October 2005

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Mambo Italiano

Inspired by the annual San Gennaro festival of recent celebration and my mezzo-Italiano heritage, this month’s Judging intends to put a little mambo Italiano in your step. Unless you sleep with the fishes, it’s hard not to appreciate Italian culture, be it highbrow or low. Having grown up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, our dining room window looked out over the Catholic church and its parochial school across the street (Sacred Heart), where I found out years later my best friend regularly replaced “in Excelsis Deo” with “Inexpensive Dago.”

Indeed, racial slurs were de rigueur in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, and my own full-blooded Italian grandmother warned me to “never marry a dago,” lest I be subjected to the wrath of her “maloika,” a bastardization of mal occhio, the Italian evil eye.

In a particularly ugly battle with punches thrown exclusively by the non-Italian side of the family, any formerly bountiful material record of our legacy was reduced to little more than a huge collection of Italian language bibles (complete with prayer cards and funeral announcements tucked in their pages), a handful of ancient rosaries, and my great-grandma Angelina Angellili’s hand-cranked pasta machine “for making the egg noodles at home.” Since holy statues have been known to weep with the mere mention of my name, and yet so have most heaping bowls of spaghetti, you can imagine why this last item has had special significance in my life.

On Top of Spaghetti by Tom Glazer
Illustrated by Jackie Snider
Harcourt Brace
ISBN: 0153003987

Perhaps my current love of books and their acquisition can be traced back to the far too many hours I spent in childhood alone except for their pulpy companionship. Both my brother and I learned to read at a very young age -- he’s two years older, and rumor has it I learned from him. We had a sun porch that was suspended out from the rest of the house (this is hilly western Pennsylvania, mind you), and served as a repository for all things bookish. This is where I discovered Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be... You and Me, as well as stacks of Cosmopolitan magazines, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten, and other altogether curious combinations of ephemera and reading materials. On Top of Spaghetti was a whole other story, however: I didn’t get it, and this is why I looked at it so much. (On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed.) I guess it just didn’t compute that anyone could behave so irresponsibly as to lose their meatball. Maybe next time grandma slaves over a boiling pot of sauce all day you won’t sit down to eat next to the lout that doesn’t cover his mouth when he sneezes.

Oh yeah, the cover. Jackie Snider’s illustrations are like a perfectly aged parmigiano reggiano and fit perfectly with the whole spaghetti medley. This cover pulls no punches: a plate of the stuff is front and center, displayed on a perfectly plain background. Or, if you will, a white tablecloth that will soon be decimated by my slurpy pasta destruction proclivities.

Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
Cover photo by David Leventhal
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743205405

Godfather reference aside, when I hear “take the cannoli,” I understand that I should take them, eat them, and not share them with anyone else. Food, like the kitchen, is central to Italian life -- walk into my grandma’s house as a stranger and she immediately wanted to make you something to eat. “What would you like? A steak? Come on, I’ll make you a steak, I can tell you’re hungry.” It didn’t matter who you were, you were getting fed. To this day, my grandmother, may she rest in peace, is remembered for her mastery of the kitchen arts.

And what’s not to love about this cover of the talented Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli? I’m a sucker for this quirky brand of cover design, with its nice little plasticines standing in for more fleshly figures. The darkishly blue monochromia fills me with happiness as it’s contrasted with perfectly selected font hues. Perhaps the best thing about this cover is that it reminds me of the genius Vladimir, creatrix of Vladmasters. Her View-Master format performance art not only represents the newest addition to my collection of obscure reels but also transcends anything I’d ever hoped for in the medium: she includes soundtracks for some of her work, and her The Public Life of Jeremiah Barnes is executed in miniature figurines. While Vladimir is clearly not of Italian descent, her View-Mastery earns her honorary status in my book.

Artemisia Gentileschi by Mary D. Garrard
Cover painting by Artemisia Gentileschi
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 0691002851

As a sculptress, I’ve taken this from Artemisia’s example: use your pain and turn it into something beautiful. According to most historians, this was essentially what was going on in her choice to depict Judith slaying Holofernes. Motivated by her personal experience of literally being raped, not to mention the figurative raping she suffered through the constant harassment of the wholly male art establishment around her, she makes a graphic representation of the biblical story of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.

Although this painting seems to be the Artemisia image, I don’t object to its ubiquitous proliferation one bit. It took balls to be Artemisia: nothing about her fit into the convenient box society reserves for its expectations of female behavior, identity, desires, work… the list goes on.

This book is considered to be the seminal art historical perspective on Gentileschi’s art and life, and its cover conveys just that. Bearing Artemisia’s unmistakable and signature work, it needs nothing more than the artist’s and author’s name atop to beckon our perusal.

Vamps and Tramps by Camille Paglia
Cover design by Louise Fili
Cover photo by Luca Babini
Vintage Books
ISBN: 0679751203

Hey, Professori! This cover features the academic yet accessible Paglia telling the male gaze to go fuck itself in the most graceful fashion possible. Even if you don’t like maestro’s opinionated essays, she provides ample evidence that in at least one American educational institution, creative thought still thrives and even sometimes bears fruit. The fact that Paglia is conducting intelligent analyses of pop culture is encouraging at the very least, and her tendency to ignore prescribed definitions of accessible femininity -- a la Gentileschi, albeit on a different scale -- makes her a powerful force. I dig that her name is the dominant element here, the title made to submit. Nice, bold typeface choices: I love the interaction of the black and white photo with the text color. That is, if it’s possible to reach the level of nerdiness required to express love for typeface/photo juxtaposition.

With this cover, I imagine Paglia holding imaginary pistols, ready to take aim at anyone and everyone who tries to stifle her. The male gaze can do its thing, but she’ll shoot your eyeballs out in a second, and then slickly holster her still-smoking guns. She’s not posed or poised, but she is entirely unapologetic, and I wouldn’t have her any other way.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman
Cover design by Dean Rohrer
The University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 0820323381

Dangerous, indeed: in my hometown, everybody knew that the place to go for drugs, underage drinking, or anything otherwise pooh-poohed by parents was the Catholic school. Those kids were notorious for being trouble with a capital T, and until everybody learned their own techniques of contraband procurement, the parochial schoolers were it. Never fooled by their clip-on ties and button down collars, most of those kids were sent to private school as punishment for some sort of sins, and this technique of discipline was utterly unsuccessful.

Chris Fuhrman’s amazing and highly recommended coming-of-age tale is replete with references to coming up Catholic. Dean Rohrer covers Fuhrman’s novel in a comic book format with a Creepshow feel to great success, and creates a perfect representation of the book’s raw content. If you haven’t already caught the film version, itself interspersed with cartoonish sequences, you’re in store for a Jodie Foster/Jena Malone/Kieran Culkin cinematic trifecta of a movie rental treat.

Life of Castruccio Castracani by Niccolo Machiavelli
Hesperus Press
ISBN: 1843910640

Sometimes I feel chafed and irritated by the tendency for publishers to slap classically boring images on the cover of what most innocent onlookers will probably assume are classically boring books. This has been my experience with the entire oeuvre of Niccolo Machiavelli, and this copy of The Life of Castruccio Castracani was the only cover I could find that didn’t have a hibernation inducing snooze of a predictable portrait thrown at it without a second thought.

What makes this cover so pleasingly effective is that, while it retains a classic air, design elements are tweaked to give it a somewhat modernized edge. The bold, black band identifying title and author separates two very different images, and the close-up vs. wide-angle photos are a refreshing contrast in subject matter and composition.

Salute, Italia!