Atlas Obscura: To Strange Adventures

I got a good deal of very interesting books for Christmas, but there is always that one special book each year. The one I find the most engrossing and just can’t put down. This year, that book is the singularly strange Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ellen Morton. It’s a gift I’m very glad that I received, and one that’s making me think about how I might take on the year to come.

I’d seen Atlas Obscura placed prominently in holiday bookstore displays. It’s an attractive, heavy, expensive looking book, the kind bookstores love to feature in gift displays around the holidays, and the kind I usually can’t justify buying for myself. It seemed interesting, an atlas containing a bunch of strange places around the world, but looking at it too much would only make me want to buy a rather pricey book for myself when I needed to be buying presents for my friends and family. Luckily, my friends and family were smart enough to look for gifts for me in a bookstore, and someone got me this book. Created by a team from the website of the same name, Atlas Obscura revealed a whole bunch of crazy wonders to me.

There was the Poison Garden in England, a garden containing a collection of deadly plants from around the world. Some of the plants are so dangerous they have to be kept in cages.  The always eerie Mutter Museum of Medical anomalies in Philadelphia is featured. There’s mention of The House on the Rock, an amazing roadside attraction that readers of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods might remember as a location explored in the book. Yes, it is exactly as strange and fantastical as you’d expect a location to be for Neil Gaiman to feature it in one of his books, and it is still accepting visitors.

What drew my eye the most though was a place shockingly close to where I lived. In fact, I could probably get there in just twenty minutes by car, then walk the rest of the way to the location itself. Atlas features Red Gate Woods in Lemont Illinois, and explains they are the resting place of the radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project, which was conducted in University of Chicago and Argonne Laboratories, both in my area. The reader is quickly assured that radiation levels in the woods are now at a safe level, so the area is perfectly fine to visit. Yeah, that is always something great to hear about basically your backyard. Still, I’d never known the potential strange adventure I had  waiting for me so nearby until I opened up the Atlas Obscura.

The discovery made me realize something, something that excited me even more than the tales of “Real Fox-Headed Women” and “Cosmic Gardens” in the more distant parts of the world. I could go on an adventure right now. I could find strange, wonderful spots myself in places nearby that I simply hadn’t looked into before. Heck, Chicago is right nearby and that place has loads more entries in Atlas Obscura. I don’t do New Years Resolutions normally, but reading of all the cool places in this book, I am inspired to make a promise or resolution of sort. In the coming year, I will seek out some of these strange and fantastical locations I’m reading about now and have my own adventures. I will go out and explore the world in ways I haven’t before, and I will keep an eye out for the whimsical and fantastical.


Night Before Christmas vs. Nightmare Before Christmas

If you’ve been put in charge of children for whatever reason this time of year, especially this close to Christmas and Christmas Eve, there’s a chance that you’ll be required to read to them a certain rhyming holiday classic. The Night Before Christmas has been the unchallenged champion of stories to be read on Christmas Eve, except maybe some stuff from the bible I guess, but that stuff doesn’t have Santa in it, and I’m not sure how I could go that route for this post with out some mostly unintentional blasphemy.

It’d be nice to shake things up a bit with a different story to read for your kids at Christmas time, and when I say different, I mean different. To add a really unique flavor to this match-up, I’ve decided to pitch the classic Night Before Christmas against a different sort of book, one that some younger folks, myself included, believe should be considered a Christmas classic. And a Halloween classic. I’m talking about the original book The Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton. Can this relatively new up and comer take on the old reigning champ? I read both and tried to work through my feelings on which was better and for what reasons, a tricky process but one I undertook for the sake of Christmas.

There were some obvious differences between the two books that made me wonder if I could even compare them. Night was just so old. Nightmare had the classic movie companion that almost completely overshadowed it in popularity. Night had so many different illustrated versions and editions to choose from while Nightmare had only one, but that one version is done in a very popular Tim Burtonesque fashion that could make it pull ahead in the art department. Still, focusing closely on the stories themselves made it easier to compare the two.

Nightmare has much more of a plot than Night. The classic Night Before Christmas is really just a story about a guy waking up to Santa making too much noise breaking into his house. Nightmare has an echo of that too, when Jack delivers a bunch of adorably horrifying presents for kids. This is obviously supposed to be a parody/homage to the original classic. There’s not nearly as much set up and exploration of Halloween Town as in the movie we all know. Sally the love interest and her story line did not exist. It made me miss the movie a great deal, honestly, though the book itself was a still a very cute homage to a classic, with some fun and original ideas, and the narrower plot does make it much more of a Christmas story than a Halloween one.

Night having a simpler story line isn’t necessarily bad though, not for a kid’s story. In a picture book, sometimes having a few fun rhymes to accompany nice, fun pictures is all kids need to enjoy reading  a story. There are certainly plenty of beautiful artistic renditions of the story. You can pick pretty much anyone you like and keep it until it becomes a family heirloom, which is kind of nice.

All things considered, if I  personally had to pick between the two, I would read Night Before Christmas to the kiddies and let them watch Nightmare Before Christmas, because as much I like the Nightmare book, it doesn’t have all the catchy songs I loved as a kid. Is this cheating? I  don’t think so. You get double the Christmas this way, and an extra dash of Halloween besides.




Ghosts of Christmas Books

We all know that the Christmas season is the time when people with serious personal flaws get visited by ghosts that try and get them to change their erring ways. Well you guys, some freaky ghosts totally came and visited me for some time traveling lessons about my Christmases past, present and future. Normally I wouldn’t share my personal paranormal experiences on my book blog. That’s for my secret Illuminati Confirmed side blog. However, these ghosts had a lot to say about my reading habits and where they’ll get me in life, so here we go. It all started with a blast from the past.

Ghost of Christmas Books Past:

So This weird glowey little dude told me he wanted to take me to my Christmas past and I was like sure, sounds fun. So we go poof back in time, but all invisible like the ghost tells me so I can’t mess with people as a future person. We’re at my aunt’s house, where my extended family spent many Christmases. Adults joyfully chatter, children run around shrieking in play and laughter. Where, asks past ghosts, am I? Well duh, it’s about halfway through the night, I was obviously where I was every Christmas at that time.

I take the ghost up to my cousin’s bedroom closet. I’m in there, reading one of several Foxtrot books, collections of this newspaper comic strip by Bill Amend. I loved them, and my cousin’s closet was cozy and had enough light to read by. Past ghost saw this and was all like, what? That’s not even a Christmas book. Would you not be celebrating the holiday by playing festive Christmas games with your cousins? What are they playing– And I was like oh yeah it’s another lightsaber grand royale duel to the death. I was probably already tagged out. Melee with plastic lightsabers is more exhausting than you think, and I needed to recover.

I just always liked reading those little comic strips. My dad did, and he had those books all over. Maybe reading them  was all about feeling reading connecting me to my family… But then past ghost was all rude and interrupted saying laser-swords is not a Christmas game! What is with this family? Hitting people is as much against the Christmas spirit as isolating yourself behind the cover of a book! And I was like wow, rude. You interrupted me there but then the past ghost just sighed and took me home, back to the present just in time for…

Ghost of Christmas Books Present:

So I came back to my room and thought hey, maybe I’d get a quick break to read a few more pages, but then out of no where this ghost in fancy robes who was definitely more than a little wasted on ghost Christmas wine was there, and he was getting ready to get all up in my business too! He goes, Madeline, what is it you’re doing cooped up in here? Then I got all excited and got ready to tell him. Oh, I’m reading this great new book called News of the World by Paulette Jiles and it’s this beautiful, western with a unique style that… You’re wasting this splendid holiday season is what you are doing interjected the drunk ghost guy. Hear the frivolity outside, the laughter! You should join in the festivities. And I’m like, ew no. It’s negative something degrees out there. Walking from my car to my building earlier today made my face hurt. I’m staying here. You see, this book’s done in this really interesting fashion where they don’t denote any of the dialogue with quotation marks, giving it a really flowing, stream of consciousness effect, which can be quite terrible when not pulled off right, but here it works wonderfully…

But then he was all no, come on then, what about all that cheering down the hall, shall we not join the souls in this very building in celebrating Christmas? Oh that’s  just the girls getting drunk on white wine while they yell and reality TV and bad romcoms. That’s not really my scene, Mr. Ghost Guy. When I celebrate and socialize around the holidays, I just generally prefer more low key nights than what you’re going after, and honestly I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I enjoy engaging in rich conversations on topics I find interesting, like this book right here. What I really like about Jiles is how… Then Present Ghost interrupts, (again with these guys and the interrupting!), Laaaaaame. If you’re not getting completely wasted you’re not doing Christmas right. And then he just did a really long belch then mumbled about having another ridiculously large banquet feast to get to. He left me alone, but really soon afterwards the next guy showed up in some ridiculous cloak get-up. Oh well. At least I know it’s the last one.

Ghost of Christmas Books Future:

So this creepy cloaked guy goes Madeline, I’ve come to warn you of the path all this socially reclusive behavior and reading is taking you down, behold! Then bam we were somewhere completely different, the future I guessed. We were in the coolest room ever. The room was filled floor to ceiling with shelves full of books on every wall. And there was this old lady in the comfiest chair I’d even seen with a reading lamp right in the middle of the room, with several cats around here either demanding pets and attention or else pretending to ignore her for pets and attention, and some more hiding under the furniture. It looked pretty sweet, I gotta admit. My dream set up. Then Future Ghost started with his bit. See! this is what will become of you if you continue to shut yourself away at from people! You will become a crazy cat lady, foolish mortal!  I looked around the place again, realizing it was my home and that old lady in the comfy chair is old me. I honestly got a little teary eyed.

The ghost goes, Ah, now you see the gravity of your situation! And I’m like, wow, thanks ghost, I really gotta say, I never dreamed I could one day have it this good. All these books, those cats, that chair, I can’t say I ever really wanted more for myself in old age. Future ghost was just frustrated though. Come on! You should be scared of this, of ending up alone with no one but your books to keep you company And I just had to reply like, why, dude? This is great. I obviously did very well for myself, looking at this set up, or else I have a family that’s still taking really good care of me. You know, people always give me a hard time about finding fulfillment in solitary pleasures like reading, I think maybe because they think I’m trying to shut people out or even being snobbish, and it always gets worse on the holidays, when everyone’s planning parties and getting ready for Christmas. You know what? I love these things because that’s who I am and how I’m wired. I still enjoy myself plenty, even if it’s in a shy way most people don’t get to see. Books have always been a way for me to enjoy myself and connect with others in my own special way, and indulging in them and anything else that makes me so happy sounds like a wonderful life to me. I smile, but future ghost just screamed.

Oh my God we aren’t even doing that movie though, and then he stormed off to ghost world. I had to make my way to the present day corporeal plane all by myself too, but I figured it out after a couple of hours. All in all, not the worst ghost visitations I’ve ever experienced, but these guys weren’t very bright.

Here’s to books and the special places they hold in our hearts on the wintery holidays. Hurray for cozy reading!

Books I’d Get Snowed in With

Everyone always asks what book you’d take with you if you had to strand yourself  on a desert island. That’s not really the sort of question it makes sense to ask this time of year. I’ve never found myself stranded on a desert island, and I’m not sure I’d be able to pick a book beforehand knowing I would be stranded. I have, however, been snowed in several times. This year’s already trying to strand me inside with snowy, cold weather. I usually know in advance when these weather fronts are coming, and stock up on books accordingly. For me, asking what book or books I’d want to be snowed in with makes much more sense than what books I’d take to a desert island. Also, it’s harder to be a smart-ass and say you’d take a survival handbook or a book hollowed out with a flare gun and first-aid kit inside. Come on. We’re just trying to have a fun conversation about books here. When your snowed in, you just need to have some soup, blankets and a heat source, most of which you probably have already in your home.

So what book would I recommend getting snowed in with? Well I’m not cruel, I’d never limit anyone, especially myself, to picking only one book for anytime or anywhere. Here’s my list of books I’d like to be snowed in with this year.

V.E. Schwab’s  A Gathering of Shadows I’ve already read the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, of what I hope will be a meaty trilogy, maybe even longer.  A Gathering of Shadows is an amazing sequel that definitely holds up to the original and builds my love for this amazing fantasy world. This book is perfect for a snow day, because it pulls you in and you won’t want to stop reading for hours on end. It kept me up late a few nights like this, but on days when you just have time to sit inside, huddling  under some blankets, this is the perfect book to draw you out into an amazing, wider world.

Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty DeadlyWhen you’re snowed in with loads of time on your hands, you need a graphic novel you can sit back and admire, one where the story pulls at you, and the art is beautiful, full, and can hold your attention all on it’s own. Pretty Deadly falls perfectly and gracefully into this category. It’s a surreal western fantasy. As much as I first thought Western and Fantasy was an odd combination of genres, it worked so well in this series that I immediately felt it was a match made in heaven.  In some ways, the surreal but beautiful and intimately emotional mythos created in this series reminds of the best parts of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself in This One Normally you need a book that’s nice and thick to get through the long winter day, (or more accurately, grayish patch of day and mostly night.) But with Seasonal Affective Disorder, sometimes you need some the sort of uplift you can only get from beautiful poetry. For that I recommend the collection The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace. It’s an intimate look at a moving story of psychological imprisonment and a journey towards freedom, perhaps even healing. I bought it for the eye-catching title and was pleasantly surprised with a poetry collection that uses the damsel in distress trope to explore a more internal, timeless struggle.

Well those three should get you through at least one snow day. I’ve got many more, but these were just some of the hottest of the year, and the ones that gave me the most enjoyable company while I was cooped up this winter, so far. Do you have any books you’ve got ready for a good snow day? I’d love to hear about them in comments.

Great Holiday Book Gifts

The beginning of December is upon us, and so is holiday shopping season. You might be wondering what to get the book lover in your life, as I am. You see, a huge part of the reason why I’m a book lover is than most of my family members are book lovers too, and every year I have to figure out what book to buy for each of them. I’ve been doing this for a while though, so I’m pretty good at it. If you’re not sure what the best books for your family are, take a look at this list I’ve made, which includes some of the hottest books this holiday season, and who you should pair them up with.

1. Cooking for Jeffrey by Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa)

If you’re thinking you need to buy a cookbook, choosing one by a celebrity chef is usually a safe bet, especially one that is generally revered and beloved, like the Barefoot Contessa. It’s more likely that your relatives will like them if you aren’t sure what they like, and if they don’t, it’s their fault. How dare you not kneel before the Barefoot Contessa and her cooking wisdom mother! Cooking for Jeffrey is Garten’s newest book, made up of recipes her husband “approves” of, whatever that means. I guess middle aged men are the pickiest eaters after babies now, and babies at least have the excuse of only recently learning the whole solid foods thing.

Who To Give this to: Your Mom, Aunt, or another relative that is likely to love cooking and the Barefoot Contessa.

2. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling

This is another script, or rather screenplay in a book from J.K. Rowling, the script for the new movie of the same name to be exact. I liked the movie quite a bit actually, but I’m not entirely sure why this exists. It’s one thing for The Cursed Child script, which is a play you can only see in London right now, but this is a movie you can see all over the world, which will eventually come out on DVD. They distract us from this obvious fact by making the cover look unbelievably gorgeous, a deep blue background with the title embellished with fancy gold designs all over the cover. Frankly, I’d by it just for the cover. It makes a great addition to the hoard of Harry Potter collectibles any nerd keeps in their room.

Who to give this to: Your nerdiest relative, for sure. Maybe a sibling or cousin that grew up reading the Harry Potter books with you. Even if they aren’t really into the books anymore, they cannot deny you got them a book with one sexy cover.

3. Born to Run By Bruce Springsteen

This book has been out for a little bit already, but it is Springsteen’s own official memoir about his time as a musician, and what that calling has meant to him over the years. He’s one of those icons you can generally assume most people adore, so don’t just be looking for your biggest music aficiando relative. It’s a really solid gift idea for anyone with parents or family that grew up with his music. Springsteen worked on this thing for seven years before publishing it, so it’s probably not just celebrity cash-grab. I haven’t read this one yet because the music that makes me feel young, alive, and rebellious is still being written and played on the radio. Boo yah! Eat it oldsters.

Who to give this to: Your dad or uncle so he can feel cool and young again. Maybe he’ll get all emotional after reading it and show you a picture of when he actually had hair.

4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down by Jeff Kinney

This is, I believe, the 11th book in the “Wimpy Kid” series now. When they first started, I was actually young enough to read them and not be stared at by suspicious parents wondering who this lumbering adult is invading their children’s reading space. These books are for the young and young at heart too people! This whole series is really funny and popular with kids, enough so that there were two movies made based of the books. That’s not all of the books, but that’s a lot, and they weren’t handled by Hollywood too terribly either, which is always nice. Also, be sure to get a receipt with it, because the kid your giving it to will very likely already have the book, especially if they are a serious fan. These things are that popular, a “rush to the store the day the new one comes out” deal. Don’t worry though; it’s not about the gift. You just need to show those whippersnappers that you’re that hip, and you know what the kids are reading these days.

Who to give this to: Your youngest cousins or siblings. No, not infant young. It has pictures in it but this book isn’t that easy. Try grade school and up.

There you go, some book suggestions for all generations and family members. You could just, I don’t know, ask your family what they want for Christmas, but why do that when you can come to a master? You’re welcome, and Happy Holidays!