Sunday, 21 December 2014

Sunday December 21, 2014 Have you heard about Serial?

Podcasts – and one podcast in particular – are having a moment in pop culture. Serial, the non-fiction show from NPR that explores one story week by week, has prompted think pieces everywhere from CNN and Time Magazine to Buzzfeed, at least two “recap and review” podcasts, and became the first megahit podcast to reach 5 million downloads or streams on the iTunes chart. Devout listeners wait eagerly every Thursday morning for the latest instalment to be uploaded and the conversations to begin. For the first time, there is podcast “water cooler conversation” and never-ending discussion threads dotted around the internet about what is, in essence, a radio program.

So what makes it so gripping? Well, Serial follows journalist Sarah Koenig as she investigates a fifteen year old murder – one that is, technically, not a cold case because someone was charged and convicted of the crime. Koenig was contacted by a friend of the convicted inmate Adnan Syed, who requested that she investigate the case in an attempt to clear his name. Week by week and episode by episode, Koenig unspools and analyzes information. Due to the intimate and personal style of the podcast, listeners feel like they are working with Koenig to find the answer. We drive in Koenig’s car with her as she plots the geographic timeline presented by the prosecution, listen in on just some of the hours of phone calls between Koenig and Syed, and question ourselves just as she does: can we tell when we are being lied to? Koenig’s opinion on Syed’s innocence seems to waver week to week, and ours does as well.  The case rests primarily on the testimony of another teen and is essentially a “he said-he said” situation. Unless there is some major revelation, ultimately it comes down to whose story we believe.

True crime has never been one of my reading interests, and I’m not even a fan of crime shows like CSI and Law & Order. Originally, I didn’t think Serial would interest me. However, I’ve clearly been converted and find myself with a new interest in investigations and the justice system. Luckily, TBPL has a great selection of materials on the topic. These are just a few of the titles that I am planning to pick up.

One reason why the show is so engrossing to me is the involvement of Koenig in her topic. Clearly, she is personally involved in the story, bringing her own bias to the questions she asks and what weight she gives information. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is another story where the author/narrator is deeply embedded in the narrative. Shortly after he moved to a sleepy little Savannah town, someone was killed: was it murder or self-defense? This non-fiction memoir reads like an engrossing suspense thriller, and we gradually learn new information alongside the narrator just as with Koenig.

There are many books analyzing cases of the wrongfully convicted. In Convicted for Being Mi’kmaq, Bill Swan examines the facts to illustrate where racism played a role in the case of Donald Marshall Jr. Other true crime books recounting miscarriages of justice include Hélèna Katz’s Justice Miscarried: wrongful sentencing in Canada and the Paradise Lost trilogy by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the West Memphis 3 case.

To download the Serial podcast and check out supplementary information, visit – and be sure to comment on our Library Detective blog with your thoughts about the case!

Laura Prinselaar

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday December 14th, 2014 City of the Poppy

Thunder Bay Public Library is a partner in the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project which brings together a number of organisations in the city to remember the Great War and also to create a lasting legacy. Did you know, for example, that Thunder Bay is the City of the Poppy – so named because it was here, at the Prince Arthur Hotel, that the Canadian Poppy Campaign was launched in 1921. This makes our city unique at a time when the whole world is recalling the tragic events of 1914-18. 

So what was happening 100 years ago? The early events of the war were captured in the book 1914 by Lyn MacDonald in her vivid, unforgettable portrait of the first months of fighting. 1914 was a year that saw warfare enter the modern age; war became depersonalised, as heroic notions of glory and sacrifice vanished in a smoky haze of death. In this book Lyn Macdonald lets the British soldiers of 1914 tell their own moving, and often tragic, stories. They were professionals, disciplined by hard training, bronzed by long marches under tropic skies, toughened by fighting and manoeuvring on the frontiers of an Empire that stretched halfway around the globe. 

Unlike the volunteers who rushed enthusiastically to the colours when war broke out, they did not go to war with heroic notions of glory and sacrifice, but because it was their job. Their only weapons were rifles, which they handled so skillfully that the Germans meeting their rapid fire believed they were being mowed down by machine guns. But the ‘Old Contemptibles’ (from the Kaiser’s description of the British forces as ‘a contemptible little army’) were standing in the path of the main German advance, and they were outnumbered, often ten to one. By the end of the year they had sustained 90% casualties, and it was the end of the Old Army. 

Lyn Macdonald’s research has uncovered a wealth of eyewitness accounts and new or little-known material – letters, diaries, official papers and reports – which she has woven together into an engrossing and moving picture of what it was like to be a soldier in the British Army in 1914. The relentless marches, the punishing shellfire, the hardships and deprivations – as well as the unexpected moments of light relief that made life bearable – all are graphically described and set within their military framework in 1914, a book which made a major contribution to the history of World War One. 

I particularly liked the perspectives of civilian observers such as Madame Deron who recorded events in her diary. Gaston Degardin and Andre Betrancourt (both aged 12) who give a child’s-eye view of the conflict.  Father Camille Delaere describes the destruction of Ypres and its many fine buildings, including the beautiful Cloth Hall. Lyn Macdonald has written a number of other books about the Great War which are well worth reading, including Somme (a history of that legendary and horrifying campaign of 1916), The Roses of No Man’s Land (the story of the medical teams who nursed battlefield victims), and They Called it Passchedaele (an account of the notorious Third Battle of Ypres in which so many Canadians lost their lives).

Check out the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project site and keep an eye out for regular updates. If you have any materials which you would like to share – letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings, ephemera – please let us know at

John Pateman

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sunday December 7th, 2014 The Origins of Santa Claus

When you’re out and about during the month of December, you are sure to come across Santa Claus. While today Santa is a fairly well-known figure, he wasn’t always. Have you ever wondered where he came from? Then look no further - the library has the answers.

One of the most well-known origin stories is that St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. We don’t know a whole lot about St. Nicholas the man beyond a few basics, like that he was born in Asia Minor around 280 AD. He came from a wealthy family, but ended up giving a lot of his money to charity and becoming a bishop at a young age. When the Roman Emperor Diocletian declared himself a god, St. Nicholas and the other Christians were imprisoned for refusing to worship him. When Diocletian resigned several years later, the new Emperor, Constantine, released them. So how did a holy man like Nicholas become Santa Claus? After his death, people began telling stories about his generosity and the miracles he performed. In one story, he anonymously gave a man money for his daughters’ dowries. In another, he flew through the sky to calm a storm and save a ship. Even the name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch word for St. Nicholas (“Sintaklaas”). All of this and more can be found in James Cross Giblin’s book The Truth About Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas isn’t the only gift-giver who evolved into Santa Claus. If you flip through George Ouwendijk’s Santas of the World, you’ll discover a whole bunch, including the Finnish Joulupukki, the French Pere Noel, and Japan’s Hoteiosho. One particularly interesting gift-giver is the German Christkindl. Germans believed that gifts were brought by the Christ child. Over time, the Christkindl’s name became simplified to Kriss Kringle, which was later associated with Santa Claus thanks to the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

Another interesting Santa-figure is Father Christmas. The original figure of Father Christmas became popular in England after people there stopped worshipping St. Nicholas. While you may think this makes Father Christmas a relatively new gift-giver, he is in fact older than St. Nicholas! Father Christmas comes to us from the Roman god, Saturn, who presided over their winter feast. Over time he evolved into Father Christmas, who in turn is evolving to resemble the modern, North American version of Santa Claus.

Santa Claus isn’t the only Christmas figure who has evolved. Before Santa had his elves, reindeer, or his wife, he was followed by Black Peter in Holland. Black Peter was believed to be the devil, who was defeated by St. Nicholas and had to serve him. He carried a trunk for St. Nicholas full of presents for the good children and birch rods for the bad children. Black Peter is similar to the German Knecht Rupprecht, who was also known as Pelznickle or Ru-Klas. In Austria, there is a similar figure, known as Krampus. Krampus was originally a demon who wandered the Austrian forests. But he became the companion of St. Nicholas, who punished the bad children with his wooden stick. Luckily St. Nicholas is compassionate and will spare any children the wrath of Krampus if they promise to be good.

Of course, these facts are just the tip of the iceberg. If you flip through either Santas of the World or The Truth About Santa Claus, you’ll find far more than I’ve mentioned here. And we have many other books on how Santa Claus came to be, including Santa Claus: a Biography by Gerald Bowler on Overdrive, The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guin on Hoopla, and The Story of Santa Klaus by William Shepard Walsh in Reference.

Shauna Kosoris