Thursday, April 8, 2021

Audiobook Spotlight: The Gravity of Us is a stellar love story

At only 17, Cal Lewis has it made in NYC as a social media reporter, with half a million followers and an internship at Buzzfeed awaiting him. Narrator Michael Crouch gives Cal an edgy tenor that quickly descends into anxiety with sharp breaths and sped-up pacing when Cal’s father is chosen to work on a NASA mission to Mars and must relocate to Houston, TX - immediately. Unprepared for the intrusive media frenzy awaiting them thanks to the oppressive StarWatch TV channel, all seems lost until Cal meets enigmatic Leon; the reserved son of Cal's new neighbors and fellow astronaut family. Crouch embodies Leon with warm, deep tones, and he and Cal quickly fall for each other - even as Cal begins to fight fire with fire on his own media channel.  Listeners are treated to “live episodes” of StarWatch's popular reality show Shooting Stars – narrated by a full cast – that enliven the storyline for listeners and emphasizes the unsettling grip that the media has on the lives of all the astronauts and their families. A wonderful story; truly lifted to new heights in the audio format. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Current Reels: Bao and The Incredibles 2 a testament to the power of supportive family dynamics

Back in action: the Super Parr family assembles again 
When I realized the long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles was finally going to happen, I felt a huge sense of anticipation - and dread. Anticipation because it is one of my top five favorite movies of all time; dread because of the knowledge that sequels are typically never as good as the original - especially if they are made over a decade later. (I'm looking at you, Zoolander 2.)

Also, the box office in general has had sequel fever lately, and while there is a certain charm to seeing the same beloved characters reappearing again and again, I am definitely experiencing sequel/superhero fatigue on a large scale. So to say I was nervous about The Incredibles 2 is an understatement. But I figured with director Brad Bird at the helm once more, it couldn't be all bad.

What I wasn't expecting was a true delight, starting with the ambitious short, Bao
that sets the familial theme for the feature filmI find it perplexing the negative reaction by so many to this lovely piece of art, the first short to be directed by a woman, Domee Shi. The story tells of a Chinese family in Canada, whose mother is experiencing some serious empty-nest vibes. She is delighted when, quirkily enough, once of her dumplings - a "bao" in Chinese - comes alive as a small, angsty baby. We see her raise the dumpling as her own over the course of a few short minutes, an exquisitely carved miniature of the journey of motherhood in all its stress and glory. When the twist comes - enough of one to render a gasp from the audience around me - the resolution is swift and heartfelt. Perhaps it is my background from living in Hong Kong the last year and a half or so, but everything about the piece and the inner workings of the family made perfect sense to me. The reception of the short by the audience I was sitting with in Hong Kong was generally favorable rather than bewildering, which may show that it spoke more directly to cultural familiarity than it would to American audiences. Regardless, it is a brave piece that gently reminds families the importance of letting go and accepting of new members (e.g. spouses) that may have a vastly different cultural background from them; for they often have special things to give and teach as well.
"Bao" creates a unique cultural experience - in 7 minutes!

Onto the main attraction. First, visuals - I was gratified to see that the quality of the animation was not vastly different from the original. It has been 14 years since The Incredibles appeared in theatres, and I worried the extensive advances in digital animation would render it too slick and smooth; creating a further wedge between the two films. But Bird clearly kept this in mind. While the bold colors and textures are much richer, the characters essentially have the same look and feel to them. The same kind of minimalist Frank Lloyd Wright-style of architecture and vibe that Bird so often favors in his films is heavily present once again, and it reflects the tightly woven, fast-paced plot. Expert cuts balance screen time evenly between Bob Parr's stint as a stay-at-home Dad and Helen Parr (aka: Elastigirl's) return to the spotlight as part of a campaign to bring back the "Supers". Further continuity is solidified in Giacchino's bouncy, brass-heavy score, reminiscent of the 1960s theme music that so much of the film's aesthetic takes inspiration from.

While the film comments, it doesn't criticize. In the world of cinema where the preference is often to tell instead of show, to judge instead of ask, Bird creates a story that allows the audience to come to their own conclusions. The cleverly named "Screenslaver" villain could be a comment on how we as a society are too dependent on our various electronic devices, but people being hypnotized by items they already own succeeds in being less of a statement and more of an interesting device to move the plot along in a suspenseful way.

The themes of female empowerment are effective without being anti-men. Bob Parr (aka: Mr. Incredible) is understandably hurt when his Super persona is set aside in favor of his wife's in the campaign to make the Supers legal again. And let's be fair - the first movie was mostly about Mr. Incredible, so it is good to see Helen in the spotlight this go-round. The banter between Helen and Bob as he agrees to take over childcare and domestic chores on the home front feels authentic; genuine. The genius of Brad Bird is that he treats his characters as flesh and blood, relatable humans, even though they are made of pixels. Audiences even get to see a little more of the human side Edna Mode - the snooty fashion designer for the Supers voiced by Bird himself - when in a desperate stab at a chance for sleep, Bob drops off Jack-Jack at her deluxe mansion for baby-sitting - and against all odds, baby and fashion guru instantly fall in love with each other in a bemusing turn of events.

And there's plenty of relatability for the younger audience members - Jack-Jack's super-fight with an invading racoon is broad, slap-stick humor that will appeal to teenies, Violet has her share of angsty teenage drama all the while managing her newly found self-esteem, and Dash is his usual, feisty energetic self. Some adult members of the audience could be heard sighing sympathetically with Bob has he finally breaks down to call his old buddy Lucius (AKA: Frozone) for some help with juggling the three kids in Helen's extended absence. Buoying the energy are cuts to Helen on her new mission, and getting the opportunity to see her "stretch" her wings in multiple creative ways and reaffirm her badassery is definitely worth the price of admission. The only true tedium is the seemingly endless array of powers Jack-Jack displays; which just when one thinks they are beginning to have a pattern of manageability, something new shows up that the beleaguered family has to contend with. I imagine this was a comment on Bird's part to the unpredictability of babies, but from my point of view, it seemed an unusually haphazard decision amidst such a tightly organized storyboard.

For the diehard fans of the original, there are callbacks aplenty. At one point while helping Dash with his homework, I spied an "Insuracare" mug on the desk next to Bob. Helen's piloting skills once again play a key role in the plot. The villain reveal was a bit too obvious for me, and the motives for the "Screenslaver" weren't entirely made clear other than the blanket reason of "Supers are no good." But still, the film has a satisfying conclusion, leaving us back in a similar spot as the first, with an evolving family learning and growing together to manage their revolving doors of the mundane and the remarkable.

Stripped down to its essence, The Incredibles a heartfelt testament to the importance of parents working together as a team on behalf of their family, setting egos and stereotypes aside to allow for more possibilities and (pun intended) flexibility.

Critic Kitty Batman sez: A fun and ultimately relatable flick, Incredibles 2 delivers a worthy second installment with a well-balanced plot that will delight a wide range of ages. It pays homage to the glory of the original rather than trying to overshadow it. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Audiobook Industry Spotlight - Sunny Basham Carito, Proofer and Editor

My proofing buddy Batman 
For June is Audiobook Month, I decided to turn my attention to focusing on the internal workings of how an audiobook actually gets made - there's much that goes into a project before it gets to the seamless point, click and download stage. Many people don't know what an audiobook proofer/editor actually does. When asked by an acquaintance once what went into it, the memorable reaction was "Huh! I thought they had machines to do all that now." Not quite...

Although I work mainly on a freelance basis audio proofing and editing now for Common Mode, it was my livelihood for four years during my time at Tantor Audio. Basically, we take the raw audio from the narrator and we run it through a sound editing program - I currently use SoundForge Audio Studio 10  - and we listen through the whole book, reading along with PDF file and highlighting where in the book an error occurs, as well as marking it on an issues sheet with the time, page number, paragraph and line. Oftentimes, we can fix issues along the way, but some issues result in portions of the book - usually only a sentence or two - having to be re-recorded by the narrator (what we call "pickups") and then reintegrated seamlessly back into the audio file. 

I invited my friend Sunny Basham Carito, an old colleague of mine from our Tantor days and a veteran audiobook proofer and editor, to share her experiences being in the industry, how she came to love what she does, and why editors are such an essential part of getting the product to the point where we can  kick back and have an incredible listening experience. 
Sunny with her daughter Viola 

Where it all started 

My love of audiobooks began while listening to A Series of Unfortunate Events on cassette while driving the 5, the long, horribly dull interstate between LA and San Francisco in California. I was in college but had been reading the series steadily since high school, enjoying the more adult barbs and allusions that would escape the younger set it was marketed towards. While I loved the writing and the tightly composed illustrations, Tim Curry reading the series punctuated by The Gothic Archies songs was sheer genius. 

Fast forward a couple of years when I was doing post-production sound internships in NYC, trying to find my way after school. I was feeling a bit down about the post-production game, knowing I’d spend 14-16 hour days slogging through commercials and reality TV and other sound work that I couldn’t really put my heart into, being extremely lucky to maybe spend 5% of my time on lovingly creating sonic universes for animation, my big dream. In my internships I worked on two audiobooks in a roundabout way. Amy Goodman was making the audiobook of The Exception to the Rulers from donated studio time and editing; it just needed a bit more polish and work. I was interning in the archiving department at Democracy Now! so they decided to have me go through and pull anything that was a quote from an interview that had been on the show and insert the actual archival audio. It made for a really interesting mix of news clips and searing, high-stakes personal journalism, and I was able to move into working on it for a wage rather than just part of my internship - my first real NYC audio professional paycheck.

Turning Point: NLS Talking Books  

Trying to find absolutely anything to float me longer in the city, I got another job offer for a strange position I’d applied to on Craigslist at the NLS Talking Books looking for people to record and edit audiobooks for the blind. I didn’t realize this was a full-time gig a person could do; but it was and it was amazing. They liked my theatre background and my ProTools certification; creative plus tech credentials that were less common. It didn’t have the same creative outlet I had been looking for in film, but I was being paid to be read to and I enjoyed the technical aspects. It was also a very regular 9 to 5 kind of a job giving me lots of time to ply my sound design skills for indie stuff on the side.

I worked in the studio, engineering recordings with narrators who had been reading for the NLS Talking Books contract longer than I’d been alive. They were consummate actors who put in a couple of hours every day, month after month, working through dozens of titles each year and working in TV, film, and theater the rest of the day. One of them I’d seen on Law and Order at least five different times, all in different random small speaking roles. In the studio I made sure the recording was rolling, stopped it when they stopped, followed along in the text to make sure they didn’t miss anything, and then carefully cue up the recording so when we started again it would sound seamless. I would also work on proofing and editing, proofing being the act of following along with the text while listening to the finished recording to ensure the read is accurate as well as checking pronunciation. The National Library Service reviewed all of our work and they were extremely strict, even typos had to be faithfully recorded. My personal belief is that a “this” in place of a “that” occasionally or a missing “the” may not really make a huge difference, but we’re not text editors, we’re there to bring the book to life audibly and faithfully so we have a duty to the author to not change their text. 

New Chapters: Tantor and Grad School for Library and Information Sciences

Unfortunately the studio I worked for was part of the American Foundation for the Blind and they decided to close the studio department for fiscal reasons. This department had created the Talking Books program with the Library of Congress and Helen Keller in the 1930s, they’d invented the 33 1/3rd long playing record ten years before it was adopted by the music industry. Talking Books listeners had grown old listening to the same narrators for decades, but the nature of an unreliable government contract was too hard for AFB to continue and we shut down. Most of my coworkers went across the river to Newark and started working for Audible. I left the city for Connecticut and freelanced for Audible, proofing, cleaning up noises and pacing, and then inserting the fixes after they were recorded. I started grad school for Library and Information Sciences, taking online classes while working more or less full-time. It was actually working on that Talking Books contract that inspired me. I felt good making books available to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. Such a small section of books published become commercial audiobooks, and an even smaller section are bought by regular libraries. Everyone should have access to steamy beach reads, so even the borderline erotica had a higher purpose. I knew making information available to people would be my next adventure. I continued to work in audio and go to school, eventually finding myself in a small production firm in Connecticut called Tantor Audio, later to be bought by Recorded Books. After a few years full-time proofing and editing there I moved on to working in libraries, still editing on the side for them and other companies. There were a couple of years when I was very busy at a library when I stopped working on audio, but I’m back now with my preferred lifestyle of part-time children’s librarian and part-time proofer/editor. 

While mostly I smooth over hiccups in the recording process, mouth noise from microphones not quite aimed correctly, and watch for misreads, I have had the great fortune to work on a few more interesting projects. While I was at Tantor they made two larger bids for high-profile books, a beautiful reading of Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter by the esteemed late Katherine Kellgren and an intense Richard Pryor biography Furious Cool read by the exquisite Dion Graham. Tantor had the unusual practice of having narrators record themselves using a proprietary software program, but for these recordings they used ProTools and traditional engineering, allowing the “tape” to run as the performers re-did takes, practiced, and stopped for breaths. This wasn’t simply listening for text deviations, it was taking hours of raw materials and pulling out the shining pieces that would form a finished work. I was very proud when Dion went on to win the Audie for Furious Cool. It was well-deserved and I was honored to have put my skill and time into putting the best possible version of his performance on the final work. Katy’s work was nominated as well, and while it didn’t win I highly recommend giving it a listen, she put an extraordinary amount of effort and research into coming up with vintage melodies to weave into the songs interspersing her lively characterizations. 

Current Projects and Passions 

Lately I’ve found myself on a number of author records from non-performers. Many of them have done some kind of public speaking, panels and lectures, but reading their personal memoirs in a booth for hours on end is pretty different. The engineers are often newer to the audiobook world and the way the audio jumps back in after a mistake can be jarring for the performer and would be  jarring to the listener without proper proofing and editing. For these author recordings more than others, I find myself pulling back the new takes and finding the original pacing of the next phrase, sometimes even stitching a few syllables of the original take to the subsequent one for a smoother sentence. I’m giving them back their personality, their natural manner of speech, that was ruined by the recording process. I’m essential in a way that a software checking for waveform patterns and text could never be. Yes, some people think proofers and editors are unnecessary, some even think they should just leave mistakes in recordings.

I love audiobooks and I think performers can take books to another level. I chafe at the idea it’s cheating or not as worthwhile as reading, which has been disproven by neuroscience, but is also contrary to why I like books. I like the information they impart to me, the experiences, not the paper they’re printed on or the format that gets that information to me, just the information. So I read ebooks and listen to audiobooks and still read regular paper books too. Because it’s for the story. I have spent many stretches in my life working an eight-hour day in the audiobook mines only to pop one into my car stereo or on my iPod on the subway for my commute. I love them that much - and when you get to choose what you listen to it is very different. When people ask what it’s like working on audiobook production I say it’s great, I am basically getting paid to be read to, what’s not to like about that? Sometimes the narrator or the book isn’t my cup of tea, but it’s rare for a project to last more than a week or two, so even if I think it’s awful it will pass by soon. But listening at work has opened me up to genres and authors I would have never tried on my own, so the unknown is exciting. I estimate I’ve listened to well over 10,000 hours of audiobooks in my career going on 14 years now. I look forward to the next 10,000 hours ahead of me.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Stranger in a Strange Land No More: One Outlander's Survival Guide to Living in Hong Kong

Photo from the HK harbor lightshow cruise by yours truly
Hong Kong has many wonderful qualities, but it is not a user-friendly place to outsiders. It's crowded, bustling, and ever-changing. That yummy dim sum restaurant you adored might be gone and replaced with a fried chicken joint in a matter of months. That mural you admired on your daily commute has suddenly been painted over and replaced with new artwork. It's hard to keep up! And there's a lot of things one learns through trial and error because it isn't made apparent if you're new to the big city.

Hong Kong doesn't have the time to teach a newcomer how to swim in a sea of 7 million people, all crammed together on what my friend Lucas calls "the least relaxed tropical island in the world." For an American like me raised in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the first few months living here was incredibly overwhelming just in terms of figuring out how life works here.

Having lived in HK for over a year now, I've realized it is a very small world despite encountering people from all walks of life on a regular basis. You learn the areas where you live, people at businesses you frequent begin to recognize you, and you slowly forge together your own close-knit little community. To quote the song "Twilight World" by Swing Out Sister, "Forget lonely crowds, unfriendly faces, they'll soon become familiar places, before too long..."

For those of you looking to visit or live in Hong Kong, I've compiled this list of helpful how-tos that can make your stay, long or short, more convenient and fun in a shorter period of time.

Long-term residents: get your Hong Kong ID Card. 

If you plan on living here for any amount of time, this is an absolute must. You'll need this to open a bank account, set up utilities, get a local cellphone plan, and pretty much anything else major that you can think of. You also will need it to go in and out of Hong Kong when you travel since it also works as your customs card. It is quite handy because rather than filling out a form and standing in line, you just run the card through the security gate, place your thumbprint on the pad when prompted, and you are good to go. 

The ID card is free of charge and the immigration office will issue you a temporary one that is effective immediately - the real one can either be mailed to you at a small fee or you can opt to pick it up - it usually takes about two weeks to process. You can find out all the details on where to get one here. 

Hong Kong is a hiker's dream. 

Your favorite Critic at the top of Victoria Peak trail.
When I first thought of this area, the existence of incredible, scenic hiking trails did not immediately spring to mind. But they are there! Hong Kong's geography is wonderfully varied - you get the best of the mountains along with the best of the ocean. When the humidity isn't 200 percent, there are many great trails to be explored and a deep, abiding love for nature lies at the heart of HK culture, despite the bustling metropolis side of it all. Check out Sassy Hong Kong's Guide to the best hikes here. 

Cash is King. 

This one of the biggest learning curves for me coming to Hong Kong. In the US, cash has slowly been replaced with credit/debit card options in almost every situation, from fast food joints to self-checkout kiosks in Wal-Mart.

Not so with Hong Kong. In fact, very few restaurants and shops, particularly local ones not affiliated with big chains such as Marks & Spencer, will take a traditional American credit card. One learns quickly to carry cash around. Another alternative is to have an Octopus card, which can be obtained for HK$150 - the US equivalent of $20 - at any local MTR (Americans, read subway) station customer service counter. The Octopus works as a debit card at convenience stores and shops, and you can just tap it at the turnstiles to get into the MTR for wherever you need to go. Although my husband and I both think Hong Kong missed a golden wordplay opportunity not calling it the OctoPASS, but I digress. And while we are on the subject...

Octopus cards can be refilled at convenience stores as well as MTR stations. 

I didn't learn this until about three months into living in Hong Kong. You can go to your neighborhood 7-Eleven or Circle K, hand them your cash, tap the Octopus sign near the checkout and hey presto - its been refilled. This is so much better than having to walk back to the MTR every single time, and it's definitely a perk not well advertised.

Prepare yourself for expensive, tiny apartments. 

The "tiny house" trend in the US got nothing on apartments in Honkers. Prepare to spend at least US$2,000 a month on a place that will probably be around 500 to 600 square feet total. As Americans, we tend to like our space, so this definitely came as a bit of a shock to me. The good news is, Hong Kong is a very transient place, so there's always plenty of choices in terms of places to live. 

Do your research and find a good local realtor that will take the time to show you around, preferably someone that can be vouched for by a friend or trusted source. Many employers offer tax breaks and housing allowances to employees since the ridiculousness of the housing market is well-known, so if you are employed by a local company, talk to your HR representative. Again, you probably have to ask since perks like this don't tend to be well-advertised. This will come in handy since often you have to pay upfront at least two or three months' worth of rent to the landlord prior to signing the lease.

Getting a personal bank account here as an American is a pain. 

Local banks are not here to help you. In fact, they actively do not want your business. Cashing US checks here? Forget about it. However, especially if you have a job in Hong Kong, you need to have an account since most employers do not want to issue live checks (and good luck cashing them without an active account here). You get paid by direct deposit, once a month, in one lump sum - then it's up to you not to blow it all before your next paycheck the following month. Believe me, direct deposit is the way to go anyway since the bank is usually incredibly crowded and you want to avoid going there in person as much as possible. 

My husband and I went with Hang Seng Bank, which is a cousin to HSBC Bank based in the US. This means we can take money out from HSBC as well as Hang Seng Bank ATMs all over Hong Kong with no fee involved. They are also more open to connecting overseas US accounts, which I have to maintain to pay off my US credit cards since connecting a Hong Kong bank account up to a universal payment service such as PayPal is a no-go. Standard Chartered Bank, for instance, one of the oldest banks in Hong Kong, will not issue accounts to American expats, full stop. 

Things that you will need for sure to open a bank account here: your Hong Kong ID Card, a hard copy letter from your employer - signed and stamped - that verifies your employment and monthly salary, your passport and working visa, and two pieces of actual mail from a utility company or a bank that verifies your address here in Hong Kong. Those are the basics, but be sure to ask a bank representative exactly what else they may need - it never hurts to be overprepared here. Again, it may take up to two weeks for everything to get sorted out; so make sure you have plenty of cash on your Octopus or in your wallet to fall back on in the meantime! 

Utility bills can be paid at the ATM. 

Talk about handy! Websites for bills such as electricity and water can be pretty incomprehensible and don't always have English translations - and online payment really isn't a thing here for most services. The good news is, once you get the bill in your mailbox you can pay via the ATM - it is right there on the menu options. Just be sure to have the bill with you in order to type in the account number and the bill payment amount. 

You can also do direct cash payments via the ATM. 

Need to pay someone in advance for an event or party they are organizing? No need to wait until you see them - another perk of the ATMs here is as long as you have the person's account number and the bank they use, you can deposit cash right into their account. For instance, if there's a party going on and the organizer needs HK$200 ahead of time to reserve the table at the restaurant, if they tell me they have an account with the Bank of China, I can head over to that ATM, choose the cash deposit option, plug in the account number they give me, insert the cash, grab the receipt - all done!

Movie theatres require reserved seating ahead of time. 

Yup, you read that right. You want a seat in the movie, you have to book it ahead of time, preferably on the movie theatre website. The upside is that you know you'll get the view that you want - the downside is that people use it as an excuse to get to a movie late since they know their seat is guaranteed. Oh well, at least we can all still eat popcorn during the show! 

US Passport Holders who have been to mainland China previously are eligible for a 10-year multipass visa.

The proximity to the number of amazing places from Hong Kong is pretty extraordinary; the closest being mainland China - however, as an American while you don't need a visa to travel to Japan or Taiwan, you DO need a visa to go to "the mainland" as Hong Kongers call it. The good news is for around US$250, you get unlimited visits to anywhere in the mainland for 10 years. If your passport expires at any point during that decade, the visa can be transferred over to the new passport. This is an incentive that is only available at this point to US passport holders who have previously traveled to China and had a temporary visa once before.

Get packages delivered to your workplace. 

Package delivery can be a tricky thing here in Hong Kong; especially if both you and your spouse work out of the home. Most delivery people are on a tight schedule, so if you're not there - back to the post office it goes, and it's up to you to go retrieve it. Ain't no second chances for you. 

What is infinitely less stressful is to have packages delivered straight to your workplace (if your boss allows it) where someone in reception will be sure to receive it during business hours. So you get the package you want and you don't have to worry about figuring out which post office it landed in.

Pick up some basic conversational Cantonese. 

I was happy to find that the language barrier is pretty minimal here - most everyone speaks some basic level of English. But knowing a few phrases in Cantonese can be very helpful from time to time. For instance, many cab drivers do not speak English, as well as people that install your utilities or fix issues within your apartment. You're still gonna be a gweilo (meaning foreigner) no matter what, but knowing some basics can up your street cred a little more and smooth the way for better transactions in the future. 

Cabs are not very helpful and quite expensive - use the bus or the MTR. 

Cabs in Hong Kong can be the worst. They are very expensive, CASH ONLY, and often they will use any excuse not to take you where you want to go - especially if you are clearly not local. 

On the plus side, Hong Kong has one of the easiest, cleanest, cheapest and most efficient transportation systems in the world with the MTR, which accepts Octopus cards as payment - tap and go, zip zip. I strongly suggest giving the train map, trolleys and bus routes a look before trying to hail a cab. 

And speaking of public transit...

Eating or drinking on MTR buses, trains, and trolleys is not allowed. 

For my fellow NYCers reading this, you're probably gasping at the prospect of not being able to carry your morning coffee on your commute. I have found that if I am carrying water and not making a huge deal of it, I can sneak by with that - I call it the "gweilo pass". But food is an absolute no-go and it will be taken away from you (I've seen it happen). On the upside, the trains and the stations are some of the cleanest I have ever seen, so I think it is worth the sacrifice not to snack!

Join online expat groups. 

When I first moved here, I had no job or family to rely on and only knew a total of two people that lived here (aside from my husband). Before I got my full-time job here I had my freelance audiobook editing work to tide me over, but working from home can be a very isolating experience. I knew I had to go out and meet people. I went on Google and found out about a group called InterNations - a kind of Facebook for expats. The Albatross membership, which only costs about $10.95 per month to join, allows you to make friends, join social groups and activities as well as official InterNations social and networking events at a fraction of the cost it would normally be to attend fancy dinners, clubs and events (have I mentioned Hong Kong is expensive??!) Many of my close friends that I have made here were made through InterNations, and they have opened many doors for me. 

Other groups I can recommend are the HK chapter of as well as the Expat Hong Kong Facebook group that not only features ads for apartments and needful things but offers an open forum to ask pretty much any question and about Hong Kong and share information with other fellow expats. 

A few last-minute odds and ends: 

1. Watch out for highly aggressive train and elevator doors. 
2. Always hand cash to people with both hands. 
3. Most apartments do not have heat. Invest in space heaters because it does get cold from time to time! 
4. Things like dryers, dishwashers, conventional ovens and sometimes even fridges don't always come standard in apartments. 

Do you have any helpful tips for living, working and traveling in Hong Kong? If so, add your comments below! 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Introducing the new Critic Kitteh: Batman!

Batman is judging you - right now. 
He's brooding, sneaky, has lots of opinions, and most importantly - loves watching movies. Introducing the new Critic Kitteh - Batman!

After almost two years of being feline deprived after our dearly departed Sir Toby passed away, my husband Casey and I decided to do something about it. Now safely ensconced in a pleasant, pet-friendly apartment, we went in search of adopting a rescue kitty.

I have found in my life that you don't pick the cat; the cat picks you. The story of Batman's adoption is no different.

The process of acquiring a cat in Hong Kong is harder than one would initially think. The first adoption centre all but slammed the door in our faces when we showed up to look at cats during business hours without an appointment, and promptly told us we would not be let in unless we registered on their website. Thinking it would be better to try another avenue, we found out there was actually a shortage of adoptable cats at the local SPCA! A coworker then suggested we look into a local shelter called Hong Kong Cats where (like everything else in this city) you would still have to fill out a form on the website, but they were less strict about letting potential adopters meet the cats.

We submitted the form and waited. Sure enough, within a couple of days the director contacted us via email and said that there was a cat that needed a foster home urgently and would we consider being foster parents with the potential to adopt? She referred me to their Facebook page where his photo was posted and we saw a sleek, diminutive-looking pocket panther with jade green eyes. While we had  both hoped to have the opportunity to visit with a few kitties and see which one we clicked with, after some discussion we decided it wouldn't hurt to help the little feller out. If it didn't work out, we could always give him back to the shelter, and in the meantime buy some time for them to make other arrangements for him if need be. So I emailed back the director and said sure, we would be willing to foster him, could we come by over the weekend to meet him and arrange transportation? The response back was almost immediate - great, but he needs a home by TONIGHT. Be careful what you wish for!

Batman and the Critic ready for their album cover 
After scrambling around for needful items (such as a litter box) and finding to our great relief there is an excellent pet store right across the street from us, a much larger than anticipated 12-pound Batman (not his original name), crash-landed into our lives. The first four or five days were dubious - he mostly hid in the corner and barely ate. Casey thought he had magically escaped the apartment the second day we had him because he couldn't find him anywhere (and trust me Hong Kong apartments aren't that big); it turned out he had just camouflaged himself behind our equally black TV. We kicked around various names for him - Houdini (inspired by my dear friend and audio queen Tavia Gilbert's black kitty), Ninja, Mister Mistoffelees...but nothing seemed to quite fit.

Along about the sixth day, something miraculous happened - he had been hiding under the bed as per usual most of the day when we decided to sit down and watch some Batman the Animated Series. The minute the famed Batman theme by Danny Elfman came on, he came rushing out like a black streak and joined us on a chair, from a safe distance, to watch with us. Casey and I looked at each other and we knew. Of course, we also realize that makes us his joint team of Alfreds, but we figured that just came with the territory.

As the days went by, Bats decided he liked our modest high-rise home on the 29th floor, and we formally adopted him as of Sunday, February 4 - just a few short days before the second anniversary of Toby's passing on February 12. Now he joins us on the couch for film watching; usually on one or both of our laps, has become my new alarm clock, and fills that spot in my heart that was once again ready for a purring bundle of awesomeness.

 Other favorite pastimes include sneaking up on us, wild rumpuses at around 10pm (catnip gratefully appreciated), sleeping under the covers, looking down upon the city of Kong Hong through our (closed!) windows with a watchful eye, sharing his opinions with a wide variety of mews and purrs, and sitting in front of the laptop to make sure I'm writing only good things about him. 

Many thanks to Jackaroo, my dear friend Debbie Blinder's Russian Blue who has served well as interim Critic Kitteh; a colorful character in his own right. And of course to our dear Toby, though gone from this plane of existence lives on in the hearts and memories of his many friends, fans, and admirers. Batman has some big paws to fill, but we are confident that he will enjoy being a part of our lives and this blog for many years to come.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Current Reels: Murder on the Orient Express has Poirot at his Most Vulnerable

The gang's all here: Branagh keeps this remake solidly on the rails
Every year, I like to take the opportunity to review what I like to call an "alternative holiday film" - something that evokes elements of the season while being far from the traditional tropes. In this case (pun intended), being snowed in while traveling on holiday on The Orient Express.

Poirot has long been a favorite of mine, and while David Suchet's fussy turn as the great Belgian detective remains impressive beyond words, Kenneth Branagh's interpretation is less closed off and more emotionally vulnerable. It's a tack that won't appeal to everyone, but I thought it was a remarkably fresh take on the classic character - particularly since this case proves to be one of Poirot's most ethically challenging. There's a gravitas to the entire piece, from the imaginative cinematography to the pitch-perfect screenplay adaptation by Michael Green, that seems wholly appropriate to breathing life back into one of Agatha Christie's most famous and compelling mystery novels of all time.

The film opens with Poirot in Jerusalem in 1934, solving a case with his usual air of savoir faire; but with less zeal than is due one of the greatest sleuthing minds of all time. It's an important moment as it shows our man of the hour as exacting in his standards but nonetheless rundown. As many of us do in such times in our lives, Poirot decides to give himself a break by heading to Istanbul; but quickly finds to his disappointment that yet another case demands his attention in London. He runs into a good friend who offers to book him on the plush Orient Express, which will take him through the Alps and onto France, where from there he can make his way to his next appointment. 

Unfortunately, it is trouble from the start as at first the train is completely booked, but Poirot agrees to share a compartment in order to make it on and takes comfort that perhaps he and his glorious moustaches (truly, never were there such voluminous multiple whiskers before) can simply catch a break as well as the train. His marked frustration is more apparent than the perpetually unperturbed Poirot that Suchet projects, and it adds a tone of relatable humanism to the famously large ego of the "little Belgian."

Depp brings his acting A-Game as well as distinctive outerwear 
For the first time in a long while, I was impressed with Johnny Depp. His turn as the malevolent Edward Ratchett, with a gravelly Brooklyn accent was the right balance between fearful and pugnacious, as befitting his character (without giving the plot away). Most of the sets and costumes were faithfully in keeping with the time period; but I noticed the distressed leather jacket that he wore when he first stepped out stood out a little too much from the rest. I could only imagine that was a bargaining chip between him and Branagh; I can almost imagine him saying, "Okay, I'll play it straight just this once, but you gotta let me wear a weird jacket, man." Under Branagh's careful eye,  I couldn't help but sense that everyone in the star-studded cast was polished, turned out, and bringing their very best acting chops to the table. I especially liked that each actor tried to sidestep their typecast roles that they tend to be known for (Willem Dafoe as a professor rather than the tough guy; Penélope Cruz as a maid rather than a femme fatale, etc.) and see them all bring something new and interesting to the characters. 

Most impressive was the cinematography; which certainly employed every inch of the big screen. It was an appropriate and effective use of CGI to show the lightning bolt striking the Alps and sending down the avalanche of snow in front of the train, which broke up the slower dialogue up to that point with an effective piece of thrilling action. Cameras pan through watery cut glass, making concerned faces of the suspects appear blurred and distorted; perhaps shielding the audience from their true intents until the appropriate moment of reveal. Indeed, the train itself is an important cast member; with its elegant frosted glass wall sconces and polished wood panels. To be given the task of filming most major scenes in long, narrow compartments is a challenge that Branagh was clearly up for. In one critical moment in which the body is found in one of the compartments, the entire scene is shot in one unbroken, elegant cut looking down from above; as the characters gather and enter into the room and then back out again. This serves to simultaneously include more characters within the shot as well as seamlessly move from one critical scene into another while side-stepping the messiness of multiple cuts back and forth from one end of the narrow compartment to the other. Characters are tracked through the windows of the compartments; interrogations take place indoors and outdoors, and the audience witnesses the crew of the train industriously shoveling away at the snow to get everyone moving again; a detail that is often lost in and amongst the sleuthing action of previous versions.

Poirot, where's your jacket bro?
However, the film is not without its flaws. As a detail person, Poirot running around outside and sometimes on top of the train without so much as an overcoat did not strike me as being consistent with the character. Godiva chocolate boxes casually placed within view of the camera for product placement purposes seemed out of place. Most frustrating was a moment later in the film involving a tense confrontation between the doctor and Poirot that seemed not only unnecessary; but frankly, silly. It is almost as if we couldn't be trusted as moviegoers to not fall asleep in the middle of the intrigue if the plot wasn't sufficiently peppered with action sequences.

Still, through the crisp white snow and crackling firelight of torches burning outside, the great reveal is made and the train - and life - goes on for Monsieur Poirot and the passengers. Overall, it is a satisfying execution of a classic story that was obviously rendered with a great deal of love and attention that is fun to watch regardless of whether you know the twist or not. Few recent mainstream films go to such great lengths to create a meditative environment on which to ponder the complicated and intricate patterns of human emotions.

Jackaroo sez: It's a beauty of a film to watch and while some action sequences seem out of place in the moment, overall the innovative acting and care taken to render this thoughtful take on a memorable "whodunnit" makes it worthwhile.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Autumn Audiobook Spotlight: The Throwback Special focuses on Rituals and the Healing Power of Moving On

As football season kicks into high gear, Chris Bachelder, author of the National Book Award nominee The Throwback Special, took time out to share some of his inspiration for his novel about rituals, male bonding, and mid-life crisis.

In this tongue-in-cheek novel, 22 guys gather in a low-budget hotel on an annual basis to reenact a gruesome moment in sports history - the November 1985 play when Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins had his leg violently broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. As characters are introduced, the story becomes less about the central event - often referred to as "The Throwback Special" - and more about the hilarious - and sometimes heartbreaking - realities of reaching middle age. Bachelder, who has taught writing classes at the Sewanee School of Letters at the University of the South in Tennessee for several summers, says novel writing is a journey of discovery and that he hadn't initially understood "this was a book about nostalgia, belonging, and rituals."

"You can kill a book if you know too much about it," says Bachelder. "I tried to find drama from the movement of the mind since there's not much movement of the plot, honestly...those moments of thought that bend back against themselves and again, arrive in paradox and bewilderment and, hopefully, comedy." 

Watch the interview below as Chris and I talk about the novel, why hotels are weird, how Kurt Vonnegut inspires him, and how an excess of characters can be just enough, rather than too much, of a good thing. 

Getting that "Special" Voice 

R.C. Bray, doing what he does best - talking!

I also caught up with R.C. Bray, the award-winning voice actor who narrated the audiobook and a guy I am lucky enough to call friend. There was a lot Bray found he could relate to, being both a sports fan and "around" the age of the men in the novel. 

You had to voice a lot of characters in this book. How did you keep them all straight? 

As with any book I keep mp3 files of each character. I don’t pre-record them. I wait until I’ve done a few of their lines or a nice big paragraph, then use that for future reference. About halfway through the book I rarely need to reference them anymore. But minor characters will pop back up from time to time, so I record everyone.

What was your prep process for narrating this book and was it easier or harder than you anticipated? 

One of the things I do to prep from time to time - which I did with Throwback - is skim through the pages looking for capitalized words; minus those at the start of sentences of course.  Doing so not only helps locate place names, ancient battles, etc. that may have difficult pronunciations; but more importantly doing so gives me a good idea as to character count AND an idea as to who’s got the bulk of the story by how many times they’re mentioned. In Throwback, many of the character's names were each mentioned quite often.That can sometimes mean “thin” or even underdeveloped, characters. Not the case with this book AT all. From a narrator’s point of view, Chris provided so much with minimal effort on each of the guys that I got such a clear visual.There’s nothing like it when an author does that; it helps aid so much in what kind of voice I’ll give a particular character. 

This book talks a lot about rituals - and the weirdness of them. Do you have any weird rituals with your friends or family? If so, why are they important to you? 

There’s this bridge somewhere around Queens when we head to New York City. My wife and her brother used to waggle their fingers in the air and make goofy sounds for the duration underneath. As soon as you’re out from under it, all silliness stops and you're back to normal. My wife introduced me to it when we were dating. We’ve since gotten our kids to do it. We really don’t have to plan for it either; we all know where the bridge is and we all just jump into action once we’re under. I do it even if I’m in the car by myself! Why? I’m not really sure. But it never fails to crack me up. Part of why I love it is it’s so completely random. Think about it. How many other people do you think do something that unique?

You seemed to have a lot of fun narrating this book. What - if anything - personally resonated with you? 

Throwback is set around a bunch of guys my own age who are going through what I am or will go through at some point: the fact that life doesn’t always turn out as planned, I’m not invincible, and at some point I’ll have to shed my eternal boyhood cloak to face “adult” problems head on.There are people I knew in elementary school, high school, college, work, etc. who have died, gotten divorced, gone to war and not come back, become insanely successful, and lost a child to illness. They also discovered they are transgender, “came out”, won a Super Bowl ring, played pro baseball/basketball, worked with famous actors, were important catalysts to bring back to some form of normalcy and hope in young peoples lives; on and on and on. I’ve had my shares of ups and downs, too. But, like most people I’m sure, I prefer the ups. Even when, like in Throwback, once upon a time good things do eventually come to an end and it’s time to move on/forward. There is a lot of power in letting go and moving on. As Bobby Plant once said:

 "Leaves are falling all around, It's time I was on my way. Thanks to you, I'm much obliged for such a pleasant stay. But now it's time for me to go. The autumn moon lights my way.”