April 2007

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by its Cover: Special Kunming Whorehouse Edition

I'm not going to pretend that this is the first book review ever written in a whorehouse, but bear with me. Let me just set the scene, dear readers. Why is the lobby done up in faux green marble, with Chinese characters signifying "fortune" inlaid into the floor? Why is there a bilious green fish tank the size of a Buick next to a baby grand piano that is covered by what appears to be a metallic gold tea cozy? Why is it full of meaty businessmen and hard-bitten Asian women in spike heels? Why are the karaoke bar, the massage parlor, and the apothecary selling virility potions all still open at midnight? Why does the bathroom of my hotel room contain a wicker basket full of personal lubricant, and women's underwear, all plastered with stickers bearing the legend "NOT COMPLIMENTARY"?

A word of advice. Say, hypothetically, your domestic flight out of China is breathtakingly late. Say that, by way of apology, the responsible airline (say, hypothetically, China Eastern) calls you a taxi and says they will put you up in a hotel for the night. There is a distinct possibility that your idea of "hotel" (wireless internet, hot tea) does not connect with their idea of a "hotel" (hookers,

So, in honor of the occasion -- the earthy smelling carpets, the condoms by the bed stand (also "NOT COMPLIMENTARY"), and the professional giggling in the lobby, this month's column is all about sex. From Our Bodies, Ourselves to Seventeen Magazine's oh-so-condescending "Sex and Your Body Column" to the stack of porn behind the woodshed… Oh, you can stop pretending. You're reading Seventeen's "Sex and Your Body" column right now. You're trying to decide whether or not you want to go all the way on prom night, and you thought, who better to trust than the periodical that encourages you to wear jelly bracelets and be kind to the homeless. That's okay. I'll just sit here and wait while you finish.

Okay -- the topic is sex as it is mythologized, editorialized, and sold. But, most importantly, it's about how a book cover manages to allude to the content within, by applying the wiles of the book designer.

Little Birds by Anaïs Nin
Publisher: Harvest Books
ISBN-10: 0156029049
ISBN-13: 978-0156029049
168 Pages
Cover: Milton Glaser

Back in the day when Nin still inspired hordes of clove-cigarette-smoking teenage readers, a book like this was perfect. It went well with thrift-store vintage, especially of the leopard-print swing coat variety. It made the reader seem elegant, yet prurient. Admittedly, Nin was typographically gifted -- you'd be hard pressed to think of an author whose name looked better in print. But a lot of the restraint and beauty of the cover does emanate from the design. Tragically, Delta of Venus, also had a great cover in a similar vein -- but it has since been scuttled in favor of the more yawn-inducing trope of hot pink naked lady torso, plus Victorian script.

Everything about this cover is restrained yet sly. The elegant deco font is rendered more interesting by the saucy, direct stare of the jailbait in ankle socks on the cover. Indeed, her poofy hair bow appears to be having some kind of exuberant congress with Anaïs Nin's byline (which, given the umlauts, could be seen as having congress with itself). Most of the porch steps beneath her have been carefully scissored away. The resulting negative space makes the viewer slightly uncomfortable, and drags the gaze to the eternally shadowed vale of the underpants.

Nin's writing was always more of a narcissist than a scandal, and indeed, her books have come to serve as a visual red flag to those attracted to her remaining adherents -- an alert to a very real risk of immortality (or at least notoriety) in the pages of someone's diary, as well as a warning bell to those who prefer to engage in romances with people who do not insist that sexual congress must, as a rule, be endlessly discursive, well-accessorized, and a step on the path to one's own self-actualization.

Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
Publisher: Lyle Stuart
ISBN-10: 0818402539
ISBN-13: 978-0818402531
Cover: Arthur Robins

It's always hard to feel typeface savvy in the presence of design friends -- the sort who sniff when you drive down the street and say things like "Why is that restaurant's name in Helvetica?"  But this typeface -- I don't have to feel suave and critical. I love this typeface. It's exuberant and bubbly and completely '70s, and looks like it belongs on the cover of one of those Sunset Magazine home repair manuals. This book was first printed back when color printing was still a luxury, and it uses its color well. The jug-eared baby (upturned and hanging out in the letter "O") adds a Life of Brian-type monumentality to the size of the title. Back before printing technology got good enough to reproduce color photographs well, thus ushering in the era of stock photography, a lot of book covers looked like this.

I'll admit -- many of them looked better -- way better -- than this book, but there's something about its simplicity and lack of showiness that reminds me of the generic raisins of my youth (You remember -- back when generic groceries at the supermarket really did come in plain black and white boxes. Sigh. I'm having some kind of weird Werther's Original flashback here. Moving on.)

If you were lucky enough to have the hardcover edition as a kid, you'll remember the contrast between the black and white of the cover and the valentine red endpapers, thronging with rosy-cheeked sperm bearing bouquets and doffing their top hats. Those were the days -- children's sex ed as done by Bruegel.

Rent Girl by Michelle Tea
Publisher: Last Gasp
ISBN-10: 0867196203
ISBN-13: 978-0867196207
239 Pages
Cover: Laurenn McCubbin

This is a) another example of a great cover done on a budget (two -- count 'em -- two colors) and b) Michelle Tea's memoir of her years as a call girl. Which is, again, appropriate concerning the surroundings. The power went out a few minutes ago, killing both lights and omnipresent sounds of karaoke bar. This was a good thing, but now the lights are back on, and I'm sure all the circuit breakers have been flipped and they're probably out pouring diesel into the karaoke generators or something so that they can restart the over-amped balladry. Sigh.

Anyway, to be very redundant, this cover does a great job of selling sex without making sex appear especially sexy. Sure, the cover girl is cute, smoking a cigarette in her bra and panties, but then there's an alarmingly Smurf-colored man passed out behind her. And she's sitting on what appears to be a futon, which can't be good -- all that post-collegiate cheap bedding, plus the box of LP records visible in the left-hand corner. If the hand-drawn cover and the two-color process didn't tip you off, this is a book about sex under untidy circumstances, with untidy people, and hence no calligraphy, no modernism. Everything about the cover has been swiftly and recklessly inked by hand, including the typewriter font that spells out the cover text. Even the cover drawing is not quite orderly -- visually, the cover can be broken up either into thirds or fourths, and it's hard for the eye to settle on one interpretation and make that call. Now, if it only had endpapers.

The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead by William S. Burroughs
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN-10: 0802133312
ISBN-13: 978-0802133311
184 Pages
Cover design: Jo Bonney

So many of the books by the beats and those associated with them have truly terrible covers – all blurry black and white photos that look like they were taken out of the side of a moving freight train and free-spirited handwritten scrawl for the titles. There's a time and a place for making your book look like a zine but if you're an enormous publishing house with a gazillion dollar design budget, and if we all know now that Jack Kerouac did, indeed, write second drafts, the horse has officially left the barn of self-constructed naïve man-child identity.

So thank goodness Grove Press took the high road, and hired Jo Bonney to do up Burroughs's selected works in a range of candy-colored hues. Together, they are something like the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, but with more sodomy.

My favorite cover of the series was actually the yellow and purple edition of Naked Lunch, but that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur -- supplanted by a much duller revised edition that looks more like the cake at a little kid's birthday party. So, with Naked Lunch redesigned, the cover design torch passes to The Wild Boys. It's the cover of a lilac in springtime, and the title swirls around the cover like a maelstrom. All the books have their own special and different mode of typographical depravity -- possibly a reference to Burroughs's habit of cutting up the pages he had written, and then rearranging the scraps. Or possibly just a really fun thing to do, design-wise, regardless of whose collected works you're doing it for.

These books are about as easy to spot as a parrot in a cement factory, so readers are in an interesting double bind. Reading a flagrantly eye-catching book that looks like, from a distance like it might be about shoes and shopping, but that up close is clearly about feral horny gay boys doing violence and awaiting the apocalypse -- well, that's its own form of selling sex. It's selling both the candy colored shell, and the knowledge of how form differs from content -- which is the closest to what Burroughs was all about anyhow.