Jan 21 2013

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Melissa Crytzer Fry

The desert has taught me that scary things often come in pretty packages, and pretty things often come in disguised packages:

When I first saw one of these fuzzy ants in the desert, my instinct was to touch it. Aww. Pretty. NOT. This velvet ant (Dasymutilla magnifica) packs one heck of a sting if disturbed. Photo by Stephen Minter, Desert Museum Digital Library. Click to enlarge.

Meet the desert’s Sacred Datura. My Audubon book says, “Caution: Entire plant is toxic.” Hard to believe something with such a gorgeous flower can be fatal if ingested by humans or other animals! Click to enlarge.

Just some desert rocks, you say? Not so fast…

Geodes are known for their illusive nature – containing beautiful display-worthy crystals inside, while their outsides are quite deceiving. These rocks I found during various hikes aren’t geodes, but their insides did reveal pretty crystal formations and marbled color striation. Click to enlarge.

The obvious message? Don’t judge a book by its cover. But we do it all the time, don’t we? We make assumptions about people based on their mannerisms, their looks, their speech, their likes and dislikes (even if we try to be unbiased). And, yes, we even do it with our reading purchases. (At least I do … though maybe this is part of my background, having designed alumni magazines in a previous life?).

I will admit to my bias, sharing three specific examples of books I shied away from based on cover instinct only.

I was personally unimpressed by the type-only treatment of this title, which seemed a little elementary and made me wonder about the book’s content (Would I like it? Was it a good fit for my reading preferences?). However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The book is SO smart and the cover actually reveals quite a bit about the story. (The writing in this book is gorgeous, too). I’m glad I ignored my cover-instinct and moved forward. A fabulous read.
This is another book I shied away from based solely on the cover. I really, really disliked the font; it reminded me of a ‘70s throwback and was too fru-fru for my liking. I expected a soggy, mushy romance (See how much I assumed from a cover alone?) But then rave reviews from trusted friends and authors came in. So I’m reading it now. Guess what? I love it. It, too, is smart and beautifully written.

Same story here. The cartoonish feel of the cover caused me to overlook it week after week, even though my Goodreads friends were reading it and reviews are positive. I will read it, despite my initial reaction.
For Readers & Writers So… Am I just a bad judge of book-cover character? Maybe. Do I put too much stock into cover art? Maybe. Or is it just human nature to (literally) judge a book by its cover? Artwork – colors, photos, drawings, font size, graphic treatment – creates mood, doesn’t it? A cover tells its own story, right? It’s a huge marketing tool for the sale of books…

And, in an age of inch-sized images (Amazon, Goodreads), where so many of us make our purchase decisions, isn’t it imperative that the tiny packet of pixels represents the right message? Shouldn’t covers all look professional? And shouldn’t they all tell a compelling visual story? But then again, what I find appealing you may not. What I find compelling you may not … It’s a personal thing in the end, isn’t it?

Do you ever pass up a book because of its cover? Do you even care about covers? Do you think today, more than ever, readers pay more attention to covers and are more discriminating (due, in part, to the sheer volume of work being published, especially in e-book format)?

I made assumptions (incorrect) about the above books, based on covers alone. Maybe I should look to the velvet ant, the Sacred Datura, and the geode … and stop judging books by their covers. The real question is: Can I?

Jan 15 2013

Bringing Fiction to Life (in the kitchen)

Melissa Crytzer Fry

It’s no secret that I focus on the natural world here at What I Saw, bringing to life the outdoors through photography, and relating my nature observances to writing and reading. My photos of the Sonoran desert obviously rely on the sense of sight:

But today I focus on a different sense: taste. As it relates to fiction, of course. Maybe this will whet your appetite (or simply confound you):

What are these Pac Man-looking discs? Read to find out.

Every good novel employs the senses, does it not? And while my WIP (work in progress) isn’t food-themed, a few “culinary” scenes have emerged that will hopefully tickle readers’ taste buds.

In one, a character waits for a burger concoction that came straight from my head: the Poco-burger, made at a fictional mom n’ pop burger joint in the Poconos.

… Today was no different as he waited for his Poco-burger, a mouth-watering combination of a quarter-pound patty, cheese, onions, a fried egg, and two slices of infamous New Jersey pork roll, Taylor Ham, sandwiched between a Kaiser roll.

So – you guessed it. I took to the kitchen last weekend, working to bring this made-up dish to life.

The ingredients for the Poco-burger, right on my countertop.

Wait. That’s a lie; I wasn’t the one in the kitchen. My husband spearheaded this endeavor. Why him? Well, it’s a New Jersey-inspired meal. And he’s a Jersey boy. (I admit to being fascinated – and a little scared – by the main ingredient).

Meet Taylor Ham, found exclusively in New Jersey and some areas of Philly and Eastern PA.

So back to the Pac-Man discs. Yep, that’s Jersey Pork Roll, known to locals as Taylor Ham. The slits in the side help this mystery meat cook evenly. It’s a roll of ‘breakfast meat’ that many compare in taste and texture to SPAM, mild salami, or US-style Canadian bacon. I disagree. It tastes like none of those things, boasting its own unique flavor, with a very unique history, including battlefields and lawsuits. Most importantly, it’s yummy (I’d never heard of it until my first trip to New Jersey after meeting my husband).

In true Jersey fashion, my husband decided the Poco-burger should be a “smash burger,” like the ones made in New Jersey’s White Manna diner.

Then he fried some eggs and threw American cheese on them (Jersey style, of course). And finally, the finished product emerged – from my head, to the page, to a plate:

I think I’m on to something here: the recreation/reenactment of fictional elements in my work (because, let me tell you … the Poco-burger was phenomenal). And there just so happens to be another fictional dish in my WIP, a dessert called the Gob Sundae, that I’d love to tackle, myself … Stay tuned.

For Readers & Writers: As writers, our job is to bring the imaginary worlds of our novels to life, allowing readers to touch, taste, smell, see and hear. What senses do you most savor in your fiction? How do you bring them to life?

The Poco-burger was inspired by regional food preferences. How important is it to ground readers in geographic tastes, sounds, experiences? Which are hardest to write?

P.S. You, too, can have Taylor Ham delivered to your doorstep by The Taylor Ham Man.