Blindfolds and Weiner Jokes: First Ever BOOK LAB.

Ya’ll know I love reading, right? LOVE it. And I *adore* books. Holding books. Sniffing books. I may’ve even cuddled a book before. In our house, we regard books like fine china. Carefully placed on a special shelf in a particular way, there for anxious hands and adoring eyes. Yes, yes, come look at them. Aren’t they exquisite? Aren’t they divine?

I’m dumbfounded by people who (claim they) don’t like to read. I’m like: What the hell is wrong with you? Seriously. That’s like saying you don’t like being transported to magical places. Faraway lands. On grand adventures. In other people’s minds. Through the portals of time. While getting smarter . . . For free.

Seriously, what’s your deal.

“It’s boring,” they shrug. (excuses!)

“You’re just not reading the right book,” I say.

And I stand by that. You ‘reading is lame‘ people come see me at the library. I’ll connect you with something GOOD. But ahhh . . . how do we determine what’s good?

As an author and librarian*, I am utterly entranced by people’s book choices. Why do people read what they read?

Lucky me, the receiving end of our library book drop gives me delicious insight. Hundreds of books slide under my eyeballs during check-in, so I see what’s trending. What’s popular. Which books have 8 month waiting lists –and sadly– which books never get touched.

I’ll go ahead and admit I feel genuine –and I mean real sorrow for books that never get checked out. It’s like the kid who never gets picked for teams. Or the watery-eyed pup on death row. Pick me! Pick me! they scream silently. But no one hears.

Unloved books –like unloved dogs– go bye-bye.

You think about that.

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So ya. I see obvious trends -and frankly- some really weird shit at the library book drop. Seriously. There’s something out there for everybody.

Dragons in space. Murder mysteries starring llamas. Amish Romance. (Amish Romance?!)

Yes, anonymous fingers of every description return books through a slot in a wall, where
they
slide
down
a
little
chute
into
a
receiving
bin
by my side.

I reach over, grab the books, check them in. One paperback feels thin and feathery–obviously read often. I examine the cover: A fresh-faced, bonneted girl gazes longingly toward a haystack.

I’d never read this, I judge think.
Ever.

But then 5 more pile in.

More zipperless love. More haystacks.

Then again the next day. And the day after that. (So much LOVE in these BARNS, ya’ll!)

And I think: Am I missing a good read because I’m being a judgmental turd?

(Probably.)

Prime example: Tony Hillerman.

Super popular author.

His books slide down that chute all the time. But I’d never read one. You know why?

The COVERS.

I don’t like peach, turquoise, cacti, Native American blankets, or anything feigning desert chic.
Ixnay on the outhwesterndecorSay.
And virtually ALL Hillerman’s covers are animal skulls, adobe buildings, desert skylines, and tribal insignia.

On my own, without provocation, I’d never read his books. SIMPLY because of the covers. Which I’ll admit is stupid — cemented by the fact I recently checked out a book JUST because it had an English cottage on the front, fairies on the inside flap, and “Garden” in the title. —But was it a good book? ( Meh.) But I gave it a chance JUST because of the cover art.

And that’s lame. Because I know very well the bodily fluids that go into writing a book. It really is a baby. And someone’s gonna neglect your infant on the shelf because they don’t like turquoise and peach?!? What a butthole!

Thus a little challenge formed in my mind.

How important is cover art?
And more importantly — how many GOOD, even awesome books sit untouched because of a crappy cover?

Only one way to find out.

1. Blindly pick a book.
2. Read it.

I asked five voracious readers to help me out. (Not sure what kind of hypothesis I could form with a control group of 6, but dang if I wasn’t gonna try.)

The participants:

Jennifer (me)
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I love portal stories, time travel, spy thrillers, books about WWII, biographies, historical fiction, and true-crime. I’m not likely to pick up anything with spaceships or dragons on the cover and I’m not into chick-lit, romance, or westerns. I like covers depicting people and places I like visiting– English cottages or the Eiffel tower will get my attention, and I easily ‘go down the rabbit hole’ with whatever I’m obsessing over at the moment. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain made me want to re-read Hemingway. Then Hemingway got me digging the 1920’s so I added Cole Porter to my Pandora. What’s popular at the library influences what I read next. I also refer to Goodreads a lot.

Anna
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“I’ll read anything as long as it’s a good story. I dabble in sci-fi, but don’t really like mysteries because of all the death. I prefer artistic covers that look like they’d take you to different land. Graphic covers with murder weapons or body parts don’t allow the opportunity to wonder what the story’s about and I don’t read books just because they’re New York Times bestsellers. Often times I read what comes down the bookdrop just because it looks interesting. NPR makes good recommendations, too. I really like Cormac McCarthy.”

Amanda
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“I like fiction. Not necessarily chick-lit, but definitely ‘beachy’ reads –stories that take place in Nantucket. I really like Elin Hilderbrand. Discovered her by accident just because I liked the cover, and science fiction is my least favorite. I like light, friendly pictures, and I’m not likely to pick up anything with a submarine or spaceship on the cover. Most times, I pick a book because someone talked about it on Goodreads or Facebook.”

Nedra
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“I like thrillers, mysteries, serial killers –anything with forensics. John Green, John Grisham, all kinds of stuff, really. I’m not likely to pick up science fiction or grocery store smut. I read on my Kindle, so I read books based on their summaries. I would’ve never picked the stuff my Kindle recommends, but so far they’ve been really, really good! I’ll also read recommendations from someone I trust.”

Petra
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“I like fiction, non-fiction, and covers that make me curious. I like reading about culture, the way people think, and about people who grew up totally different to me. I typically don’t like whodunnit murder mysteries but then again, I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I like artistic covers. Not realistic ones like with people with bonnets and things like that. They just look predictable. Nicholas Sparks gives me the heebie jeebies. I read recommendations from magazines, or sometimes I read whatever people are putting on hold at the library.”

Emily
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“I read serious, contemporary, literary fiction, and more European than American authors. I’m disinclined to read anything by an author who’s written 50+ books. Not really into Amish Romance, horror, or espionage, either. Simple covers catch my eye. I’m put off by flags, or anything that looks like it’s trying too hard to appeal to women –like all those books you see at Target. I take recommendations from people I trust but I also give books the page 69 test. Authors work hard on their beginnings, but page 69? That’s dipping in for a mid-section sample.”

So the Fates had their way with us.
Blindfolded.
In the stacks.

Here’s what we drew:

Kate’s Progress by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
Against All Enemies by Harold Coyle
Ice Hunt by James Rollins
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds

Interestingly, a little nice cross section of Adult-Fiction. Judging by the covers, we had:

1. Chick-lit
2. Something Cerebral
3. Something Political
4. Something looking dangerously Sci-Fi
5. A Classic.
6. A Coming of Age Tale

Our initial reactions?

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Not really into chick-lit. And it’s annoying when the author’s name is bigger than the title. But it’s got “English Countryside” written on the back, so that’s promising.

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“Yes, I would’ve chosen this based on the cover! I’m happy with my pick!”

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“I probably wouldn’t pick this. It looks like something my husband would like, though.”

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“Nope. Wouldn’t have picked this. Not really into submarines . . . or icebergs.”

“That looks like a motorized penis,” Emily interjected.
“In which case it might be very enjoyable,” I added.
Nedra shrugged.
She’s a good sport.

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“There’s no cover, so this one would have to come as a recommendation.”

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“This looks like Southern chick-lit. Like ooh I’m a lonely orphan white girl raised by a nice black lady who’s gonna teach me lessons about life. Nope. I wouldn’t pick this on purpose.”

We judged our covers, and now we’re reading. Were our initial reactions correct, or will these books surprise us?

I consulted Goodreads to see what other people thought about these same titles. Readers rate books 1-5 stars there, and here’s what I found:

Kate’s Progress by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles 3. 41
Equilateral by Ken Kalfus 3.31
Against All Enemies by Harold Coyle 3.70
Ice Hunt by James Rollins 4.02
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane 3.18
The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds 3.33

Interesting. Motorized Penis book rated best, while a good ole must-read-this-in-high-school-or-you-can’t-have-any-pudding ranked fairly low. Hmmmm.

I’ll report back.

And there will more library challenges. Emily suggested we pick books exclusively by their covers on the next one.

We’ll see.

I rather enjoyed the blindfold.

____________________

*Author’s note: I refer to myself as ‘librarian’ because I work at a library, but I’m not degreed in this field.

P.S. Wanna know what we thought of our books? Read HERE.

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UPDATE: Watch Your Back, Case in San Marcos, Texas

6:15 pm.

“Why’d you want to come back here?” Mom asked, sipping her wine.

I laughed.

She wasn’t being rude. She was right.

A few weeks back, a male ghost ran past this very spot, causing me some verbal unladylikeness after a very uncomfortable night. Freakiest house vibe to date. Absolute certainty of icky spirits. Her question was legit.

Why go back?

Two main reasons.

1. Mom and I are kinda buddies now.

and

2. After I published my experience in their house (which you can read here), I got calls, IMs, emails, texts, (one reader even came to the freaking library) asking in various shades of nice: what exactly did you do to help these people?

When the first person asked, I answered objectively. They wanted confirmation of ghosts, they got confirmation of ghosts. But when the tenth person asked –well– I got a little defensive. I’m sorry, had I done something wrong? Did they not read the entry where I clearly explain what I do and don’t do?

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I stewed for a bit. Maybe a few bits. Then realized, people just wanted closure– the Where Are They Now? The NOW WHAT.

And that’s fair.

I unwadded my panties and marched (okay, drove) to the County Clerk’s office with that horrid female entity still fresh in my mind. Grey hair, big uncontained boobs. Late 1970s/early 80s timeframe. The house wasn’t old. Pinpointing her shouldn’t be difficult, right?

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Wrong.

Snaps to people who do this often. County Records are NO JOKE. Especially researching acreage that’s been divided and sold creating multiple property deeds AND you’re working backwards in time. (Shout out to my friend Emily who drove up to help me!)

Three hours and one chewed up pen later, we had a list of previous owners– all married couples. I recorded names, dates, looked up pictures, researched obits. All but one couple were deceased. Then –in the spirit of if you’re gonna do something, do it RIGHT– I located folks who actually knew these people. Neighbors. Friends. Acquaintences.

“She was a heavy smoker and did like a drink, ” one lady told me over the phone, referring to her friend that lived there in the 90s.

I sat taller, scribbling notes. THAT sounded about right.

“Oh, and a heart of gold,” she recalled fondly. “Would do anything for anybody. Treated everyone’s children like her own.”

Nope.

I slumped back down. That couldn’t be creepy lady.

And such went the rest of my little interviews. Gathered just enough info about the previous (women) owners to draw some solid conclusions.

Can I come over? —I texted Mom— Do a little update? See how the house feels?

Sure! she replied.

I drove back, this time with a clear belly. The yard felt different when I arrived. No crackly air tension. I knocked on the door.

Mom greeted with me a warm hug, and I stepped into a completely different house.

Remember that funky empty corner? A beautiful piano now occupied that space.

“This feels completely different!” I looked around, smiling at the new decor.

Plants. Art. Family Pictures. . . . it was lovely!

Isabel bounced up and gave me a hug.

“How are you?” I smiled.

“Good. But I’m still having nightmares.”

I stepped in her room. Sweet Jesus, it was clear. Light and airy. Sunny. Clean. Like a little girl’s room SHOULD feel.

Then I saw Zoey standing by the desk.

“We switched rooms,” she explained.

I felt a little tinge just then. Right below the navel.

“Oh?”

“I took her old room,” Isabel said from the doorway.

I followed Isabel across the living room, my lower belly issuing oh hells the whole way. We stepped thru her door.

Damn.

Her new room felt like her old room. A weight on my chest. An inability to take a deep breath. A certain something watching from the corner.

“What kind of nightmares are you having?”

“Real bad ones. I sleep with my mom.”

Well . . . crap. I’d hoped that praying with her and showing her how to set spiritual boundaries might’ve helped. But apparently not. Matter fact–

“Things got worse after you came,” Mom sighed. “Like 100% worse.”

We sat on the back patio, enjoying the last drops of sunshine.

“But not because of you.” She slapped a mosquito on her arm. “I mean, you just confirmed what I already knew. There were things I didn’t share before you came.”

She talked. I took notes. We drank Pinot Grigio.

” . . . I knew that a male spirit hung out on the left side of this porch. I’d also seen that old lady sitting on our couch. But we’re all more aware since that night. It’s like we see more now. It’s okay during the day, but at night, it SUCKS.”

(This was SO not the outcome I’d hoped for.)

“Well. I researched county records,” I offered. “Found out everyone who lived here before.”

“And?”

Well. I’d really hoped it’d be a nice, clean solution, like they show on TV.

1. Learn names.
2. Find pictures.
3. Shudder, recognizing creepy lady’s face.
4. Return to house, address the deceased by name.
5. Ask them to leave.
6. Everyone lives happily ever hereafter.

But no.

“The woman I encountered couldn’t have lived here before,” I explained. “I got names and dates of all previous owners. THEN I found people who knew them. All of them. And by all accounts they were lovely. First-grade teachers, decades-long church members, avid gardeners who planted extra so they could share . . . Not saying first grade teachers can’t be buttholes in the afterlife, but there’s no way any one of them is the one I felt here the other night. No way.”

We sighed into our wine.

And therein lies the rub, peeps. Spirit isn’t necessarily attached to property, it’s attached to space.

“Spirit also attaches itself to people,” I explained carefully.

But Mom understood me just fine.

“Isabel sleeps with me every night. She has violent nightmares. She’s talking to things I can’t see. She’s opened up about her abilities for the first time since meeting you, so that’s good. But I’m exhausted, Jenn, and I don’t know how to fix it.”

We sat quiet for a little bit.

So here’s another thing worth mentioning. People call me out because they want to know if they’ve got ghosts. I can do that- no problem. I’m also respectful of people’s different belief systems. How families manage their home is their business. What people do with the info I share really is up to them. Catholics may call in a priest, others may bust out sage, salt their perimeters, light candles . . . whatever. Point is: I’ve no control what happens after I leave.

Pragmatists may be thinking, screw sage, you New-Age weirdos! Call a child psychologist!

. . . an obvious suggestion if Isabel was paranoid and making things up.

But she wasn’t.

She inherited her sensitivity from Mom, and Mom called me in to triple check they weren’t nuts.

And they’re not. Not even close.

So we walked around the house together, mom and I. It was getting dark and I wanted to see if we felt the same things, room to room.

Everything felt clear, except for Isabel’s room and that freaking garage. The garage didn’t feel too bad last time, but this time? Chill bumps spread from head to toe. The concentration of energy in one particular corner literally made me dizzy.

“I can’t even work out here sometimes it’s so bad,” Mom said behind me.

What exactly did you do to help these people? repeated in my brain.

“Would you be open to having someone come out and cleanse your home?” I asked, pulling out my phone.

“God, yes.”

I immediately texted Sara, (wife, mother, medium) who helped me clear MY house a few years back. I hadn’t talked to her since then, but she responded immediately.

So.

I’ll be at the house when Sara does her thing.

Which, I suppose, means a third installment to this case.

Hopefully then, we’ll get closure, sharing a collective

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We’ll see.

————————–

UPDATE: 11/1/15 Mom had someone help her clear the house before we made it out there. She says everyone is doing much better and looking forward to a decent night’s sleep.