Judging a book by its…

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I’m a lifelong bibliophile, a perambulator of bookstores and libraries, wont to picking up books at random and taking them in on a whim. So, of course, I’m a lover of book covers.

And, except for those of us who judge books only on their e-readers, covers matter. A lot. Female British author Lionel Shriver wrote a scathing piece for The Guardian of the gender inequality of cover designs. She rightly complains that the pastel images of wistful women that her publisher’s designers suggest for her are based solely on her gender and have nothing to do with her books–intense narratives, even “nasty,” as she calls them. No one wants the label chic lit, even those who predominantly write for a female audience (I’m looking at you Jodi Picoult).

Book buyers tend to form judgements about unknown books within 10-20 seconds of seeing them. Which is why the hardcover copy of last year’s The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt:

 

 

makes such a better first impression than the paperback version:

 

 

The hardcover version is a visual double entendre, the paperback a pastel banality that makes me think I’m picking up a dry history of the wild west. Pass.

It’s pretty amazing when a book cover makes you do a double take, gives you a complete summary of the book in a single image. Designer Jenny Volvovski is currently creating new covers for books she’s read, and I love her take on Bradley Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist:

 

The main character has four wives, each with several children, and somehow the letters alone give you a sense of his life. There he is, the lonely O at the center of it all.

I could go on forever about amazing book covers, because there are so many good ones (and several blogs devoted to them). In case you’re interested, here are a lot more awesome book covers. And here’s a list of 30 books that “you should buy for the cover alone.”

But in the age of the e-reader, is the book cover an endangered art form? Chip Kidd, one of the most famous book cover designers of all time, thinks not. NPR quotes him as saying, “[Books] need some kind of visual representation, whether you’re going to be seeing them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone, or sitting on a table, or on a shelf, or in a bookstore.” Of course, he’s banking on that assumption, given that that’s how he makes a living. I hope he’s right.

Here’s his TED talk on the art of designing a book cover:

 

 

 

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Grimm and grimmer

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A few weeks ago I checked out Coursera, the website that grants access to free online classes in a range of topics led by professors at top universities. Pretty good deal, right? Several of the imminent classes sounded interesting: Introduction to Sustainability, for instance, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. However, knowing nothing about either of these subjects I decided to sign up for a class that I have some background in: a literature course called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. After signing up, though, I realized I didn’t really have an extra 10+ hours a week necessary for all the readings, lectures, and essays.

In fact, the main reason I was interested in the class was the first reading, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and thus I decided to just read them on my own.

As you might expect, the tales are odd. We know some of the famous ones–Hansel and Grethel, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella (called Aschenputtel in German, a decidedly unattractive name). And while there are several tales of beautiful maidens being rescued from evil stepmothers by kings, there are many more with talking animals and and lies that are not always punished. Most of the stories, really, seem written by children, with a child’s wandering logic and miscellaneous details and rules.

In the woods

Children’s tales are generally fashioned to teach lessons, but Grimm’s lessons are often puzzling. In Hansel and Grethel the poor father is loathe to leave his children in the forest, but agrees with his cruel wife. When his children reappear at the house after Hansel’s flint stones lead them back, the father is overjoyed yet must agree once more with his wife to bring them out into the woods. For, as the story asserts, “he who says A must say B too, and when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.”

In some stories, young girls who make promises are forced to make good on them (such as in The Frog Prince). Yet, in other instances, cruelty is rewarded. Cat and Mouse in Partnership tells the story of a cat and mouse who save a pot of fat to tide them through the upcoming winter. The cat can’t wait to eat it and steals away three times to eat it by himself. When the winter finally falls and the mouse discovers the cat’s duplicity, the cat eats the mouse. The final sentence of the story simply reads: “And that is the way of the world.” Hardly comforting. Likewise, in The Wolf and Seven Goslings, a wolf asks a baker to cover him in flour so that he might disguise himself and eat the eponymous goslings. The baker at first refuses, not wanting to collude with the evil wolf, but finally agrees. The story gives us this wisdom: “And that just shows what men are.”

Perhaps the strangest two stories I read, though, were The Death of the Hen and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. In the first, a hen dies choking and several animals join in to carry her body to a burial site. While crossing a stream, though, they all drown. Her husband remains, buries her, and then buries himself alongside because he’s so filled with grief.

In the second story, a straw, a coal, and a bean escape a woman’s stovetop and set out together on a journey. They, too, come to a stream and the straws lays himself across it so that his new friends might pass over. The coal stops in the middle of the straw out of fear, but the coal’s heat burns the straw and they both fall in the water and…die? Can we say that about a coal and a straw? Meanwhile, the bean finds his friends’ demise so hilarious that she literally bursts with laughter. A kind tailer sews her up with black thread. So, Grimms, what are we to make of it all? Only this: “All beans since then have a black seam.”

Ah yes, an important lesson to teach the children.

 

How to live in a fairy tale

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What you’ll need: fairy godmother, magical animal friends

Songlist: When you wish upon a star

Further reading: Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm

Beauty and her Beast

I have a confession: I spent three hours last night watching the finale of The Bachelorette, in which the lovely Emily Maynard got engaged to her Prince Charming. The man she chose as her fiancé had previously said of her, “Emily gives me the feeling that people write fairy tales about.”

The Bachelor franchise has an obsession with fairy tale endings. Contestants often speak in fairy tale terms as they describe their dates of dining in castles or swimming with dolphins in the world’s most gorgeous places (actually, they more often speak in ridiculous metaphors such as “Today we jumped off a helicopter together into the ocean, because, you know, love is a leap of faith”). It’s a natural comparison to make because fairy tale endings are romantic, simplistic, and, oh, they don’t last.

On Saturday night I went to a brilliant performance of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to their happily ever afters…and beyond. For the initiate, intermission is confusing since the characters have each already accomplished all they set out to do–what more do we need to see? In the second half, though, we find out that while Cinderella has stopped running, her prince hasn’t given up chasing. Jack slew a giant, but now the giant’s wife is hungry for vengeance. And characters start dying. After a frivolous first half, the second half is surprisingly sobering.

Which is like that time I watched the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid and found out the original Ariel committed suicide to spare her beloved prince. Ouch.

Fairy tales are not particularly happy places to live in. Sure, a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales end in marriage, but first there are deals with the devil, murders, severing of limbs, and disowning of family members. In one particularly gruesome story, a stepmother feeds her stepson to her husband so that her daughter may be the only heir. And then, of course, a magical bird drops a millstone on the evil stepmother and the son is returned to the father, happy and whole.

Moral of the story: don’t try to live in a fairy tale unless you’re really good at communicating with birds. Emily Maynard, start working on your songs.

Cowboy poetry

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Remember that controversy a year ago when Harry Reid made a speech about the budget bill, and decried Republican cuts against the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Arts? And all people talked about was…cowboy poetry?

Yes, Reid had mentioned a yearly festival in his native Nevada made possible by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Unfortunately for him, the festival was a gathering of cowboy poets. Unfortunately for the cowboy poets, they were suddenly the butt of every joke on Fox News for the next several days.

I mean, c’mon, what’s up with tough cowboy dudes doing something lame like writing poetry? Surely there’s no way to legitimize a century-old American tradition. I’d like to see you try, Western Folklife Center!

  • Our work is a touchstone for the past, yet grounded in the present with a vision for the future of the West.
  • We provide a sense of belonging and connection for both a local and a far-flung audience, and we bring together people with a similar sense of personal meaning and interests.
  • Our efforts to research, document, present and preserve the expressive culture of the people of the West are vital to the region and the nation.
Oh, I see. You do have a purpose. So let’s pour one out for the good ol’ days when cowboys could ride around and write as much poetry as they pleased without provoking any patriotic ire. What do you say to that, anonymous cowboy poet?

When I think of those good old days, my eyes with tears do fill;
When I think of the tin can by the fire and coyote on the hill.
I’ll tell you boys, in those days old-timers stood a show,–
Our pockets full of money, not a sorrow did we know.
But things have changed now; we are poorly clothed and fed.
Our wagons are all broken and our ponies ‘most all dead.
Soon we will leave this country; you’ll hear the angels shout,
“Oh, here they come to Heaven, the camp-fire has gone out.”

Wyoming Stories

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For the 17-hour road trip to Wyoming starting this Friday, I got out a few audiobooks to pass the miles. I was particularly looking for something by Annie Proulx, author of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, which are chillingly beautiful, dark, and desolate. She is perhaps best known for the short story Brokeback Mountain, which can certainly be described by all of those adjectives. So this is what we’ll be listening to as we drive through the gorgeous mountains, past oil rigs, and broken shells of barns:

A good book and a glass of wine

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It’s storming here in the Twin Cities–a perfect night to curl up with red wine and a good book. But what to pair? White would be required for The Old Man and the Sea or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (on second thought, maybe skip the wine when reading Dr. Seuss). Interview with a Vampire or any of them Twilighty books would necessitate a full-bodied red. And maybe a good port for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Luckily, others have also taken on this challenge. A woman who wrote a book about wine offers some key suggestionsThe Grapes of Wrath with a California zinfandel; The da Vinci Code with an Italian chianti; Memoirs of a Geisha with saké.

An inspired Pinterest user has outdone even this list, though, by creating an entire pinboard devoted to specific vintages matched with books (however, most of the wines are from the same vineyard which makes me suspicious about her connection). So, for instance, she pairs the Tapeña Garnacha, which she deems inexpensive, yet tasty, with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is a book you can find in any airport bookstore, yet I’ve heard is quite good. Her favorite wine, the Bogle Merlot 2009, which she calls smooth and satisfying, pairs with Immortality by Milan Kundera, her favorite book.

If you could pair a wine with a book, what would it be?

What they do in Katroo

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The morning of May 20th always meant one thing as a kid: my parents bursting into my room and exclaiming…

I wish we could do what they do in Katroo
They sure know how to say “Happy Birthday to You!”
In Katroo, every year, on the day you were born
They start the day right in the bright early morn
When the Birthday Honk-Honker hikes high up Mr. Zorn
And let’s loose a big blast on the big Birthday Horn.
And the voice of the horn calls out loud as it plays:
“Wake Up! For today is your Day of all Days!”

The tradition lasted even after I moved to college; they still managed to call me on speakerphone early in the morning on my birthday and recite the familiar lines. By then, Dr. Seuss, one of the most beloved and recognizable author-illustrators of children’s books, of course, had even more meaning: we shared an alma mater. Theodore Geisel actually became Dr. Seuss at Dartmouth College: he started writing under the pen name after getting caught drinking (this was Prohibition-era). He was told he couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activities as punishment, and so started signing his articles in the humor magazine “Seuss” so the administration wouldn’t know it was him.

Dartmouth now uses the Seussian connection to the fullest extent. Freshmen are served green eggs and ham during orientation Trips. And, just a few weeks ago, Dartmouth’s med school switched its name to the the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine. (A friend who attends the newly christened “Dr. Seuss School of Medicine” came up with some new book titles: “Polyp on Pop,” “The Larynx,” and “Horton Hears a Heart Murmur”).

Every year on my birthday I feel just a little sad that we don’t do what they do in Katroo–no Birthday Honk-Honker, no Mt. Zorn. But, of course, Dr. Seuss includes almost profound truths in his silly tales. As he reminds us, there’s no need to be jealous of the Katroosians:

 Today you are you! That is truer than true!

 There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

 Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!

 Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham 

Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam! 

I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!

 If I say so myself, 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

More of Dr. Seuss’s wise messages


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