Thankful Thursday XXXVII – Fannie Flagg & The Storytellers

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for storytellers. No, not the used car dealers who assure you that 2003 Mustang was only driven to church on Sunday by a little old lady, but the great ones who write the books and movies we love. Shakespeare was a story-teller. So too Dickens, and Steinbeck and Twain. Even Stephen King. And Fannie Flagg. She came to mind because I just finished reading a book by her, so I’ll rather combine two blogs here and review it.

One of the out of left-field hit movies from the ’90s was Fried Green Tomatoes, a sort of ode to both the Deep South and feminism, starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker. The story revolved around the close friendship of two young women, Idgie and Ruth during the Depression-era South, as told by an elderly relative of Idgie’s decades later. It’s an unusual sort of dramedy, mixing well elements of both humor, sometimes quite dark (ie – the disappearance of Ruth’s violent, abusive husband, which shall we say led to a “tasty” subplot) and tear-jerking drama. Most of it centred around a little diner, the Whistle Stop Cafe, run by the two friends.

Anyway, undoubedly some have wondered what ever happened to those characters; when the film ended, Idgie was still alive and looking after Ruth’s young boy, Buddy Jr., and Evelyn, the middle-aged lady hearing the stories from old Ninny was on her way to a whole career and life makeover. Well, it turns out we now know, thanks to the story’s creator, Fannie Flagg. Last year she published a sequel, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop. It’s a good, quick read that brings us up to date on all the main characters, through a similar series of present-day events and flashbacks.

We find that Evelyn parlayed her Mary Kay sales into a major business career and she’s now a mover and shaker in Birmingham, but a bored one. She once again connects with the family of Idgie and Ruth. While the original mainly centred on those two, this one is seen largely through the scope of Buddy Jr., who’d become a successful veterinarian but is now retired and lonely back in Georgia, and his daughter, Ruthie. Together they become a new sort of family and embark on a “if you build it they will come” sort of project to bring the past into the future.

The chapters are short and fast-paced and the story interesting. Like the first one, it highlights feminism and individuality while throwing some shade on class elitism and other less lovable traits of “Dixie.” With her blend of unusual but likable characters and championing of community and small town life, Flagg is something of a Garrison Keillor of the South…a title people like Evelyn and Ruthie would take as an honor. They might not be Tolstoy or Rushdie, but they know how to tell a story that touches us and characters who stay with us.

Thankful Thursday XXIX – Children’s Authors

Yesterday, while waiting for my stepson to get done with his medical appointment, I decided to spend a bit of time in a used book store nearby. Bookstores are always something I’m thankful for, by the way. Browsing through the many aisles of only semi-sorted novels, bios, texts and more, I noticed a little kids bird book on a clearance table for 50 cents. It was the same one I had when I was little – maybe eight or nine, the first one I had about birds. I put out the two quarters happily for nostalgia’s sake. Sure, the book is tiny and only about 100 pages, and has perhaps only one-fifth of the species of birds in the country listed and illustrated, and sure I have three full-detailed, upto date, proper field guides listing the 700 or more types of birds one might see, or hope to see, in North America already. But this brought back memories of when I was a kid and we put out a bird feeder in the garden and I’d see some colorful little bird at it. I’d stare lovingly, then go to the book to see if I could identify it. Often I could, sometimes it remained a mystery. But it piqued my interest. I’d look through thinking, “yeah, I’d like to see a Bobolink” or “where could I find one of these Pileated woodpeckers?” . It helped spur on a lifetime hobby and source of relaxation for me.

As well, of late, I’ve been reading the biography of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. A polarizing figure in today’s world to be sure, but the creator of so many of the books that I, and many others my age, learned to read with : Green Eggs and Ham. The Cat In The Hat. The Grinch. They were books that made me laugh, and made me think (about the Grinch’s selfishness and how he turned it around at the end, for instance, a lesson in good and bad that anyone can get). I loved having them read to me and were simple enough for me to begin to figure out the words as I followed along. Soon I could read them myself. Precisely what the Doctor had set out to do. He wanted kids to read, and he figured out that the “Dick & Jane” readers that were so prevalent in the pre-WWII era tended to bore kids and drive them away from books. He set out to make books that spoke to children as equals and made them want to turn pages and look forward to their next one. Whether you like his socio-political views or not, you’d have to agree he succeeded on that.

So this Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for children’s authors. As a writer myself, I know how difficult it is to write a story that’s compelling and interests adults. Doing the same for small children is that much harder. The vocabulary is more limited, some of the morals or storylines have to be much simplified, the characters more memorable and the work has to keep going without slowing down lest they throw the book away and wander off to stick a waffle in the DVD player or whatever little kids do. Yet with the world becoming so complex, and so very much media to consume, our whole future relies on today’s children learning to read…and wanting to do so.

So a tip of the hat, on the back a pat, a full salute, from the horn a toot… here’s to you, children’s writer – you are making today’s tomorrows so much brighter!

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.

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.

cmaswrapping cover_small

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.

grace resize cover

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!

Your Summer Reading List Just Grew… ‘Grace…fully living’ Now In Print

Finally something “novel” that’s not a corona virus!

Time out here to blow my own horn a little. My first novel is now available in limited quantities as a softcover book and you can be one of the very first to get it. A perfect light read for the poolside or wherever else you might be spending the holidays!

Order your limited edition copy of Grace…fully living now through Etsy. Under $10 for this year’s hottest, funniest and most hapless new rom-com heroine in print. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll feel good knowing your supporting independent artists like Dave.

Thank you and enjoy!

(PS- be watching for a new site soon featuring Grace…fully living discussions, pictures and more as well as other short stories and related pieces.)

May Hooray 6

If there’s one store I miss going into lately (due to the pandemic restrictions), it would be the city’s Barnes & Noble bookstore. I love books, love magazines, love reading. Checking out an eight-foot section of current best-sellers at Walmart doesn’t quite compare, and while Amazon exceeds the range and breadth of selection a 20 000 square foot brick-and-mortar outlet can provide, it lacks the ambience. It lacks the tactile experience. It lacks $3 cups of coffee! And of course, it doesn’t generally provide the great level of surprise that I get when I go in to a store and see something I’d never heard of on the shelves but can’t live without anymore. I’d wager that about half all the books I’ve bought in the past five years have been ones I’d not heard of and wasn’t looking for until I saw them in the store, started reading the slipcover and was hooked.

Anyway, I’ve been reading a bit more than usual during these times, as I hope many of you have been too. The book I’m just about finished right now is My Squirrel Days by actress Ellie Kemper. Many of you would know her from her role as Erin in The Office, but as an infrequent viewer of that (I liked the limited British series that was adapted for the U.S., back in the day, but somehow never really got into the Steve Carell version) I just knew her name a little and non-specifically, and thought “hey, a redhead and a squirrel on the cover. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

And it is quite good, although not Pulitzer Prize good nor fall on the floor laughing funny. It’s witty at times and a good-natured little memoir of a B-list actress who seems likable enough. But that’s not the point of this. The point is, I was able to pick it up for free. And it doesn’t get much better than that! Frankly, it’s not something I would have bought even if discounted from the $26 cover price, but that’s where today’s topic comes in – Little Free Libraries. I picked it up on a whim at a neighborhood one of those while dropping off a book or two I was done with that might brighten or enlighten someone else’s day.

If you’re not familiar with Little Free Libraries, maybe you should be. The “libraries” are little depositories of books that typically volunteers have on their lawns. The idea is simple. They put up what looks like a large mailbox outside their place. Many go to great lengths to creatively decorate theirs, but even if it’s just a plain wooden box, it still serves the same purpose. People who have books they don’t want or have room for anymore drop them off in them. At the same time, anyone can stop at it and help themselves to a book or two if they want. Like one of those “leave a penny, take a penny” trays at a checkout, only for books. And occasionally magazines or movies as well, I find. Since I started noticing around them in my adopted city a few years ago, I’ve come to visit them fairly regularly, dropping off books I figure more likely to gain dust than my renewed attention in the next few years, and picking up a number of ones I’ve read.

The non-profit that runs the service won a World Literacy Award this year and estimate they have around 100 000 little libraries around the world. I’m aware of six or seven around my county, and doubtless there are quite a few more…and some near you too.

Now, it is true that long before “Little Free Libraries” there were big free libraries thanks to our municipalities. Obviously they rather dwarf the little ones in selection and orderliness, given that the little ones usually top out at a few dozen books. But the little ones have some things going for them too.

First, as they point out, they’re open 24/7. Rather more convenient to find something to read on a rainy weekend if it’s 11 o’clock at night. And, since you can actually take the books, there’s no deadline on returning them. No late fees should you forget about them. No library cards needed either.

The big thing they have though is proximity and visibility. City libraries are often few and far between, and not always conveniently located for those without cars. The little libraries aim to be right in the neighborhoods people live in and walk (or drive) by every day. That’s especially useful for kids on their way to school and indeed one of the main objectives they have is to get books into the hands of children who don’t have many – or any- at home. Their figures show that academically, children who grow up without books at home lag three years behind children who have well-stocked bookshelves and read frequently at home. They hope to let some of those kids catch up. As well, the little boxes o’books help promote community, with neighbors meeting more neighbors and getting involved in their own neighborhood. All of that seems like good reason to cheer.

So if you’re “Marie Kondo-ing” while waiting out this virus*, you might want to investigate and see if there isn’t a little library near you to drop off the books that are straining your shelves. And who knows – you might even find a fun book about an actress you didn’t know of . And, if you’re very lucky, maybe even her rodent.

 

*it’s of course worth mentioning that it pays to be cautious right now with the corona virus situation. It’s advisable to wear gloves right now if you’re going to use one of the libraries and, of course maintain social distancing if your neighbors are out there too. And as the CDC note that the virus can live for several days on hard surfaces (Healthline say it can survive on paper up to 4 days), currently it might be wise to file away any new acquisition from them for reading a little later on.

Photo – Waco Tribune Herald

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