October 2004

Sharon Adarlo


Judging a Book By Its Cover: The Fall Publishing Deluge

Is it a coincidence that I am about to render judgment on three books sporting fake blonde chicks on the cover? I also have a fake history textbook waiting in the wings, a fat naked man on a bike, two books sporting something I like to call “Ye Olde Font,” and a cover by a painter that I would like to take down a peg or two. In other words, it’s fall 2004 and that means a veritable shower of new releases. Some I don’t like all that much, and some I find myself burning incense to and trying to pin down an available virgin to sacrifice in their honor. Hopefully I’ll keep the dumb blonde jokes to a minimum and try not to gush too much over the books that I really love (oh heck, you’ll see).

Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide To Doing A 180 by Mike Magnuson
Harmony Books
Cover design by Jennifer O’Connor
Photographs: Jack White/Corbis (front top); Jess Alford/GETTYONE (front bottom)
ISBN: 1400052408

I give mad props to anybody who has the guts -- nay -- the big brass balls to pose his big fat, freckled self on a bike -- and on the front cover of his latest book no less! The ride in question appears to be a Trek bike. The big lug, wearing nothing but ankle-length socks and clip-on bike shoes, is none other than bicycle magazine denizen, Mike Magnuson. Magnuson’s book chronicles his transformation from a beer-chugging, pack-a-day-smoking, 250 pounds of love handles to the lean and mean machine that you see on the back of the book, biking up a mountain and looking as svelte as a rampaging mountain lion. The book is a trip in my opinion, but really -- the picture makes the sale and lures you in like that grisly traffic accident -- oh you know -- the one with the Cadillac Escalade and Ford Mustang wrapped around each other like a mobius strip, and you’re wondering whether you should look away or stare. You stare.

Magnuson, before his drastic weight loss, looked like one of those old, party hardy Vikings of yore. He’s got a Teutonic whiff to his mustache. The beer or burrito that would normally rest in one of his palms could easily stand for a battle-axe, but this Viking would probably get an asthmatic fit from all that raping and pillaging and would probably prefer to nurse a Bud in front of the boob tube. But that’s what makes this cover so damn brave. This is Magnuson at his most unflattering. He’s dripping in sweat, quite possibly cold and shivery, the family jewels none too comfortable -- he’s utterly naked and vulnerable. The blocky type and the relatively simple layout don’t detract from the overriding image at all. But this uncomfortable picture, splendid in its utter cringe-worthiness, is a forthright sign of Magnuson’s self-confidence, joking self-deprecation, and ultimate acceptance of his corporeal self. I can just imagine Phil Liggett, the wise-man of the bicycling world, seeing the newly improved Magnuson charging up a French alpine mountain, and is so moved by Magnuson’s transformation that he starts quoting Shakespeare -- much like I would, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction by the writers of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart
Warner Books
Cover design by Pentagram
ISBN: 0446532681

I know what you’re thinking: Pentagram, contrary on first glance, is not some Satanic cabal who run around naked and mouth prayers to some drunk guy in a goat suit, but instead it’s one of the most successful multi-disciplinary design firms in the country responsible for designing buildings, books, brands, and cutesy consumer items like that Palm Pilot foldable keyboard. Well this time they have truly out-done themselves and have come up with probably the most laugh-out loud book in the whole entire history of most laugh-out loud books ever. America (The Book) is a fake civics textbook – accurate and yet off-kilter – down to the use of that familiar user form in the front leaf, something that you would find in 99% of school textbooks.

The cover has the familiar Jon Stewart warily staring at an eagle with very sharp claws, and the look and feel of the book cover, glossy colors and a slick finish, bear all the markings of a regular school book. The cover is rather sober compared to the content inside. The font used on the cover and throughout the book is a serif font with distinctive, thick slab ends -- a kind of conservative font appropriate for a school textbook. The hints we get to the content are the wacky quotes on the back i.e. “This is similar to my works in that anyone who reads it is sure to be an asshole for at least a month afterward.” (Ayn Rand.)

It would be stupid of me to remit the content inside. More than any other book on this list, the cover and the graphics inside go hand in hand to make a total work of art or to put it with tongue firmly planted in cheek: “gesamkuntswerk” -- but the book is really nothing serious, well not as serious as a Wagnerian opera production complete with a fat lady singing to the upper-reaches of the stratosphere, but close enough in terms of its breadth. The density of information and intricate use of graphics in this book is astounding. The writers obviously did their research and collaborated extensively with the designers to make a book that would be the fun-house mirror equivalent of a civics book. There are chapters ranging from the Congress to the section on other countries jokingly titled “The Rest of the World.” There are discussion questions inside such as “Why do you think the Framers made the Constitution so soul-crushingly boring?”

But really the use of images and the heavy reliance on Photoshop is the real star of the book. Surely the folks at Pentagram had far too much fun. Rocket-fueled on smack or espressos, they probably spent the wee hours of the morning cutting and pasting on their Mac computers – trying feverishly to outdo one another. A product of this is the shockingly funny nudie spreads of the Supreme Court. Here they are – in their wrinkles, love handles, and liver spots - waiting for the reader to clothe them in their paper-doll robes. Goodness! I needed smelling salts after taking a gander at that. What can I say? Pentagram did a really good job.

Fierce: A Memoir by Barbara Robinette Moss
Cover design by John Fulbrook III
Photograph by Flynn Larsen/Photonica
ISBN: 0743229452

Normally a bright red-lipstick colored book jacket would give me a headache, but the cover design is neat and smartly done. The little picture is shoved artfully to the side, and it reminds me of those lessons that Impressionists painters, particularly Degas, took from looking at the latest innovations of their time: the photograph. The sense of spontaneity taken from the abrupt splicing of images suggested a sense of tension and motion, and this was something that Degas learned very well as attested by his numerous pictures of race horses and their jockeys -- and many of them cropped in unexpected places. Obviously the unconventional layout of paintings and drawings carried over to the flowering of the Bauhaus, Russian Constructivists, and making a beeline to our present state of design and this book cover. The simple placing of letters, words, and that picture suggest a quiet kind of tension -- something’s gonna happen -- you just don’t know what.

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri
The Penguin Press
Cover design by who knows
ISBN: 1594200246

I really wish I knew who designed this very intriguing cover. I would love to pick his or her brain and ask what the ideas are behind this cover. It’s just beautiful and rather mysterious. The cover is a really simple design with a non-showy serif font and tasteful application of three basic colors: black, white, and red; yet the “multitude” of red dots elevates this cover from the dust and corporeal plane of more pedestrian covers. I think of neutrinos darting around in the black emptiness of space when I’m looking at this cover or the very first particles emitted from the big bang -- just before they are torn apart and flung into vacuum. But really, after reading the synopsis of the book, it’s the teeming multitude of people, those little red dots, happily and sometimes not so happily existing and being. I guess you can apply many interpretations on what this cover exactly means, but in the end, ain’t it enough to say it’s just beautiful?

The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson
The Penguin Press
Cover design by Darren Haggan
Photograph by Alexandra Boulat
ISBN: 1594200343

At first glance, the cover looks like one of those neat tricks you can pull with an oatmeal carton and electric tape: a picture taken with a pinhole camera -- old school style. I was thinking this because of the blackness surrounding the little vignette of that far-away bombed-out city, but no -- not really; pin hole camera pictures are almost always in black and white, and on closer inspection, the blackness is really the acrid smoke swelling from a crater made by a bomb, plastic explosives, missiles, what have you. It’s a disquieting picture -- made more poignant by the title and the obvious dodging that the photographer did to emphasize the smallness of the scene engulfed by so much blackness. It seems to be a small subtle comment on events on the ground and the simple use of text lends a solemn air to the cover. We used to have the wild and darkly imaginative paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to conjure up what Hell would look like -- but it’s really a dusty city somewhere along the Tigris, choking under a veil of black smoke.

How To Make Love Like A Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale by Jenna Jameson, Neil Strauss
Regan Books
Cover design by Richard Ljoenes
Photograph by William Hawkes
ISBN: 0060539097




Star: A Novel by Pamela Anderson
Atria Books
Cover design by Rod Hernandez
Photograph by David LaChapelle
ISBN: 0743493729




Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose by Paris Hilton
Cover design by Cherlynne L.
Photograph by Jeff Vespa
ISBN: 0743266641

I was listening to Howard Stern the other day, and he had Miss Howard Stern, Andrea Ownbey, on as a guest, and I realized while hearing her talk about her various projects and her new teeth operation that there are thousands of other girls like her -- bottle-blonde chicks who want a piece of fame. I have three books here by “authors” who fall under that category or rather achieved it by various ways, some not so innocent. All three have starred in rather dubious sex videos -- one is even paid for it regularly, and yes they all share that similarity. But only one book out of the pack deserves a second look, and this particular volume also has the best cover.

Jenna Jameson’s book cover is a nicely done and slick affair. I am surprising myself by taking a liking to it. There’s the tongue-in-cheek use of retro fonts and the soft gauzy light gives the cover an almost Vermeer-like effect, but the pose is all Jenna Jameson. She is saying by the tilt of her head and the confident yielding of her cigarette that “Don’t you know porn stars are cool right now? Hell, I hang out with Britney Spears!” Her look harks back to Marilyn Monroe, but this is one tough broad -- bathed in the baptismal fires of PCP, crack, and astro-glide, she looks like she could give Camille Paglia a field day. The book is also “authored” by Neil Strauss, former NY Times music critic and sometime ghostwriter to the stars, so it’s probably worth a read. There are also naked pictures inside for those among you who are interested in that kind of thing.

The last two stragglers of my blonde chick triptych are not so great and don’t hit the heights of Jameson’s autobiography. Pamela Anderson’s book cover is not too interesting -- it obliquely reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s racy drawings especially in the fact that Anderson’s face is cut off, much like the way Klimt would not detail the facial features of his models. The objectification of their bodies was what he was interested in. Paris Hilton’s jacket cover is a somewhat different treatment. She’s lying indolently on carpet as well, but her pose echoes Marilyn Monroe’s seminal Playboy centerfold. She looks vacant, tanned, and airbrushed to perfection, but it’s a really self-indulgent kind of cover -- a very fitting portrayal of the idle rich and somebody who hasn’t earned the good graces of fame, but rather its tawdry sister, infamy.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury USA
Cover design by William Webb
Raven image by Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 1582344167




Havoc, In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett
Simon and Schuster
Cover design by William Webb
Jacket drawing courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library
ISBN: 0743258568




Good Omens by Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett
Random House
ISBN: 0517126648
(Hardcover edition)

I think we should make it official and say that the particular font featured currently on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Havoc, In Its Third Year should be put out to pasture, shot dead, and taken to the glue factory. Mastication is Normal has already covered this particular font, which goes by two names: Caslon Antique and Casablanca Antique. It is also featured on other books (at least a kissing cousin) such as the first edition hardcover of that satirical and very blasphemous novel, Good Omens; however, treatment of the typeface differ somewhat from one book to the other.

I took a double take when I saw Havoc, In Its Third Year – I felt as if I stumbled upon the long-awaited sequel to Good Omens, but alas no; the rather conventional looking cover and its use of a boring wood cut image reminded me too much of Good Omens, but that particular book cover is far more entertaining namely due to the mirror images of two angels, one in grace and the other fallen, known to drive a Bentley, and wears sunglasses -- even in the dark, that cheeky bugger.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is being hailed as the next Harry Potter -- a crossover fantasy that’s sure to please precocious children and adults who normally don’t linger in the fantasy section of a bookstore nor visit Google newsgroups on Myst. The cover, despite using that much used font, is a more successful treatment of Caslon Antique nee Casablanca Antique. It’s a serious cover -- none of those silly dragons and unicorns like on a Mercedes Lackey book -- so adults are sure to snatch it up, unashamed to read a fantasy novel. We just have the title emblazoned on top and the silhouette of a raven. The cover comes in two versions: one black cover with white letters and one with a white cover with black letters. My advice for the buying public would be to get the white cover with black letters. The other one tends to pick up schmutz and it’s printed with matte colored ink that gets dirty easily. The white cover’s letters are glossy, shiny and look like embossed black wax -- a far more satisfying book jacket than its sister.

On a side note, it appears that the same designer was responsible for both book covers. Maybe we should all stage an intervention and get him some new fonts.

My Old Man by Amy Sohn
Simon and Schuster
Cover design by Jackie Seon
Painting by John Currin
ISBN: 0743238281

This is a perfectly competent and kind of staid cover layout, but John Currin, every art critic’s darling golden boy, makes me throw up my hands and reach for the nearest Lucien Freud postcard or a bottle of Southern Comfort. I’m probably treading on lots of toes when I say I think John Currin is not what art critics claim him to be and well to be put it bluntly: he’s just not very good. This cover kind of confirms it -- methinks it’s one of his earlier works -- I guess you can tell by the thick impasto brushstrokes and the subject matter, and it is purposefully bad; it looks like one of those paintings you can pick up for five bucks at a garage sale in Iselin New Jersey.

John Currin is a self-styled “Old Master” figurative painter -- the toast of the art world at the moment. He has painted some “purposefully” bad paintings such as the one on the book, but he has also done technically proficient paintings approaching the egg-shell delicacy of Lucas Cranach the Elder; he is talented for sure (non-withstanding the painting on this book), but so many other artists working in New York are too. I’m not too concerned with his mining of decidedly un-PC material: fey men, triple-D cupped women, post-menopausal chicks, decadent bourgeoisie, or the subject matter depicted on the book, the subtle mocking of May and December romances, but rather with his cheap use of irony, one-liner jokes, and lack of empathy built into the very core of his paintings. I know that Arthur Danto said that the only art worth doing nowadays is the kind that engages in this kind of irony and trickster gimmicks, and yet it has no soul -- no real “meat” to it -- you know, the kind you feel when looking at something by Bernini and feeling a kind of ecstatic and religious joy. I’m not calling for a return to that kind of art nor something cheap and mawkish like a Thomas Kinkade painting. But you know, if this is the best artists have to offer, then stick a fork in it, art is dead. Everybody else, John Currin among them, is laboring under the long shadows of the greats.

The Preservationist by David Maine
St. Martin’s Press
Cover design by Steve Snider
Drawing by Bill Sanderson
ISBN: 0312328478




Bible Stories for Adults by James Morrow
Harcourt Brace and Company
Cover art: Tony Stone Images/Richard Kaylin (front top); Noah and the Flood by Hans Baldung Grien (front bottom)
ISBN: 0151001928

If you do get your hands on David Maine’s lushly produced book, I want you to take off the cover -- notice the drop dead beautiful wood engraving -- set it aside, and chuck the actual book into the dustbin or use it as firewood -- whatever you may prefer (more on this later). The jacket is beautiful and witty. I’m not sure if it’s really a wood engraving, but it’s an expert depiction of choppy waves and Noah’s Ark sailing astride the vast and huge ocean. Take off the jacket and underneath is revealed a menagerie of animals being led into the boat. Isn’t that cute? You can re-enact “The Deluge” in your own room by simply whipping off the jacket or sliding it over the book slowly as “water,” drip by drip, takes over the land. Now did you follow my advice about ditching the rest of the book?

This is one of the handfuls of books out of this whole list here that I read or tried to read in this case. I was continually turned off by the lack of quotations for dialogue and his slightly jarring use of loped-off declarative sentences that cried for a little more meat. Also my teeth was continually set on edge whenever I found myself muttering that there’s better versions of the Ark story that I’ve read and wondering why all these writers have rushed over to blurb David Maine’s tepid version of the tale. For your money, read James Morrow’s version in his wickedly funny book, Bible Stories for Adults. I don’t know why this writer doesn’t get enough praise from the critics, and then I remember he’s in the “ghetto” of sci-fi and fantasy even though he can write circles around David Maine any day. The cover of his book is not as fun as Maine’s book so you best use that pretty cover and wrap it around Morrow’s book. There. Now it has a worthy home.