Thursday, December 29, 2011

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy -- what's the difference?

In a science fiction class I took in college, there was a day when the professor brought in a stack of paperback novels and issued our class a challenge. Could we tell, with a glance at the cover, which books were fantasy and which were sci-fi? Try it yourself with the picture above -- can you tell which is which?

Science fiction and fantasy -- which might be thought of as the "what-if?" genres -- are often considered similar enough in style and substance to warrant being shelved together in bookstores and libraries. However, as any sci-fi or fantasy fan could tell you, the two are generally quite distinct. So how to tell the difference?

Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, is credited with explaining the difference as "science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable."

Science fiction is a term reserved for those fantastical stories that could one day be possible. They are stories about technology that could be invented or alien planets that could be discovered. After all, some sci-fi tales have gone on to come true: H.G. Wells published The First Men in the Moon nearly seventy years before the first moon landing, and William Gibson's Neuromancer is credited with introducing the concept of the World Wide Web ... back in 1984. Of course the details may be a bit off (rockets, not "cavorite," got human beings to the moon) -- and there's plenty of sci-fi developments that will always remain fictional. But science fiction prides itself on being the genre of "what could be," if only we have the technology or discovery to reach for it.

Fantasy, meanwhile, is about the purely impossible. Wands, wizards, spells, and magic -- things that have no scientific explanation and will always remain impossible. Science fiction has science (even if it's yet-to-be-discovered, far-flung science). Fantasy does magic. It's as simple as that.

Well ... maybe not that simple. Like Mysteries vs. Thrillers, sometimes a book will have elements of both genres mixed into it. Star Wars, for instance, tells the story of an ancient order of knights who channel a mysterious power and duel in sword fights ... with robots and aliens in spaceships. It's that last bit that keeps Star Wars classified as science fiction, even though many of its elements (such as the Force itself) seem more like fantasy. When deciding whether to classify a book in the Library as sci-fi or fantasy, we librarians sometimes rely on the author's reputation or the publisher's recommendation.

Of course, sometimes it's an easy decision to make -- often by simply looking at the cover of the book itself. You can be pretty sure that this is a science fiction read:

Whereas this is a fantasy story:

Just keep in mind that appearances can sometimes be deceiving. That book with the dragon on top, Dragonflight? That's the first novel in Anne McCaffrey's Pern series -- a series featuring a planet colonized by spaceship-traveling humans, who scientifically create genetically-altered dragons on their new home. There's not a bit of the magical about it -- once you get past your own expectations after seeing a dragon on the cover. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, on the other hand, sounds like straight-up science fiction with its talk of alternate universes ... until you meet the witches, daemons, and talking polar bears.

Bit of a trick question. Sorry about that. I'll chalk it up to the influence of my sci-fi lit professor, who was always trying to show us a new way to look at everything. Including science fiction book covers!

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Staff Recommendation #4: The Works of Vivian Vande Velde

Today we've got a very special book review, written by teen volunteer Amanda. Enjoy her funny, insightful look into two YA fantasy reads!

* * * * *

The Changeling Prince by Vivian Vande Velde

Let me start this off by making one point clear: I hate the Twilight series. (Irrelevant as you might think it is, that’s important.) That being said, I did not expect much from The Changeling Prince. Ever since I had the displeasure of reading the new “Stephenie Meyer” rendition of werewolves, picking up a book with werewolves in it has brought me both mental and physical pain (the physical pain being caused by me violently throwing the book against my foot whenever I read a new passage about how attractively attractive the werewolf looked). So once I’d finished reading The Changeling Prince and my feet were still in perfect condition, I knew it had been a success.

Here’s the story: For his entire life, Weiland (the main character, in case it wasn’t completely obvious from me mentioning his name first) has been under the control of the evil sorceress Daria. She kidnapped him when he was still just a wolf pup, and changed him into a human. Now, he isn’t the only animal-turned-human that Daria owns. She has a wide variety of bears, wolves, birds, etc. (like a Beanie Baby obsession gone bad). Whenever Daria wants them to do something for her, she’ll change them back to their original animal form and send them out. Naturally, being a main character and all, Weiland is not satisfied with this lifestyle. He doesn’t want to kill people, he doesn’t like waking up and tasting blood in his mouth: the usual. But how can he manage to escape when Daria has complete control over him? And that’s when the adventure begins.

Now I can tell you that Weiland is one of my favorite characters I’ve read about. Ever. And that’s because he isn’t all moral. Sure, he doesn’t like to kill people, but he’ll beat you pretty hard if you deserve it (and maybe sometimes even if you don’t). That’s a characteristic you often see in side characters -- while the main character is being moral and brave, trying to hold the side-character back. To see this from the main character was really refreshing. In any case, I don’t want to spoil any more (actually, my fingers are starting to hurt from this annoying computer keyboard, but same difference), so the main point I am trying to get across is: read the book.

The Conjurer Princess by Vivian Vande Velde

Now, after finishing The Changeling Prince, to my extreme joy I discovered that there was a sequel. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t. Apparently, Vande Velde wrote this book ten years before she wrote The Changeling Prince, and it shows. Honestly, I liked it so little that I can’t even remember most of the plot … or the main character’s name. (I just Googled it: It’s Lylene.) Alright, so Lylene is supposed to be this good, caring, brave, perfect (I know … already you can’t stand her) heroine. Instead, the author accidentally made her bratty, annoying, awful, flirty, and just plain unbearable. The only reason I could even finish this book at all was the fact that Weiland was in it (and honestly, he wasn’t nearly as awesome as he had been in The Changeling Prince). So, the main point I’m trying to get across with The Conjurer Princess is: don’t read this book. Don’t. You will regret it. I promise.

So, if you’re an author, and you’re reading this, it is a warning. If you ever decide to write a prequel to a book you wrote ten years ago, don’t. No matter who you are, or how good you think you were at writing ten years ago, your style will have changed within the last decade (hopefully on the improving side -- but really, it goes both ways). If you’re not careful, you could end up with this disaster happening to you, and the next time someone writes a review like this, it will be about your book series. Be warned.

Request The Changeling Prince by Vivian Vande Velde

And, if you care to risk ignoring Amanda's sage advice, borrow an interlibrary loan copy of The Conjurer Princess

-- Our thanks to teen volunteer Amanda for her fantastic reviews!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Home for the Holidays: Last-Minute Resources For Planning the (Almost) Perfect Holiday Gathering

So, something scary is happening at my mother's house this holiday season: I'll be preparing my first-ever Christmas dinner.

I always spend the holidays at my mom's -- but every year since I can remember, she's always been the cook. Over the last few years, it finally occurred to me that she's been preparing massive holiday dinners three or four times a year, every year, for nearly three decades -- and therefore definitely deserves a break. Which inspired me to volunteer to prepare the big Christmas meal this year instead.

I've been cooking for years, but this is the first time I've ever attempted a full-blown holiday feast. (I'm already wondering if my menu -- which includes roasted walnut and pear salad, potato gratin, and green beans with almonds and caramelized shallots (none of which I've ever made before) -- might prove to be a bit audacious.) I'm hoping I don't end up with a meal inspiring such reactions as you can see from the Barone family (of Everybody Loves Raymond) in the video above.

So as I busy myself preparing for my big Christmas cook-off (such as it is), I thought I'd share some of the online resources I've found to be particularly useful in preparing for the big holiday events. We have some wonderful holiday cookbooks and craft guides here at the Library -- but if you find yourself in a pinch and need some last-minute ideas for your holiday celebration, be sure to check out these sites.

-- Ms. B

RECIPES -- Great for recipes, menu ideas, and how-tos. -- Another great resource, along the lines of AllRecipes. Features recipes from your favorite Food Network chefs! -- Users submit their own original recipes, with other cooks logging in to rate and review after trying the dish themselves.

Betty Crocker -- Kitchen expertise from Betty Crocker "herself."

Epicurious -- Some fancier dishes for your inner gourmet chef. Includes resources like recipe-specific shopping lists, wine pairings, and a food dictionary.

Rachel Ray -- Rachael Ray is my favorite chef, and her holiday recipes are not to be missed! Particularly useful if you're planning a holiday brunch, or looking for a different kind of dessert. -- For those watching their waistline, or just hoping for healthier holiday treats, check out Cooking Light's ultimate holiday online cookbook.

Healthy Eating at Your Holiday Party -- Another list of healthy holiday choices (with recipes) ... from the Mayo Clinic!

Joy of Baking -- This site is a baker's dream resource. With tons of recipes, baking tips, and instructional videos, this is a must-visit. (Be sure to check out the holiday cookie section!)

Cocktail Enthusiast -- For the sommeliers (or just if you're a cocktail fan), here are some holiday mixed drinks, from eggnog and beyond.


Martha Stewart -- Craft projects, entertaining tips, and also plenty of recipes.

Better Homes and Gardens -- A one-stop shop for ideas on decorating, entertaining, and cooking tips.

Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft - Christmas craft projects from Jo-Ann Fabric! Includes centerpieces, candy decorations, and even holiday outfits.

Michael's -- Some more ideas for Christmas projects from Michael's craft store.

DIY Network's Christmas Decorating and Craft Ideas -- Decorations, gift ideas, and tips on how to design your very own outdoor light display.

Good Housekeeping -- A different sort of holiday guide. Features step-by-step guides to getting your house "guest-ready," gift-wrapping tricks and tips, and product gift reviews.


Holiday stress can get to us even during the merriest of celebrations -- because there's just so much to do! Let these "survival guides" give you some tips and tricks to surviving the season with your sanity intact -- and enjoy the holiday season.

Making the Most of the Holiday Season -- The APA offers five quick tips to ensure a worry-free time of the year.

Dealing with Holiday Family Stress -- NPR interviews humorist Brian Copeland for some advice on using humor to deal with our more difficult relatives.

Coping Tips for the Holidays -- The Mayo Clinic steps in again to offer tips for preventing holiday stress and depression.

Holiday Stress-Busters: for Parents -- How to make the holiday season memorable for your children and for yourself.

Happy Holidays from Ms. B, Tracy, and all of us at Monroeville Public Library!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ho Ho Ho: Comedies for the Holiday Season

I love the holidays. There's plenty of reasons for this: the warmth, the joy, the time with my family, the mounds of gifts. (Obviously I am kidding about that last one.) (Sort of.)

But one of my favorite things about this time of year are the stories. I'm a book-lover, not to mention a movie-buff, and so tales about my favorite time of year naturally rank among my favorite books and films. There's plenty of holiday movies that I love, for making me smile -- or for tugging at my heartstrings.

But the holiday comedies tend to be my favorites. With so much food, fun, and family (especially the family!), the holidays can be a crazy time of year. It's the comedies like these that make me laugh, put this time of year in perspective -- and remember what the holidays are really all about.

So if you could use some holiday cheer, check out the list below of ten seasonal comedy classics. Happy Holidays!

Please note that not all of these films are family-friendly. Be sure to check the ratings first!

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

With the newest Muppet movie still currently in theaters, this makes it a great time to check out their best Christmas special. The Muppets take on Charles Dickens classic story "A Christmas Carol," with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge ... and, er, "starring" Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit. It's a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original story -- if, of course, a bit Muppet-fied.

2. This Christmas

Family and the holiday season go hand-in-hand -- whether we like it or not. The Whitfield family is gathering together for the first time in four years, and the kids -- and their mother -- all have their share of unexpected developments to share with the rest of the family. Sparks fly, personalities clash, and the family generally drives each other crazy (complete with an all-out wrestling match) before everybody starts to remember what drew them together in the first place.

3. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

While the family's trip to Wally World still remains my favorite, the Griswolds manage to put their own unique twist on The True Meaning of Christmas in this comedy classic.

4. Elf

You don't have to be a Will Ferrell fan to enjoy this crazy comedy about a human raised by elves at the North Pole -- only to return as an adult to New York City to see if he can track down his birth parents.

5. Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights

An animated musical comedy that is not intended for all ages, this holiday movie is one of the few holiday films to focus on Jewish characters during the Hanukkah season. Adam Sandler voices a character whose mischievous ways get him in trouble with the law and leave him with a choice: spend the holiday season performing community service as an assistant referee for a youth basketball league -- or go to jail. Wacky hijinks ensue.

6. The Ref

This one's a comedy about holiday family dysfunction -- with a twist. Denis Leary stars as a thief who, coming out of a botched robbery attempt, kidnaps a married couple when his own getaway car goes missing. He quickly regrets the decision, however, when the bickering married couple (and their squabbling relatives) turn out to be more of a hassle than jail could ever be.

7. Love Actually

A bit more serious and sweet than some of these other entries (yet often still quite funny), this British romantic comedy features interlocking stories about average (and not-so-average) couples during the holidays. It's also a veritable who's-who of British actors, including performances from Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Rowan Atkinson -- and Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister.

8. Scrooged

There are enough adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" to warrant two versions on the list. This one is a darker comedy than the Muppets' entry, featuring Bill Murrary as a modern-day Scrooge whose a cynical, cold-hearted TV exec. A must-watch for Murray fans.

9. Home Alone

I can't watch this movie without being whisked back in time to my childhood. Directed by Chris Columbus (who would go on to be the first director to bring Harry Potter to the big screen), this is a movie that does what it says on the tin. Kevin McCallister's a nine-year-old kid who wishes his overbearing family would just disappear -- only to wake up one morning to find they've done exactly that. Left behind by mistake while the rest of the family flies to France on holiday might be bad enough, but then Kevin finds out his house is the target of two bungling burglars. (The sequel's not a bad watch, either.)

10. A Christmas Story

Looks like I've saved the best for last. (And come to think of it, I can't watch this movie without being whisked back in time to my childhood, either.) Ralphie only wants one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. But what's a nine-year-old to do when all the adults are convinced he'll only shoot his eye out? A nostalgic look back at Christmas, childhood, and the 40s, there's probably one or two scenes in here that'll have you nodding along at your own childhood memories of the holiday season.

Or maybe that's just me. (But be honest -- those mail-in prizes were never as good as you thought they were going to be, were they?)

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"And Then What Happened?" - Part II: Preferring Pastiches

In our last entry, I discussed the curious phenomenon of having a new writer come in to finish the incomplete manuscript or unfinished series of an author who had passed away before being able to finish the work themselves. While such books can often prove quite popular with some fans, others will often complain that the writing style of the new author is too different, that the characters don't feel the same, or that the book goes in a direction the original author never would have intended. (I admit I tend to distrust such sequels and continuations myself.)

But there is a different type of book "sequel" that I'm much more fond of -- the pastiche.

The word "pastiche" technically means "an artistic work that imitates the style of a previous work." In the case of literature, it refers to any book which is written in the style of (or perhaps in homage to) a story which has come before. Often, the authors of pastiches are not only writing a new story with classic characters, but are also trying to match the style and cadence of the original author's writing.

I tend to use the word "pastiche" to refer to those new stories that feature classic characters, written by someone other than their original author. There's an inherent difference, to me, in writing a story using fictional characters that are old enough to have become a part of our literary culture's history, rather than completing the work of an author who has only recently passed away. Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are characters who have become a part of our collective unconscious -- they are characters people know and recognize even if they've never read the story or seen the film in which those characters originally appeared. Writing the further adventures of Holmes intrigues me in a way that a Michael Critchon "sequel" cannot -- simply because the classic characters have become larger than life. Large enough, in fact, that they seem to exist outside the boundaries of their original printed pages. So why not write new stories about them?

Sherlock Holmes pastiches are, by far, the most popular. After you check out the new movie, you might want to try a few of these unauthorized Holmes "sequels." And, if Arthur Conan Doyle isn't for you, take a look at some of our other classics pastiches:

Sherlock Holmes

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King.

The popular Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King tell the story of a young woman who starts off as a protege to the retired Sherlock Holmes, going on to eventually become his partner ... and his wife. While the series never quite hit the right note with me personally -- my "version" of Sherlock Holmes is not the marrying type -- many love this series for the relationship between these two characters.

Sherlock Holmes in America edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower.

A collection of stories, from a variety of authors, featuring Holmes and Watson sleuthing their way across America. (It's not as far-fetched as it sounds, given original author Doyle's known appreciation for the U.S.) An intriguing premise with some real story gems.

Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye.

A number of books feature the famous fictional detective becoming entangled with the infamous, real-life serial killer. This novel is one of the best. Not to be missed.

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes edited by John Joseph Adams.

Ghosts. Curses. Aliens. Shapeshifters. Dinosaurs. Is there a rational explanation for the weird and wild encounters in this collection of short stories, or do Holmes and Watson uncover the real thing? A must-read for anyone who's a fan of genre crossovers. (There's a tale by Stephen King, to boot!)

The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes by Larry Millett.

This high-action thriller -- taking place once again in America -- might be of particular interest to anyone who's a fan of the Guy Ritchie film adaptations.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint From the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. by Nicolas Meyer.

Dr. Sigmund Freud attempts to council Sherlock Holmes through his various neuroses and addictions. A fascinating character study into the mind and heart of Sherlock Holmes. Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin star in the film adaptation.

Other Pastiches

An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman by Pamela Aidan.

The first in a trilogy, Aidan retells Jane Austen's classic novel Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of Mr. Darcy.

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund.

Drawing from a brief mention the Captain makes of his beloved young wife, Naslund spins a completely new tale out of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Though titled "Ahab's Wife," the story belongs to Una, the wife of the mad sea captain. A national bestseller.

Alice Through the Needle's Eye by Gilbert Adair.

This "third" book is meant to follow Lewis Carroll's original stories Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As a big fan of the Alice books, I was pleasantly surprised to find how closely Adair manages to capture Carroll's original wit and tone, even while crafting a completely new tale for Alice.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean.

For decades after the usual expiration date, the Great Ormond Street Hospital has held the rights to J.M. Barrie's original story Peter Pan and Wendy. (Barrie had willed the copyright -- and all related royalties -- to the hospital.) In 2004, McCaughrean was chosen as a contest winner by the Hospital to write the first "official" sequel to the original Peter Pan story.

Cosette: The Sequel to Les Miserables by Laura Kalpakian.

More romance novel than sprawling epic, Kalpakian writes an unusual sequel to Victor Hugo's revered saga. More for those who like dramatic historical romance, than for fans of Hugo's original tale.

Dracula, My Love: The Secret Journals of Mina Harker by Syrie James.

Although Dracula The Un-Dead got most of the attention for being written by Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew, this companion book by James should not be missed by anyone who's a fan of vampires and romance. Twilight readers, take note.

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"And Then What Happened?" - Part I: Solving the Mystery Of Edwin Drood

I'm a big Michael Crichton fan. Jurassic Park was the first "grown-up" novel I ever read, which I'd been inspired to pick up because I'd fallen completely in love with the movie version when it was released. The "Jurassic Park" movie was the Star Wars of my generation, a film which became a smash-hit primarily because it was absolutely unlike anything we had ever seen before.

I'd been as wowed as the rest of the world by the lifelike "dinosaurs" of the film version. But Crichton's original book enchanted me in a different way: I was captivated by the way Crichton wrote his sci-fi. With stories about time travel and artificial intelligence, it's true that -- at quick glance -- Crichton's sci-fi devices aren't much different from what you'd encounter in a typical episode of Star Trek. What always made Crichton's sci-fi writing unique, to me, was the way he'd take the scientific advancements of the day and push them a few fictional steps forward. There was scientific reasoning behind his cloned dinosaurs -- and, while scientists will point out that his fictionalized scientific process wouldn't quite work, the science of Crichton's work still always holds some basis in reality. It makes for fascinating reading.

So I was crushed when Crichton passed away three years ago at the age of 66. He left behind a completed manuscript hidden in the recesses of his computer hard drive (Pirate Latitudes) -- and an unfinished techno-thriller about microbiology and nanotechnology.

This unfinished novel was about a third of the way completed, with notes, outlines, and extensive research on the rest of the story also left behind. This led to Crichton's publisher approaching author Richard Preston with a request: to finish the last two-thirds of Crichton's final novel according to the notes Crichton had left behind. Which led to the publication of Micro.

Which leaves me, as a Crichton fan, with one very important question: do I read a Crichton book that isn't really by Crichton?

Micro is not the first time that fans of a particular author find themselves trying to decide if they want to read the next chapter in a story when that chapter's been written by someone else. From Douglas Adams to Robert Jordan, from Robert B. Parker to Frank Herbert, dozens of popular authors who have died before penning the official "end" of their current project have had their novels and series finished out or continued on by someone else. (This is a somewhat different phenomenon from the "pastiche," which is a topic we'll be getting to in the next entry.) And, as you might expect, reactions of fans and critics alike can be -- at best -- mixed.

Often, fans find it more reassuring if the new writer picking up the reins of the story has been approved by the original author. Anne McCaffrey had already handpicked her son, Todd, to continue writing her Dragonriders of Pern series before she passed away. Robert Jordan, author of the popular Wheel of Time series, did not choose his successor -- but Harriet, Jordan's wife and editor, did. Having an author-approved (or relative of the author-approved) replacement often goes a long way towards quelling fans' doubts about the newcomer's ability to produce a worthy sequel.

And, of course, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. Eoin Colfer was already well-known as the author of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl young adult series when he was commissioned to write another book in the classic science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Hitchhiker's Guide series -- books best described as being science fiction comedy -- is a cult classic of stories that started life as a radio comedy broadcast that Adams only later turned into a series of novels. (In keeping with typical Hitchhiker's Guide logic, Adams's five-book series is often referred to as the "Hitchhiker's trilogy.")

While it's true that Adams had always intended on writing a sixth book in the series, he hadn't left behind a half-finished manuscript or a pile of notes and outlines for Hitchhiker's Guide. (Adams did leave behind an unfinished manuscript, but it was for the Dirk Gently book The Salmon of Doubt, which was eventually published in its fragmented form.) Contrast that with Robert Jordan, who left behind complete outlines and copious notes for his Wheel of Time series that replacement author Brandon Sanderson could faithfully follow. This might explain why Jordan's fans felt more satisfied with Jordan's replacement than Adams's fans felt towards Adams's own (as measured by reviews left at and Jordan's fans at least have the reassurance that Sanderson is taking the story in a direction the original author not only approved of, but came up with himself. While any Hitchhiker's fan, if choosing to read And Another Thing..., is left with the question: "Is this really a Hitchhiker's book?"

So. Should "replacement" authors be brought in to finish a popular series if an author passes away before the books are completed? Or should creative works be left alone once their creator is gone?

The answer, of course, will always vary from fan to fan, both for book series and for stories beyond the printed page. (Plenty of Trekkies will swear that Star Trek actually got better after the passing of original series creator Gene Roddenberry.) Whether it's a good idea to continue the story beyond what the original creator created is a question fans will debate back and forth forever ... or as long as publishers and production studios keep bringing in newcomers to keep the old stories going.

As for me, I tend to be mistrustful of books that have been finished up or continued on by someone other than the original creator. It's more than outlines and plot points that make up my favorite reads -- it's the life and personalities the author breathes into the characters, and the themes each author touches on, and the style of the writing itself. Those are things I don't think can easily be recreated, no matter how much a newcomer-writer may love the original author's work.

Still, all the same -- I may give Micro a try. I'm intrigued enough by the premise to give a whirl. But then again, that particular book isn't so close to my heart. If Richard Preston ever writes another Jurassic Park book, I'm afraid I'll definitely be out.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

December is a month jam-packed with holidays. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are all well-known celebrations at this time of year, celebrated by families the country and world over.

But December is chock-full of other, lesser-known holidays, anniversaries, and celebrations. From Festivus to Bacon Day, here's a look at some of the other special days in December that you've never heard of before:

December: Bingo's Birthday Month
The game of Bingo was created into its modern form by Edwin S. Lowe in 1929. (An older form of the game dates back several centuries.) Lowe, a toymaker, would also develop Yahtzee.

December 3: Anniversary of the First Heart Transplant
Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a South African surgeon, performed the world's first successful heart transplant at Cape Town in 1967.

December 5: Krampuslauf (or Krampus Day)
An Austrian holiday celebrated as being the day before St. Nicholas's Day. In Austrian folklore, the Krampus is a devilish companion of St. Nicholas's who is out to scare bad children. Kids are encouraged to throw snowballs at the Krampus (played by someone, usually a young man, in a Krampus costume).

December 10: Melvil Dewey's Birthday
Born in 1851, Dewey was an American librarian. He was also the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, which many libraries (including our own) still use to sort and organize their non-fiction book collection.

December 11: The United Nations' International Mountain Day
Mountains cover a quarter of the Earth's total land surface, and are home to 12% of the world's population. The UN General Assembly uses this declared holiday to help raise awareness of the importance of mountains and mountain communities, to highlight the opportunities and considerations to be taken for mountain development, and to build partnerships for positive change to the world's mountain and highland regions.

December 12: Bonza Bottler Day
Elaine Fremont invented Bonza Bottler Days in 1985 to ensure that every month had at least one holiday. How do you know when it's this month's Bonza Bottler Day? Easy -- it's the date of the month that has the same number as the month itself. (January 1, February 2, March 3 ...) "Bonza" means "super" or "fantastic" to Australians.

December 15: Cat Herders Day
If you can say that your job -- or your life! -- is like trying to herd cats, than this is the day to celebrate! (Er ... or not.) Created by Thomas and Ruth Roy, this is one of the many humorous holidays they've invented (and popularized) to celebrate the "unsung" joys (or at least humor) of everyday life.

December 17-23: Saturnalia
Perhaps the earliest December holiday? The Ancient Romans used this week-long festival to honor Saturnus, the god of agriculture. It was a time of celebration after the work of seasonal harvesting and wine-making. (Like a few other December holidays, gifts were even exchanged.)

December 21: Yalda
Celebrated on the longest night of the year (at least in the North Hemisphere), this Iranian holiday has an Indo-Iranian origin. Light and Goodness are said to spend this long night struggling against Darkness and Evil. People are encouraged to stay up all night -- telling stories, eating special food, and waiting to see the sun appear triumphant with the dawn.

December 23: "Festivus"
"A Festivus for the rest of us!" This humorous holiday was invented for an episode of Seinfeld and is meant to be celebrated by anyone who wants to enjoy the holiday season without getting bogged down in all the holiday pressure and commercialism. Charlie Brown might approve.

December 23: Humanlight Celebration
Started by the New Jersey Humanist Network in 2001, this holiday is meant to celebrate humanist values: tolerance, compassion, empathy, honesty, free inquiry, reason, rationality, and more.

December 26: Junkanoo
Celebrated with, among other things, a street parade, this day of sound and spectacle may put you in mind of Mardi Gras. Celebrators wear colorful costumes and play instruments (often homemade) in many towns across the Bahamas. (The largest parade generally takes place in the capital city of Nassau.)

December 30: Bacon Day
A particularly specific gift-giving occasion! Created in 1998, it's been celebrated in many cities the county over. Celebrate with a party and serve ham, pork rinds -- or even facon.

Happy Holidays!

-- Post by Ms. B

Monday, December 5, 2011

St. Nicholas (or is he Santa Claus?)

I love Santa Claus and I'm not ashamed to admit it! Over the years, I've been slowly collecting Santa Clauses of all types and sizes which always go on display at my house for Christmas. My collection includes Santas from many different nationalities and I'm intent on getting more!

But until I met my husband in 1998 I was not that aware that not every one who celebrates Christmas believes that Santa Claus brings their presents. In Germany, where my husband is from, the Christ Child brings presents for all of the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve.

So where does St. Nicholas fit into this?

St. Nicholas of Myra was born in 3rd century Turkey to wealthy parents, but was orphaned at a young age. He was a devout Christian who become Bishop of Myra. Tales of his benevolence and goodness, especially when it concerned children, spread throughout the area. The date of his death, December 6th, is now celebrated through out the world by the giving of gifts, following his example of generosity.

To find about more about the life of Saint Nicholas and how his life and the story of Santa Claus are related check out these titles:

And some books for the kids:

The Real Santa Claus by Marianna Mayer

The Gift From Saint Nicholas by Dorothea Lachner

And for even more information be sure to check out these sites:

Nicholas of Myra: The Story of Saint Nicholas (this is the official site for a film now in production)

-- Post by Tracy

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Before Christopher Paolini and Eragon, there was Anne McCaffrey and the dragonriders of Pern.

In 1967, Analog magazine published the novella Weyr Search. The novella would eventually serve as the basis for McCaffrey's first Pern book, Dragonflight -- kicking off a series that includes over 20 novels and two short story collections. Weyr Search tells the story of Lessa, a young woman living on the colonized planet of Pern, who is picked by the dragonriders to be a Candidate for the new queen dragon. If she's chosen (by the dragon, not the riders) to actually become a rider herself, she'll become the most powerful person on the planet, telepathically bonded to a queen dragon who is virtually unstoppable. And yet, it's a dangerous time to be the only queen rider on Pern, because something is returning to the skies ... something that only the dragonriders can stop ...

McCaffrey said that she came up with the idea for the Pern series by asking herself, "What if dragons were the good guys?" Before McCaffrey, the dragons in most fantasy and sci-fi series followed the model of J.R.R. Tolkien's Smaug, the dragon (and evil antagonist) of The Hobbit. McCaffrey was one of the first modern authors to imagine a world where dragons were the heroes instead of the villains. But it wasn't just dragons that benefited from the "good press" they received in McCaffrey's science fiction tales.

Weyr Search would give Anne McCaffrey the distinction of being the first woman to win either a Hugo or Nebula award (which are awards given to authors of science fiction and fantasy). She'd win both, in 1968, for the novella. (Author Kate Wilhelm also won a Nebula that year for her short story The Planners.) But in addition to presenting dragons in a positive light, McCaffrey also brought another rarity of the time to her sci-fi stories: strong female characters.

With characters like Ripley from the Alien films, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and Dana Scully from The X-Files, it's easy to forget that engaging, well-developed female characters are still a relatively new phenomenon in the fictional worlds of sci-fi. And in the late 60s, such characters appeared far less frequently. But in her stories of Pern, as well as in books like The Ship Who Sang and Crystal Singer, McCaffrey presented female characters that were strong, capable, flawed, changing, and -- above all -- human. Rightly known for her inventive story devices (read more about the "brainships" in The Ship Who Sang) and skill at worldbuilding (her world of crystal singing being almost as engaging as Pern), she's also beloved as a writer for her characters. In a time when few were writing about female characters as anything but shallow stereotypes, McCaffrey tried to write her female characters as real people -- and she succeeded.

When I was in high school, I was a big McCaffrey fan, and a huge Pern nut. Looking back on it now, it's not hard to see why McCaffrey's dragon stories appealed so much to me (and to millions of other fans; McCaffrey's books routinely topped the best-seller lists). Who wouldn't want a super-intelligent dragon as their best friend? There's always an element of cool escapism to sci-fi and fantasy, and just as readers of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series might imagine the fun of being a wizard, McCaffrey's intricately-detailed sci-fi worlds offer a similar window of imagination.

And yet, like all great sci-fi and fantasy, McCaffrey's stories go beyond mere escapism. Take away the unicorns and dragons, and you're left with intently human stories about characters who are struggling to overcome obstacles and help each other. McCaffrey's worlds are about escapism, but her characters  inspire her readers. To young female readers in particular, the Pern books provide characters to both relate to and admire, in a field where such characters were once severely lacking.

McCaffrey passed away last week at the age of 85, but Pern will continue on, both in the novels she wrote and in the Pern stories still being written by her son Todd McCaffrey. And her fans -- myself included -- will remain grateful for the wonderful worlds she took us to.

-- Post by Ms. B