February 2006

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Hell With Love

February’s hearts and flowers, though they leave a most unpleasant aftertaste that lingers in both my hard and soft palates, practically force me to acknowledge the much maligned yet manically celebrated phenomenon that is Valentine’s Day. Cause for proposals, consummations, unmet expectations, and depressive episodes, this most heinous of Hallmark holidays is almost as driven by consumeristic inclinations as its Decemberly predecessor. Still, the market exists as evidence that the majority of the population apparently finds it appealing that packaged expressions of love be delegated to one day per calendar year.

Whether I like it or not, it’s likely that no venue will be spared from embellishment with pink and red doilies and chubby cupids in the coming weeks. Even my beloved library (Columbus’ Metropolitan, voted the best library in the nation) will house displays of lovingly themed books and Valentine ephemera. Fear no evil, my pretties: before you know it you’ll be swilling copious amounts of green beer and this faux-romantic catastrophe will be long forgotten. Until then, I’ve devised a Judging that helps redeem the Valentine fiasco by injecting it with a modicum of literary significance.

To Charles Fort, with Love by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Cover design by Gail Cross; illustration by Ryan Obermeyer
ISBN: 1596060344
Subterranean Press

Kiernan’s collection of short stories is shrouded in a cover that properly reflects the dark and mysterious mood of not only the author but the tales themselves. Artist Ryan Obermeyer’s Heart Plant shows an anatomical heart that sprouts various budded vines and curling leaves, and this heart appears to be situated in a night forest. Equally compelling is the author photo on the book’s reverse; before a sculpture of a stegosaurus, the author sits, cloaked in blackness from her leather gloves and overcoat to her eyeliner and walking cane. This all seems appropriate given that Kiernan describes having “experienced any number of hauntings and temporal aberrations, several UFO sightings, and a phone call from Courtney Love.”

While I think the choices in font design could have been worked further to complement and interact with the perfectly gorgeous illustration, I’m still happy with Gail Cross’s final product; it’s pithy and morbid with a dash of irony. To Kiernan’s credit, her writing chops are fortified with obvious academic dedication to her material, which is mainly concerned with things eerie and grotesque (in the best possible way). I find her “applestinking pipesmoke” the thinking goth’s answer to Tolkien’s “cellar door.”

The Hell With Love: Poems to Mend a Broken Heart
Edited by Mary D. Esselman & Elizabeth Ash Vélez
Cover design by Janet Perr
Warner Books
ISBN: 0446678546

Perr’s cover poison-pens previously innocent conversation hearts; a stark black background further conveys the fact that none of its contents will be featured on a Hallmark card. Where I’d normally ten-foot pole the mere mention of “poems to mend a broken heart,” a closer analysis yields that this is not the Deepak Chopra, self-help type of mending we’re talking about, but rather the exorcism of black and tarry emotional residue. If you’re helping your children make construction paper valentines, don’t use this book as a source for poetry: when Margaret Atwood writes “you fit into me/ like a hook into an eye,” she means a fish hook in an open eye. Sections are divided into Rage, for “when hatred isn’t strong enough,” Sadness, for “when you’d rather die than eat or sleep,” Self-Hatred, False Hope, and others. Included in the collection are heavy-hitters of the poetry world including William Carlos Williams, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, Derek Walcott, and W.H. Auden. Not to be missed is James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” a favorite of mine long before this book’s wise inclusion of it, and the last line of which summarizes: “I’ve wasted my life.”

While I give kudos to Janet Perr for her cover design, I’m less enthused with the overall format of the book: its small pages are sometimes an injustice to the poems they display. Still, it’s a worthy collection and the editors mix humor with insight in their pre-section introductions.

Life As We Know It: A Collection of Personal Essays from Salon.com
Edited by Jennifer Foote Sweeney
Cover design by Lynda Barry
Washington Square Press
ISBN: 0743476867

Life As We Know It’s cover is a Lynda Barry designed assemblage of objects, shapes, and patterns; likewise, the collection of essays beneath this colorful façade is a calico quilt of personal portraits. Kim Lane reveals her reaction to her husband’s announcement, “I’m going to regrow my foreskin,” while George Packer describes his attempts to “keep the world itself at bay and stop the spinning in my head” by plowing through the world’s great literature in the wake of his father’s suicide. As you can probably perceive, these essays range from the hilarious to the profound; less obvious, however, may be the depth of intimacy with which the pieces are penned. Putting down this book, the reader feels personally altered by having come into contact with the pain as well as the celebration of these authors.

I have to assume that this cover is effective, due to the fact that I find myself staring at it in studious admiration. Little glimpses of glitter, perfectly arranged matches, and ripped shreds of printed paper conspire to create a dynamic and stimulating visual portrait which lovingly represents the equally colorful crew within.

This Book Will Change Your Love Life by Benrik
Cover by Benrik
Plume Books
ISBN: 0452285917

The cover of this book ensures its situation as the bookshelf black sheep: limited to two colors, free of all but the sparest of illustration, and boasting squares of print so tiny you’re forced to pick it up. One such square reads: “Single people may not buy this book unless it is meant as a gift to a fully qualified couple.” More of the same is on the back cover, including the recommendation that the owner apply transparent plastic self-adhesive to the cover in order to protect the book.

On the inside, however, This Book is a colorful, absurd, and dizzying explosion of exercises and activities designed to facilitate “a nirvana of romantic bliss.” At the heart of the book are fifty pages in which the couple is urged to log situations like, “For future reference, my G-spot is not within reach of your little toe!” The book is then left in neutral territory so that both parties can access this log to assess the situation and perform damage control. Another log asks the couple to record the dates of each lovemaking session, and yet another is dedicated to the management of household chores. Ridiculous graphics grace every page, including a seated monster that announces, “I use this desk to work at my relationship.”

The only word to describe Benrik’s concern is workbook. This means that the book involves work, which instantly disqualifies ownership on my part. However, it does represent a unique object on several levels, including but not limited to the need for narcotic pain relief after scanning its pages. That being said, I do appreciate its sentiments and singular approach. The cover functions in a utilitarian capacity as a hearty shell for a book that’s likely to become tortured through frequent use, and it makes a more cohesive statement once you grasp the book’s contents and purpose.

Mating by Norman Rush
Cover design by Barbara deWilde
Vintage International
ISBN: 067973709X

The cover of Mating shows a detail from Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthy Delights in which a couple faces each other while standing on their heads. While this may well be a method of mating so esoteric that I’ve yet to enjoy personal exposure, I’ll take Bosch’s word for it that standing on one’s head represents plausible positioning for the event. On the other hand, my personal experience does suggest that just about every other aspect in the chronological periphery of the mating process involves a level of difficulty demonstrated perfectly by this contorted couple.

With its “National Book Award Winner” seal displayed proudly above a New York Times blurb, the cover of Mating is nonetheless uncluttered, compositionally balanced, and appropriately dark. Like the figures on his cover, Rush takes a singular stance in attending to “the baffling mystery of what men and women really want,” and the results of both cover and contents are graceful despite their focus on things truly bumbling.