BOOK LAB: Depressed. Addicted. Suicidal.

At 20, she overdosed on sleeping pills in her mother’s cellar.

At 29, she drove her car into a river.

At 30, Sylvia Plath finally killed herself by sticking her head in an oven.

Think about that a second.


One night, she placed wet towels under the doors to keep her babies safe, turned on the gas, crawled in her oven, and died.





Umm . . . hold up, Jennifer.

What’s up with this sad crap.

More chicken stories, please.

Hang tight, dear reader.

This is BOOK LAB. Not Oprah’s Book Club.

We conduct reading experiments and write about them.

But also, don’t you think mental illness needs more attention?

Why do we only talk about it behind closed doors at 100 bucks an hour?

Shall we make a long list of people gone too soon?




Plath wasn’t an addict.

But people often use drugs and alcohol to quiet their screaming minds –thus ensues addiction, which — let’s face it– has a 50% chance of ending well.

Every person reading knows someone with crippling anxiety, mood or panic disorders. Someone addicted, depressed or bi-polar. Someone who committed suicide.

They say suicide is a coward’s way out.

I dunno. Selfish, maybe. But not cowardly.

I think it takes a lot of freaking courage to stick your head in an oven with two beautiful, babies sleeping upstairs.

Am I being flippant? God, no.

Depression and addiction run in my family.

I am privy to their quiet destruction and live in reverent fear of my own DNA. I am also a writer and extremely empathetic to the curses therein. But this isn’t about me. It’s about acknowledging this thing no one talks about AND paying respect to some authors who famously suffered and busted out some awesomeness anyway.

So I made it our assignment.

Read a book whose author was mentally ill, addicted, or committed suicide.

Was their real-life suffering evident in the writing, thinly disguised as fiction?

That’s what I wanted to find out.

Out of respect for these authors, I hope you’ll read on.black_line.gif


I chose The Bell Jar for no other reason except that Plath appears on every ‘famous suicide’ list, and this is her great novel.


Was Plath’s depression evident in her work?



The Bell Jar was blatantly autobiographical. So much, it was published under a pseudonym in England only. Her family –namely her mother — fought its American publication and The Bell Jar didn’t hit American bookshelves until 9 years after her death.

The book– basically about a talented, young writer slipping into insanity– blew me away. I was worried it would be depressing. But mostly I found it REAL and strangely refreshing? By page 3, I knew I was going to love it. There were SO many delicious little neurotic passages, I had trouble picking just one to share at Book Lab.

Here the main character, Esther, describes an unsuccessful suicide attempt:

That morning, I had tried to hang myself. I had taken the silk cord of my mother’s yellow bathrobe as soon as she left for work, and, in the amber shade of the bedroom, fashioned it into a knot that slipped up and down on itself. It took me a long time to do this, because I was poor at knots and had no idea how to make a proper one. Then I hunted around for a place to attach the rope. The trouble was, our house had the wrong kind of ceilings. The ceilings were low, white and smoothly plastered, without a light fixture or a wood beam in sight.

Sylvia, I respect and salute you, girl.

I’m genuinely sorry I didn’t read this sooner.

I give The Bell Jar 5 stars and promptly put it on Staff Picks at the library.


black_line.gifNedra chose this guy.


He gave us Blade Runner, The Minority Report, and Total Recall.

In fact, his novels and short stories are the most adapted sci-fi classics in recent film history.

This is Philip K. Dick.

And poor Nedra had to call him PKD so as not to illicit giggles. For all our intellectual pomp, we really are perverted 12 year olds. At least I am.

But I digress.

Back to Dick.

PKD was plagued by vertigo as a teen.There were also signs of schizophrenia and eventually, visual and auditory hallucinations, likely caused by drug addiction. He managed to keep writing even though hospitalized. And at one point described a “beam of pink light being transmitted directly into his consciousness” and believed this light a spiritual force which granted him access to esoteric knowledge.


Nedra chose this author because he’s universally regarded as a badass.

A Scanner Darkly is about an undercover narcotics agent who finds himself addicted to the very drug he’s trying to eradicate.

“I chose this book because it was less sci-fi than his others, about this agent going undercover and eventually losing his identity to drug addiction.”


Did she like it?

“It was confusing to be honest. The main character plays two parts, split between two worlds, so it was hard to tell who was talking — which may’ve been the point. But Dick’s drug use is very evident in this book. I’ll also say his author note makes me want to read the book again.”

Drug misuse is not a disease. It is a decision. Like the decision to step out of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgement. When a begin to do it, it is a social error. A lifestyle. In this particular lifestyle, the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying.” But the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. —– Philip K. Dick


A Scanner Darkly: 3 stars.

Dick was found unconscious on his floor and died five days later, having suffered multiple strokes. He was 53.

 Petra chose Leo Tolstoy.



Tolstoy was born wealthy and lost his parents at a very young age. He suffered clinical depression, which worsened as he aged. Reportedly obsessed with death, he was critical of himself for not having the courage to commit suicide. He wrote in one letter, “The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may kill himself.

Let me just go ahead and publicly admit I’m a super big chicken-weenie when it comes to Russian literature.

I imagine the likes of  Anna Karenina and War and Peace heavy tomes of depressing, icy darkness and always impressed when people read them on purpose.

But Petra really enjoyed her books.

Tolstoy actually wrote several short stories, so she picked two:

The Death of Ivan Ilych and The Cossacks.

Unknown-1.jpeg     Unknown-2.jpeg

The Cossacks is about a wealthy, young Muscovite who joins the Russian army in search of a more authentic life.

“Tolstoy wrote it in his 30s when he was still okay. It was autobiographical in that it was about a guy tired of society life,” Petra explained. “But The Death of Ivan Ilych, he wrote in his 50s. By then he was critically depressed and obsessed with death, which to me, was apparent in this book.”

The Death of Ivan Ilych is one man’s profound reflections on life when faced with his own mortality. It was written during Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis — the nine year period following the publication of Anna Karenina — which saw him give up meat, hunting and smoking, give away his copyrights, denounce his earlier writings as immoral, and embrace Christianity.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is considered a masterpiece on the subject of death and dying.

“I feel like writers are hyper-aware of everything around them,” noted Petra. “Every little thing is stimulus. It must be overwhelming.”


The Cossacks: 3.75 stars.

Death of Ivan Ilych: 4.5 stars.

Tolstoy died of pneumonia in 1910. He was 82.

Unknown-1.pngblack_line.gifOur next author ran a garden hose from an exhaust pipe through his car window and died, aged 31.

An envelope marked TO MY PARENTS  was discovered in the car, the enclosed note later destroyed by his mother, who never divulged its contents.

His mother also found an unpublished manuscript atop an armoire in his room.

That manuscript — sent to various agents over the next five years — eventually won The Pulitzer Prize.


This is John Kennedy Toole, most famous for A Confederacy of Dunces, posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1981.

Emily had already read (and loved) Dunces. So she chose Toole’s only other novel, The Neon Bible,  written for a literary contest at the tender age of 16 (!)


The Neon Bible tells the story of David, a young boy growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1940s. Readers share his awkward, painful encounter with first love and meet his pious, bigoted townspeople.

“It’s kinda Southern Gothic, about quiet people dealing with isolation in a small town,” said Emily. “I definitely felt evidence of the author’s sense of loneliness. And the book ironically ends with a bang.

Did she like it?

“I loved it!”

The Neon Bible: 5 stars


Everybody doing okay?

You sure?

Okay . . .

Moving right along.


Raise your hand if you read Slaughterhouse Five in high school.


Anna chose this guy.


Kurt Vonnegut died at 84 from head injuries sustained in a fall.

He had a grandfatherly reputation. But he suffered depression, PTSD, shocking fits of rage and temper, and also attempted suicide.

Vonnegut witnessed MUCH tragedy in his personal life.

His mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day, for example. That same year, Vonnegut was captured by Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war, whose job it was to collect and burn bodies.

This ordeal continually popped up in his work, most notably in the book that made him famous.


“My high school English class was divided in two,” said Anna. “Half read Slaughterhouse-Five and the other, a Brave New World. I was the Brave New World group, but distinctly remember the discussions about Vonnegut. That’s why I chose this book.”

Did she like it?

“I don’t know how he managed to combine war, spaceships, aliens, and time travel. But he did,” she laughs. “Knowing what he suffered at Dresden, I really did feel his deep well of despair. This book was very well done.”


Slaughterhouse-Five: 4.5 stars



Now finally,

this old sport.


F. Scott Fitzgerald, alongside wife Zelda, are THE poster children for glittering excess in the Roaring Twenties. In their Paris years, he and Zelda were drunk for days at at time, their lives a gilded blur of manuscripts and champagne, fueled by ego, and funded by Gatsby.

Tecla (our celebrity guest this round) openly admits she never liked The Great Gatsby.

“I tried and tried and tried to love that book. I gave it so many chances. But I just couldn’t finish it! Still. I wanted to see what I was missing. So I decided to try Tender is the Night, which took him TEN years to write.”


Tender is the Night is the tragic love story of a stylish American couple.


Sounds a little familiar.


“The husband is a brilliant psychiatrist, and his beautiful wife lives in an asylum. The main character spends a lot of time writing letters trying to make people understand what they’re going through. Zelda was institutionalized in Switzerland at the time, so the story directly reflects the Fitzgeralds’ downward spiral. Also, he wrote it on stimulants.”

Did she like it?

“I did. But I could only read it in small doses because it read like a 1920s movie. Still, I’d recommend it.”

Tender is the Night: 4 stars.

At the time of his death, Fitzgerald was reportedly drinking several pints of gin a day.

He suffered an alcohol-related heart attack in 1940, and died believing himself a failure.

He was 44.

Zelda perished in a fire 8 years later, locked in a room in her asylum.



And so it goes.

Mental illness is a silent creeper.

A shape shifter.

It cuts. Overeats.  Gambles. Takes pills. Drinks. Lies. Steals. Vomits. Snorts. Injects. Blames. Hides. Makes excuses. And lashes out.

I’m of the mind we’re all in this together.

So be aware.

And be kind.


To everyone

and everything.


National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Hotline: 1-800-662-4357




BOOK LAB: Ugly Ass Books

We have a recycle bin at the library that should be called the Cornucopia of Surprise.  Mostly, it’s trash. Newspaper circulars. Worn paperbacks with detached pages. Broken books. Wet books. Moldy books. Useless donations like roach-nibbled encyclopedias, obsolete plumbing manuals, and Weight Watcher recipe cards from 1974.

But sometimes, you find treasure. One time I found the social studies book I used in 2nd grade! Not the exact same one, but you know what I mean. And I sure did swipe those recipe cards.

Mousse of Salmon, anyone?





I recently walked by and saw a book.

Not just *any* book.

Quite possibly the ugliest book I’ve ever seen.

I grabbed it, spying ‘WD’ scrawled over the barcode in stinky black marker.



See. I have this mental condition where I feel sorry for inanimate objects.

Like that last slice of bread

. . . too thin for a sandwich.


the grape on the grocery store floor

. . . forever separated from its family.


The Christmas tree nobody picks.

ginger rogers crying tears gif.gif

I own my psychosis.

And I held that poor, ugly book.

Deemed unworthy. Given the WD death-stamp and cast aside while its prettier friends remain on the shelf.

I read the summary, skimming phrases like gorgeous cophilarious consequences, and battle of her life.

Can’t be too bad, I thought, a familiar delusion spreading over me.

What if this book is awesome?

And what if no one ever picked it up because –let’s face it– the cover was ugly. Like how did a publisher let it go out like this ugly. And how many others were destined for the Withdrawal Cart o’ Death because of unfortunate cover art?

Oh no, little darling. I hugged the book. I’m gonna give you a chance. To prove you’re worthy.

I tenderly wiped roach-nibbled dust chunks from the cover.


And a new Book Lab was born.


BOOK LAB was never about reading something safe and popular. We got Oprah and James Patterson for that. No. It’s about experimentation and pushing boundaries while spotlighting books we’ve

  • Forgotten.
  • Never heard of
  • Ignored far too long

It’s a win for the book, no matter what. Please recall the very first experiment in which we selected books blindfolded. Nedra’s pick was not only a delightful source of weiner jokes, but actually a very good read (despite its cover) causing a tiny surge in circulation after her review!

So far we’ve learned:

  1. Book covers LIE.
  2. Pulitzer Prize winners DO NOT SUCK.
  3. Some ‘Classics’ kinda do.
  4. Librarians are more valuable than Google.
  5. The book isn’t always better than the movie.

So how would UGLY books fare in a new experiment?


We gathered at the library.

“Please pick the ugliest book you can find,” I said.

Define ugly, they said.

I showed them my book.


“Almost no one on the planet should pick up your book and think it looks awesome,” I clarified.

And they were super excited.

I could tell.


Bless them.

They wandered into the stacks –warriors armed with good attitudes– and saved picked their novels.

Later we gathered over food and wine to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly.

(Our favorite part.)




The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Wife leaves husband before the first World War. Man moves to Russia with kids and develops weird relationship with Nanny.

What did Nedra think?


Nedra’s rating:

Goodreads rating: 3.76

Last time it was checked out from the library? 2015.




The Solid Mandala by Patrick White

Here’s Petra, describing an overly symbolic story about twin Australian brothers, one simple, one clever, living in questionably close confines.


She loved it.

Just kidding, she gave it 2 stars.

Goodreads rating: 3.95

Last time it was checked out? NEVER.

This book has NEVER been circulated.





The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West.

Tod is a young scene designer obsessed with Faye,  a 17-year-old platinum vixen obsessed with fame. The Day of the Locust reveals loose morals, twisted desires, and the false, corruptive lure of Hollywood.

Emily thought it was great and read a few pages. Sounded good to us, too! Researching Goodreads, I found this little gem:

“Adults beating the spontaneity out of children so their kid can be the next Shirley Temple. How twisted. Adults dressing, speaking, moving, expressing themselves in imitation of what they see on the screen. How sick. How appalling. How American.”

* Note: This book was written in 1939.

Emily’s rating: 4 stars.

Goodreads rating: 3.79

Last time it was checked out from the library? 2013



Wait for it.






Mixed Blessings by Diane Amos

An investigative reporter minds her grandfather and old-fashioned aunt while her erotic-fiction writer mother’s away on her Honeymoon. Meanwhile, her fiancé’s ex reenters the scene and her aunt gets pregnant.

— the sequel to last year’s smash Getting Personal, per the cover.


Ya’ll know I wanted to like this.

To be absolutely fair, it wasn’t near as bad as I thought it was going to be and actually coasted along with 3 stars. Even with phrases like “apprehension streaked through me” and “air whooshed from my lungs” and “trepidation streaked down my spine.”

But too many adverbs and cliches weighed this farcical plot down . . . annoyingly.

My rating: 2 stars.

Goodreads rating: 3.5

No library data as it was already withdrawn.


Maybe you’re thinking, Hey Miss Judgy McJudgerton! Those covers aren’t bad!

Please remember:

  • ‘Ugly’ is subjective.
  • Lotsa books have lotsa covers.


I doubt Nedra would’ve picked her SHORTLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE novel if it looked like this:


or this:



But therein lies the fun.






















Classics (and Confessions): BOOK LAB experiment 3.

“I’ll give you 50 dollars to read Pride and Prejudice!”

My Granny loved bribes.

It was the only way she’d get me to watch old movies and read certain books. The going rate on movies was 5 bucks. Truth be told, curling up and watching movies with her didn’t take coercion. But I was in high school. And money was money. Plus I was (probably) the only kid at Bellaire High School who could identify Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

(But I digress.)

Pride and Prejudice.

Granny swore it one of the BEST novels EVER written, and anyone who loved England and writing had better read it.

So I tried.

I tried a couple of times.

I really wanted that 50 bucks.

–I just couldn’t do it.

Now, 20 years later, I duck gracefully sideways when people talk Jane Austen. I’ve seen enough movies to bullshit my way thru conversation –that Darcy! What a turd!

. . . but really, I’m an imposter. A diehard Anglophile, book lover, English-countryside-enthusiast (female novelist) . . . who’s never read Jane Austen.

I tell people that and they give me the same look I give them when they tell me they’ve never seen The Sound of Music.

I smelled a Book Lab experiment comin’ on strong.

1. That book.
2. You (REALLY) should’ve read it by now.
3. Maybe you feel a little guilty about it.
4. Maybe society won’t truly welcome you ’til you’ve read it.


We checked out our books then gathered over beer and pizza to discuss.

Emily chose Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:
“Classics are important. They’re our literary heritage. I’ve read a decent amount but I’ve never read Tolstoy. Anna Karenina’s hovered in my ‘should read’ category for years. I actually bought a copy a few years back but ended up giving it to my brother. I don’t feel guilty for not having read it, just a little negligent. What do I expect? I expect golden light to come shooting from it’s pages. Just kidding, it’s a Russian novel. I expect people to die cold, lonely deaths.”

AFTER reading:

“Did I enjoy it? Yes. No one writes huge books like this anymore. I really feel like I’ve lived some lives having read it. It’s basically a foray into feminism that ends with Anna throwing herself under a train, so it lived up to my expectations. But it did take me 500 pages to get into it. An image that stuck with me? Tolstoy describes someone looking so healthy they resembled a fat, shiny cucumber. –GREAT imagery. But really, I wasn’t sorry to finish it. I’d read Tolstoy again, but I wouldn’t pick another doorstop.”

We asked Tolstoy what he thought of Emily’s review.


Nedra chose Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte:
“I’m trying to separate what I think versus what I’m supposed to think. The evolution of writing is important to me, so I feel guilty for not having read more classics. Reading them in high school was torture. I didn’t pick Wuthering Heights for any other reason except I haven’t read it. I’m trying to be open but I suspect it may be boring.”

AFTER reading:

(Big heavy sigh)
“It was boring. And I was halfway thru before it started getting better. But really, I think it was me having to wrap my head around their language. The dialect was hard to understand. And the plot was one big love twist –then everybody dies. I can’t say I feel enriched– I am glad I stuck with it. But I wouldn’t read more.”

We asked Ms. Bronte what she–


Deb chose I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou:
“Reading ‘classics’ is a compulsion of mine. I’ve read quite a few but never this one. It was banned, so that appeals to me, and I expect it to be good because everyone says ‘It’s so good!’ We’ll see.”

AFTER reading:
“It was a very quick read. Was it enjoyable? I mean, she was raped at 8 and had a horrible childhood so ‘enjoyed’ may not be the right word. Something that really stuck with me is her guilt over the death of her rapist. He went to prison, was released, then killed by her family. And she expresses guilt over that! Like if not for her, then that wouldn’t have happened to him! She also mentions that books saved her. I found myself wanting to know which books saved her. This book is on a lot of lists and required reading at schools. But I can’t say I want my daughter reading this–which is tough because I don’t like censorship . . and she is only 11. I’m just not sure when I’d feel okay with her reading this. But I do want to know more about Maya Angelou. I want to know more about the African-American experience in general.”


Petra chose The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway:
“I’ve had good experiences with Classics. I like how they give insight to how civilization developed. I’m from Holland. We had to read Dickens, Bronte, Tolstoy, but never Hemingway. I picked The Sun Also Rises based on what it said on Goodreads.”

AFTER reading:
“I didn’t love it. I found myself thinking why is this such a big deal? But it DID make me want to know more about Hemingway. I did like his writing style. He describes things well with short, little sentences. There was one scene where they went fishing in the Spanish countryside. His descriptions were so good, I felt I was there. But overall, I found the story flat. I wouldn’t read him again. I’m definitely more interested in him than his work.”

We asked Papa what he-

I (obviously) chose Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:
Of course the classics are important. They’re a snapshot of human history. — I just find them hard to read. I prefer contemporary language and have moderate to severe performance anxiety with this book because Granny wanted me to love it. I already know the story (thanks BBC!) but I’m scared I won’t like it or get what the big deal is.

I’m the biggest Regency period deal there IS, Kabay. Take a turn around the room and suck it up.

AFTER reading Austen:
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are one of THE great love stories, so I had hefty expectations going in. I also kept imagining them having sex. (Sorry, Jane. It’s your fault with all that unspoken tension.) The language was beautiful, but I did have to re-read paragraphs over (and over!), sometimes aloud to comprehend. I downloaded an audio version to see if listening helped flow but that was a disaster. The reader was not only American, but sounded like she smoked 3 packs a day. Overall, a beautiful book. But I think ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is a superior story so I cannot give it 5 stars.

Jennifer: Pride and Prejudice 4 stars.
Emily: Anna Karenina 4 stars.
Nedra: Wuthering Heights 2 stars.
Deb: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 4 stars.
Petra: The Sun Also Rises 2.5 stars.

What did we learn?

1. That we perform under pressure and do what we say we’re gonna do, that’s what. Reading a classic under deadline during the holidays is no freaking joke.

2. Din’t NOBODY want to read Moby Dick.


We have just one more Book Lab before disbanding and reading for pleasure. Nedra wants us to read Pulitzers. Emily will blog our findings and I’ll return to my regularly scheduled program of ghosts and psychic phenomena.

Speaking of which, if $50.00 finds it’s way into my life in the next day or two, we’ll know where it came from.

(Love you, Granny. It really was a great book. I miss you.)

Book Lab: Judging a Book By Its Cover Is (Mostly) Legit

E. D. Watson

That old axiom about judging books by their covers? It’s bullcrap. You can totally do it—and with a reasonable degree of success. That’s what our most recent Book Lab experiment proved: most of the books we chose lived up to our cover-based expectations. (Click here for the setup.)

This is not to say that the cover is always going to be a good measure of a book’s contents—both Jennifer and I were disappointed in our books, despite their appealing covers. But book designers are trying to depict something about the essence of each book with the covers they create.

November’s mental_floss magazine included an interview with book designer Keith Hayes about this very subject (one of Hayes’ more well-known covers is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch). Contrary to what I’d expected, Hayes says “You can’t start a design from what you think a buyer is going to like….We think about…

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Book Lab: Judging a Book by Its Cover, Part 2

Book Lab’s 2nd Experiment!

E. D. Watson

If book jackets are designed to appeal to the aesthetic of a specific readership, as determined selectingby our first Book Lab experiment, then what appeals to us, individually, as readers? In our follow-up investigation, we examined this question by choosing books from the library’s New Fiction display, based solely on the appeal of their covers. This could include:

  • Art
  • Endorsements by other authors
  • Prize-nomination or award stickers
  • Title
  • Author

jennifer2We were not, however, allowed to read the summary of the novel — we were interested in what compels us to pick up a book in the first place. What assumptions do we make about content or quality based upon the cover?

By limiting our choices to the New Fiction display, we also eliminated outdated aesthetics, which could negatively influence our decision, but are ultimately irrelevant. Remember how in the eighties all the women’s books had big flowers and…

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Blindfolds and Weiner Jokes: BOOK LAB UPDATE

Um. Ya. Careful posting yourself blindfolded on the internet with “weiner” in the title.
—that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

Thanks for all the traffic, though. I sincerely hope the blindfold ‘enthusiasts’ come back to read the *ahem* happy ending.


The nerd in me conjured up a book experiment.

I wanted to see how many books go unread because of crappy cover art. And– how does cover art affect our perception of a book’s contents?

The only way to do this was to:

1. Blindly pick a book.
2. Read the book (no matter what.)
3. Discuss.

You can read about the challenge HERE.

I love reading, statistics, and telling people what to do, so this was WAY fun for me.

But I gotta first thank my participants –mostly for indulging me and being good sports about it. Not everyone faired well.

*Please note we used a 5 STAR rating system in accordance with Goodreads. If you’re an avid reader and not on there already, I highly recommend you join.


My Book:

Assumption BEFORE reading: 3
Rating AFTER reading: 4
Goodreads rating: 3. 41

Synopsis: London girl moves to the English countryside, faces Austen-esque predicaments in life and love.

Normally I yawn at this kind of stuff. (Does that surprise you?) Whereas it was super light reading and extremely predictable, I actually enjoyed it. Probably because I have unhealthy fantasies about English cottages.

Did the cover art represent the book? Yes. And basically tells the whole story.


Anna’s book:

Assumption BEFORE reading: 4.5
Rating AFTER reading: 2
Goodreads rating: 3.31

Synopsis: 19th century astronomer constructs massive equilateral triangle in efforts to communicate with the Martians.

“I didn’t like this book. I kept waiting for something to happen. The sentences were so. very. long.”

Did the cover art represent the book? “No. I felt it was misleading. I kept looking at the cover trying to connect it to the story.”


Amanda’s book:

Assumption BEFORE reading: 3
Rating AFTER reading: 2
Goodreads rating: 3.70

Synopsis: Disgruntled veteran collaborates with underground militia to blow up federal building in retaliation for his treatment as a soldier.

“This isn’t my type of book. It had way too many story lines and so many grammar and spelling errors! I wouldn’t read this author again.”

Did the cover art represent the book? “Yes. Very much so.”


Nedra’s book:

Assumption BEFORE reading: 2
Rating AFTER reading: 4.5
Goodreads rating: 4.02

Synopsis: Russian and American scientists race underwater to conceal a covert experiment from the 1940s.

“I like this book! I’m surprised that I liked it, but I’d totally read this author again. I’m already looking to read his next book!”

Did the cover art represent the book? “Yes, it does. But I really liked it anyway.”


Petra’s book:

Assumption BEFORE reading: 3.5
Rating AFTER reading: 3
Goodreads rating: 3.18

Synopsis: A young man learns what it really means to be a soldier during the Civil War.

“I kinda enjoyed this book. Can’t really say that it was interesting though. It’s still a horizontal thumb for me.”

Did the cover art represent the book? *Petra’s copy didn’t have cover art. We looked at the (many) different covers online and decided most were representative of the story.


Emily’s book:

Assumption BEFORE reading: 2
Rating AFTER reading: 3
Goodreads rating: 3.33

Synopsis: Southern girl grapples with gender identity issues.

“I did enjoy it, actually. I expected it to be saccharin and gross, but the author writes well, constructing beautiful paragraphs and sentences.”

Did the cover art represent the book? “Not at all. At no point does the main character wear a dress. I mean, she spends the entire book trying to hide her femininity!”

And so I asked:

Would you recommend your book?
Me: Yes. —but only to an Anglophile or someone familiar with English colloquialism.
Anna: “No. Probably not.”
Amanda: “Possibly to someone that’s into this type of book.”
Nedra: “Yes, I’d recommend this book.”
Petra: “Only to someone into the Civil War.”
Emily: “No. The author played it too safe. She really could’ve delved a lot deeper with these issues.”

So what did we learn from all this?

We TOTALLY judge books by their covers.

. . . but we’re not always right. Because covers LIE.

Nedra found a new author to love out of this! And her cover looked the worst of all of them! Maybe we should all employ Emily’s page 69 test before picking a book. — Good grief. 69. I just realized . . .

(I try to avoid these innuendos. But it’s hard.)

So to all my fellow book lovers and YOU too, my voyeuristic blindfold enthusiasts!

I’ll leave you with this:

What’s the last AWESOME book you read and how did you hear about it?

Jennifer: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I read it because her books are often on hold at the library. Unputdownable!

Anna: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. My mom recommended it.

Amanda: Worthy by Catherine Ryan Hyde. My sister in law told me to read it.

Nedra: The Wayward Pines series by Blake Crouch. It was recommended by my Kindle.

Petra:The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read it because I liked her other books.

Emily: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. It’s her 4th book concluding her Neapolitan Novels. I’ve read ALL her books this year.

What’s the last badass book YOU read?

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.


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
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.

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?


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?


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)

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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.
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?

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.

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

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

“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.

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

“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.