What the Stars Read

Do you ever wonder what the movie and TV stars read?

After too long a break, I traveled once again to a multi-media convention in the Baltimore area as both a panelist and guest, giving me unique opportunities to learn about books, movies, television, actors, and other forms of popular media.

Among the topics discussed were the interactions of cyberpunk (tech-heavy stories) and the modern world, stories that cross genres and copyright laws (Is there anyone Scooby Doo didn’t meet? Why is there a Terminator in Wayne’s World?), trends in speculative fiction (Lunarpunk, anyone?), and more. And those were only the ones I was able to attend.

The best part of such gatherings is meeting the guests of honor. Guests can change at any time due to filming schedules or illness (Robert Duncan McNeill was replaced at the last second by John Billingsley, a phenomenally entertaining actor in person, due to McNeill testing positive for Covid), but there are always a number of interesting people making appearances. This year, among many outstanding actors, the guests included Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck, The Last Ship) and Summer Glau (Firefly, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sequestered, Arrow), and I was able to speak with both of them.

Summer Glau has put acting on the back burner for the moment as she home-schools her children. She herself was home schooled due to an overriding love of ballet, and thus was able to pursue dance more in depth with the flexibility of home schooling, though she admits there are gaps in her learning. I asked her who her favorite authors were, and what she likes to read. Glau is a fan of Steinbeck, especially East of Eden, as well as the classic Russian novelists like Tolstoy, and of course Jane Austen. She prefers her children have a more classical education, and that includes classical literature. She’s been reading books on farming, with daydreams of someday having a small farm (she is originally from Texas).

Adam Baldwin was a delight (No, he is no relation to Alec Baldwin and brothers). At 23, he appeared in the classic Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket, which is one of my favorites, and we discussed different war films we had each seen. He told me to watch The War Machine with Brad Pitt, I told him to watch 9th Company, an excellent Russian film about their 1980 invasion of Afghanistan. We talked about the WWI epic 1917. Baldwin admits he never made it to college, going into acting by the age of 18. His favorite authors? He likes reading Michael Crichton‘s best sellers such as Congo and Sphere, as well as Tom Clancy, and classic Stephen King, such as The Shining. By his own tale, he informed Stanley Kubrick that his film adaption of the The Shining was not as good as the book, which didn’t put him into Kubrick’s favor (Stephen King has been rather vocal on how much he himself disliked the film, despite it being ranked among the greatest horror films of all time).

In public, actors are always answering questions about their work, things they’ve done or would like to do, or nitpicky trivial questions about a single line of dialogue from decades ago that they can’t remember. Finding out what they like to read is a question they haven’t heard a thousand times, and brings out different aspects of the person behind the tabloid reports. Actors are more than just the roles they play, and finding something in common with them reminds us that off camera, they are people just like us!

When Art Imitates Life

Anne Perry is an accomplished mystery writer with more than forty novels to her name, including the Thomas Pitt series, the Daniel Pitt series, the William Monk series, and more. Many of her novels take place around World War I. 

She’s also a convicted murderer.

A friend from college – who is also a librarian – told me this while I was reading Death with a Double Edge, the fourth of her Daniel Pitt series. And thereby hangs a tale.

Perry (whose birth name was Juliet Hulme) was born in England but spent much of her childhood in the Bahamas, South Africa, and New Zealand. As a teen in New Zealand, she became fast friends with a girl named Pauline Parker. Their friendship was so tight it bordered on obsessive, with the girls creating rich fantasy worlds they pretended to live in, and throwing tantrums if they couldn’t be together.

When Perry was 15, her mother was caught in an affair, and her parents decided to divorce. Perry was going to be sent to South Africa to stay with relatives for a while. This sent the friends into a panic. They asked Pauline’s mother if Pauline could go with Anne/Juliet, and her mother said no. Pauline then, in the short-sighted way children have, decided to kill her mother, freeing Pauline to travel with Anne/Juliet. When Anne hesitated, Pauline threatened to kill herself if Anne didn’t help. Just three days later, while walking with Pauline’s mother, the girls beat her to death with a brick – a deed that took twenty savage blows.

Perry and Hulme were caught quickly. They were too young for the death penalty, and both wound up serving five years in prison. They didn’t speak to each other again. Perry eventually settled in the United Kingdom, where she lived a quiet, penitent life and took up writing mysteries that often had a theme of redemption. It wasn’t until 1994, when no one less than Peter Jackson made a movie about the crime (Heavenly Creatures), that a New Zealand journalist outed her as Juliet Hulme – three days before the release of the film. No one had spoken to her to get any actual facts about the crime, and the film remains highly fictionalized.

Is Perry the only author who has done hard time? Of course not. Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett did six months in jail for contempt of court. Nelson Algren, who wrote Man With the Golden Arm, spent five months in jail for stealing a typewriter. William S. Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, first spent time for forging a prescription, but later killed his common-law wife after a drunken argument while in Mexico. He escaped prosecution by fleeing back to the United States. Chester Himes was sent to jail for eight years at the age of 19 for armed robbery, where he began to write such novels as A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem. In all cases, incarceration, even for a little while, made a huge impact on the writer and their view of the world.

Anne Perry’s latest book, Three Debts Paid, a fifth volume of the Daniel Pitt series, was released in April.

Made in China

Every now and then you read a book so disturbing you change your life because of it. That’s how I felt about Amelia Pang’s book, Made in China. I have not been so disturbed by a book since Road of Lost Innocence, by Somaly Mam. 

In 2012 Julie Keith opened up Halloween decorations, only to find a note in broken English, asking her to “kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Julie did – contacting Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The United Nations Human Rights Council, and Anti-Slavery International.

None of them called her back.

Through her own research, she slowly learned the extent that America’s cheap consumer goods are, too often, being manufactured illegally by political prisoners in China, who work in concentration camp conditions amid torture and starvation.

 It wasn’t until she spoke to Immigration and Customs and Border Protection that she got anyone to listen – ICE and CBP are the agencies responsible for preventing forced-labor products from entering US markets. ICE made a formal request to visit the “reeducation center” where the product was made. China refused. Keith learned that China has never allowed inspection of their manufacturing facilities, and one piece of evidence isn’t enough to push further.

But Keith couldn’t stop thinking about the person who wrote the note. She wound up doing an interview for The Oregonian, and suddenly found herself in the spotlight of Chinese dissident news, CNN, Fox, and more. Through the group Human Rights Watch, Keith found out it’s almost impossible to prove human rights violations – Kmart insisted the factory had been audited every 6 to 12 months, absolutely within the law, but audits cost money and mostly check for cleanliness and quality control. They never check for the source of labor. When you have a hundred thousand subcontractors, and each audit is $1,000, the costs and time add up to impossible.

Sun Yi and his letter

Sun Yi was the man who wrote that note in 2009, three years before Julie Keith found it. He was imprisoned and tortured for belonging to a meditation group that fell into disfavor with the Party. After two years of  starvation, torture, and working sometimes 24 hours a day in inhumane conditions, he was released. CNN interviewed him, blocking his face so he could not be identified. Sun Yi decided that, while he could get the information out, he wanted to write a letter to Julie, thanking her. He included his email address. Sun realized if he was to live, he had to leave China, and slipped out to Indonesia before the Chinese authorities could stop him, since Indonesia didn’t require a visa for Chinese citizens. There, he had free communication with the world.

In March of 2017, Julie Keith flew 36 hours to Indonesia, to meet Sun Yi in person, something she always wanted to do. The meeting was bittersweet, and Keith learned much about Yi’s poor treatment.

In October of 2017, Sun Yi died mysteriously of a lung infection and kidney failure. He was said to have been befriended by a Chinese woman not long before. She wasn’t seen in Jakarta afterward. No autopsy was performed.

This book tore at my heart. It’s short, easy to read, and always engaging. As we flip past internet bargains and snap up dollar deals, think twice before buying cheap merchandise. Ask if the item was made in the USA, and try (oh yes, it’s difficult) to buy items made only in countries who pay fair wages and rely on fair trade. Does that pop-up ad on social media look beautiful, at a reasonable price? Google the company. If there’s little to no information on it, it may be because it’s fly-by-night. You might get a nice product, but the company may fold in one town and open up under a different name three blocks away in the same Chinese city, using the same illegal workers. 

I got suckered in by that myself: researched the company, found no red flags, ordered what I thought was a hand-made item by a small Mom & Pop company, until a few weeks later when I got an email telling me my package had just cleared customs from China.

Huh? 

The package arrived with a label that had a New York State company address – slapped directly over the label that was on the envelope that arrived from China.

Think when you purchase something. Without demand for cheap products, there will be less demand for labor. Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Is the price too good to be true? Where was it made? Who made it? Who is profiting from my buying it? Was someone harmed by my decision to purchase this item?

Sometimes, the answer might be yes.

Re-Covery

They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but a book cover can make or break a book’s success. While browsing a used bookstore decades ago, I fell utterly in love with the covers of a book series I’d never heard of before – DragonLance, by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I had to buy them, even just to look at the covers. The cover paintings were done by Larry Elmore, one of the premiere fantasy artists of the time. I’d never gotten too much into sword and sorcery books, but I devoured these. The second trilogy was still being written, and it was agony waiting for the next book in the series. I love those books to this day; they influence my own writing and imagination, and all because I had to have that book cover.

And nothing, of course, is more infuriating than when they change that book cover you know and love, and not usually for the better. Have you read this book? The title looks familiar, but not the cover … and then you start to read and find out yes, you’ve read it before, they changed the cover on you. Why?

There are many reasons a book gets a new cover. It may have changed publishers. It may be the paperback edition of a hardcover, or a school edition, or an audiobook – and audiobook companies, who often have a middleman, don’t always get permission to use the same cover. It may be a new printing – if a book contract agrees to a run of 5,000 copies, and 6,000 are ordered, the book may get a new distribution run, resulting in a new cover. The book may have been sold to a new publisher – such as Bantam Books being sold to Random House. Random House will then reissue a strong seller with their own brand of cover. If a movie or TV series is made from the book, a new edition will be released with a cover that reflects the new media, as happened with Lord of the Rings and Ready Player One. Sometimes the publisher gets flack because the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and they rework it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up, and sometimes, the cover art makes you scratch your head. Take, for example, the book Alas, Babylon, a 1959 novel of nuclear apocalypse that, if it’s not still my absolute favorite novel, it’s in my top three. First below is the cover I read it with – sensible, with the red/orange color of disaster and warning and nuclear fire, and people walking out of it. Compare that with the many covers it’s had since 1959:

The current one, number two above, a fourth edition by Harper Collins, to me, is puzzling – small font, an empty boardwalk, and a hand? This is not a cover that invites me to read, tells me a single thing about the story. Perhaps, after so many editions, they run out of ideas. Another fact: it’s very rare an author gets to choose the cover of their book – or have any input at all. You may submit your perfect dream cover along with your manuscript, and the publisher will toss it and give the work to one of their contracted artists. This is how you wind up with a blonde, blue-eyed heroine on the cover when the main character has short black hair.

Book covers also reflect what seems to be popular – a few years ago it seemed every book had a girl rolling around on the ground. If one sells, then everyone wants to copy that success. The bottom half of a face? Those are popular. Romance novel covers were almost interchangeable – how many were based on the model Fabio?  This year, pink is supposed to be “in” for covers again, as well as layered graphics and bold lettering.

Don’t like a book cover? Let the publisher know! Editors read the books, not the artists, or the publisher. If they’ve missed the mark, tell them. Authors depend on good covers to grab readers; if the cover isn’t intriguing, it’s wasting money.

What book covers have hit the mark, reached out and grabbed you so you had to read it?

What types of covers make you walk away?

Has a book cover ever made you angry?

Let us know!

Looking Back…Moving Forward

by Beth Crowley, Library Director

If you have lived through a number of decades as I have you can respond to the perennial question “Where were you when (insert significant event) happened?” For me it has been the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, 9/11, and the Sandy Hook school shooting. We note these tragedies over other moments not just because they were horrible but because their impact left clear boundary marks dividing time into “before” and “after” the event. Often the “after” time has resulted in a reduction of our sense of peace, security and belief that life is good and things will go as planned. Two years ago this month, on March 13, 2020, I experienced another of these defining moments when we shut the Library doors to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We found out on March 13 that we would be closing that same day.

Covid-19 didn’t strike in a single, sudden devastating event like the others I have mentioned but it clearly left a divider between pre- and post-pandemic life. Earlier in the week of March 13, 2020, I along with my fellow Town department heads attended a meeting with the Chesprocott Health Director, Maura Esposito and her staff. There we asked questions about precautions we should take to mitigate the spread of the virus among our employees and residents. I asked if the Library should put away the toys and craft materials in the Children’s Room. I was told there was no need and that the goal was to keep things as normal as possible for our patrons. By the end of the week, the Cheshire Public Schools sent all students home early and I got the call from the Town Manager to close the Library. Despite the sudden change in tone and urgency, we looked at the closing as a temporary measure perhaps lasting two weeks at most. None of us could have predicted the path we were about to take or where it would lead. Face masks, plexiglass barriers, social distancing, hand sanitizing stations, virtual programs, and mass vaccine clinics were still only shadows of things yet to be.

Leading an organization during the pandemic has been the biggest challenge of my 24 year career. Before Covid-19, I would try to calm stressed nerves by reminding staff that while library services are important to our customers nothing we did was in the “life or death” category. Now I was faced with making policy and procedural decisions that if wrong could result in serious illness or worse. For library employees, whose entire profession is based on access to accurate and trust-worthy information, the constantly changing messages and lack of clear guidance from national health and government leaders was frustrating. As library directors often do when struggling to solve a problem, I turned to my colleagues to compare notes. However, it soon became clear that based on varying rates of infection in different towns, conflicting guidance from health districts and that library buildings come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes it made sense to focus on what would work best for the Cheshire Public Library. I reached out again to Maura Esposito. She patiently walked me through every step I needed to consider and gave excellent and sound advice. Her guidance cut through the national noise allowing me to narrow my focus and plan for the immediate safety concerns with an eye to the future.

Providing library services during the pandemic was challenging but there were silver linings. Despite the disruption to my employee’s daily lives and work place, I soon discovered how resilient and innovative they could be. Faced with a closed library and working remotely, I was amazed at how my librarians quickly planned and delivered programs virtually. Until Covid-19, I thought Zoom was a TV program I watched as a kid! Our library clerks assisted with calling hundreds of Cheshire senior citizens to check on them and refer them for help if needed. To provide reading and entertainment materials for residents during the lockdown, we reallocated funds meant for buying physical items and added more digital content that users could freely access through our website. A number of patrons have told me this was the first time they tried our eBook collection and they were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. Since 2019, use of these resources has increased by 42%.

When we returned to a still closed building, staff coordinated and launched our first ever curbside “Grab and Go” service. At the program’s height we were filling an average of 60 bags with library materials every day! In order to help library users discover new materials while we were closed and browsing was impossible, we launched our Matchbook reader’s advisory program. We created an online form where patrons could tell us their reading interests and librarians would “match” them with books they may enjoy. The feedback from this program was so positive we have continued it and plan to keep it in place post-pandemic.

Now, almost two years to the day we shut down, we are finally able to relax most of our safety protocols and hopefully begin a permanent return to pre-pandemic times. But as with other life changing events, we can never truly go back to how life was before Covid-19 struck. For one the immense loss of life, at one point the equivalent of a 9/11 tragedy every day, has forever changed the lives of thousands of families. For students who graduated and began college during the pandemic, their experience of these milestone events was far from typical. How long will it be before we truly feel comfortable standing close to a stranger or giving a friend a hug?

Despite the difficulties and tragedies of the past two years, we must go forward. This month at the Library masks are now optional, we are resuming in-person programing including children’s storytimes, we’ve added back more public computers, increased capacities of our study rooms and reopened our Teen Space featuring new furniture purchased with American Rescue Plan grant funds.

No matter what life-changing events occur, the one thing I know about the role of the public library in a community is we can help our residents recover from hard times. Providing a peaceful place to read, work or relax can be a salve in scary times. Books, music and movies can be a welcome escape from the more difficult news we are bombarded with. Connecting with others to learn or discover through a program is an uplifting and renewing experience that can help buoy us after a hard day. It has been my honor to work with the amazing staff at the Cheshire Public Library during this challenging time as we tried to support and meet the needs of our residents. Since reopening our doors to the public in September of 2020 we are almost back to our pre-pandemic borrowing numbers and our library visits are continuing to increase. We hope with the return of more of our regular services and the addition of some exciting new ones (stayed tuned!) that we will be welcoming even more library users of all ages and we particularly look forward to seeing everyone’s smiles!