Three Books

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Taking Care by Joy Williams. 1985 trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

I read this book earlier this year. It’s really great. I reviewed it on this site, writing—

These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

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Norwood by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

Norwood isn’t the best book I’ve read so far this year but it is the book I most enjoyed reading, and after reading it, I sought everything else by Portis (consuming everything so far except the late novel Gringos, which I’m sort of holding onto as like…I dunno? A consolation prize at some point? Is that grim?). I picked Norwood up on a wonderful whim this summer, possibly simply because it was a Vintage Contemporaries edition (and slim). I’m so glad I did. Great read.

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Cathedral by Raymond Carver. 1989 trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Garnet Henderson.

This was the first Vintage Contemporaries edition I ever bought. I bought it when I was maybe 17, sometime in the late nineties, I guess, and I was always vaguely embarrassed of the cover, especially when I used it in not one but two college courses at the end of that decade (Carver was still very cool in that era. He seems to have fallen out of favor. Good for him!) Henderson’s ultra-literal cover of the story “Cathedral” is…something. (I still prefer Lovell’s whimsical work, which is more, uh, I dunno, metaphysical (?)). I circled four short story titles on the table of contents for some reason: “A Small Good Thing,” “Where I’m Calling From,” “Vitamins,” and “Cathedral.” All great numbers. I also am fond of “Feathers” and “Chef’s House,” but I didn’t circle those titles. The rest of the stories I don’t remember, although I’m sure I read them at least once or twice.

Three Books

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Negrophobia by Darius James. Cover design by Katy Homans, employing All Cats Are Black in the Dark by Natasha Xavier. Trade paperback, NYRB, 2019.

Darius James’s Negrophobia, first published in 1992, is ugly, hilarious, abject, and gritty, a deep comic dive into American racism and the ways that massculture and urban living propagate and feed off of racism. NYRB’s blurb rightfully compares the novel to the work of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, but, in its hallucinatory film script form (an apocalyptic angles), it also recalls Aldous Huxley’s overlooked novel Ape in Essence. I loved it and am too much of a coward to attempt a real review.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Cover photograph by W. Eugene Smith; designer uncredited. Penguin Classics US trade paperback, 2006.

Jackson’s spooky 1959 novel has some of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve read in recent years. Hills’ final section answers to its weird opening, dramatizing fraught consciousness in turmoil, disintegrating in a ping-pong free indirect style that leaves the reader stunned, puzzled, and wishing for an extra chapter against his better judgment.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. English translation by Michael Hoffmann. Book design by Katy Homans, featuring Georg Grosz’s painting Down with Liebknecht (1919). NRYB trade paperback, 2018.

I picked up Döblin’s 1929 Berlin Alexanderplatz on a whim a while ago at a bookstore and picked it up off the shelf today on a different whim and laughed in sympathy through the first two chapters. It’s a long book but I think I’ll keep going.

 

 

William Burroughs’ Nova Express (Book acquired sometime last week)

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So I couldn’t pass up this first edition hardback Grove Press edition of William Burroughs’ 1964 novel Nova Express (with cover design by Grove Press stalwart Roy Kuhlman) that I found a few hot days ago, wandering decomposing stacks of pressed leaves here in North Florida. It ate up half of my credit at this particular used bookstore and yet was still cheaper than a new hardback NYT bestseller. Haven’t read the damn thing sense college, and don’t own a copy so. Here’s the back cover with an author photo of Burroughs in which he looks like a goddamn baby (how did he live so long?):

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“[T]he greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”! I’m sure Jack Kerouac wouldn’t like hyperbolize even a smidge. What was Burroughs satirizing? Like modernism, modern machine life, etc. Control, as in all Burroughs.

Biologic Agent K9 called for his check and picked up supersonic imitation blasts of The Death Dwarfs — “L’addition — Laddition — Laddittion — Garcon — Garcon — Garcon” — American tourist accent to the Nth power — He ordered another coffee and monitored the café — A whole table of them imitating word forms and spitting back at supersonic speed — Several patrons rolled on the floor in switch fits — These noxious dwarfs can spit out a whole newspaper in ten seconds imitating your words after you and sliding in suggestion insults — That is the entry gimmick of The Death Dwarfs: supersonic imitation and playback so you think it is your own voice — (do you own a voice?) they invade The Right Centers which are The Speech Centers and they are in the right — in the right — in thee write — “RIGHT” — “I’m in the right — in the right — You know I’m in the right so long as you hear me say inside your right centers ‘I am in the right’” — While Sex Dwarfs tenderize erogenous holes — So The Venusian Gook Rot flashed round the world —

Read the rest of the death dwarf routine.

Blog about giving books away and buying books for a friend and acquiring some books for myself

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This morning my dean told me that I needed to pack up my office over the summer as the building I’m in will be undergoing a renovation. Even though I knew this was coming, the prospect hit me as a series of big anxiety waves. My walls are covered with masks, art, pictures. I have file drawers of student work going back over a decade. And books. Lots and lots of books. Books and art and stuff that I don’t really have room for anywhere else, even for a season.

Three shelves in my office are doublestacked with old mass market paperbacks from my youth—-Vonnegut, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hemingway, Jack London, Philip K. Dick, Richard Adams, Stephen Crane, etc. Shabby books, well worn, glue splitting. Over the years I’ve acquired nicer versions of the ones I want to reread, but my sentimental attachment to this small library of paperbacks doesn’t quite fade. When I taught high school, they were the bulk of my classroom library. I insisted on their return, and was always disappointed in students who seemed interested in certain novels but never quite managed to steal them. I was always thrilled when a student would ask to borrow one “over the summer” and then forget to return it.

This sorry shabby mass-market library has been depleted over my past decade teaching community college. Every semester, a few students ask if they can borrow something they see on the shelves when they stop by to chat. It is the most wonderful feeling to give a young person a copy of Brave New World (“I’ve heard it’s good”) or Cat’s Cradle (“Is it as good as Slaughterhouse Five?”) of Studies in Classic American Literature and then insist that they keep it and not worry about returning it.

This morning, a young man approached me after class and told me he’d noticed I had a copy of Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? in my office—could he maybe borrow it? He made a point of calling it Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and not Blade Runner, despite the fact that it’s a movie tie-in. He seemed so happy when I repeated that the book was his now.

Earlier that morning I gave another student my copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He’s taken a couple of classes with me, and based on our conversations and his writing, I thought he could us the book more than I could. Again—young kid so happy to get a book, to think that someone thought he should read a particular book—I recall the feeling so vividly, from the other side. I love watching the old library dwindle away. Maybe I can give away more before I have to pack it up again.

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After classes and office hours I swung by my beloved bookstore. I do this a lot on Fridays, in the spare hour that I have between work and picking up kids. I had a little mission this time—buying some books for a great old friend who turns forty this weekend. He loves hiking and camping and poetry—more than I love those things, I think—so I asked twitter to throw out some recommendations, which they did. I had fun browsing the “Nature” section. I ended up getting three: Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma (a favorite of mine), Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (I had never heard of it until today), and Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Walk (I dug a few of the short essays I read in the store). I enjoyed buying books for my friend. I am almost 100% he never reads this blog so I’m sure my posting this will not spoil his present, and, if not, Happy Birthday.

While browsing the “Nature” section, I resisted Shelters Shacks and Shanties—for now. Apologies to D.C. Beard, whose hut diagrams are exquisite:

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I of course selfishly picked up books for myself, although I didn’t browse for myself. I keep a silly geeky list of names to check in on, including Robert Coover. Even though I’m slogging my way through his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, I still have a desire to read its sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath. No wrath, but I picked up Plume editions of Pricksongs & Descants (which I’ve read but didn’t own) and Gerald’s Party (which I haven’t read and now own). The editions match the copy of  The Universal Baseball AssociationInc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. I picked last summer (and no I have not read goddamn it).

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I was also thrilled to pick up a 1974 Daw Paper edition of Wendayne Ackerman’s translation of Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky’s Hard to Be a God. I read Olena Bormashenko’s translation as an e-book a few years ago, after seeing Aleksei German’s film adaptation. (I loved Bormashenko’s translation of Snail on the Slope, by the way).

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This copy of Hard to Be a God, blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin, will end up in a stack on my shelf of massmarket paperbacks, cheap pulp editions with colorful, zany, vibrant covers. Lovely unroughed, somehow pristine copies of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem and Ishmael Reed and Ursual K. Le Guin and J.G. Ballard and etcetera that’s been building up over the years, a private collection—but another library I’m sure I’ll eventually end up giving away.

Blog about some books and some book covers and acquiring some books and not acquiring some books

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I went to the book store this afternoon to pick up a copy of the latest graphic novel in by Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series for my kids, and of course I browsed a while. Looking for a copy of Anne Carson’s Plainwater, I ended up finding Angela Carter’s 1972 novel Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. It’s a British edition, 1985, Penguin, with a lovely Boschian cover by James Marsh. Here’s a detail from the cover:

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I’ve wanted to pick up Carter’s novel since I read about it on a silly good dystopian fiction list last year, and I’m thrilled that I was able to get one with a Marsh cover. This particular cover, along with Marsh’s cover for The Bloody Chamber, are included in Phil Baines lovely book Penguin by Design.

Baines’s book doesn’t include any of Marsh’s fantastic covers of J.G. Ballard novels, opting instead to include Dave Pelham’s versions. I love both Pelham and Marsh’s Ballard covers, and would love to get my mitts on one at some point. I always browse for old mass market paperbacks of sci-fi authors I like — Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, the Strugatsky Brothers, J.G. Ballard — hoping to find an interesting cover, something inventive and fun, something from before their works were, under the cloak of awful respectability, given safe, boring literary covers. I didn’t find any Ballard editions with Marsh or Pelham covers, but I did come across this lovely pair of mass market paperback:

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They’re US Vintage versions, 1985, with covers by Chris Moore. There’s like a proto-Cherry 2000 thing going on here that I kinda love, but I already own these novels, and I don’t love the covers quite enough. So instead, this post. Here are the covers of my copies of Crash and Concrete Island:

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While Henry Sene Yee’s cover design for my copy of Concrete Island (using a photograph by Kevin Laubacher) isn’t terrible, it is a good example of what I mean by boring respectable literary covers. Still, this trade edition (Picador, 2001) is really readable—I mean, it’s easy to read. The pages are nice, the typeset is great, etc. (And the book is killer). I actually like the cover of my copy of Crash, a lot (design by Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden), but it’s also trying just a little too hard. (Again—very readable version from FS&G’s Noonday Press imprint, 1994).

While I had to pass today on the mass market copies of Crash and Concrete Island today—not because they would have set me back five bucks in store credit, but because I don’t need them, because I hope some kid goes in there and picks them up—while I had to pass on those lurid beauties, I did pick up a mass market 1967 copy of The Crystal World. Publisher Berkley Medallion didn’t bother to name the cover designer/artist, and I haven’t been able to track it down, but it is, I admit, a bit disappointing—an early pulp bid for literary respectability. At least I can be on the look out for a weirder one in the future.

Camus, Eliot, and Kuper’s Kafka (Books acquired, 31 Aug. 2018)

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I went to my favorite used bookshop on Friday afternoon to browse, order another Gerald Murnane novel, and pick up a copy of George Eliot’s Silas Marner.

I spied a late fifties mass market copy of Albert Camus’ novel Exile and the Kingdom from Vintage Books. I fell in love with the cover (by George Giusti) and ended up picking it up, although I’ll admit I haven’t read a Camus novel since college (it was The Plague if memory serves).

Browsing copies of Silas Marner, I found this monstrosity:

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I don’t even know where to start with this cover. I mean, even the colors seem to clash. It doesn’t really come across in the photo, but this hardback has a cheap greasy feel to it. I initially assumed that it was some kind of TV or film tie in, but as far as I can tell…no. Horrifying. I ended up going with the Oxford edition with Ferdinand Hodler’s painting Unemployed on the cover.

When I got home, the mail had come. It included a copy of Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque, which collects 14 of Kuper’s illustrated Kafka translations. Publisher Norton’s blurb:

Award-winning graphic novelist Peter Kuper presents a mesmerizing interpretation of fourteen iconic Kafka short stories.

Long fascinated with the work of Franz Kafka, Peter Kuper began illustrating his stories in 1988. Initially drawn to the master’s dark humor, Kuper adapted the stories over the years to plumb their deeper truths. Kuper’s style deliberately evokes Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, contemporaries of Kafka whose wordless novels captured much of the same claustrophobia and mania as Kafka’s tales. Working from new translations of the classic texts, Kuper has reimagined these iconic stories for the twenty-first century, using setting and perspective to comment on contemporary issues like civil rights and homelessness.

Longtime lovers of Kafka will appreciate Kuper’s innovative interpretations, while Kafka novices will discover a haunting introduction to some of the great writer’s most beguiling stories, including “A Hunger Artist,” “In The Penal Colony,” and “The Burrow.” Kafkaesque stands somewhere between adaptation and wholly original creation, going beyond a simple illustration of Kafka’s words to become a stunning work of art.

Hermit of Peking (Book acquired 28 Sept. 2017)

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My daughter asked to go to our favorite used bookstore a few weeks ago, and while she was milling around the children’s section, I dipped through the adjacent biographies area, an area I admit I seldom visit. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking was literally lying on the floor. The Arcimboldosque cover (by Peter Brookes—the political cartoonist?) caught my eye. The blurb, which notes that Sir Edmund Backhouse was “one of the most outrageous forgers, confidence trickster and eccentrics of the century” intrigued me; I posted the pic on Twitter and a good source vouched for Hermit. I picked it up. Read more about Backhouse’s frauds and schemes here.

 

Two or three Barry Hannahs, depending on how you look at it (Books acquired, 14 and 18 Aug. 2017)

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Earlier this summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where the clerk kindly let me handle a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel RayIt was like sixty bucks, so I didn’t handle it too fondly. But somehow the image of the signature rattled around in my silly skull all summer—probably because I spent a big chunk of July slurping up Long, Last, Happy. I wanted to find out some info about Hannah’s last quartet of stories—the last four stories in L, L, H—and doing a search of his name in Twitter led me to a link for a signed first-edition hardback copy of his slim 1985 collection Captain Maximus. (The title is a joke on his then-editor, Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, who apparently Hannah referred to as “Captain Minimus” in some of their letters). I might have had a scotch or two, but I bid on the book (eighteen bucks). No one else bid on it, so it’s mine now.

The cover is lovely, purple and orange, designed by Fred Marcellino, and under the bright shiny jacket is this:

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I love the reserved arrogance of those initials!

And of course the signature, dated five years after the book’s publication and geographically anchored to the town my grandfather and namesake attended college in—

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I didn’t actually own a copy of Captain Maximus beforehand, and I think the only stories from it included in Long, Last, Happy (which, by the way is a great starting place for Hannah) are “Fans,” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” and “Even Greenland” (you can read “Even Greenland” at Ben Marcus’s website). This particular copy has clearly never been read.  Which leads me to this afternoon. I went to my favorite used bookstore to pick up a copy of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Threes—I just finished The Terrible Twos, a novel that is too prescient and too funny and too cruel and you should read it read it read it—and well anyway, I went to see if maybe they had a copy of Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which they didn’t the last time I was there, but they did today. Under it was a well-thumbed 1986 Penguin paperback edition of Captain Maximus. I need to read Yonder (which hell by the way my god what a bad cover c’mon people) before I can write the Thing I want to write on the final stories in Long, Last, Happy (or at least I think I need to read it, or anyway, I want to). And the second copy of Captain Maximus, at three dollars in store credit, is something I don’t have to worry about cramming into a pocket or dropping into a bathtub or eventually giving away to a friend.

On buying a second copy of William Gaddis’s JR (Book acquired, 5 Aug. 2017)

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I was at the bookstore last week, killing a spare hour, looking for nothing in particular, when I spotted a first edition Knopf paperback copy of William Gaddis’s novel J R. The book is one of my favorites—I first read it in 2012 and then again in 2016 (which maybe means I’ll reread it again in 2020?). I’ll cobble really quickly from my 2016 review here:

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves)). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come . . .

The book is a performance, an opera, an essay on America, a howl, a condemnation, a farce, a romance, a tragedy. When I read it in 2012 I couldn’t believe how prescient it was, a feeling reconfirmed with force four years later. J R diagnoses and describes and ridicules American corporatism, the industrial-military-entertainment-banking-education-etc. -complex. And then it weeps.

. . . in J R the reader becomes the performer, making the voices, singing the voices, (muttering the voices), navigating all the trash, the entropy—J R is a novel of unraveling, where art trips over commercial trash and literal trash–old ads, betting tickets, stock ticker tape, phone book pages, train tickets, scraps. Is there another American novel so aware of its own textuality, its own metatextuality—I mean one that doesn’t goddamn wink all the time at its readers like so much clever postmodern slop?

Well so and anyway, I was browsing the shelves of my local, looking for nothing, as I said, although I was ambling through the “GA-” section in the hopes of maybe picking up a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel, when I spied the J R, with its bold oh-so-seventies design, its big stiff spine unbroken and seemingly unbent. After handling it a few minutes, I resigned myself to a pic and a tweet—

I didn’t intend to buy another paperback copy of J R, even a first edition, even though it was only seven bucks, and even though I have trade credit out the ying-yang there—I mean, I have a perfectly fine Penguin edition; better to leave the J R  for some other person to acquire, no? But qithin a few minutes Twitter folks had talked me out of my plan to not acquire it, advice that was perhaps not unwanted.

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The Knopf edition—the cover design is by Janet Halverson, by the way—has a much longer summary blurb than my 1993 edition (and indeed, a much longer summary blurb than one usually sees on a paperback). The Penguin edition features an introduction by Frederick Karl (that readers should wait to read until after they’ve finished the book), a bibliography of “Suggestions for Further Reading,” and a new dedication page:  “For Matthew: Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more” (I’m guessing the dedication is to Gaddis’s son Matthew). The ’93 Penguin does not have this though:

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But! The Penguin edition’s colophon promises that “Errors in the original publication have been corrected by the author for the first Penguin edition” (1985 btw).

Other than that, the two edition are pretty much typographically the same—the pages are aligned, and both editions are consistent with the same typographical oddities, like JR’s famous handwritten “Alsaka” memo and his logo designs and Gibbs’s pocket scrap citations.

The big difference between the two editions (besides the cover, obviously) can be summed up in this image—the seventies Knopf is above the nineties Penguin:

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The Penguin edition is slightly larger with much better binding. I’ve read it twice and I never had to break its spine; I’m pretty sure that the Knopf I picked up has never been read—and also that a serious reading would crack its spine pretty badly.

The most recent edition of J R is from Dalkey, and includes an essay by Rick Moody as its introduction. I don’t have a copy of it, but it has 752 pages—the other editions have 726 pages (which the Gaddis Annotations project match up to). I’ve handled the Dalkey, and I recall it being smaller and stiffer than the Penguin. Basically, I think, as of now, the Penguin edition is probably the best option for anyone wanting to read the book. So I love the cover of the 70’s first edition I’ve got, but I doubt I’ll be reading it soon (or, like in 2020 when I read the book again).

Two Dicks (Books acquired, 17 July 2017)

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A Maze of Death, first DAW printing, 1983. Cover art by Bob Pepper.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, first Timescape printing, 1983.  Cover artist uncredited.

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I still regret that I failed to pick up this tattered copy of Clans of the Alphane:

Seriously though, these tasteful covers are pretty boring. Compare/contrast:

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Le Guin/Abish/Farber (Books 2.03.2017)

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I picked up this handsome hardback collection of early Ursula K. LeGuin stories last Friday when I went to my local used bookshop. I was there looking for something else.

I wasn’t looking for stories by Walter Abish (and I can’t remember how or why I picked this up, but I read part of it in the store…I mean I can’t recall why I was in the “A’s” for Atwood or Abish):

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And I wasn’t looking for essays by Jerry Farber (this weird mass market paperback was crammed into a completely wrong section—misshelved as if someone was trying to hide it. The font on the spine prompted me to pull it out, and I knew that the guy had written “The Student as Nigger”….I started reading “Why People Love Capitalism” and decided to pick it up):

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What I was looking for was Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, which is prominent on my to-read list after devouring The Stories of Paul Bowles. But I simply couldn’t come to terms with these covers:

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I mean, look, I know I shouldn’t care about the cover, but these are dreadful, and it this point if I’m going to own a paper book, it needs to have some aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit like the cover for this collection:

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(I didn’t pick it up because the seven stories are in The Stories of Paul Bowles).

A last thought on covers:

PK Dick’s Martian Time-Slip/Kafka regret (Books acquired and not acquired, 12.28.2016)

Two bucks.

Cover art by Darrell Sweet.

Here’s my riff on Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip.

I regret not picking up this edition of Kafka’s Amerika that same day:

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I reviewed Schocken’s latest translation of Amerika (not the one above) on Biblioklept like over eight years ago. I still have the black hardback, but I’d maybe exchange it for this beauty.

It’s Friday; here’s a lazy post of some old sci-fi book covers

I went to the bookstore this afternoon, looking to maybe find something I hadn’t read by my favorite author Garth Marenghi, or at least to pick up something from the so-called Bizarro fiction genre. I wound up spending about 75 minutes perusing old sci-fi and fantasy titles, occasionally taking a pic or two. I love old sci-fi covers (Daw covers in particular); looking at so many this afternoon, I noticed that certain prestige-style covers that attempted to “transcend genre” (e.g. certain editions by authors like William Gibson and Neil Gaiman) actually end up looking really dated and generic. Anyway, I hadn’t initially intended to do a post, and what I’m presenting here is hardly representative as a sample (there are literally tens of thousands of sci-fi books in the store). At a certain point I got dizzy.

I’m sure that there are some really great blogs out there that do this sort of thing properly—take real care with scans and bother to credit artists and designers properly. Forgive me. Forgive the bad lighting and my fat thumbs. I’ve included some details from the book covers too. So, as promised by my title: It’s Friday; here’s a lazy post of some old book covers.

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Cabu by John Robert Russell. There were a couple of Russell titles with unreal covers.

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The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only book in this post that I’ve actually read.
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Masters of Time by A.E. Van Vogt. This seems like a very special book.

img_3102-1 Continue reading “It’s Friday; here’s a lazy post of some old sci-fi book covers”

Three Books (On Ferrante, Knausgaard, irony, and covers good and bad)

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My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2013. Cover design by Charlotte Strick and Bill Zindel, with cover art by Bill Zindel.

I couldn’t really get past page 80 of My Struggle, but I like Zindel’s zany design for the first volume enough to hold on to it. Kinda reminds me of those Vintage Contemporaries I so adore.

A lot of people didn’t like the design though, and FS&G didn’t end up publishing the rest of Zindel’s designs, which would’ve looked pretty neat as a complete set. As literary critic Scott Esposito put it at the time “the market has spoken, and it hates the original paperback.”

Instead, FS&G went with variations on this—

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My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2014. Cover design by Charlotte Strick; photograph by Andreas Eikseth Nygjerd.

Look at our boy Knausgaard, smokin’ away! This cover is boring but not Bad, which makes it far less interesting than the Bad Knausgaard cover which is actually very Good. The Book 2 cover (and subsequent covers in the series) are safe and “stylish”—and when I write “stylish,” I use it in the way many writers use it—thoughtlessly, blankly—stylish as a word that points vaguely to the idea of style, the zeitgeistiness of style. Etc. (Again—I encourage you to check out Zindel’s vision for the whole series).

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteEnglish translation by Ann Goldstein. Fifteenth printing, Europa Editions, 2015. Book design by Emanuele Ragnisco; cover photo by Anthony Boccaccio.

My Brilliant Friend is brilliant, my friend.

Its cover is awful, and the subsequent covers in the so-called Neapolitan Novels quartet are somehow worse.

A good friend who’s never steered me wrong with a reading recommendation told me to read Ferrante last year, but I didn’t—it wasn’t the hype that put me off (although the hype put me off), but the covers. I finally acquiesced to an audiobook version, and after getting a few chapters in, wanted the text. So I caved.

But my god, the cover—why?

The publisher and art director(s) claim that the Ferrante covers are bad on purpose.

An article in Quartz that I found simply by googling “Ferrante covers awful” yields this nugget:

…Sandro Ferri, Europa Editions’ publisher, says the covers were not an accident of too many cooks in the design kitchen, but rather a conscious choice. Writes Ferri in an email to Quartz, “The ‘vulgarity’ is our intention. We don’t want to make the typical ‘literary’ cover designed for an audience of ultra-sophisticated readers. … Ferrante’s novels are a mix of popular literature and highbrow, intellectual writing. We want to communicate this though our covers as well.”

And in a Slate interview, EE co-founder/publisher Sandra Ozzola again asserts that the decision for tacky covers was, um, purposeful:

From the time of our first conversation with Elena Ferrante about her intention to write this novel, we knew the book’s title and that it would be the story of a long friendship between women—and that it would conclude with a scene of a very vulgar Neapolitan wedding. The wedding and Elena’s impression of it … is an extremely important moment in the book. That’s why I intentionally searched for a photo that was “kitsch.” This design choice continued in the subsequent books, because vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena wants to distance herself from.

If we take a book’s cover to be where the book “begins,” where we first start to read the text, then EE’s awful kitschy crappy ugly covers signal postmodern irony—a joke on perception, the marketplace, high-low aesthetics, etc. The covers work as a kind of metatextual critique, then, as Ozzola seems to suggest above—a critique that relies on the reader’s understanding of the novel’s central character’s aesthetic viewpoint.

Well so then: Are the covers indeed ironic critiques of book-cover-aesthetics? Are we to take these covers as pop art parodies of books that traffic in romantic aspirations, that are, like, marketed to women?

Or are these covers simply designed to appeal to the very market that they would claim to ironically mock?

The have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too postmodern answer to these questions is, of course, “Yes.”

To fully appreciate the aesthetic irony of the Ferrante novels of course requires reading the Ferrante novels. And undoubtedly, many people are put off reading these books because of the covers. So much so that Ferrante’s novels got new covers for their Australian release. The new covers were designed by W.H. Chong:

Mr Chong told The New Daily it can be dangerous to try irony on a book’s cover – especially if the joke isn’t clear to readers.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly otherwise the recipient doesn’t realise the irony,” Mr Chong said.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly” — okay, sure. But the finest satire never announces itself as such.

Chong’s new covers feature simple black-and-white photographs, and they have received praise. But in a sense, the Australian covers seem, at least to me, to echo those Knausgaard updates—safe, boring even. But I’d much rather be seen reading one of those, than, say, the original EE edition of The Story of the Lost Child, which has maybe the worst cover I’ve ever seen.

Europa Editions’ forthcoming Ferrante collection, Frantumaglia, has a great cover, by the way.

Three Books

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Airships by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press. Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is Chrysanthemum by Hannah’s contemporary, the photorealist painter Glennray Tutor. Hannah wrote an essay about Tutor’s work called “Deep Pop,” declaring

Once one’s amazement at the astonishing precision in the paintings of Glennray Tutor has had time to sink in, the opportunity arises to contemplate the visual eloquence in his depictions of the small artifacts of life, and how such compositions can say profound things about the nature of our existence.

I reviewed Airships on this blog some years ago.

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Ray by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press.  Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is the center panel of Glennray Tutor’s triptych Whistling Moon Traveler. I reviewed Ray on this blog the same year I reviewed Airships.

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Bats out of Hell by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press.  Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is the left panel of Glennray Tutor’s triptych Dragon Boat. I did not review Bats out of Hell, but some of the sketches contained therein appear in Hey Jack!, which I did review.

A Short Riff on Those Horrid, Wonderful Vintage Contemporaries Paperbacks of the 1980s

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I’ve been a fan of Vintage Contemporaries for years. I’m pretty sure the first one I ever picked up was Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. I recall being vaguely dismayed about the cover and trying to find another used edition, but thrift won out. This was in the early or mid nineties, and book design was trending toward a more minimal, conceptual style.

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In contrast to a tasteful, minimalist cover, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Cathedral is garishly literal. Ditto the cover for Denis Johnson’s Angels: sure, there’s a symbolic touch in those storm clouds, and a surreal tweak in the laser lights, but there’s something ghastly about the whole design.

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Even the cover for Jerzy Kosinski’s twisted horrorshow-in-vignettes Steps is remarkably literal—sure, the image seems surreal, but it’s straight out of Kosinski’s text. (It’s also one of my favorite covers in the line).

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Anyway, in the past few years I’ve kept an eye out for certain titles from the Vintage Contemporaries line, even if I already own the book in another edition—DeLillo, for instance, or Cormac McCarthy. I was thrilled to find this edition of Suttree earlier this year. (And I’d love to get another copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows; I gave mine away to a friend).

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I’d been wanting to write about the Vintage Contemporaries series for a while now, and had even gone so far as to write to a few artists and designers I know to see if they could put me in touch with a source of info. A few weeks ago, Mahendra Singh was kind enough to point out a thorough, in-depth essay on Vintage Contemporaries over at Talking Covers. Plenty of history, photos, and even interviews. It’s the mother-lode, the post I wished I could’ve mustered. (And if I seem a bit jealous, I can console myself in the knowledge that they used my first pic of Suttree. So there’s that). I encourage you to check it out.

Nabokov Shows Off Different Lolita Covers