Grendel by John Gardner. First edition hardback by Knopf (Borzoi imprint), 1971. No designer credited, but the jacket illustration is almost certainly by Emil Antonucci, whose line drawings head each chapter. The blurb on the back, by the way, is from a William H. Gass review of Gardner’s second novel The Wreckage of Agathon, which I have not read.
I usually only do scans of the fronts of books in these Three Books posts, but the clothbound book under the jacket of this edition of Grendel is too lovely not to share (it could also have fit into my three purple books post a while back):
Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston. 1978 trade paperback by Indiana University Press. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is almost certainly by Miguel Covarrubias, whose illustrations accompany the text. Mules & Men is not stuffy catalog of folklore, but rather Hurston’s own synthesis of the tales she collected (and improved upon, if not outright invented in some cases) primarily in Florida in the early 1930s. A sample tale: How the snake got poison:
Well, when God made de snake he put him in de bushes to ornament de ground. But things didn’t suit de snake so one day he got on de ladder and went up to see God. “Good mawnin’, God.” “How do you do, Snake?” “Ah ain’t so many, God, you put me down there on my belly in de dust and everything trods upon me and kills off my generations. Ah ain’t got no kind of protection at all.”
God looked off towards immensity and thought about de subject for awhile, then he said, “Ah didn’t mean for nothin’ to be stompin’ you snakes lak dat. You got to have some kind of a protection. Here, take dis poison and put it in yo’ mouf and when they tromps on you, protect yo’ self. “
So de snake took de poison in his mouf and went on back.
So after awhile all de other varmints went up to God.
“Good evenin’, God.”
“How you makin’ it, varmints?”
“God, please do somethin’ ’bout dat snake. He’ layin’ in de bushes there wid poison in his mouf and he’s strikin’ everything dat shakes de bush. He’s killin’ up our generations. Wese skeered to walk de earth.”
So God sent for de snake and tole him:
“Snake, when Ah give you dat poison, Ah didn’t mean for you to be hittin’ and killin’ everything dat shake de bush. I give you dat poison and tole you to protect yo’self when they tromples on you. But you killin’ everything dat moves. Ah didn’t mean for you to do dat.”
De snake say, “Lawd, you know Ah’m down here in de dust. Ah ain’t got no claws to fight wid, and Ah ain’t got no feets to git me out de way. All Ah kin see is feets comin’ to tromple me. Ah can’t tell who my enemy is and who is my friend. You gimme dis protection in my mouf and Ah uses it.”
God thought it over for a while then he says:
“Well, snake, I don’t want yo’ generations all stomped out and I don’t want you killin’ everything else dat moves. Here take dis bell and tie it to yo’ tail. When you hear feets comin’ you ring yo’ bell and if it’s yo’ friend, he’ll be keerful. If it’s yo’ enemy, it’s you and him.”
So dat’s how de snake got his poison and dat’s how come he got rattles.
Biddy, biddy, bend my story is end.
Turn loose de rooster and hold de hen.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. English translation by Chris Andrews. Trade paperback by New Directions, 2003. Cover design by Semadar Megged, who adapted a photograph by Kurt Beals. The orange in the cover doesn’t seem so vibrant in the scan I did. It’s as orange as the other two books. Oh well. The prose is vibrant, electric orange.
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—
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).
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. English 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.
Their Familyby Warren Fine. 1972 first edition hardback from Knopf. Cover illustration by James Grashow; cover design by R.D. Scudellari. I’ll admit I had to have this because of the cover alone, although its subject matter–an American frontier journey–is also a point of interest
Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. 1973 Penguin paperback. Cover design by David Pelham. I first read Star Maker when I was maybe 12 or 13—in the middle of what I now think of as a massive gorging of sci-fi and fantasy novels, a kind of rushed reading I’ll maybe never be able to return to. I haven’t read it since then but would like to revisit it later this summer.
The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. 1988 trade paperback by Nonparelil Books. Cover illustration by Joan Elkin; cover design by Louise Fili. After a few false starts I finally got into The Franchiser. I’m about half way through. It’s fucking great—a funny but scathing critique of America that seems utterly prescient (in the same way that Gaddis’s J R is a predictor novel, not just a zeitgeist novel).
How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. Third edition paperback from Drag City (DC 124). No designer credited.
I first read Fahey’s collection in 2000 or 2001, when it first came out—a good friend lent it to me and I returned it. Later, he loaned it to another friend who did not return it. I bought the book last summer while visiting the first friend (he took me to the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop in Brooklyn). Fahey’s book is sorta memoir, sorta fiction (at times), all weird and good. There’s a wonderful chapter about Fahey’s work on Michaelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point that culminates in Fahey and Antonioni getting into a fistfight.
Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy by Will Oldham and Alan Licht. First edition trade paperback from W.W. Norton. Cover design by Faber using a painting (of Oldham) by Becky Blair.
The friend who lent me the Fahey book insisted for months that I pick up Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy; when I kept neglecting to find it, he eventually just sent it to me. The book is basically the edited transcripts of discussions between Oldham and Licht. While there’s a heavy focus on Oldham’s music (and his acting career), the book is ultimately about creation and the artistic process. It is one of the better books about music that I’ve ever read. (A “Cosmological Timeline” at the end of the book begins in 1778 with Captain James Cook’s discovery of the “the Hawaiian tradition of surfing” and ends in 2011 with Jennifer Herrema changing RTX into Black Bananas).
Sign ‘O’ the Times by Michaelangelo Matos. A 33 1/3 book from Continuum, 2004. No designer credited.
I bought this at a Friends of the Library sale maybe 10 years ago. Matos’s take on Prince’s 1987 double album weaves music history and music criticism into personal memoir. The book ends with Prince seeing Matos seeing Prince at an Ohio Players’ show in 1997.
Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so today’s Three Books blog offers three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).
Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.
Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.
So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. First edition Penguin hardback, 2006. Jacket design my Michael Ian Kaye.
Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Wait, isn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).
V. by Thomas Pynchon. Vintage UK trade paperback edition (1995). Cover by Paul Burgess.
V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the Day, V. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback, Penguin, 2009. Jacket design by Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar; image credited to Darshan Zenith and Cruiser Art.
I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).
Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.
Last week I crammed my thoughts about the death of Prince into one of these “Three Books” posts I’ve doing each Sunday for around 30 Sundays now (I plan to do 52, if anyone cares or counts). I grabbed a bunch of purple books and scanned them, and I still have the scans saved, so today’s Three Books are, I guess, books that I deemed not-quite-purple-enough for last week’s post. My thoughts on Prince remain the same: I’m still vaguely shocked at his death and shocked at my shock at his death. I tried to write a Thing on Prince’s sexy dystopian visions, but I failed. Give me the electric chair 4 all my future crimes.
Point Omega by Don DeLillo. First edition hardback, Scribner, 2010. Jacket design by Rex Bonomelli using a photograph by Marc Adamus. I reviewed Point Omega when it came out, noting that it “is not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.” The book got somewhat mixed reviews, but I think in retrospect it’s quite underrated. DeLillo wrote one of the earliest paraphrases of the Bush Wars here (without really writing a summation and without really writing a war novel), and I think about the book often—whenever I read a little digital clipping about Cheney or Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld or any of the Old Neocon Gang—and the hacks and mouthpieces who supported them.
Masscult and Midcult: Essays against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald. Edited by John Summers. Published by NYRB, 2011. Cover design by Katy Homans; the cover image is a detail of Cedric Delsaux’s photograph 88, Las Vegas Casino 1. I reviewed Masscult a few years ago. The book has some perceptive essays, and its title essay is essential cultural criticism.
Native Son by Richard Wright. Mass market paperback edition by Harper Perennial, 1993. Cover design and illustration by David Diaz. This book was part of a class set I used years ago when I taught AP English Literature. It left with me when I left that job.
I swung by my favorite used bookstore this afternoon; it’s right near the grocery store and I needed to pick up some mint and some ricotta. I was hoping to pick up Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend at the bookstore. I started the audiobook of My Brilliant Friend today, after finishing the audiobook of Adrian Jones Pearson’s novel Cow Country this weekend. (Full review of Cow Country forthcoming but a real quick review: great performance/reading of a very strange book which I enjoyed very much, but which I also suspect will have very limited appeal. Cow cult classic to come). But so anyway, I’m really digging the Ferrante, and decided I wanted to obtain a physical copy to reread passages (and maybe share some on this blog). My store had several copies of four of Ferrante’s novels–but no Friend. While scanning the F section, my eye alighted (alit?) on a strange-looking hardback spine—Warren Fine’s Their Family. I turned it around and the cover…well, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Knopf, 1972—a few years before Gordon Lish was to become editor there, sure, but interesting bona fides I suppose. Fine does not seem to be beloved by anyone on the internet, and his books seem to have failed to go into second printings of any kind. The Fs are near the Es, and I glanced over the works of Mr. Stanley Elkin, who has his own section there, somehow. I finally broke through the second chapter of his novel The Franchiser this weekend (it’s all unattributed dialog, that chapter, sorta like Gaddis’s JR); I’m really digging The Franchiser now that I’ve tuned into the voice. (It also helps to not try reading it exclusively at night after too many bourbons or wines). Again, the spine of the novel looked interesting so I flipped The Dick Gibson Show around and, again, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle I found in the “Drugs” section—which I was not perusing (because I am no longer 19)—well I guess I was perusing it, but that’s only because it happens to be right next to this particular bookshop’s collection of Black Sparrow Press titles, which I always scan over. Anyway, the Michaux’s Miserable Miracle was turned face out; NYRB titles always deserve a quick scan, and the cover reminded me of a Cy Twombly painting. Flicking through it revealed a strange structure, full of marginal side notes and doodles and diagrams and drawings. And oh, it’s about a mescaline trip, I think. You can actually read it here, but this version is missing all the drawings and sidenotes.
Oh, and so then I forgot to go pick up the ricotta and the mint.
From HG Rauch’s En Masse (Collier, 1975).
Mitsou by Balthus. Preface by Rainer Maria Rilke (English translation by Richard Miller). Small first edition hardback published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984. Design credited to Peter Oldenburg; the cover illustration is by Balthus. Mitsou is Balthus’s story of loving (and losing) his titular pet cat. He was thirteen when he composed the story in 40 ink drawings (the drawings resemble woodblock prints, but aren’t). He gave the illustrations to his mother’s lover, Rainer Maria Rilke, who got them published. My wife gave me this book as a gift before we were married, and I love it. It’s sad.
Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston. First edition hardback by J.B. Lippincott, 1939. No illustrator or designer credited, by my edition is missing the original jacket. A retelling of the Exodus story.
Man after Man by Dougal Dixon with illustrations by Philip Hood. First edition hardback from St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Book design by Ben Cracknell; cover art by Philip Hood. It’s Hood’s illustrations that make Dixon’s “future anthropology” of the human race so fascinating. A discursive sci-fi novel of sorts, posing as a textbook.
Has Man a Future? by Bertrand Russell. 1961 Penugin U.S. paperback. Cover design by Richard Hollis, using a photo credited to USIS.
I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch. English translation by Michael Bullock. 1961 Penguin paperback (Great Britain). Cover by John Griffiths.
The Last Summer by Boris Pasternak. English translation by George Reavey. 1961 Penguin paperback (Great Britain). Cover illustration of the author by his father, Leonid Pasternak.
Chris Thornley (aka Raid 71) channeling Milton Glaser’s iconic Dylan poster in this illustration of Tetsuo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov. English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. First edition hardback from Knopf’s Borzoi imprint. Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. There are still a few tales in here that I haven’t read, most notably the titular novella.
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (and arguably, Christopher Tolkien, whose edits gave the book shape and form). 1983 first American edition trade paperback by Houghton Mifflin. No designer credited, which is a damn shame because I love this book cover. This is maybe the first book I recall buying with my own money.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceavă. Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth. 2014 trade paperback by Twisted Spoon Press. Cover design by Dan Myer. A strange and remarkable novella set in the Carpathians that moves time and history into fantasy storytelling.
Professor Noah’s Spaceship by Brian Wilsdsmith. First edition hardback by Oxford University Press, 1980; distributed through Macmillan Book Clubs. Design, cover, and art by Brian Wildsmith. This book is too beautiful.
See Again, Say Again by Antonio Frasconi. First edition oversized hardback published by Hacourt, Brace and World, 1964. Cover design, fonts, and woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi.
Do You Hear What I Hear? by Helen Borten. First edition hardback reprint by Flying Eye Books, a division of Nobrow; the book was originally published in 1960. Illustration and design by Helen Borten. Nowbrow kindly sent me a copy of Do You Hear What I Hear?—the book is beautiful, the text is lovely—Borten’s technique is to represent sound—or rather the feeling of sound (which is to say, the feeling of the feeling of sound) through language and art. Like any great children’s book, Do You Hear What I Hear? is best read out loud, and my five-year-old son loved it so much that I had to read it again to him immediately after the first reading. We’ve read it a few times since then. Great stuff.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mass market paperback by Bantam, 10th ed., 1986. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is a 1981 painting by Doug Johnson, and it is the sole reason that I’ve held onto this copy for over a decade now, since I first used it as part of a class set for an eleventh grade English class I used to teach. Perhaps from a technical standpoint, I stole this book.
Chimera by John Barth. Mass market paperback by Fawcett Crest, 1973. No designer credited, and the cover artist isn’t named in the colophon or on the back–but the cover is signed. Perhaps the original hardback, which shares this illustration, credited the artist. I read this book in the right place and at the right time—I was a junior or senior in college, obsessed with postmodernism as a technique (rather than postmodernism as a description), and Chimera’s intense gamesmanship enchanted me. I’m pretty sure I read it after Lost in the Funhouse, and that after Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. I bought this copy eight or nine years ago (having read it first as a library book), and attempted a reread and was…less impressed. Still, it would be hard for me to overstate how much Chimera did for me—how much it showcased the possibilities of literature and storytelling.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers. Mass market paperback edition by Bantam. No designer or cover artist credited—which is too bad because I love the image. The most recent date on the colophon is 1971 but I am pretty sure the book was published in 1996. I bought it in 1997. It was assigned reading for a creative writing class, and that—along with Johnson’s Jesus’ Son—were the only good things to come out of that misery. (My instructor would not shut the fuck up about “craft,” and he singled out the simile I was most proud of in one of my stories as “a bit much”).
Today’s Three Books’ mass market paperbacks are part of a small cadre of a once-large selection, winnowed away over the years, usually given away to students, etc. (I have an extra copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my car, should you need one).
Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville. First edition hardback, Harper Collins, 1995. Color illustrations, many blatantly erotic, including the cover, by Maurice Sendak (in the mood of Billy Blake). Design by Cynthia Krupat. The editor Hershel Parker has reconstructed the original, shorter version of Pierre that Melville sabotaged (according to Parker) by adding convoluted subplots (in revenge against the Harper brothers who did not wish to publish the book). This is the so-called “Kraken Edition”; the title comes from a letter Melville sent to Hawthorne. If Moby-Dick was the whale, Pierre was his giant monstrous squid.
My Romance by Gordon Lish. 1993 Norton trade paperback. Cover design by R.D. Scudellari. There are two paragraphs in this 142-page novel; the first starts on page 1 and ends on page 142; the second begins and ends on page 142 and is all of one sentence.
Erotic Poems, an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection. Borzoi/Knopf, tiny hardback 1994. Jacket design by Barbara de Wilde. Happy Valentine’s.