to go. She’s a good sniffer, food-motivated and eager to work for treats. Like most sniffers, she’s an African giant pouched rat, about as long as my forearm if you don’t include her tail. We’ve been partnered up for almost two months now.

I try not to get attached to sniffers. Handlers often get reassigned, and the rats don’t bond to particular humans; they’re happy to work with anyone, and I’m not sure they can even tell us apart under the hazmat suits. But I really like Khopesh. She’s interested in three things: working, getting treats, and grooming. She’s a little obsessive about grooming herself. I can relate.

"Milk-Drinking Ritual" by Dave Bonta (Via Negativa):

first quench the eye’s lust for color
this is a fast of sorts

the earth must be buried
under any snow available

the glass of the glass
must be clear and clean

"The New Moon" by Jennifer Skogen (Bowery Gothic):

The moon's memory has come down tonight.
Tops of trees—mountains—tremble
for it is not the moon who has walked
the long, crackling stair, leaving an
ocher space among constellations
where a dead moon has burned her image.

"Fabrication" by Karan Kapoor (Broken Antler):

It is hard to breathe, he said. It's an acquired skill, she said. She often sat on the tip of her nose and watched air tiptoeing in through her nose to her lungs, and counted how long it took to fill them both.

The following three stories were read in preparation for the deep dive on short story writing with Erin Roberts on the Writing Excuses podcast, starting here.

"Wolfy Things" by Erin Roberts (PodCastle):

Tonight, me and Lee gonna kill the wolf. Been digging a pit out in the woods all summer, filling it up with wolfsbane and sharp rocks big as our heads, covering it up with leaves so wolfy eyes can’t tell it’s there. Lee even snatched a whole chicken outta his Pa’s coop, snapped its neck and threw it on the pile like some kinda wolf Christmas come early. Wolf just has to go sniffing over by the edge and we give a good push and we’ll be Nicky and Lee, honest-to-God wolf-killers.

"Sour Milk Girls" by Erin Roberts (Clarksworld):

The new girl showed up to the Agency on a Sunday, looking like an old dishrag and smelling like sour milk. Not that I could really smell her from three floors up through the mesh and bars, but there’s only three types of girls here, and she was definitely the sour milk kind. Her head hung down like it was too much work to raise it, and her long black hair flopped around so you couldn’t see her face. I’d have bet a week’s credits she had big ol’ scaredy-cat eyes, but she never bothered to look up, just let Miss Miranda lead her by the elbow through the front doors. Didn’t even try to run. Sour milk all the way.

"Snake Season" by Erin Roberts (The Dark Magazine):

We buried the first ones, nice and proper. It sounds foolish now, but what could we do? After all, they were still our children.

Television

Slow Horses (left) and Wilderness (right)

My friend an I decided to dip into a single episode of both Slow Horses and Wilderness to see if we wanted to continue into the full season.

Slow Horses was the most interesting to me. When Agent River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) screws up an assignment during an MI5 training program, he’s relegated to a team of agents who have made career-ending mistakes, nicknamed the Slow Horses. The first episode presents an interesting collection of misfits, with Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) as their leaders. Though we only briefly understand who these people are at this point, I’m digging the misfits/underdogs vibes, and there’s hints at a greater plot that could be interesting.

Wilderness is about a woman who presumably kills her husband — at least that’s what the voice over narration hints at. Liv Taylor (Jenna Coleman) followed her husband Will Taylor (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) from the U.K. to the U.S. so that he can pursue his career. She’s happy to make the change at first, until she discovers that he’s having an affair. As part of a revenge plot, she convinces him to take her on a wilderness trip across the Southwest U.S. with the intention of finding some means of killing him and making it look like an accident. Several scenes in the first episode show missed opportunities at the intended murder, creating and then killing the tension. The first episode spends a lot of time building up their relationship and Liv’s sense of betrayal, with the assumption that the murder is going to occur by the end of the series. While this one didn’t grab me nearly as much, I’m still curious to find out how (and if) she actually kills her husband. And since Wilderness is a limited series, it should be easy to finish out the season.

Joe Exotic (a.k.a Tiger King)

While I was well aware of the hype and memes surrounding Tiger King when it first came out, I managed to miss watching the actual show. Earlier this month, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot, and it is certainly a wild ride.

For the few who haven’t seen or heard about it, the docuseries focuses on several groups of big cat owners and zoo keepers, most notably Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed Tiger King, who runs a private zoo with a multitude of exotic animals. His greatest rival is Carole Baskin from Big Cat Rescue, who works to remove big cats from private ownership.

At its core, everyone is shady and a bit terrible, and the drama between all the big cat eccentrics is all over the place. First, the ownership and breeding of big cats in general is of questionable morality. Then there’s Baskin who may have killed her previous husband. And then Joe himself gets wrapped up in a murder-for-hire plot. And there’s a hell of a lot of other stuff as well — and it is indeed rather interesting and funny in a watching a car crash kind of way.

That said, I feel fine leaving off at the first season. Unless, I get bored, I guess. Then, I maybe check out the ongoing drama of season two.

Games

Sean and Daniel Diaz in Life is Strange 2. (Source: Square Enix.)

Life is Strange 2 (developed by Dontnod Entertainment) exists within the same universe as the first Life is Strange, but presents a different set of characters. Like the first game, the player interacts with people and objects in the world and makes choices that affect the final outcome of the narrative — but the impact of those choices feel so much more weighty here.

What fascinates me about the gameplay in Life is Strange 2 is that the game positions what might otherwise be the sidekick to the main character as the main character. Sean Diaz (in his teens) is the older brother to Daniel (9 years old). When a confrontation with a racist neighbor leads to a cop shooting their father and a strange explosion, Sean takes his brother on the run with the aim of reaching their father’s property in Mexico. Eventually, the two brothers come to realize that Daniel has telekinetic powers — and Sean is forced to make choices to protect his brother and help guide him through the world.

Playing as Sean, the player does not have direct access to the use of these powers. Instead, the player has the option to instruct Daniel if and when to use his powers and how to use them (to save or harm others). These interactions, combined with a variety of other smaller choices (such as whether or not to steal, beg for food, allow Daniel to curse, etc.), impact Daniel’s sense of morality and how he sees the world.

The gameplay, in other words, is basically parenting — or the closest that a big brother can get to it in woefully difficult circumstances. Sean makes sacrifices to take care of his brother, with all of his focus on his brother’s health and happiness, except in rare moments when he is able to have some space and friends to himself.

Many games operate under the illusion of choice, balancing the need to grant the player interactivity and options and the need to maintain a cohesive and meaningful storyline. While playing Life is Strange 2, I assumed that the outcomes were mostly inevitable, with the choices being mostly about emotional impact. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about that. There are certainly choke points that hold up the narrative structure and keep events moving forward — but after looking into alternative outcomes to various events in the game, I discovered more variety than I realized. There are some significant differences in how events can turn out, some better and some far, far worse. In addition, there are multiple endings (good or bad), depending on the choices made and how Sean guides his brother’s moral compass.

In the grand scheme of things, I believe my play through may have been the best possible outcome — at least, it’s the best outcome considering these characters exist in a world that is unfair and unjust. I thoroughly enjoyed Life is Strange 2, and I would argue that it is one of the most impactful games in the Life is Strange series.

Chris, aka Captain Spirit. (Source: Square Enix.)

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a free demo for Life is Strange 2, and features one of the side characters who appears in Episode 2 of the main story. Chris is a young boy, who escapes the hard reality of his life (the death of his mom and his alcoholic dad) by escaping into the fantasy of being a superhero. During the gameplay, Chris puts together his superhero costume as Captain Spirit, helps with chores around the house, explores his backyard, and plays a variety of games. Some of the most compelling moments are when the player is able to activate Chris’ imagination and pretend to use his powers or when he transports himself into an imaginary world, where he can battle evil. While this demo does not have any direct impact on the main storyline, playing it does provide deeper insights into the character, revealing background information that the player wouldn’t know without having played the demo first.

I also jumped back into God of War (Sony's Santa Monica Studio) this month with the idea that I would mainline the story, so that I could move on to the sequel. After getting back into the rhythm of the gameplay, however, I found myself getting excited about exploration of this beautiful mythological world all over again. So, yeah, I’m back into it and loving the experience. Every father-son moment grabs me with its humor and/or pathos; it’s just such a good story and game.

Getting Over It continues to be the bane of my gameplay experience. I mean, I’m still really stuck at the same spot, but I’ve advanced a few inches and it’s enough to make me think that I could possibly maybe get past this aspect of the challenge. It gives me enough hope to keep going — for now.

In the realm of little indie projects, House of Poems is a small Twine game developed by Kyra Jaeger, which plays in browser and takes 10-15 minutes (ish) to complete. The interactive story is presented in poetic form, inviting the player into an ethereal fantasy that leads them on a journey into discovering witchyness and their own personal power.

That's it for me! What are you reading? Watching? Loving right now?

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