Sunday, April 12, 2015

Welcome to Night Vale

I'm going to take a brief break from my wildly successful (What? I can dream.) series of posts on fanfiction to write a review of my favorite piece of currently-happening storytelling, Welcome to NightVale. Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast that takes the form of a fictional local community radio broadcast. Here's the description from the website: 
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.  
Turn on your radio and hide.
 Welcome to Night Vale is set in a little town which is probably located somewhere in the Southwest, “a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” The podcast is surreal, funny, a bit creepy, and features excellent voice-acting. The best way I've found to describe it is if Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett got together and wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone. The first few episodes are a little kitschy, kind of standard surrealist strangeness, but as the show progresses it becomes a genuinely compelling, intelligent, masterfully done piece of storytelling.

Long story short, I think Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best things happening right now, in any format of storytelling, anywhere.

Yeah, I know that's a really serious claim, and obviously it's just my opinion, but there are a lot of reasons that I feel the way I do.

First of all, the storytelling and character development is amazing. Cecil, the host of the radio show and our narrator, is an amazing character. At the beginning he's a bit disconnected from the audience, the sonorous voice that tells us the calendar and announces the weather, but as the show progresses more of his character peeks through the radio script, and we get to see him as a person. I absolutely love Cecil, and I look forward to learning more about him with each episode. He's an unreliable narrator, but not in the Poe way, just in the way that every person will tell the story from their own point of view. The fact that a great majority of the show is told from his point of view can lead to some interesting moments where the audience suddenly sees things (events, other characters) from a different point of view. Many characters that start out as background characters develop into fully-fleshed people as the show progresses. Really, even if the plot weren't as great as it is, the characters alone could carry this show.

Luckily for us, that isn't the case, and the plot of WTNV is absolutely amazing. While the early episodes are mostly one-off, monster of the week type episodes, a larger underlying story starts to take shape as the show progresses, gradually growing in importance and depth. There are moments where I have been literally sitting on the edge of my seat, staring intensely into space, listening to the story and holding my breath. Not only is it incredibly compelling and often suspenseful, the plot is also steeped in social commentary and philosophical ideas. Issues of community, capitalism and economic worth, the value of human life, the nature of love, all of these are explored through the intense action of the plot. It's hard for me to describe without using any spoilers, but trust me, this is one of the most interesting stories you've heard in a long time, and somehow it just keeps getting better.

There are a lot of great stylistic elements in WTNV that I think deserve recognition. The use of surrealism is totally convincing, while also managing to be both funny and creepy, often at the same time. More than that, by making surrealism the everyday life of the town, the writers can make what we see to be everyday occurrences seem highly surreal. The weirdness of the show, then, is often used to highlight the weirdness of everyday life. Similarly, the traditional symbolism of shadow vs sunlight is often reversed, with shadows being comforting and safe, while sunlight is harsh, bright, and revealing. It's a great reversal, and is done so convincingly that I didn't even realize it was happening until a good way in. Again, changing these symbols can highlight the disturbing elements in what we usually consider good. WTNV isn't just a great story with relatable characters, it's a really finely crafted work of art.

The upcoming novel. I'm so excited!
Welcome to Night Vale has an incredibly diverse set of characters and voice actors. Recently, the book world (or at least the parts of it I care to frequent) has been pushing for more diversity in reading, publishing, and award lists. Well, WTNV may not be a book, but it's definitely got the diversity you're looking for. In the very first episode, a new man moves to Night Vale, and Cecil immediately falls in love with him. From that first episode on, there are main characters who are women, non-binary, LGBTQ, disabled, voiced by actors of color (and therefore often assumed by the audience to be people of color, almost none of the characters are actually physically described in canon), etc. All of this representation never feels “forced” or “like you're just checking off boxes,” as so many critics of diversity often claim will be the case. Each character is natural, a human being with motivations and feelings, not a stereotype or a box to fill. The best part is that diversity seems to be a defining feature of the town. When Cecil falls in love with a man, or when a young girl uses a wheelchair, or when a different young girl is born with a body consisting only of an adult man's left hand, no-one attacks them for it. They're all just citizens of Night Vale. Sometimes it's nice to have a story with diverse characters that doesn't focus on tragedy or bigotry.

Welcome to Night Vale has the complete package. It has great characters that are believable people the audience can try to understand and become involved with. It has a riveting plot that will have you begging for the next episode. It has really deep, subtle social commentary, which is aided by the highly crafty use of stylistic elements and the diversity of both characters and cast. WTNV has been going strong for years, and I can honestly tell you that it is only getting better with time. Not only is the podcast amazing, they also have a book coming out in October. If you take no other recommendation from me, please, go listen to Welcome to Night Vale. I promise you won't regret it.

Monday, April 6, 2015

An Introduction To Fanfiction, Part 2: I Ship It

Welcome to part 2 of my series, An Introduction to Fanfiction. Last time I went over all the reasons I love fanfiction. I'm going to spend the next few posts going over lingo that you may come across on your search for the perfect fic. Today's lingo lesson will focus on that most central and strange aspect of fandom, shipping.

Wait, what? A boat?

Sometimes fans decide that two characters are perfect for each other and really need to be in a relationship together. When that happens, that relationship is referred to as a ship and the people who want that relationship to happen are the shippers who ship it.

For example, the two main ships in the Hunger Games fandom are Katniss and Peeta vs Katniss and Gale. Ships are often shown with a slash, Katniss/Gale, or with a mashed-up Brangelina-like ship name, like Everlark for Katniss/Peeta. (No, not KatPee, Everlark)

A great majority of fics include the author's preferred ship, either as a main plot point or in the background. Fics that include ships are often called slashfics (the name comes from the slash between the character names), and very often include explicitly smutty content. If you're not interested in reading smut, you may want to stay away from slashfics in general.

When talking about ships, there are some abbreviations that are good to know.

OTP: One True Pairing. This is the relationship in the fandom that you have decided is the one truly correct relationship, or at least the most important one to you. So, people who ship Bella/Edward and not Bella/Jacob or any other Bella/whatever ship would call Bella/Edward their OTP. Everyone has their own OTPs, and they tend to be really important to people. Like, really important. So, while you can (and most likely will) disagree with someone's ships, you should never bash an OTP. (In case you're wondering, my #1 OTP of all time is Mulder/Scully from The X-Files. They are perfect for each other and you will never convince me otherwise.)

NOTP or NoTP: The opposite of an OTP. This is a ship that you 100% do not ship at all, eww. You don't want to look at it, read it, or even think of it, because it just isn't the right interpretation of those characters at all. For example, while Hermione/Draco is a relatively popular ship, a lot of people consider it their NoTP because of Draco's pureblood prejudice. If a ship is your NoTP, you probably want to avoid fics that feature it, obviously.

BROTP or BroTP: This means that you ship those two characters only as friends. You think that they are just the perfect friends ever, and their friendship means a lot to you. Sam and Frodo, Legolas and Gimli, and Merry and Pippin are all examples of popular BroTPs. (The Doctor and Donna, anyone?)

CrackShip or Crack!Ship: This is a ship that you know is ridiculous, but you kinda sorta halfway ship it anyway. Or at least you think it's fun enough to write or read about. Maybe the characters hate each other. Maybe they never actually meet in canon. For whatever reason, it's completely impractical, and yet here you are, reading a fic about it and laughing to yourself at three in the morning. Examples range from the simply implausible, like Ruby/Anna from Supernatural, to the downright silly, like Whomping Willow/ Giant Squid from Harry Potter (Ok, I just made that one up. But honestly, it's probably out there somewhere.) Sometimes it's good to have fun.

M/F, M/M, F/F, or any other combination you can think of: These tags describe the genders of the characters being shipped, M for male, F for female. This can be a helpful sorting tool if you're looking for a certain kind of relationship in the fics you read.

Ok, now that you've been introduced to the weird world of shipping, (and let's be honest, it's not that weird, we all do it), you're ready to learn more about fanfiction specifically: how it works, what kinds of fics there are, and common tropes. Stay tuned for all of that and more in the next installments of the series. Until then, please tell me all about your OTPs in the comments. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Introduction to Fanfiction, Part 1: What? And Why?

Hello dear readers, and welcome back to the blog. I took an extended unannounced leave of absence, (sorry about that), but I'm back with an exciting series of posts exploring one of my new hobbies:


Yes, you heard me correctly. I, Emily, the English major famous for writing 2000+ word reviews/analysis of classic literature, read a ton of fanfiction. I'm hooked, and I can't wait to get you all hooked too. This post series will serve as an introduction to the genre for those who have, for whatever reason, never delved into that portion of the internet. This first post will answer the question that I assume is foremost in all of your minds:

What is fanfiction?

Fanfiction, or fanfic, is when authors write stories using the universe and/or characters from already established works.

Ok, so why should I read or write it?

Wouldn't it be cool if...”: We've all had these thoughts. What was Gimli's trip to the West like? What were the marauders like back in their Hogwarts days? What if Rue had been the one to survive instead of Katniss? Fanfic lets us imagine these scenarios and share our ideas with other fans.

Practice writing: Writing fanfic has a lot of benefits for writers. It allows them to be creative and practice good writing without having to build an entire universe or original characters. Since readers already understand the universe and basic character traits, the writers can work on things like dialogue, description, plot, pacing, and convincing action.

Audience: Another great thing about writing fanfic is that there is a big audience for it. Writers get a group of readers that will both enjoy and critique their writing.

The story is never over: We've all wanted to keep reading a series after we've finished it. Fanfiction gives you nearly endless material to enjoy in the fandom of your choice. You can keep on enjoying a book or series long after it's really finished.

Fix it: If you don't like where a TV series went after a certain season, you can re-imagine the plot and write your own ending. If you think the epilogue to Harry Potter was awful, write your own!

Diversity please: Fanfic writers often respond to the lack of diversity in mainstream media. It allows them to take universes and characters that they love and make them more diverse, inclusive, and reflective of how the world actually looks. I've seen more LGBT characters, characters of color, and women in fanfic than in most TV shows or YA novels, because fanfic authors don't have to worry about ratings or angry parents. In some ways, the best fanfic serves as a model for what truly inclusive storytelling can look like.

When you think about it, fanfiction is amazing.
There are literally thousands of young authors writing millions of stories, with no hope of publication or reward except the love of writing and the enjoyment of other fans. When you look at it that way, it's a beautiful thing, and I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to be involved.

Now that you're excited about fanfic, you're probably wondering where to start. Stay tuned for my next post, which will go over the lingo related to fanfic's biggest (and arguable strangest) component, shipping.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Great Bloomsday Read-A-Long Celebration

Hello dear followers, and welcome to our Bloomsday celebration. Today, June 16, is the day the events of Ulysses occur (yes, that whole huge awesome terrifying book takes place in one day). In honor of this momentous occasion, and in celebration of the characters Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus, we will be holding an incredibly relaxed, no-pressure, do-your-own-thing readathon.

Here's the plan:

We will spend the day reading Ulysses, and we encourage you to do the same. There is no pressure to read the whole book or anything like that, just read a bunch and enjoy yourself. Lori and I will be making sporadic posts throughout the day talking about our experiences with the book, our progress, and really anything else we want to talk about. If you would like to join us, please read the book and post about it, and then link up your posts here. Or, if you won't be reading but still feel like posting something about Joyce today, feel free to link that up too. Are you going to be celebrating at all? Did you once go to Dublin for Bloomsday and have a bunch of pictures you want to share? Do you out have a lot of feelings about Molly's chapter that you are just dying to rant about? Let us know!

Basically, if it's Joyce-related, we want to see it.

We hope that you will take some time out of your day to read at least some part of this monumental book, and that you will join us in celebrating both Joyce and his characters. We look forward to reading your posts. Happy Bloomsday!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ulysses Read-Along: Episodes

Hello all, and welcome back to the Ulysses read-along, hosted by me and Lori. How is the reading going so far? I know that I have personally been slacking off in a big way, mostly because I spent a week on my wedding/honeymoon (!!!) and am now working on moving into a new house (!!!). As you can probably guess, I've been a bit busy. But, have no fear, there is nothing that's going to stop me from rereading this book.

This week's vague and totally optional discussion topic asks you to focus on one episode. Which episode has been the most difficult for you? Which one has been the easiest? Was there one in particular that you really loved and enjoyed? Is there one that made you want to give up? If there's an episode that you need to talk about, now is the time to do it.

I don't know if I could personally pick a favorite chapter. I do remember that Oxen of the Sun nearly killed me the first time I read it. It's a famously difficult chapter stylistically, and it took me ages to even understand what was happening. It's one of those chapters where Joyce shows off just how talented of a writer he is and how much he knows about everything, making it difficult for us mere mortals to keep up. (Of course I had to give a presentation on it the next day, which didn't help.) so yeah, watch out for Oxen of the Sun. On the other hand, both the Circe and Eumaeus episodes made me cry, so you have that to look forward to as well.

I'd love to read all about your favorite / least favorite chapters. Please feel free to write up a post and link it up here on our I linky list. I look forward to it.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ulysses: Halfway Point and Encouragement

Hello all, and welcome back to our Ulysses read along. We took a small break last week because I was busy getting married (!!!), but now we're back with a vengeance. This week is our hypothetical halfway point, so we're focusing on encouragement, strategy, guides, and generally discussing our progress.

I know that Lori has been moving a bit slowly recently, and I personally have been so busy with wedding and honeymoon stuff (!!!) that I haven't really made any progress this week either. So please, share your progress with us. Where are you? How are you doing? Do you have any tips or tricks for those who are moving a little more slowly? Have you found a guide you particularly love or hate? Link up and let us know. In the mean time, please feel free to check out my post on guides if you are looking for a little something to help you through.

I'm looking forward to hearing about your progress.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ulysses Read-Along: Surprises

Hi everyone, and welcome to week 3 of our Ulysses read-along. This week we're discussing anything we've found surprising so far. If you'd like to join us, please feel free to link up your post over at Lori's blog.

The thing that surprised me most about the beginning of Ulysses is how funny it is. I know that sounds weird, since it's a difficult and beautiful book and all that, but Joy is really a very witty guy, and it shows. The first two chapters are especially funny, mostly due to Buck Mulligan and his interactions with Stephen Dedalus. For instance, when looking out from the top of the tower that they live in, mulligan describes the ocean as "The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea," which is both a great description and a great parody of Homer's famous "the winedark sea." Later, when Stephen accuses Mulligan of insulting him earlier, Mulligan claims not to remember the conversation, as he can  "only remember ideas and sensations." But Stephen, the grumpy, artistic, depressed, pathetic, cynical, sad, lonely Stephen, can also be funny, in his own dry way. When asked his views on religion he answers, "You behold in me...a horrible example of free thought."

While the early chapters are the most likely to make me laugh, the chapters are also very funny. Near the end of the book Bloom and Stephen end up in a little coffee shack, where the coffee is apparently pretty bad. Here are the ways the narrator describes it:
"...a boiling swimming cup of a choice concoction labelled coffee..."
"...the cup of what was temporarily supposed to be called coffee..."
"...his untastable apology for a cup of coffee..."
"...his mug of coffee or whatever you like to call it..."
All of those are just tossed into the narration without any fuss. That's how the humor works in this book; it's subtle and witty and brilliant. There are so many instances of dramatic irony, inside jokes, neologisms, malapropisms, and just general weirdness, that despite the difficulty and complexity of the text, it never gets boring. There are lots of things that surprised me about Ulysses, but the humor has been what stands out to me the most.

Well, thanks for reading. Please feel free to make your own posts and link up over at Lori's blog. Keep on reading, and we'll see you next week!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ulysses Read-Along: First Impressions

Hello everyone, and welcome back to our Ulysses read along. This week's totally-optional discussion topic is first impressions. So, if you are reading this book for the first time, what are your impressions so far? If you've read it before, what did you think when you first picked it up? What are your thoughts upon picking it up again?

I can tell you that when I first read it, my first thoughts were a mix of "oh my gosh this is weird" and "but it isn't as weird as I expected, maybe I can do this." I also remember being struck by the beauty of some of the prose, especially in the first three chapters, which feature aspiring poet and generally mopey artist-type Stephen Dedalus. Joyce has this amazing ability to make his writing just sound good, on a purely auditory ear-pleasing level, and that really struck me at the beginning of this novel. Another thing that I noticed is that this book is secretly really funny. Joyce was incredibly witty, and it definitely shows in these first w chapters. Buck Mulligan especially is a really funny character.

But hey, enough about me, what about you? Let us know about your first impressions (or about anything else really, we aren't picky) by linking up to our little linky list.
I can't wait to read about it!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ulysses Read-Along: Start-up Questionnaire

Hello everyone, and welcome to the great Ulysses read-along, hosted by Lori and I. We thought it would be fun to start out with a totally optional little questionnaire so we could all get to know each other. If you would like to join us and you're into these kinds of posts, please feel free to answer the questions and link up over at Lori's blog. If you'd like to do some other kind of intro post, feel free to link that up too. If you don't feel like writing any posts, that's also great. We're very flexible around here. 
Anyway, without any further ado, here are my answers to the questions:

1. Introduce yourself.
Hi, I'm Emily. I'm a recent college graduate who loves literary fiction, classics, sci-fi, and the occasional fanfiction. I'm also into cheesy TV (Supernatural, Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc), bird watching, and coffee. I am getting married to the most perfect man ever on May 26th. 

2. Have you read Ulysses before? Any other Joyce? Any attempts?
I read Ulysses, as well as Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, and some of Joyce's poetry, for a class I took in the fall of 2012. They are all awesome and I loved them dearly. 

3. Are you feeling nauseous?
Haha, honestly yeah, a little.

4. Why are you doing this?
I really loved Ulysses the first time I read it, so I wanted to do something special for Bloomsday this year. Lori was also interested in reading Ulysses, one thing led to another, and here we are.

5. Are you planning to use any guides or resources?
Yes, I will be using James Joyce A-Z, which was my favorite guide last time.

6. Do you have a reading strategy? Are you sticking to a schedule?
My strategy is to simply enjoy myself as much as possible. I'm going to read through and not stress about it too much. As for a schedule, I do want to finish enough by Bloomsday that I can use our Bloomsday Readathon to finish the novel, but if that doesn't happen it won't be the end of the world.

7. What are you most excited about?
I'm most excited about meeting Leopold Bloom again. I loved him the first time I read it, and I hope to love him just as much this time.

8. What are you most scared of?
I you haven't noticed, these Bloomsday posts have been my first since August. That's because I haven't really been reading anything all year. I'm really pretty scared to try to get back into the swing of things, especially with a book this dense.

9. If this is your first time, what is your impression of the novel going into it?
I remember the first time I read this, I was prepared for the hardest craziest thing I had ever read. This turned out to be only partially true. ;)

10. Have you read The Odyssey or seen O Brother, Where Art Thou? before?
I love The Odyssey with all my heart, and O Brother is one of my favorite movies. I would really suggest watching it if you haven't already.

Well, now I'm super excited about starting this read-along with all of you! I can't wait to meet you all. If you'd like to join us, please feel free to write a post and link up over at Lori's blog. We look forward to reading with you!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Guides to Ulysses: An Overview

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the blog. In anticipation of the Ulysses read along that Lori and I are hosting, I wanted to post a short list of guides to Ulysses. Lots of people use guides to help them make some sense of this monumental work. Guides can give you a place to start by providings short chapter summaries, background and historical information, and notes on style. In this post I'm going to talk about the three guides that I have personal experience with. I'll give you a brief overview and my opinion on their strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully this will help you choose the guide that's right for you.

James Joyce A-Z: The Essential Reference to his Life and Writings
Fargnoli and Gillespie

Description: This book is organized like an encyclopedia, with alphabetically listed entries on all of Joyce's work, as well as on his personal life and some important historical events. The entries are relatively short (I think the longest is about a page) and serve as concise factual summaries of a given topic. There are entries for each episode of Ulysses, as well as for all the major characters.

My Thoughts: I love this book. This was the only guide I actually used when I read Ulysses for the first time, and it was immensely helpful. The entries for each episode provide nice short summaries that give you all the information you need without weighing you down or telling you how to interpret things. I'd definitely recommend this book for anyone planning to read Ulysses.

TLDR: Get this one.

The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses
Harry Blamires

Summary: The New Bloomsday Book is a true guide to Ulysses. It goes through each episode, summarizing and explaining the major events, characters, and symbols. The author makes connections between the episodes and tries to unravel some of the thematic and symbolic content of the novel. The chapters are, on average, between ten and twenty pages long.

My Thoughts: I feel a bit ambivalent about this book. On one hand, I love the in-depth chapter summaries that it provides. The writing is good and the explanations are all very clear. On the other hand, the author does a lot of interpretation for the reader, and I don't like my experience of the book to be colored by someone else's reading, especially the first time. If you use this guide, and a lot of people do, just remember that the interpretations in it are not law, they are one scholar's opinions.

TLDR: A good guide, but a little heavier on interpretation than I would like.

Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses
Gifford and Seidman

Summary: Ulysses Annotated is a line-by-line annotation of Ulysses that is nearly as long as the book itself. Every single reference, historical even, person, turn of phrases, or unusual word is explained or defined. While it doesn't go into interpretation or symbolism very much, this book will explain literally everything else to you in minute detail. Scholars everywhere have this book on their shelves.

My Thoughts: Do not use this book. No, really, don't. It is an awesome book, and if you intend to write a scholarly paper on Ulysses then you absolutely need it, but if you are intending to read, finish, and enjoy Ulysses, then please do not try to read this book alongside it. It will swamp you and bore you and tell you everything that you don't need to know. I genuinely think that using this book will keep you from enjoying Ulysses.

TLDR: Only use this if you intend to write your thesis on Ulysses.

So, those are the three guides that I personally own and have interacted with. I hope this has been helpful to those of you who want to read Ulysses with us. If you have any guides that you love (or hate), please let me know in the comments. I hope you will all join us for our read along, which starts May 1.