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!

The Maus Trap

As long as there have been books, there has been controversy about books. There have been six major book-burnings in the US (yes, America) over Harry Potter, because some people believe a little too much in witches, though, personally, if I believed that strongly in witches, I might just not want to anger them.

But logic doesn’t exist in book burnings, or bannings.

In 1948, in Binghamton, New York , people went door to door gathering and burning comic books, to save youth from their moral depravity. It sparked a nationwide comic-book burning spree, including here in Connecticut.

This year’s book fiasco (and this happened on January 10), has been the McMinn County (Tennessee) School Board voting 10-0 to remove the graphic novel Maus from their curriculum, over the use of 8 curse words (the most objectioned being – forgive me if you will, God damn), and the depiction of a naked mouse in a bathtub, with a breast showing. A mouse-breast. 

Maus is not drawn as graphic realism; with its heavy line style, it could be cut and printed in woodblocks and look the same.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is the winner of a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the only graphic novel ever to do so. In it (sometimes found in two volumes, sometimes as one combined), Spielman interviews his father, a Polish Jew, as to what it was like to survive the Concentration Camps – his father spent time in both Auschwitz and Dachau, and his mother in Auschwitz. Nazis are portrayed by cats, Jews by mice, Americans by dogs, French by frogs, British as fish, and Swedes as deer.  

Spiegelman has a lot of anger toward his father that comes out now and then in the story. His father was, understandably, damaged by the war and not necessarily an empathetic father. Spiegelman’s mother couldn’t rid herself of the experience, and committed suicide when he was 20 (the unfortunate mouse in the bathtub). It’s a true story, an honest story, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it and his place in the narrative is the struggle we all face trying to understand the Nazi rise to power and the unimaginable atrocities they carried out – atrocities so horrific, the experiences threw open the study of epigenetics on the belief that the DNA of survivors’ children had been altered by the experiences of the parents, though some studies are undecided.

Tennessee withdrew the book from the curriculum just three days before Holocaust remembrance day, citing moral issues that included violence and showing dead mouse children, language, and that naked mouse breast in one panel. 

Maus is now the top-selling book in America, thanks to Tennessee’s decision that thirteen year olds learning about the Holocaust in graphic form and seeing mild curse words in print might damage them. Good thing they never saw the photo novel my father, a historian, has of World War II, which is nothing but photographs of the war, including too many horrific images from the various camps, a book which has haunted me since childhood.

The internet, while not reliable for many things, had the best quote: If it was okay for 13 year old Anne Frank to live through it, why is it too disturbing for 13 year old Tennessee children to learn about it? 

There are many reasons some books may be objectionable, outside of really bad prose, and yes, it is not unreasonable that some books should have an age limit – after all, movies and video games do. I would not recommend reading “The Exorcist” to a ten year old, even a literate one. The thing to remember is that not everyone can agree on what or why something should be limited, or worse, banned. Always, always, read the banned book, find out what information someone is trying to suppress, why, and then talk about it. If you still find the material objectionable, that’s fine, but you don’t have the right to control its availability to others.

Decide for yourself. Maus is currently sold out on Amazon, but you can join the wait list for the library’s copy here. Meanwhile, check out these commonly banned books – most of which the rest of America considers classics (1984 by Orwell is the #1 banned book in America).

Most Wanted Books of Summer 2019

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Looking for something to read this summer? Let us help! Our Reader’s Depot has new book lists every month, so you’ll never run out of books to read. For even more recommendations, visit the Reader’s Depot display on the library’s main level.

city-of-girlsCity of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eighty-nine-year-old Vivian recounts her life after being kicked out of Vassar College, living in Manhattan with her Aunt Peg and the personal mistake that resulted in a professional scandal.

 

The Wedding Partywedding-party.jpg by Jasmine Guillory – After mistakenly spending a night together, Maddie and Theo uncomfortably share bridal party responsibilities for their best friend’s wedding, but despite the sharp barbs they toss at each other, a simmering attraction lingers that just won’t fade.

 

The Mistress of the Ritzmistress-of-the-ritz.jpg by Melanie Benjamin – The director of the luxurious Hotel Ritz in occupied Paris and his courageous American wife, Blanche Auzello, risk their marriage and lives to support the French Resistance during World War II.

 

Resistance Womenresistance-women.jpg by Jennifer Chiaverini – Resisting the power grabs of an increasingly formidable Nazi Party in 1930s Berlin, the courageous American wife of a German intellectual and her circle of women friends engage in a clandestine battle to sabotage Hitler’s regime.

 

The Farmthe-farm.jpg by Joanne Ramos – Ensconced within a Hudson Valley retreat where expectant birth mothers are given luxurious accommodations and lucrative rewards to produce perfect babies, a Filipino immigrant is forced to choose between a life-changing payment and the outside world.

 

The Last Time I Saw Youlast-time.jpg by Liv Constantine – In the aftermath of her mother’s murder, Dr. Kate English reaches out to her estranged best friend Blaire Barrington, a mystery author, who decides to investigate when Kate starts getting anonymous texts from the killer.

 

The Never Gamenever-game by Jeffery Deaver – Colter Shaw is an itinerate “reward-seeker,” traveling the country to help police solve crimes and private citizens locate missing persons. When he learns of a reward for a missing college student in Silicon Valley, he takes the job.

 

Queen Beequeen-bee.jpg by Dorothea Benton Frank – A woman wounded by her past comes to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina to find new meaning in life and to find herself.

 

Meet Me In Monacomeet-me.jpg by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb – Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s whirlwind romance and unforgettable wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco.

 

night-before.jpgThe Night Before by Wendy Walker – A tale told through parallel accounts of the days before and after a fateful blind date follows a woman’s revelatory investigation into her sister’s disappearance and complicated nature.

 

The Paris Diversionparis.jpg by Chris Pavone – After a leisurely start to a normal day, American expat Kate Moore finds herself partnered with a French agent to investigate a bombing threat in Paris.

 

The Night Windownight-window.jpg by Dean Koontz – When people under Arcadian control begin showing signs of instability, Jane Hawk and her supporters confront the center of power in a showdown that will determine America’s future.

 

The Tenth Musetenth-muse.jpg by Catherine Chung – From childhood, Katherine knows she is different, and that her parents are not who they seem to be. But in becoming a mathematician, she must face the most human of problems—who is she?

 

The Turn of the Keyturn-of-the-key.jpg by Ruth Ware – When a high-paying nanny job at a luxurious Scottish Highlands home ends with her imprisonment for a child’s murder, a young woman struggles to explain to her lawyer the unravelling events that led to her incarceration.

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creekbook-woman.jpg by Kim Michele Richardson – A last-of-her-kind outcast and member of the Pack Horse Library Project braves the hardships of Kentucky’s Great Depression and hostile community discrimination to bring the near-magical perspectives of books to her neighbors.

 

Under Currentsunder-currents.jpg by Nora Roberts – Returning to his hometown of Lakeview where his father’s abuse made his childhood a nightmare, Zane Bigelow begins a relationship with Darby McCray, a landscape designer, but his dark past comes back to haunt Zane and threatens their happiness.

 

big-kahuna.jpgThe Big Kahuna by Janet and Peter Evanovich – When unlikely partners FBI agent Kate O’Hare and con man Nicholas Fox investigate a missing Silicon Valley billionaire known as the Big Kahuna, they go undercover as a married couple in Paia, Maui, to find the man’s son.

 

Anna of Kleveanna.jpg by Alison Weir – Chosen as his fourth wife by England’s infamous Henry VIII, Anna of Kleve, a princess from a small German duchy, hides a desperate secret in a hostile foreign court.

 

The Daughter’s Taledaughter.jpg by Armando Lucas Correa – A tale of love and redemption based on the 1944 Oradour-Sur-Glane massacre follows an octogenarian’s receipt of a cache of letters, written by her mother during World War II, that uncover decades of secrets.

 

ECHOs of the Season

Every year there’s some tech gadget that seems to be the “in” gift, whether it’s an iPod, a Kindle or cousin, or, with the prices continuing to fall, it could very well be an Amazon Echo, also known as Alexa – available for as little as $99.

What is an Echo? It’s an artificial intelligence billed as a virtual personal assistant, and overall it can do some pretty entertaining things. One thing to understand – an Amazon Echo Dot, and the Amazon Echo, are THE SAME THING. The difference (besides $50) is that the Echo comes with its own speakers; the Echo Dot has to use bluetooth technology to feed off a blue-tooth capable speaker you provide, whether your phone or boombox or clock, etc. That’s it. So treat them interchangeably, because they are.

Inspired by the Enterprise computer on Star Trek and built on the Android platform, Echo sits in your house and by request can immediately tell you the weather forecast, the news, the time, the sports report, play games with you, set an alarm, play an audiobook, play a perfect mix of music as a personal radio, power smart devices like the Nest thermostat, stream podcasts, make you a list, provide recipes, find your phone, call an Uber, tune your guitar, order take-out, and even send messages and email to other Echos. There are currently more than 1500 downloadable apps to allow it to do quite an array of useful things for you, hands-free. The programmers have thought up just about any way an Echo could be abused – swear at it, and it will correct you. Ask it if the CIA is listening, it will give you a wise-crack answer. Ask it to Beam Me Up and it will give one of several replies. Ask it to do the fandango, and it will reply appropriately.

Of course, nothing is without controversy. Unless you hit mute, rendering it “deaf” and unable to function, the Alexa/Echo sits in your house listening 24/7 for its wake-up word (“Alexa, …”) and a command. Those commands are recorded so that the Echo “learns” what you ask most and can process your commands quicker. It learns how to interpret your personal pronunciation. Amazon swears it is not recording what happens around your house, only the commands that follow the word “Alexa.” Sometimes it will “hear” something on a TV that sounds like a command, and respond. There was an incident of a child asking Alexa for a dollhouse, and a $170 dollhouse was sent by Amazon (moral: don’t leave one-click ordering engaged).

In another incident, a woman asked Alexa to dial 911 in the middle of a domestic dispute; the police arrived in time to save her life. Problem is, Alexa isn’t supposed to do that. Not only is it not connected to any call system (unless it’s another Echo), but communication rules prevent it from being able to call out unless it’s also able to receive calls in. Nonetheless, somehow, somewhere, something in the home called 911, because in the 911 recording, the woman is screaming for Alexa to call 911. It remains a mystery. In my own case, we’ve had the Echo suddenly awake for no reason and give the news or weather or just “I didn’t hear that,” as if it forgot it was supposed to be seen and not heard unless spoken to. Just a little creepy.

If a slim possibility of wiretapping freaks you out, then simply hit the “mute” button when you don’t want the Echo “hearing,” effectively turning it off. Unmute it when you want to use it.

While there are outside apps (like Ask My Buddy) that can connect your Alexa/Echo to a phone, I think it’s silly to put regulations on any capable device from calling 911. A cellphone will call 911 without a paid plan; why can’t a virtual assistant? How many elderly fall while their help button is sitting on the bathroom sink? Having a voice-activated 911 in the home for a disabled or elderly person can be lifesaving. Period.

Still don’t like your commands being recorded? Go into your Amazon account and erase them. Is it possible to hack the Echo? Not easily – the entire system would have to be hacked. But as we know with hacking, nothing is impossible, so it’s best not to chain sensitive accounts to your Echo, and again, if you’re worried, turn the Echo off (mute) when not in planned use. Yes, you can unplug it, too, but then you have to wait a minute for it to reboot and get its bearings again.

In my family, 99.8% of the Alexa/Echo use is for a commercial-free personal radio, with great playlists from Rush to Raffi. By far, we under-utilize its capabilities. As a gadget it has a multitude of uses, especially for any physically disabled person or shut-in. Does it do anything you can’t do with a computer or a radio? No. But it’s easy to move from room to room or take with you if you go somewhere (with wifi. It must have wifi to work.) It’s easy enough for Aunt Betty to learn to use. If it’s for someone who is tech-savvy, they’ll discover a world of things they can do with it.

As far as sale-priced gadget gifts go, yeah, this one is probably worth it.

For more on Artificial Intelligence, check out these titles, and more:

Breakpoint: Why the Web Will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else You Need to Know abour Technology is in Your Brain by Jeff Stibel

Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy by David Mindell

Final Jeopardy: The Story of Watson, the Computer that Will Transform Our World by Stephen Baker

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark

Return Ticket for the Orient Express

  Sometimes a literary character – and an author – just doesn’t quit, staying popular generation after generation. Sometimes we call that a classic – Scarlett O’Hara, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Sometimes we call that Hercule Poirot.

Agatha Christie is the modern world’s most successful author (yes, even more than J.K. Rowling and Nora Roberts), third only to The Bible and Shakespeare, and has sold over two BILLION copies of her works (that’s 165 stories). Rowling only ranks ninth or so, with an estimated 500 million in sales. Sure, you can use the Gone With the Wind excuse that Rowling only hit big in 1997, while Christie’s first novel was published in 1920, so it has had a lot more years to gather sales (GWTW remains the highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, due to its 1939 release date. Yes, more than Star Wars). Either way, there’s a reason for that.

Christie’s first and most popular detective is Hercule Poirot (the other being Miss Marple), a retired Belgian police officer with peculiarly meticulous habits and a brilliant mind for solving crimes, well-known for his thick black curling mustache – the only fictional character to ever have an obituary on the front of the New York Times. Poirot first appears in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)and goes on for more than 33 novels, 50 short stories, and a stage play. You may have heard of his most famous case: Murder on the Orient Express.

Originally published in 1934, Orient Express tells the story of a murder (obviously) that occurs on a train going from Istanbul to Calais, France, which Poirot, a passenger on the train, slowly unravels. The Orient Express is a real train service that began in 1883 and ran from Turkey to France, ending its official run in 2009 – operating in three centuries!

Numerous film and television adaptions of both Orient Express and Poirot’s mysteries have been made over the years, most notably the 1974 film adaption of Orient Express starring Albert Finney – the only actor to receive an Oscar Nomination for playing Poirot, though he didn’t win (Ingrid Bergman won as Supporting Actress for the role of Greta Ohlsson). The library has many volumes of television adaptions of Poirot’s mysteries. If comedy and spoofs are more your style, check out 1976’s Murder by Death, with James Coco as Milo Perrier (Poirot), Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple) and a host of top-name stars poking fun at all the famous detectives.

Low and behold, Murder on the Orient Express is once again returning to the big screen on November 10, 2017, with a – dare I say it? – killer cast. Kenneth Branagh, British superstar of myriad films including Henry V, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dunkirk, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and so many more, takes the lead as Poirot – not as short as Poirot is supposed to be, but ever since Hollywood ridiculously cast 5’6” Tom Cruise as 6’5” Jack Reacher, all rules are off. Add in Penelope Cruz, Dame Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and more, and it’s worth the price of admission just for the cast and the gorgeous period costumes and vehicles. Of course there’s already a furor raging among the purists about his mustache.

Kenneth Branagh is a superb actor but an even superior director, and with him in the director’s seat  and the blessings of Agatha Christie’s estate, the film promises to be everything we want it to be. So prepare by reading a couple of Poirot’s mysteries, or check out a couple of other adaptions, and then watch the film. Or, give the movie a shot and then follow up with a binge of Poirot stories. When you run out, there’s always Miss Marple.