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Thankful Thursday VII – Malcolm Gladwell

A pop psychologist well-known enough to be picked to flog new electric cars on TV. That can only be one person, and this Thursday, I’m thankful for Malcolm Gladwell. For over twenty years the Canadian’s been a bit of an enigma and at times a lightning rod for scholarly critics…but he’s also authored six of the best-selling, and most interesting Non-Fiction books of that time period and hosted a great podcast.

For the unfamiliar, Gladwell rose to prominence in 2000 with his book The Tipping Point. It looked at why some things catch on – Hush Puppies in the ’90s, syphilis in Baltimore around the same time – and other trends peter out quickly. The book topped best sellers lists and soon topped a million copies sold, rather good going for a book on psychology and sociology. A few years later he followed up with the equally well-recieved Blink, which essentially urged people to listen to first instincts and not overthink many decisions. Before long, book store new release sections were full of books trying to take scientific data and models and simplify them for the masses, often complete with Gladwell-like covers (white covers with a simple single image and bold black type) . Four more similar books have followed, most recently Talking to Strangers which looked at how we automatically typecast people and the far-reaching implications which have ranged from Sandra Bland being put in jail where she killed herself after being pulled over by police for dubious reasons to Bernie Madoff being able to swindle dozens of rich and intelligent people out of billions of dollars. His most recent venture is the podcast Revisionist History, which kicks off by telling the story of Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter who briefly rose to great fame in the 19th-Century but was the only female painter given acceptance by the art “society” of the day.

The books, and podcast, are all well-enough written, snappily-paced and just downright interesting enough to make you forget you’re reading what could essentially be entry-level college texts. Why were the Beatles so good? Same reason Wayne Gretzky was in hockey, he tells us in Outliers. I find not only each book, but each chapter fairly fascinating. do I always absolutely agree with him? No. Usually I do, but he sees the world through a different lens than I so sometimes comes up with different conclusions. For instance, in his podcast about Thompson, he connects her difficulties getting other women into the elite arts community to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was voted out of office in 2013 and suggests some kind of conspiracy is in place to allow just one woman into any important office, ever. Given the tumultuous state of politics there as well as here, that only eight years have passed since a woman held the office there and the fact that neighboring New Zealand has a female in charge right now, that seems an exaggeration to say the least. But it does get you thinking about the challenges women have breaking into previously male domains.

I don’t think Malcolm would want me, or any of his readers, to automatically agree with him. I think that he would be happy when people think for themselves and draw their own conclusions… a pretty recipe for life in fact. And for making that popular, making thinking more popular, I thank Mr. Gladwell.

By the way, if you’ve been noticing a number of GM commercials lately touting their new electric cars… yep, that’s Malcolm at the opening.

Thankful Thursday IV – That Controversial “Doctor”

Well I’ll wander into the fray today, because this Thursday I’m thankful for Dr. Seuss. Or, the works of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, during this week in which his birthday fell.

The children’s author and illustrator has been much in the news of late, yet another example of how badly divided this country is. In case you hadn’t noticed, the publisher in charge of his body of work recently announced it was going to stop printing six of his titles, including the popular And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, because some of his illustrations seemed a little racist and out of step with today’s norms. Predictably, many Republicans are frothing at the mouth and yelling “censorship”, failing to note that it was a commercial decision made by a publisher rather than an act of government restriction. Likewise, some of the far-left faction of the Democrats say that doesn’t go nearly far enough and wouldn’t be happy until every reference to Seuss is obliterated from our culture. Which I suppose is a convenient way for both to distract from the fact that Iran seems to be taunting the U.S. in the Middle East at risk of provoking a war and that over 1000 people are still dying from Covid every day in our land.

Geisel fashioned a long and very successful career penning books written for kids through the middle part of the last century. Some, like Green Eggs and Ham and How the Grinch Stole Christmas became cultural cornerstones as well as rites of passage for new parents teaching their young ones. Something over half a billion copies of his works have been printed through the years.

It’s said that Geisel wasn’t that fond of having little children around in real life. But he exhibited a brilliance unsurpassed at knowing what would appeal to them and he delivered that time and time again with his stories. A cat in a hat? Green eggs and ham, Sam? There’s not a three year old in existence who doesn’t giggle at the thought – especially if its accompanied by the zany cartoon illustrations the “Doctor” was known for.

For me, Seuss was “the man” when I was that age. I was lucky to have parents who surrounded me and my brother with a lot of books as kids, but none delighted me quite like the rhyming, goofy stories about Sam-I-Am, the Cat in the Hat, The Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who, or Horton who heard a Who. I looked at the books time and time again, and soon with a little help could read them all by myself. From there, I never looked back…unless it was Christmas time and time to watch the TV version of The Grinch, a beloved holiday tradition I try to keep to this day even as my hair gets grayer. In later years, I went on to work briefly in the conservation field and was able to at times delight campers young and old alike by playing the film of The Lorax, another Seuss story telling of the little creature who tried to save the truffula trees from the industrialist Onceler. Like many of his best works it delivered a strong and worthwhile moral in the guise of a children’s cartoon.

So, yes, Dr. Seuss may not have been perfect and his books were products of his time (as any work of art is ultimately.) But few things made me happier as a kid and now, as I sit by a bookcase full of titles of all sorts, including a couple of ones I wrote myself, I thank him for getting me to know the magic of reading. I don’t know what I’d be doing if not for him… but I doubt I’d be here writing my thoughts for you, dear readers.

Meg Shone But Real Star Was On Sidelines

Some are surprised by the fact but some guys like movies that are fun and romantic more than ones which feature a lot of things blowin’ up. I’m one of those guys, so I don’t mind when my sweetie wants to snuggle up for the evening and put on a classic Romcom movie. Now there were some goofily fun ones made in the ’50s and her beloved Jane Austen wrote works which had the romance if not the comedy part of the equation, some of which have been made into perfectly acceptable period movies. But for me, you can’t do any better in that genre of film than the trio of late-20th Century smashes from Nora Ephron : “When Harry Met Sally”, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All three had complicated romances, and all three had Meg Ryan as the female lead. Not a bad formula at all.

So I quite enjoyed reading the book I’ll Have What She’s Having, loosely a biography of writer and director Ephron, but more specifically an in depth look at those three movies and how they came about. The Erin Carlson book looks at Nora’s upbringing and her turbulent marriage to Watergate reporter (made heroic in the book and movie All the President’s Men) Carl Bernstein, which itself resulted in the movie Heartburn, and ends by filling us in a little on Ephron’s life after the three movies mentioned as well as those of the main stars. Still the bulk of the book is on the works Carlson says “saved the romantic comedy.”

Whether or not it did that, Nora certainly raised the bar for the type of film and made Ms. Ryan into America’s sweetheart. Whether coincidentally or not, Ryan probably looks the best in the book, generally as nice to be around and as bright as her movie characters. Tom Hanks also comes out looking good, a little reluctant to do so many romance movies but good to everyone on set and a great actor. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner are seen in fine light… really the only featured person (besides the ever-philandering Bernstein) who isn’t shown to be a joy to be near was Ephron herself. Ephron is depicted as prickly, short-tempered and rather close-minded. However, that might be what made her a great movie-maker. She was also obsessively attentive to detail and had a great sense of dialog and movie pacing. Reading the book, one comes to expect none of the three movies would have amounted to much had it not been for Nora’s vision for them and insistence on certain actors being cast and scenes being shot.

Fans of the three movies will be interested in a lot of the trivia that resulted in them being like they were. An entire storyline cut out of You’ve Got Mail to keep it to under two and a half hours. The iconic “baby fish mouth” in When Harry Met Sally being adlibbed by Bruno Kirby. And of course, the punchline the book got its name from, the classic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally in which prim Sally fakes an orgasm at the table… to Harry’s mortification. Turns out that was Meg’s idea, and Rob Reiner (the director) thought it was brilliant… until he began to sweat when his own mom was brought on set!

However, even if these films aren’t your cup of tea and you prefer ones with a lot of explosions and perhaps heroes in capes, if you’re a fan of Hollywood and films in general, it could be interesting. Carlson details much of the film-making process, and how a so-so script is edited, tweaked and rewritten, sets are searched for and meticulously created, lighting sculpted, the processes of finding the right actor for the roles and much more that would be as applicable to a Marvel adaptation or teen gross-out flick as it would a mature romcom.

A fun and interesting read. I’ll give it 3.5 AOL mailboxes out of five.

Imogen Developed Good Book For Poor Photographers…

Poor as in “not rich”, although a poor as in “not good” photographer might benefit as well!

I’ve been reading a rather lengthy book of late, so we’ve not had any book reviews here for a bit. But in the last couple of weeks, I did squeeze in an interesting, albeit specialized book, Photo Hacks, by Mark Wilkinson and Imogen Dyer. The book would be of interest to people interested in photography; if that’s not you, there’s little point in even trying to remember the name.

Dyer is a young British gal who years ago started a YouTube channel, originally it would seem to basically document her life, like so many… so very many… others who figure their lives are enthralling to people far and wide. But over time, the attractive woman who did some modeling, did more and more of her videos about her modeling. Generally they were with photographer Wilkinson. In time the channel and website that followed became a photography hub, dealing far more with photo shoots and techniques than what teas Imogen liked or her shampoos of choice. A couple of other cute and personable models, Emma and Caitlyn, got involved and Weekly Imogen came to have thousands of subscribers and make something of a star out of photographer Mark. And deliver a steady dose of the best,worst “dad jokes” you’ve ever heard.

So when they decided to venture into publishing, their paperback Photo Hacks caught my eye. It’s much more a “how to” than a gallery-style coffee table book and the thing which makes it really stand out to me is that it is all about tips for making your photography better on a budget. Anyone with a bit of knowledge and a lot of cash … a lot … can get great photo equipment like macro lenses that will focus down to an inch (for instance, a Canon 85mm f1.4L lens would be nice gift for your dearest photographer… at $1599 in most large NYC shops), or rent you great professionally lit studios. Getting similar results with little money is a challenge, and the pair rise to that challenge in the book. It gives you page after page of idea for adding to your photo repetoire spending very little money. Some are obvious – use bed sheets for backdrops, use windows for a nice side lighting for portraits – others are far from. A cut-up cardboard box and aluminum foil to make a pro-quality lightbox? Paper plates to diffuse lights? An old Pringles chip tube for close-up shots? Genius. It also gives you some basic tips on finding good, free locales for photo shoots, how to prepare so one can work quickly and a range of other things useful for a learning photographer. While most of the tips are for those using SLRs, many could be adapted for use with any old digital camera or even your camera phone.

Once again, this is a book which would only interest you if you are at least a somewhat serious photographer. But if that’s you, and especially if that’s you and you’re without the bank account of an Annie Leibovitz, this book is highly recommended, and quite entertaining. I got my copy fairly cheaply online, but as it is British, you’ll probably need to find it that way if you’re here in the land where people selling things on their front lawn are having “yard sales” not “ boot fairs”.

Trebek Trekked Back In Book

Category : “The Answer Is…”

$100 – “Alex Trebek Biography” . A : What is The Answer is… A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sad death of Alex Trebek. So, being a fan of the show he put on the map, Jeopardy, and since he was Canadian like me, with only one degree of separation from me (we had a mutual acquaintance), I figured I’d get his recently-released autobiography and read it.

$200 – “North American Countries”. A: What are the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. While Mexico doesn’t play much into the story, Trebek is a Canadian who found fame and fortune in the U.S., married an American (“someone who was going to complete me as a human being”) and eventually became an American citizen. The book contains a lot of interesting stories about his childhood and youth in Canada, from his parents – a beer-drinking, cursing father who taught himself English and became a respected cook and his church-going, teatotaller mom who coincidentally had family in the States, which began his love affair with the U.S. – his rather disreputable youth and iffy relationship with school and its authority figures, to a photo of him in a denim jacket and jeans …a “Canadian tuxedo” as he proudly calls it. And about his life in the more populous country to the South, and all the steps along the way to becoming the best-known and respected game show host on TV.

$300 – “Jeopardy” – A: What is the TV show Alex Trebek hosted for over three decades. Given that it was what made him famous, and conversely, a show he made famous and a ratings hit, it’s appropriate he spends a good chunk of the book talking about it. And also, the best-forgotten game shows he had to take part in along the way to get him the spot, which initially was low-paid and low-prestige by comparison. The saving grace of that was that creator Merv Griffin paid little attention to it, allowing Alex and a few writers to basically shape it as they saw fit. We get Trebek’s reflections on his favorite players, not something that happened overnight as he also tells us he really didn’t talk to them much outside of what we saw on the program. He wanted to avoid getting too close to them both to avoid allegations of favoritism, and to emotionally distance himself anyway so as not to be upset when they inevitably lost. However, he did gain a soft spot for contestants like all-time champ Ken Jennings (who is slated to replace Alex when the show resumes next year), Eddie Timanus, a blind contestant, and Cindy Stowell, a multi-game winner who always seemed awkward on camera and a tiny bit “off”… and died before her shows aired. Turns out she was suffering from terminal cancer and very ill while filming, but she kept going… something of a guide for Alex himself a few years later on.

$400 – “Content” – A : What was Alex in 2020. When he wrote the book, he already knew he had cancer and little chance to survive. He speaks poignantly about the ill effects of the cancer as well as the harrowing treatments and how he knew in the end, he was unlikely to prevail. Yet, we also see that at 80, he was fine with it. He felt he’d lived a good, long and blessed life, loved some fine people and been loved in returned. He was remarkably at peace with the idea of this being his last year on Earth, although the pandemic frustrated him. When your days are numbered down to triple digits at best, you want to do all that you can when you feel up to it… and simple joys like going to the movies with his wife and kids had been taken away by Covid.

$500 – “Honestly Fun” – A: What was Alex Trebek. He surprises in the book, largely with his candor. He sometimes swears, he has a fast and sometimes PG sort of sense of humor and he made mistakes along the way, as we all do. He doesn’t shy away from any of those in the book, nor from his political convictions. He says he’s voted for Democrats and Republicans at different times and isn’t partisan, but he also left little doubt whatsoever about his feelings of the White House at the time of his death “If you start off by saying ‘Here’s the way we’re gonna solve it’…and worse if that certainty has no basis in fact and is being pushed by someone who just doesn’t have the mental capacity to adjust, you’re in deep trouble. And that’s what we’re seeing today.”

All that plus his thoughts on sleeping nude, his favorite celebrity fan, comedy parodies of himself and of course, the moustache. The Answer Is… that Trebek’s book is worth reading.

Scrublands Full Of A Lot More Than Just Snakes & ‘Roos

We’ve heard of “whodunnits”, but the most recent book I read is more like a “whydunnit”? Or so it would seem a couple of chapters in, but by the time we finish we’re not quite sure if it was a “whodunnit” mystery, a “why” one, a romance or a rural slice-of-life drama. Murder! Intrigue! Romance! Rural sociology! In the end, Scrublands turns out to be all of the above, making it quite a page-turner.

The 2019 novel was the fiction debut by Aussie journalist Chris Hammer, who seems to have learned how to tell a story well in his line of work. Like “lead with the hook.” He does that in Scrublands, where the most “action” happens in the prologue before chapter one begins. A small town priest gets ready for his Sunday mass and then, seemingly out of the blue, turns into a mass murderer, shooting people in front of his church for no apparent reason.

A year passes and a city newspaper sends middle-aged reporter Martin to look around the town and see how it’s coping. When he gets to Riverside, a small town that served as a stop on the highway and not a whole lot else, he finds it’s business as usual… as usual as business is going to be in a town of fewer than 1000 with few viable businesses surrounded by drought-stricken farms. But as he begins talking to the locals, he finds the more interesting story is trying to piece together the “why?”. Why did the relatively popular young priest turn murderous, why did some of his townsfolk get shot while others were spared? And of course, the “whats”. What did his rampage have to do with a couple of other murders nearby, if anything? What were members of a violent bike gang doing spending so much time riding through town? And most of all, what were townsfolk trying to cover up?

The answers to that fill the 300+ page book as Martin deals with the police, Australian feds cuiously interested in the goings-on and a number of local oddballs of questionable character. And, maybe, just maybe falls in love along the way.

It is a complex read at times, in that there are a lot of story arcs intersecting. Most of them eventually tie together satisfactorily and the whole story moves along at a brisk, entertaining pace.

An enjoyable book that resonates very well oceans away from ‘Down Under’… and seems to be begging for movie treatment!

Big Dog In A Small Truck Take On The Huge Land

Recently I read and reviewed Our Towns, a contemporary book documenting a couple’s travels across the U.S. with their stops in a variety of cities and towns. I compared it to a modern Travels with Charley, which made me decide to read that John Steinbeck non-fiction classic. Actually I should say re-read, as I discovered that gem probably close to three decades back when I was going through a period of trying to read classic “literature” and found it a short hop from Steinbeck’s novels to his travelogue.

For those unfamiliar with it, Travels with Charley is an account of a trip around the perimeter (more or less) of the Lower 48 that the celebrated writer took some 60 years ago now. He drove the miles in a pickup with a camper back, with his big poodle, Charley along for companionship. It was eminently interesting and well-written and mixed a yearning look back from the aging writer with glimpses of a marvelous future. Now, it’s more a look back and a measure of how we’ve changed. And how we’ve not.

Some things are indeed changed, and for the better I’d say since 1960. Our idea of “men” has evolved, more in some areas than others, but 1960 Steinbeck was still of the generation that settled differences with fisticuffs, more often than not in a bar, and hunted because there was stuff to kill. He lamented only seeing two fights along the way and packed along a rifle and shotgun, more just to fit in than to utilize them. He seemed to lament that he was tired and didn’t feel like shooting coyotes he saw in the desert, all the while worrying about Charley while in New England, fearing his dog would be shot as soon as it exited his truck by over-zealous gunmen who’d think it a deer. He shares stories of old logs being full of lead and cows being shot by wonderful “outdoorsmen” who assumed them deer. Doubtless we still have deer hunters and hunting season, but it’s encouraging to me that we have somewhat more respect for wildlife – and dogs and livestock – than we did in that day and age.

Another thing John lamented was the disappearing regional dialect and accent. He said upon reaching Montana “here for the first time, I heard a definite regional accent, unaffected by TV-ese.” He feared that the telly would soon wipe out every regional variation in dialect and accent and we’d all be talking like Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball before long. My sweetie works in Customer Service for a company that operates in about a quarter of the country; she can assure you that just hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to know that Cajuns of the backwoods of Louisiana are even speaking English, and there’s no mistaking the Bostonians who drive their cars by turning on the “khakis” or the traditional Bronx cadence from just over a hundred miles away from there. Native Mississippians sound little like native Minnesotans although they’re bound together by one great river. Myself, I’ve been asked where I was from many times when in Atlanta (usually in a friendly but inquisitive manner) and in Texas had one woman suggest “You’re not from here – is that a Chicago accent?” I told her no but not far off… I was from another Great Lakes city. We southern Ontarians don’t think we have accents, but we sound different to those in the Lone Star State, even if we watch Friends and Masked Singer shows together. Steinbeck misread the future on that.

Another difference is not in the story, but the reaction. Steinbeck was amazed at the mobile home parks springing up everywhere, and was in awe of them. It was a new phenomenon which made eminent sense to him. “They are wonderfully-built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, insulated…” and convenient, he figured. “If a plant or factory closes down, you’re not trapped with property you can’t sell…he rents a trucking service and moves on” to the next city with the next batch of jobs waiting. Now, I daresay Steinbeck wasn’t wrong in the convenience or affordability of them, but for better or worse, very few these days share his sunny take on them and the parks they are located in. Ugly it is, but true as well that a good chunk of the country automatically look at the residents not as smart, adaptable people but uneducated, dirty dolts. Why else do we all understand what someone means when they say “trailer trash.”

Some things never change though, one of the big examples in the U.S. being the Texas spirit. Steinbeck says “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is a mindset” and in fact, “a nation” even. He notes the huge state varies from flat farm fields covered in snow in winter in the Panhandle to sandy Gulf beaches and citrus orchards along the Rio Grande… nothing in common but for the energy and bravado of the residents. Not to get him wrong, he says he likes Texas, married a Texan and was treated with fantastic hospitality when in the Lone Star State. He points out at home, Texans tend to be friendly and welcoming, but as soon as they pass by Texarkana or El Paso they feel self-conscious and ill at ease and turn into the loud, boorish Texans of Hollywood stereotypes. Sentiments that seem about as apt today, as I write this from Fixer Upper-land, as they were to him back then.

Sadly some of the worst things Steinbeck documented are still among the truest. He lamented the bland highways, saying one could drive from New York to L.A. without seeing a thing, and that the cities they line are coming to all look the same, with the same chain stores and takeout restaurants. If he thought that then, imagine if he could see it now that McDonald’s have served “billions and billions” and Walmart isn’t just a small town five and dime in the hills of Arkansas!

Perhaps the most glaring example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” though probably makes the book hit many book clubs and reading lists this year again, that being discrimination and racial unrest. He speaks of growing up in a town where there’d only been one Black family, and they were well-liked, hard-working people no one had any grudge against; spoke of being reluctant to even visit the “South” due to their attitudes and hearing time and time again speeches against desegregation and jokes about thinking Charley , his darkish dog, was a “N”word, time and time again before he even left Texas, let alone hit Mississippi and Alabama. He watched in horror as crowds gathered along the street to yell insults at one tiny Black girl being led into a “White” school in New Orleans by federal marshals. Certainly the circumstances have changed and progress has been made, but it’s discouraging so much of the national debate and daily news still revolves around racial problems in the land.

One universal Steinbeck uncovered unintentionally in his wanderings seems the same for any long distance voyager, be they astronauts, merchant marines, Ewan McGregor riding his motorbike across continents or even Dorothy in Oz: the trip that begins a happy adventure becomes a drudgery, a mere race to the finish line in its last miles. Visiting is great, it would seem, but really there is no place like home.

Our Towns – Steinbeck Revisited At 10 000 Feet

My latest read has been Our Towns, a travelogue by James and Deborah Fallows. The 2019 book (a slightly updated version of the original which was released two years prior) owes a lot to a favorite of mine, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an obvious comparison and one the writers acknowledge early on. Both are essentially diaries of jaunts across the length and breadth of the U.S., stopping along the way to see interesting towns and talk to ordinary people. However, for all the obvious similarities, there are differences aplenty too, most obviously the 50+ years which passed between the two.

While Steinbeck famously traveled in his camper-back pickup truck with his faithful dog, James Fallows travels by air, piloting his own small plane, with his faithful wife and writing partner. That in itself leads to some big differences. For instance, while Steinbeck lamented how (even in the early-’60s) cities and landscapes were all becoming homogenized and similar from the road with lookalike fast food places and strip malls, the Fallows wonder at the differences of the landscape from the air. They simplify, for instance by noting that from a plane, the eastern third of the country is forest, the central part nothing but farm fields and the west all desert and mountain, save for a dense cluster of cities along the California coast. The mode of transport also affected how they encountered the land. Steinbeck, driving his own bed and breakfast could move around freely and quickly and often met memorable people at campsites or along the road; the Fallows usually stayed in hotels in their towns and spent a few days exploring, often on foot, talking to educators and business people as often as not.

The Fallows visit a range of cities and towns ranging from tiny – Eastport, Maine, for example, a fishing town and the easternmost point in the country and closer to Canadian cities like Fredericton than the nearest largish American one – to mid-sized ones like Riverside, California and Charleston, WV, and even a couple of large urban areas like Columbus, Ohio. For good measure they also visit a Prairie nature preserve in Montana and a lake in Texas being rehabilitated largely due to the work of rocker Don Henley. The one common thread is that all of the spots they stop at are areas on the move upward; areas which are getting better whether they were not bad to begin with or written off as almost dead and uninhabitable.

They strive to find the small stories of success in those places, and the reasons why. They find some fundamental similarities, but one isn’t political leanings. They note that they stopped in one of the most Liberal towns in America – Bernie Sanders’ home of Burlington, Vermont – and some in the heart of Republican red America, like Dodge City, Kansas. Surprisingly, the successes are similar, and one is an ability of local leaders to put aside national and partisan politics to work together for local good. Allentown, PA for instance, tends to be Republican but went against all “conservative” practises during the recession of the early-2000s and voted to increase local taxes, enabling continuation of the level of social services and policing as well as spend on redeveloping the downtown area. The counter-intuitive strategy worked.

The Fallows find some common threads in the cities doing well. Among them, a good community college training people in job skills that lead to good paying work in the area, a good public library system, public schools which adapt to local situations (whether it’s having expanded ESL classes in areas with high populations of refugees and immigrants or having local high-tech industries bring in people to help work with the kids on real world projects involving science and technology) , and a dedication to reinvigorating the downtowns , which usually leads to a number of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Art too, is a common denominator, they find, although they admit neither of them were especially artistic types. Cities which thrive have a lively arts scene, from galleries and wall murals on old buildings to small theatre companies.

All that and beer . Yep, local microbreweries or taprooms were the last common feature they found in almost every city they visited; something that improved civic pride, usually resulted in a popular local gathering place and of course, some fine quaffs as well.

Cheers to that, I say, and cheers to the book which is interesting and makes me interested in seeing places I never would have imagined could be interesting, like Charleston and Dodge City. A book I recommend for anyone as entertainment, and to civic leaders for ideas.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

They say “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we writers know differently. People do exactly that, so you’d better be able to judge a book by its cover… and quickly.

It’s always been an issue for authors and their publishers. Unless you’re a household name with a stack of New York Times best-sellers to your credit, people will take a quick look at your book in the store and decide from that cover whether it’s worth even picking up to read the slipcover, let alone purchase it. So your book needs to have immediate visual impact, and suggest to the newcomer just what kind of book it is. Take a look at these examples:

sking

Granted, almost everyone who ever sets foot in a Barnes & Noble, and most of those who don’t, know who Stephen King is now. But even if that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination or guesswork to figure out from the cover that this wasn’t going to be a cheery work designed as a lullaby in print! And, since King is so well-known, note how his name takes up about half the cover. When you’re that successful, your name alone will lead to sales.

Contrast that to this one:

egif

Although it would soon be made into a successful movie, when it came out, Emily was an unknown author. But the cover made for a quick suggestion as to what it would be about and its character. We’d have been quite surprised to find it about a deranged super-natural clown, wouldn’t we?

People do judge a book from its cover. It’s always been true but now is more so than ever, as much of the browsing is done online. Now instead of a 7X10” book sitting in front of them, readers make their choice increasingly by looking at a stamp-sized image on a screen. That thumbnail better have something to make them interested right away.

It was a problem confronting me when I put out my debut novel, Grace…fully living. While my dad, ever the cheerleader, would probably have told me to be confident and go the Stephen King route and have my name take up half the front, I realized outside of a few dozen Facebook or Twitter friends and my little circle back home, no one knew me from Adam. Visuals would have to do the selling.

So, I needed something to catch people’s eye, tell them the book was a light-hearted one about a young woman…and be within my relatively small budget. For that, I find Pexels is one of the best sources of stock images.

My first cover, on the initial e-book release, was this:

gracenewsmallcover

The photo was taken by a Toni Cuenca and I loved it. It was bright, it was colorful (even more so after I tweaked it in a photo-editing program), it said “fun.” The model was attractive, and a redhead, as Grace is in the book. I chose bright summery fonts.

I thought it was great, to be honest, but my sweetie didn’t. Now, it is my work and my choice, but it was worth considering. She was a lady of approximately my target audience and she didn’t seem to appreciate the cute girl in a swimsuit. If she didn’t, many other women might not either. Not to mention, it had no direct tie-in to the book other than the redhead and the easy-going feel. And the proof was in the pudding. Initial sales were low to say the least (not that I expected it to be a million seller no matter what was on the cover!)

I put it out last summer, and decided to try and reboot it and spark sales late in the year by putting it out as a “Christmas edition.” It wasn’t altogether too cheesy an idea as the book begins and ends at Christmas. I added in a little bonus content and changed the cover to this one. The image also came from Pexels.

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It was cute. My very small focus group of women seemed to prefer it to the first one. It made an appropriate lead into the start of the story… young woman, Christmastime, cold area, looks like she might be happy enough. But for the new cover and few extra pages, it didn’t fly over the internet into a lot of Kindles.

So when it came time to actually get a small run of the book printed this year, I wanted a new look for it. The hot chocolate cover wasn’t going to cut it, since it might give a hint that it was a romance or comedy, it screamed “Christmas!” with the image and all that red and green going on. Which might be good come December but is going to torpedo summer sales.

Again I looked at Pexels and found by Thiago Schempler. I liked it for several reasons. It’s simple, it’s sort of upbeat looking and it could easily have been a part of a few scenes in the book. The model looks casual and happy, and her hair obscures her face somewhat, leaving a little room still for the reader to imagine Grace as they like. And it was fairly basic in image and colors…more so after my digital tweaking of it. There was space to add in the title without covering essential parts of the picture and, without too much detail, it translates quite well when reduced to phone thumbnail size.

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It’s not pushed the book onto bestsellers lists or bought me a new Ferrari (not even a diecast one!) yet, but I think it works. And I thought you might like to get a feel for one of the myriad of things that go into being an author besides the “simple” writing a book!

Books About Touchdowns And Touchy Divas

So, if you were wondering, I’ve been trying to keep up on my reading through the past few months, still looking to meet my New Year’s Resolution of reading more books than I did last year (when in turn, I think that was also a resolution for 2019.)

A couple I’ve read recently were classic guilty pleasure “summer reading” titles, both by Emily Giffin. Giffin is by now one of the more established romcom/romance writers around and a longtime fave of my sweetie. My first introduction to her material was through the movie Something Borrowed, a likable little flick starring Ginnifer Goodwin at her cutest, Kate Hudson and a pre-action hero John Krasinski. It (spoiler alerts afoot here!) involves Goodwin and Hudson’s characters, Rachel and Darcy respectively, being childhood friends now turning 30. Darcy is the spoiled, self-centered one engaged to the millionaire blue blood lawyer, Dex, while Rachel is quiet, demure, brainy and seemingly a pushover. As it progresses though, we find Dex and Rachel have loved each other for years and when Darcy has a pre-wedding fling, the other two are thrust into each other’s arms. Meanwhile, Krasinski’s all-seeing, all-wise Ethan is a straight-talking friend to all. It’s fun, it’s lightweight and while not an Oscar contender, there are far worse date-night movies around. The movie actually ends with a scene from a sequel…which for what ever reason, never was shot.

The sequel, Something Blue, follows the same characters, but is told from the point of view of self-centered Darcy who simply can’t believe her meek, plain friend “stole” her guy and overlooks the fact that she too had an affair…with one of her guy’s groomsmen. And that she’s pregnant with twins, a result of said affair. Ethan’s moved to England to work and Darcy decides to go to him to avoid the gossip and stares around the fancy places that were her previous haunts.

Since the movie wasn’t made yet, and now Krasinski is a big-time star, and the young women just aren’t that young anymore, probably never will now, I decided to pick up the book for some light reading and to see what happened to those characters.

I wasn’t necessarily instantly taken by the idea by reading about obnoxious Darcy’s exploits that much, and the first few chapters are only readable because it’s funny how self-absorbed she is. And how I can imagine every one of us has met at least one “Darcy” in real-life! But as the book progresses, Darcy is forced to look in the mirror (she can no longer see her feet by looking down) and grow up a little. By the end, she’s managed to become a likable character and as with most romance books-movies not written by Nicholas Sparks, there’s a pretty happy ending for all.

That led to my sweetie rummaging around in a closet and pulling out another book by Giffin, The One & Only for me to read. This one quickly set the tone as being football-centric, and as a big baseball fan who cares little for the gridiron and Friday Night Lights, I was a bit reluctant to even dig past the first chapter. But I was glad I did, as it ultimately was a pretty good book, more nuanced and thought-provoking in fact than the other two. And as a resident of football-crazy Texas now, I loved picking out the telltale signs of life in King of the Hill-land… Shiner Bock being the go-to beer for locals, the Whataburgers, the October days that still feel like mid-summer in the desert.

While still a romance, The One & Only is more drama than comedy, and could borrow from Law & Order‘s “ripped from the headlines” tagline. Again, spoiler alerts ahead although I will try to limit the detail. The story revolves around a football-crazy stathead girl, Shay. She lives and breathes football (which again, might seem foreign to most of us not born in the southern Plains but rings true here) living in a thinly-disguised version of Waco. Her city, “Walker”, like Waco, is obsessed with college football, has the team colors everywhere in the city, and is home to a “near Ivy League” private religious university which has a powerhouse football team, playing in a stadium on the shores of the Brazos River just south of Dallas and a populace with seems overcome with their despise for the University of Texas team. It’s surprising Walker didn’t have a reality-TV couple making home renovation programs there in the  book.

Shay has an entry level job at the university and a pothead boyfriend, but is friends with people in high places, Texas-style, including the aging football coach at the university and a high-profile pro player for Dallas who’d gone to school in Walker. Suffice to say she’s challenged to leave her comfort zone and apply herself a little and soon she’s got a better job and a chance at a better relationship. In time she’s forced to confront questions about her own loyalty to her school and “BFF” vs. her boyfriend. Not to mention, knowing which beau is best.

Although the story centers around Shay, a relatable enough young 30-something even for those of us who don’t share her passion for all things football, but in doing delves into the psyche of the sport and its stars. It examines recent scandals involving university players being accused of impropriety and team official’s turning a blind eye through a surprisingly thoughtful lens.

If you need a lightweight summer reading escape, Giffin’s Something Borrowed/ Something Blue aren’t half bad choices. If you’re a football fanatic, or want some grit with your love stories, The One & Only might be just that.