Tag Archives: Satire

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

book coverI will be writing, have been writing, or have already written (depending on when you see this. Time is strange here on GR) a review of Welcome to Night Vale. But until/when/after I do (or until you return from whatever time stream you are in to read this, or move ahead into another one) I can offer one definite bit of advice. Listen to a few of the Night Vale podcasts. If they float your boat, or, lacking water, elevate you at least several inches off the ground for a period of about twenty minutes, you will love this book. Proceed directly to the beginning of the actual review.

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====================================NOT ENCHANTED?
If you find the podcasts uninteresting, really, did you touch one of the pink flamingos? Something is wrong. OK, Ok, I know there are some folks who will not be enchanted by the Night Vale podcasts. This book is probably not for you. But if you go to the local library, you are sure to find something more to your liking. Hurry, go now. You might want to stop by and visit the dog park on your way. Be sure to say hi to the friendly figures in the hoods. Y’all take care now, and return directly to the section titled “Not Enchanted?”

=======================================ACTUAL REVIEW

It is a friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Whew! I’m so glad we got rid of those people.

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A Cecil Baldwin sandwich with the authors in the role of bread

In July, 2013, Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. It all began in 2012, a twice-a-month podcast that is Lake Wobegon by way of David Lynch, Lovecraft, told in the form of a community radio newscast.

It was started completely as a hobby,” Fink begins, when asked about how the podcast has gotten to this point. “Y’know, my friends and I, it was just something we enjoyed doing. Our entire goal, when we started it, was that maybe someday there’d be a few people who weren’t friends or family listening to it. We certainly had no goals beyond that, other than to enjoy making it.” – from interview in The Arcade

It is read by Cecil Baldwin who shares a first name with his fictional manifestation, Cecil Palmer, the radio broadcaster. The podcast is weird, creepy fun, rich with non-sequiturs and reasons to be afraid, many reasons. Cecil’s steady tones make it seem practically normal.

I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories. And also, to a lesser extent fascinated by the Southwest desert. Fascinating things probably happen there on a regular basis. So I came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real. – From Jackie Lyden’s 2013 NPR interview with the authors

And whether it was a result of a desire for expression in a new medium, an action taken in compliance with an order from one of the hooded figures in the dog park, or an angel in old woman Josie’s house, Fink and Craynor have committed their world to print.

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We, as readers, seem to have a soft spot for this genre. I don’t know if there is a name for the type that this fits into, storytelling-wise, but if there is a short term for “A small town where something is…off,” this book would fit in there quite nicely. (I know it is far from wonderful, but I hereby nominate the word “Oddsville” for the genre, capital of the great state of Unease. All in favor?) There is a rich tradition of such writing. Rod Serling was a fan of this trope in his Twilight Zone writing (Where is Everybody? , Monsters are Due on Maple Street, People Are Alike All Over). Stephen King has made a career in them, Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot…ad infinitum. TV has mined this heavy lode as well. In addition to Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, X-files, and god-knows how many more, there are some more recent shows that indulge, including Wayward Pines, the town of Hope in The Leftovers, Haven, Eureka, Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen. Small towns, it would appear, are in our literary, and certainly in our entertainment DNA. So the something-off-small-town of Night Vale should feel familiar. Of course this one is a bit more unusual than your typical Oddsville offering, being rather flamboyant in its strangeness, to the point of silliness at times.

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As for the story, Jackie Fierro has been 19 for many, many years (like some of us?). She runs the town pawn shop, and will accept pretty much anything. A mysterious man in a tan jacket, gives her a slip of paper with “KING CITY” written on it. Every time she tries to get rid of the thing, or even to put it down, it keeps coming back to her, which, as you might imagine, is alarming. So she goes in search of tan-jacket man but no one in town can seem to recall seeing him. Hmmm.

Diane Crayton is a single mom to a shape-shifting fifteen-year-old son (what parent of a teenager cannot relate?). Of late she has been seeing Josh’s long absent Y-chromosome source all over town. Josh has been showing an interest in tracking down his father, despite Diane’s attempts to dissuade him. Diane and Jackie’s quests, and Josh’s too, lead them in a direction that is as obvious as an MC Escher roadmap. Does an endpoint even exist?

Diane and Jackie are certainly likeable sorts, and their tale is intriguing, with plenty of challenges to face and mysteries to solve, but the real deal with Welcome to Night Vale consists of three things, location, location, location. Fink and Cranor are trying to re-create in book form the delightfully weird experience of their podcast world. The story seems secondary. The atmosphere is rich with intense strangeness. I found most of it delightful, a dry delivery masking outrageousness. Sometimes they try too hard, generating eye-rolling that has been made mandatory by the City Council. You really, really do not want to fight city hall here, particularly on days when human sacrifice is on the calendar. But it is good, weird fun most of the time. The authors must have had some bad experiences with librarians in their youth. Literary comeuppance is had.

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The locale includes, among other things, roads that lead nowhere, mysterious lights floating above the town, black helicopters, yes those black helicopters, a faceless old woman who lives, unseen, in someone’s house, a sentient house, a diner waitress who struggles with fruit bearing tree branches growing from her body, car salesmen who offer howlingly good deals, a woman who keeps reliving her life in a perpetual loop, a sentient patch of haze, angels named Erika, people who exist but when you try to recall them, you can’t. Wait, what was I talking about? I just bet that if someone opens a nightclub in NV, they name it Studio 51. The list goes on, plenty to keep your brain engaged and your funny bone tickled.

When you partake of the Night Vale Kool Aid, you will be joining a horde that has sprung up in impressive numbers. There are fan sites galore, with artwork, fan fiction, and a host of ways in which what remains of your consciousness can be further shaved and fed to the glow-cloud. I have included some links to those in the usual place.

You have never read anything like this before. Unless, of course you are in a time loop and are living your life over and over and over. This means you, Sheila. Yes, I know you have read this book many times, all for the first time. OK, happy? But for the rest of us…

Fink and Cranor’s sense of humor is definitely not for everyone. But if you check your kitchen cabinets and find that your supply of weird is running a little low, I suggest heading over to Night Vale. They are running a special and you won’t want to miss out.

PS – more volumes are planned. Be sure to keep up with your local community newscast for further details.

Review Posted – 11/6/15

Published – 10/20/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s, well to Night Vale’s main, Twitter and FB pages

You can download individual podcasts here

Interviews
—–Early Influences – The Arcade
——Stephen Colbert appearance, including a reading of the Community Calendar
—–Jackie Lyden’s NPR interview with the authors – Welcome to Night Vale: Watch out for the tarantulas

Some fan sites
—–The Shape from Grove Park
—–Fuck Yeah Night Vale
—–A Softer Night Vale

A Night Vale Wiki
The actual Wikipedia entry for Night Vale

A fun vid from the Idea Channel that links Night Vale to HP Lovecraft – How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown?

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Filed under Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Noir, Reviews

The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg by Betsy Robinson

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People believe anything that’s in writing

A word to the wise to scoundrels everywhere, and there are plenty on display in Betsy Robinson’s satiric whirlwind.

So you think you’ve got it bad? You might consider the case of one Zelda McFigg. She had a pretty tough go of it at school. The hand she was dealt must have been delivered from the bottom of the deck by a particularly hostile card sharp. Despite having a pretty decent brain, Zelda got stuck with short, fat, and malodorous when stressed. She is also given to bouts of dramatic blushing. Her classmates made matters worse by labeling her Stinky Pinky. Doesn’t make for an educational venue conducive to learning, or anything for that matter except exceeding anyone’s RDA for misery. Not that home was any great shakes either. Mom was an alcoholic, as likely to drown in her own vomit as she was to burn down their abode with a feckless cohabitation of Marlboros and painting materials. Dad was pretty much out of the scene anyway.

Needing to make at least some use of her hooky day, 14-year-old Zelda decides to take a chance and goes to Manhattan to visit a beat poet-musician (Mike the poet) whose work she admires. Turns out he could use some help. Turns out she is just the girl for the job. Turns out, when she never quite makes it home, that this is the beginning of a thirty-five year odyssey for Zelda.

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Betsy Robinson – from her Twitter page

It is not a particularly easy road she travels. There are hazards aplenty and it seems that she has provided more than her share of them. She carries with her the twin DNA of schlemiel and schlemazel. Oy! Her journey takes to her such exotic experiences as a free-the-test-animals raid on a hospital lab, a less than stellar audition for Annie, working props in a New England summer theater, and burning down her landlady’s house in an ill-fated attempt to rescue her pet. She does settle down after her initial wanderings, in the lovely tundra of Vermont, having left a trail of carnage in her wake. Part-time hall monitor at the Moose Country Middle School, she is pulled into action when a ninety-year-old English teacher catches a bad case of dead and an immediate fill-in is needed. It looks like she has gotten off the road this time. She continues with teaching The Call of the Wild, and picks a pet, the overweight, smelly, and socially tormented Donny Sherman, a local Native American kid. It looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship

There are some uncomfortable elements here and some wonderful ones. The apparent fondness of New England teachers for their under-age students is hardly unique, but feels dodgy nonetheless. Zelda’s regard for the law is like that of a passenger on a bus noting a billboard. It might be worth some consideration, but not for too long. On the other hand, there are some seriously LOL nuggets in Zelda’s path

I soon found myself doing props for a small summer theatre in New England run by a man who, had he not been a Jewish homosexual hippie named Rainbow, I might have mistaken for Adolph Hitler.

She also comes across a pet parrot that speaks in the voice of its owner’s late husband, to raucous effect. Satirical objects whiz past with satisfying frequency, as Robinson goes not only for some low-hanging fruit like shamanism, Tony Robbins, Hollywood faddism and Oprah, but also directs some attention to the darker elements of life, things like police overreaction to a school hostage situation that isn’t, being backstabbed by those you thought were close to you, being kicked out of your home by the rich and feckless, and the scandal ridden hell that is small town life in Vermont. I did cackle out loud from time to time while reading this on the subway, causing some fellow riders to glance furtively, wondering whether I was receiving instructions from the dog god in my head, as they tried to shift their bodies and belongings out of potential harm’s way.

The writing life comes under scrutiny, and it is not a pretty image, heavily laden as it is with ghosts, plagiarists, thieves, absurd expectations, lifetimes of labor for non-existent rewards, familiar features for most who put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards. Teaching life is also a subject clearly close to Ms Robinson’s heart. The details of the school experience she scewers will seem familiar to most, and are, at times, darkly hilarious.

The peripatetic Ms McFigg seems reasonably pure of heart, a road worrier more than a road warrior, although she does engage in righteous battle from time to time, and is easy to root for as she stumbles through her trials. There is plenty of emotion in this life, both joy at this or that success, and sadness at this or that betrayal. We can certainly all relate when Zelda goes looking for help in getting from point A to point B, and finds the proffered assistance less than helpful. Most of us can probably relate to her inability to lose weight, but can admire her insistence on carrying on as best she can. I was most reminded of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, another saga of a square peg in a round world.

Betsy Robinson has had an interesting career sojourn herself. In her site, she notes that she

was raised an atheist and went on to make her living as a writer and editor of spiritual subject matter: as managing editor of Spirituality & Health magazine for six and a half years and as an editor of spiritual psychology and books about shamans and traditional healers

so she certainly brings an appreciation of irony to her writing. She has worked as an actress in nearly-on-Broadway, somewhat-close-to-Broadway and just-down-the-block-from Broadway, had scripts produced in Iowa, Amherst, LA and darkest cable TV, and has authored many article and several books, so brings that experience to bear when writing of the publishing and theater worlds through which Zelda stumbles.

Betsy Robinson has written an entertaining romp, both raucous and endearing, rich with wit and observation. It is funny and foul, dark, but lightly, a bit disturbing, but only slightly. There’s much to enjoy in this book (it’s not big), The Last Will and Testament of Zelda McFigg. It’s all written down. You can believe it.

Review posted – 9/25/15

Publication date – 9/13/14

P.S. – The book was provided by the author in return for an honest review. And I plan to return it real soon. It is impressive how good I have become at removing cat vomit from paper, (soooo much experience) and the singe marks, well, they’re not all that obvious, the downside of reading while standing and preparing supper, then putting the book the tiniest bit too close to the burner. The watermarks may be a bit dodgier. We do enjoy reading while on the throne and parking the book du jour on the sink edge while getting up. Problem is that our large tabby, Scout, is the founding, and so far as we can tell, only member of the Occupy Sink movement, and has been known, on rare occasions, to lay claim to her territory by Divine Right, by removing from said territory any invading objects. Thankfully the volume was spared a watery grave in the nick of time, but not before taking on just a few wee drops. I am sure there are useful instructions on the internet that will allow me to remove the offending stain and…um…fragrance. But don’t worry. I guarantee I will be getting that volume back to the author any day now.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

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Filed under Comedy, Fiction, Satire

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

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…nothing was as it seemed

On learning that the southern member of their group hails from a place that stages an annual Civil War re-enactment, one with a heavy Confederate tilt, four UC Berkeley sophomores decide to engage in a bit of political theater and protest the event by staging a mock lynching. What could possibly go wrong?

A boy from the deep South who opts to pass on taking up shooting is likely to feel just a bit like an outsider in his small hometown.

…when young he had admired their sarcasm and sharp wit, his older female cousins—the misanthrope, the pyromaniac, and the exhibitionist—all obviously hated their lives, lives that would never recover the hope of their youth, lives now defined by their status as old maids, though barely thirty. They were stuck here, and the finality of that sentence pained him. It was impossible to have a conversation with one of them and not feel like he was addressing a ghost.

What’s in a name? D’Aron Davenport has them by the bushel. Not just the ones he was tagged with at birth, but the stream of names that attached to him through his brief life. Some of them celebrate achievement, some mark him as an outcast, some poke fun, and some offer respect. Some tell his history, and some hold a promise for the future. Many of these names will find their way back to D’Aron over the course of the story as he struggles to define himself in places where others seem intent on doing that for him. He would like to make a name for himself someplace other than Braggsville, Georgia. On graduating from high school, he gets as far away as he can.

There are some pretty funny scenes in Welcome to Braggsville. A symbol of the cluelessness of the place he desperately wants to leave behind, a classmate, after D’Aron delivers his valedictory, misunderstanding a Latin phrase from D’Aron’s speech, congratulates him on his engagement. In his second semester at UC Berkeley, or Berzerkeley, (Johnson teaches there, so he knows of what he writes) as it is actually known, he attends a dot party (wear a dot where you want to be touched). Apparently the location he selects for his dot is deemed politically incorrect and he is shown the door by self-righteous alphas. He is not alone in his choice of dot location. The insight-free hosts have made three other attendees feel as welcome as Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman at Omega Theta Pi, and a bond is forged. They call themselves “The 4 Little Indians.”

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T. Geronimo Johnson

Charlie, a black from Chicago, has the physique of an athlete. Candice is a naïve, over-confident Iowa blonde, who professes Native American heritage. I couldn’t help picturing young Gwyneth Paltrow. Louis Chang, a Californian who exudes comedy and thinks of himself as a “kung fu comedian” will make you laugh. What kind of southern white boy can D’Aron be that he feels so drawn to the scary Gully, (the wrong side of the tracks at home) and did not see all the darkness around him in the safe side of town? How is it that D’Aron finds that he feels quite comfortable with black people, while feeling more and more alienated from his lighter complexioned peers in B-ville? At Berkeley, he has a stunningly beautiful bonding experience with a black counselor. Where does he fit in? Charlie has issues of a different sort that keep him from feeling too close to his peers as well.

A class called “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives” sparks the crew to action. After a failed attempt at making a political statement of outrage about the University’s treatment of Ishi, presumably the last wild Indian in America, at a Six Flags Amusement Park, a hilarious failure, the group settles on their larger, and more provocative project.

There is a lot more going on here than comedy. An outsider theme applies not only to these four as students at Berzerkely, but for them in other venues as well. Louis is not exactly heading in a career direction his family would sanction. Charlie is not exactly what he appears. And Candice may not exactly be in a comfort zone with her family either.

she’d once admitted that her family wasn’t close; that her father expressed a greater affinity for moths and fruit liqueurs and her mother a keen interest in civil rights. She dubbed them emotionally abusive.

Johnson extends the outsider notion to larger structures as well. D’Aron may be a fish out of water in Braggsville, but what of the residents of the Gully? An entire community that is not allowed much opportunity to get near the water, let alone jump in. You can guess the complexion involved.

Johnson has a bit of fun with how the media and political opportunists take advantage of the uproar in Braggsville. You will recognize the types of players involved, and appreciate the deft hand used in painting them in their true colors.

He also takes liberties with form. The introduction of D’Aron and all his names is inspired. He also includes a sort-of term paper as it might have been written by the four in which barbecue stands in for racism, an extended footnote that comprises Louis’s take on things, and other literary liberties as well. There is a freedom in this approach that is surprising in a good way and invigorating, reminding one of the creativity shown in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Johnson is focusing his literary microscope on preconceptions, left and right, and then looking past the visual to what lies beneath. The political correctness of liberal mecca UC Berkeley comes in for some sharp edges. As does the yahoo-ism of back-water Georgia. What Johnson brings to this impressive novel is his ability to look past that outer layer of knee-jerk satire. What one sees here is not uni-colored. There is also sensitivity to what compromises good people must make to survive in an alien environment, and there is nuance, even to the awfulness.

In a large way this is a coming of age story for the group of friends, D’Aron most of all, and as such it works quite well, as D’Aron sees so much more than he had known was right in front of him. He gets to see how the real world operates and it changes him.

Johnson uses some interludes to offer a bit of history on slavery in Georgia. I was surprised at some of this. I expect you will be as well. An observation of race is one of the many strong seams in this marbled look at America today. Parenting, whether by parents or other adults figures large as well. Even concepts like what constitutes tragedy are given a look.

There are astute observations on a host of things. Here are a couple of samples:

Every organization, every single one, Daron worries himself, orchestrates a silent competition with the church; they want not employees but practitioners, apostles, acolytes—not workers, but worshippers. Between this observation and his reflections on school, he concludes that everyone advertises for the mind but expects you to bring the soul.

or

Did his parents also look at each other with resentment born of intimacy; did they want more than anything else to reach out to each other, to close cold space; did they say things to hurt each other first intentionally and then again, accidentally, even without meaning to, in the midst of apologizing? Did they inventory their intimacies? How did you look at someone and care so much for them and hate them at the same time, be so angry that you didn’t even trust yourself to have a valid emotion, so angry it couldn’t be real?

Links are drawn between the treatment of Native Americans and interned Japanese during World War II, between lynching of the traditional sort and a later day electronic equivalent, between anchors that ground one and those that keep you from moving, between being in one’s social bubble, and being in the world.

Start your 2015 top ten list here. Welcome to Braggsville is a stunning achievement. I was reminded not only of last year’s wonderful Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk for its brilliant and sensitive social observation, but also of Skippy Dies, one of my all-time favorite books, for its humor and warmth. It applies a sharp, satiric scalpel to diverse targets, but also peels back surfaces to reveal complication and humanity. D’Aron is a wonderfully realized lead, thoughtful, decent, engaging, struggling to find his place in various hostile universes. Eager to do right. This is a book that has at its core a racial tension, but there is so much more going on here. Head on over to Braggsville, pull up a chair, load a plate up with some barbecue, pop a cold one, and set a spell. Maybe talk to someone who is nothing at all like you. You will find your visit very filling indeed.

Review Posted – 10/3/14

Publication Date – 2/17/14

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

While the above links were live at the time I posted this, they are not all that current. I would expect that as publication date approaches Johnson will do some updating.

Johnson wrote a wonderful Behind the Book essay for Braggsville. It is definitely worth checking out.

An interesting interview with the author on the site of the publisher of his first book, Coffee House Press

Another fascinating interview, from a couple of years ago, on ZingMagazine.com

And yet another interview, this one at Late Night Library

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews