Great Podcasts: Fake News (in a good way!)

I’m back with another set of podcasts to highlight! Today’s two are a unique type: structured like a news or interview show, but set in fictional places, sharing fictional news. Hijinks and hilarity ensue, providing a welcome respite from real news and interview shows, which for me are almost universally exhausting. Again, as a disclaimer, I’m nowhere near caught up with either of these podcasts, so I can’t vouch for their entire content. As always, share your tips and recommendations in the comments! These podcasts are also available through Spotify, their websites, and other podcasting platforms like iTunes.

Welcome to Night Vale

This is a quite famous podcast in some circles, so you may well have already heard of it. If you’re not familiar, it’s structured as a local radio news program broadcast in the fictional (hopefully) town of Night Vale. The show reports strange happenings including strange creatures, ominous surveillance, and bizarre happenings with deadpan delivery, because in Night Vale, the odd and terrifying is also the everyday and normal. This makes for quite a bit of dry, tongue-in-cheek humor which may not be for everyone, but can be delightful.

Hello From the Magic Tavern

I discovered this podcast by accident a few years ago, and the main reason I stopped listening to it on any kind of consistent basis was because it always made me laugh out loud in the public places where I listened to it. This podcast’s structure is fairly typical for the medium: a host interviews a series of guests, hearing their stories and getting their take on current events. However, it’s set in the magical land of Foon, where the host ended up after falling through a portal behind Burger King. The improv comedy is often inappropriate but it’s always hilarious.

Untitled Goose Game for Nintendo Switch

Perhaps you already heard about when Untitled Goose Game took the gaming world by storm. If you haven’t, I’m here to tell you that not only is this game good fun, it’s now available for Nintendo Switch, and you can check it out from the library! The game is built on a simple premise: a goose (that’s you, the player) wanders into an ordinary village to ruin everyone’s day. That’s it, and it’s fantastic.

One thing I liked as a newbie gamer is the game’s structure, in which you learn both in building blocks and by being creative. You unlock one area of the village at a time by crossing items off your to-do list (it’s a great list, including ‘lock the groundskeeper out of the garden’, ‘make someone buy back their own stuff’, ‘get on TV’, etc.) and each section lets you build skills and strategies that help you in the next, more complicated section of town. But there’s no particular order of tasks you have to do, and no instructions on how to get them done. You learn how to move the goose, make it pick things up and (very importantly) honk, and then your job is to wander, explore, and experiment until you figure out how to do things on your own. This makes it a good game to build your creativity and strategic skills in a low-stress environment, with simple, charming art and occasional musical accompaniment.

I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed being the town nuisance, moving people’s possessions around, chasing and honking at them. It was almost like a release valve for all my petty frustrations and rude impulses, and the structureless, low-stakes feel of the game made me feel free and empowered to take action (albeit impolite action) in the world. All in all I would recommend this game for all ages as a lighthearted romp with some psychological benefits.

Key Changes: New Classical Music

Some great new classical music has been added to the collection lately! The reigning theme is: fresh takes on tradition. Check out some of the great possibilities below.

Bach Cello Suites vol. 2 (arranged for guitar) by Jeffrey McFadden takes some of the most famous classical cello music ever written and puts a new twist on it – arrangement for guitar. In a new medium, the full harmonic complexity of the composition is on display, making this a worthy addition to the recordings of these pieces. Volume 1 coming soon.

 

The Art of the Mandolin by Avi Avital is definitely not something you see every day – an album comprised entirely of works written for the mandolin! Drawing from famous composers like Vivaldi and Beethoven, as well as contemporary composers including the performer himself, the album celebrates the mandolin in its unique glory.

 

Debussy & Ravel with the London Symphony Orchestra explores mystery, fantasy, and stirring odysseys through the work of two composers: Ravel, who explores his Spanish heritage in the Rapsodie espagnole, and Debussy, who creates mystic, free, and wild worlds in the Prelude de L’apres-midi d’un faune and La mer. Discover the subtleties and nuance of classical compositions.

 

Time by Jess Gillam is the second album by the award-winning saxophonist, following 2019’s Rise. This album strives to emulate and evoke the rising and falling energies over the course of a day, and echoes a wide variety of styles and influences. It promises an immersive sound experience and a time for reflection.

 

Not Our First Goat Rodeo by Stuart Duncan edges into the world of classical crossover, with chamber music melding with country, folk, and blues. This light-hearted ensemble features the cello stylings of Yo-Yo Ma, and promises a boundary-breaking good time. It’s a follow-up to the 2011 album Goat Rodeo Sessions, also available.

 

John Williams in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmonic takes the classic soundtrack music of John Williams, and sets it in the stirring instrumentals of a philharmonic orchestra. Take an emotional and nostalgic journey with this star-studded program! Includes music of Indiana Jones, E.T., Luke Skywalker, and more.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

For a lot of people, 2020 was a year of loneliness. More people than ever before felt the pangs of isolation, the pain of being separated from other people and struggling to make connections. Which is partly why it was poignant and fascinating for me to read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing as 2020 was winding down.

This book does (or tries to do) a lot of things. On the one hand, Laing is telling the story of her own time spent both alone and lonely in New York City after the failure of a relationship. On the other hand, she’s telling the stories of several great artists who did their work in the midst of or in response to loneliness. And on yet another hand, she’s telling the story of what loneliness is, how it works, the studies that have been done about it, and how we can and ought to live in it. However, despite how disparate the different threads are, they braid together into a thoughtful and moving examination of a universal human experience.

Where a strictly self-help style book about living through loneliness might begin to seem preachy or subjective, where a memoir might sink into self-pity and lots of personal details, and where an art biography might seem dry or academic or esoteric, this book slipped neatly in and out of these perspectives, avoiding pitfalls and using the juxtaposition of different elements to underscore important points. The author’s message  is essentially this: all people experience loneliness, when they become emotionally and/or physically separated from the society around them. Loneliness, being essentially desperation for intimacy and human contact, makes its victim socially clumsy, overly sensitive to rejection, and defensive – all of which conspires to keep the person isolated. She urges us to build a more compassionate society that strives to include and reach out to those prone to being pushed to the outskirts.

I liked this book not only for the resonant unpacking of loneliness as a phenomenon, but also for the detailed and thoughtful descriptions of artists’ lives and works. I’m not much of an art connoisseur, so hearing background details about artists, alongside a discerning examination of their work and what it means, really helped me grasp the concepts. By using artists to explore loneliness, moreover, Laing suggests that creativity, imagination, and self-expression are powerful weapons that can be used in and against isolation. Essentially, I came away from this book with a feeling of profound hope. If you’re looking to take a deep dive into art, loneliness, and social isolation, I recommend this book – but be warned, it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. Most of the artists she describes came to artistic self-expression by living through incredible, heart-breaking hardships that demanded to be put into words.

Just Like That by Cole McCade

The weather won’t stop getting colder anytime soon, but a steamy book might warm you right up! My latest suggestion: Just Like That by Cole McCade. This sweet story about second chances at happily-ever-after centers on Summer Hemlock, who comes back to his hometown to work at his old school, and Fox Iseya, Summer’s former teacher and current crush, who’s been grieving his late wife for so long he can’t imagine himself otherwise. Summer, crippled by anxiety, quickly changes all that by proposing an unusual deal: every time he can do something brave, he earns a kiss from Fox. Fox finds himself unexpectedly flustered and intrigued by the offer, and the resulting relationship might just heal them both.

Despite the frankly unlikely character names, I found this book sweet, endearing, funny, and yes, steamy, with lots of points in its favor, including a strongly ethical portrayal of relationships, grief, and self-confidence. Both characters are fully-developed people with personalities, hobbies, and foibles. Both characters are students of psychology, and they don’t shy away from discussing the underlying issues each is grappling with. There’s also good solid representation of consent and negotiating intimacy to both partners’ comfort level.  Maybe most importantly, though Summer is Fox’s former student, the book is clear that nothing personal happens or could happen between them unless they’re both fully mature, consenting adults – a vital point for me to enjoy the story. All of these elements combined to create a novel that, though definitely erotica, has love, respect, and the characters’ wellbeing at its heart.

If you need to believe in second chances, if you want to feel hope and bravery, and if you’re looking for a healing, escapist read for your wintry days, I recommend giving this new book a try – Just Like That.

Key Changes: New Music by Enchanting Voices

First things first: everyone has different opinions on which singers have the most beautiful voices. The two singers I’m highlighting today are just two of my personal favorites — I love the rich, velvety tones of their voices and am looking to share the beauty of it with you! Both these singers are probably known to you in some way, because they’re iconic features of vocal music in popular culture. These, their most recent albums, show their chops and add to their already considerable reputations – in popular music circles, anyway. Classical music critics have mixed feelings.

Believe by Andrea Bocelli is the 16th solo album the pop tenor has released (though he’s collaborated on many more!) and it strikes a very timely tone for 2020. It’s a collection of uplifting songs that Bocelli has loved throughout his life. In his announcement, Bocelli said the album is a celebration of the power of music to soothe the soul, and it features duets with opera singer Cecilia Bartoli and award-winning singer Alison Krauss.

Harmony by Josh Groban strikes a similar note: Groban reportedly developed and fleshed-out this album during the isolation of the global pandemic when he was trying to reach a place of light and hope. The resulting album represents a miracle of cooperation as musicians and producers combined their efforts from a distance to create a unified whole. Moreover, the songs themselves are a mix of classic melodies and original songs which express hope for the future.

Ace by Angela Chen

“The words are gifts. If you know which terms to search, you know how to find others who might have something to teach.” 

In the world of relationships and identities, asexuality is relatively unknown, but it’s vitally important. To understand why, read Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen.  Journalist Chen uses her own experiences as well as those of a diverse group of asexual people to explain what asexuality is and how it feels, and also to expose some hidden truths about ourselves and our societies.

First things first: what DOES it mean? To put it simply, someone who is asexual doesn’t experience sexual attraction. There are as many different ways this works as there are asexual people, but that’s the main point to remember: no sexual attraction. If you’re puzzled, have never heard of this before, and are wondering if I’m just making this up, check out this book, or The Invisible Orientation by Julie Decker, another vital text on the subject, available through interlibrary loan.

To paraphrase the publisher: Both highly readable and unflinchingly honest, Ace uses a blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir to address the misconceptions around the “A” of LGBTQIA and invites everyone to rethink pleasure and intimacy. I personally think that description is spot-on: Chen clearly conducted rigorous research to write this book, but she balances the academic language with personal stories that bring the theoretical ideas and big words into the real, practical world. This makes it easier to understand the tough concepts she introduces, like how gender and race intersect with sexual orientation. Most importantly, she makes it clear that her goal is acceptance and freedom for EVERYONE to build the life and relationships they want, without judgment, pressure, or shame.

You don’t need to be asexual yourself to benefit from this book; you just need to have an open mind. My hope is that if you don’t already know about this word and the diverse and beautiful community it represents, you’ll be intrigued, validated, or at least better informed by learning more about it.

Stranger Planet by Nathan W. Pyle

“Bright, colorful, and whimsical—yet charmingly familiar—Stranger Planet is out-of-this-world fun.”

One of my major habits as a reader is balance – I always need to balance out the heavy with the light, the sweet with the salty. It’s how I stay sane, ESPECIALLY when the sweet, light books are like Strange Planet and Stranger Planet by Nathan W. Pyle. There’s nothing like a book of comics as a palate cleanser, and there’s nothing like Pyle’s comics, period.

Stranger Planet is the second book of Pyle’s comics (originally shared on social media) and a worthy successor to the first. In both cases, it’s a pared-down world of bright pinks, blues, greens, and purples, where genderless aliens navigate a strangely familiar world of “cohesion” (marriage), “mild poison” (alcohol), “offspring” (kids), “elastic breath traps” (balloons), and much more.

These comics are charming for me because I love the quirky, gentle humor of examining everyday activities through a fresh perspective. I’m also a huge sucker for wordplay, which doesn’t hurt. Basically, if you’re looking for a quick break or to rediscover a sense of wonder about the world, I definitely recommend you check out Stranger Planet by Nathan Pyle.

Key Changes: New Classical Crossovers

I grew up listening to a lot of classical music because of my parents, and only developed a love for pop music later. This has given me a unique perspective on music, and a love for a genre that’s a bit obscure but super fun if you’re a music nerd like me. It’s usually called Classical Crossovers, and it’s what happens when instruments and groups that typically play classical music play… NOT classical music, whether that’s pop music, rock music, soundtracks, etc. How this works depends on the group and the music they’re covering. I like it because the different instrumentation puts a unique twist on a familiar melody. Here are a few examples of this genre, recently ordered for the library.

Disney Goes Classical by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an album where a symphony orchestra plays beloved Disney songs, from movies like The Lion King, Moana, Frozen, and more. It also features guest artists who are some of the best classical musicians today, including Matteo Bocelli,  Renee Fleming, and more. If you’re looking to relive your childhood or experience the magic of Disney in a different way, check out this album for a classy journey down memory lane.

10 by the Piano Guys probably needs no introduction; The Piano Guys have been an Internet sensation for a long time with their amazing covers of popular songs and mashups with both popular and classical tracks. In this album, they celebrate 10 years of making music with new covers as well as some of their greatest hits. They always adapt the original song to work perfectly with their instruments (piano and cello) and the songs on this album are no exception.

Alive by David Garrett is the newest album from an acclaimed violinist known for his violin covers of rock and popular songs. In this album, he has created a collection of his favorite soundtrack music, which runs the gamut from Disney songs like Beauty and the Beast and Let it Go to dramatic hits like Shallow, all the while staying true to his roots as a classical musician.

Finna by Nino Cipri

Not to be melodramatic, but Finna by Nino Cipri is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It reads in many ways like an American version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all-time favorite books. The deceptively thin volume is the story of Ava and Jules, a young couple that just broke up a week ago and now has to find a way to continue working together at a Scandinavian big box furniture store. As if the horrors and indignities of working retail AND a breakup  weren’t enough, they then discover a wormhole to a parallel universe has opened inside the store — and a customer has wandered through it. It falls to Ava and Jules, as the employees with the least seniority, to go through the wormhole and try to bring the customer home. While trying to survive a perilous multiverse, they must also walk the perilous path from breakup back to friendship.

I fell in love with this book almost instantly, and there’s many reasons why. For one thing, it’s a slim and unintimidating 137 pages, and the writing style and brief chapters make it a quick and addictive read. The humor is dry and wry, realistic about the cruelties and frustrations of both working retail and navigating relationships. Both characters are honest about their own good and bad qualities and while the hurt and defensiveness is real, they don’t flinch away from taking a long, hard look at what went wrong in themselves and in their relationship. Moreover, meaningful as the relationship between the characters is, the book doesn’t get bogged down in it, balancing out the heartfelt discussions with lots of frankly wacky adventures in parallel universes both beautiful and sinister. Finally, this book is one of a very rare type: a novel, with a genderqueer protagonist, that doesn’t focus exclusively on that individual’s gender. In fact, Jules’ gender identity and the social difficulties that come with it are treated as established and routine, mundane everyday details compared to the rest of the plot. As a genderqueer person myself, it is so refreshing to read novels where gender-diverse people exist, live their lives, and do things other than obsess about their gender identity.

If you love slice-of-life sci fi, Welcome to Night Vale, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or are craving some light-hearted LGBTQ representation, I 100% recommend you check out this book.