Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mystery of the Decapitated Cover Models

I recently discovered Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels' Covers Gone Wild page (which is awesome and hilarious), and it inspired me to do some cover art naval gazing of my own.

There are certain trends in publishing that baffle me. For example, why have there been so many books published in the last few years with the word "daughter" in the title? (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Gravedigger's Daughter, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Hummingbird's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter etc.) And, even more intriguing, what's with all these covers that feature half of some girl's face? Seriously, these covers are everywhere, in every genre. You've already seen the Gossip Girl collection. Here are some more.

Literary / Historical Fiction

Mystery / Thriller

Science Fiction / Fantasy

Biographies and auto-biographies get full faces. History books get full faces. All in all, I'd venture to say that writing non-fiction increases your chance of getting a full face on your cover.

But then there are books like Mary, about Mary Todd Lincoln, by a first time author, which scored a full face, even though it's fiction. Isabelle Allende gets full faces. Authors like Jodi Picoult (My Sister's Keeper) and Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood) come perilously close to having uninterrupted faces on their covers. And A.M. Homes' new book - The Mistress's Daughter - gets a full frontal face! Something is afoot.

As I've hinted at in previous posts, Jane Eyre always gets a full face. Why? Who better to benefit from our current trend of decapitation than Jane Eyre?

I was having lunch last week with an editor, and she gave me a book I've been wanting to read. On the cover is a teenage boy wielding a sword. The boy has no head. The cover cuts off right at his neck. I couldn't help myself - I had to put it out there: what's up with all these headless models? The editor explained that B&N wants covers with live models (as opposed to scenery, or abstract painting, or an icon). Sometimes, the models aren't quite the right age (I'm guessing this is the case re: Gossip Girls), but if you cut off part of their face, voila! Youth. You can slice away the years. From the Gossip Girls we learn that we all look our youngest around the mouth.

Also, perhaps it's less expensive to use half a face than the whole face.

Please chime in. I'm a sucker for a good conspiracy theory.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Jane Eyre: The Comeback

Right around page 200, when Mr. Rochester impersonates an old gypsy woman, Jane Eyre sunk it's claws into me. I couldn't stop reading this book - in the bathroom, waiting in line for a sandwich, on various modes of public transportation, very late at night, over breakfast - Jane Eyre and I have been inseparable these past few days.

I overcame with ease my baser nature in order to love this book. I skimmed over the narrator's recurrent use of the verb "ejaculated" to describe people rushing in and out of rooms, or conversing, (words ejaculating from one's mouth) with nary a Beevis and Butthead snicker. I didn't trip over Mr. Rochester's way of calling Jane his "little friend" (are you not my little friend?), which seems oddly contemporary ghetto to me (like, if I started dating one of the construction workers on my block, maybe he'd call me his little friend?). And let us not forget that I publicly advertised my passionate reading of a book with this cover:
Another member of my book club read the Penguin edition with this cover:
Notice that Jane Eyre looks like she could be attractive in this edition - maybe if someone took the doily off her neck, and put her in a dress that had less of a parachute effect. This book club member finished the book nearly six weeks before I did. Dear Reader, is there a connection?

Jane Eyre is ugly. Mr. Rochester is ugly. But it doesn't matter, because they see each other as beautiful / handsome. This is true love, which is, after all, blind. Jane is sensible enough to know that Mr. Rochester is not a handsome man, or even a moral man, but she comes to love his every imperfection in a way that turns it into a fetish. We've all turned this corner before in relationships - where it becomes impossible to see your lover's receding hairline, or ability to spend an entire Saturday without leaving the couch as anything less than adorable.

Jane Eyre became a powerful aphrodisiac for me, as it accomplishes what most contemporary romance novels don't. In category romance the hero and heroine are younger and way more attractive than the reader could ever hope to be, and have only minor baggage / issues. The real difficulty, as a writer, is coming up with a reason for these two characters, who are obviously perfect for each other, to stay apart / hate each other for most of the novel. In Jane Eyre, Rochester is married to a lunatic, so obviously they can never be together! They are totally hot for each other, but all these morals and bigamy laws get in the way. So much sexual tension = so much gratitude for twenty-first century relationships.

Another thing I really came to love was Jane Eyre's no nonsense attitude. Rochester tells her she's beautiful, or compliments her and she's like, I know I'm plain, and I'm over it, so stop flattering me, let's talk about something else, okay? And the narrator really doesn't let you forget that Jane isn't cute. She reunites with a nanny she had as a child, and the nanny says something like, wow, Jane, I thought that maybe you would bloom into an attractive woman when you grew up, but what a disappointment that hope turned out to be. Or when Jane's recuperating with the Rivers, and she overhears Mary and Diana talking about how ill-planned her face is. She never lets this get her down though.

So, I have to say, Amanda, wherever you are (probably Chicago), I get why this is your favorite book. It's not my favorite book, due to some pretty serious nineteenth century pacing issues in the first 200 pages, but I get it. I get Jane Eyre. In a photo finish I completed it a mere day before the Book Club Deadline, July 15th. And it felt good.

I'm gonna go rent the movie now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A couple of days ago I finished up Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It wasn't as difficult to get through as Jane Eyre (which I'm still working on; made it to Volume II; 153 pages and counting!), but I didn't exactly speed through it either. I picked it up, not knowing anything about Ishiguro other than he wrote The Remains of the Day, which won the Man Booker Prize, and that Never Let Me Go has sci-fi/fantasy elements. Sounded like a great combo to me.

This book is very, very slow. Have y'all seen that movie The Island, with Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, who are in this sort of self contained dome where everyone is wearing white track suits and drinking protein shakes, and they can't ever go outside because supposedly the world has been contaminated/destroyed, but they break free, because they are intrepid Americans, and figure out that the world is just fine and they are clones, or "insurance policies" for really rich people, and when the time comes, whoever cloned them will harvest their organs, like Scarlett Johansson is a clone for this model who wants new skin, and Ewan McGregor is a clone for this guy who has some disease, maybe AIDS or something resulting from wild sex in his youth, I don't remember all the details, because at this point the movie became absolutely ridiculous and I stopped paying attention. But the premise of the The Island - that people can clone themselves and create living insurance policies, and what if those "insurance policies" escape? - is really cool; right out of a Philip K. Dick or Robert Sheckley short story.

Never Let Me Go has a very similar premise. The main character, Kathy, is looking back on the minutia of her life; in particular, her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school for "very special" students (i.e. clones). Right from the start of this novel a sense of paranormal or irreality is established, because I kept thinking, in what sort of world are really boring memories and details like this important? Do I really need to be paying close attention here? Ooh, they just said "maths," is that like, sci-fi, or just British?

Kathy introduces us to Tommy, another of the main characters, by talking about how he had this nice blue shirt, and he kept getting mud on it, and damn won't he be out of sorts when he finds out. But when he finds out, he's only mildly disappointed. Whew! Kathy narrates like an absent minded senior citizen, constantly saying stuff like, oh, before I tell you about this, you really need to know about that (yes, she uses the second person, just like she's talking to me, which is a device I almost always find annoying), and then she'll finally come around to the point, which will be something really anti-climatic anyhow, (like, will Kathy ever find that cassette tape she lost?) or she'll just lead into a new chapter with another rambling story.

Ishiguro uses cliff-hanger sentences like these to get your hopes up that something is going to happen soon:

"So I wasn't prepared at all for what happened at the churchyard several days later."


"But then everything changed again, and that was because of the boat."

By the time this boat was mentioned, on page 215, I was on to Ishiguro, and I didn't fall for his little trick. I knew that nothing was going to happen because of that boat, and that the boat scene would let me down, like all the other false promises scattered throughout this book.

In a similar way, Ishiguro keeps the reader in suspense about the novel's fantasy world and how it works for way too long. In the first third of the book, everyone at Hailsham is very focused on being creative. They create art, poems, stories, whatever, and it's this very big deal that everyone takes seriously, except for Tommy, who has a temper, and doesn't seem to like art, and so doesn't participate in the Exchanges (where students trade their work with each other). Nobody knows why it's so important for the students to create this art, especially not the reader, who keeps dutifully turning the pages and waiting, waiting, waiting for some sort of pay-off. Every so often, Madame comes and takes the best of the students' art for her Gallery. No one knows what this Gallery is for. Never Let Me Go is an extremely quiet novel, full of nuance, and in all honestly, not my type of read. Why don't these kids run away or something, like Scarlett and Ewan? Why don't they do something that would give this book more of a plot?!

Really, there's no pay-off for the reader, or even a clear idea of how the world works until the very end, when as adults, Kathy and Tommy hunt down Madame, and confront her in her house. This scene is actually pretty damn heartbreaking, so in true Kathy style, I better back up and give you some backstory:

At this point, you've picked up on the fact that Kathy, Tommy, and friends are clones, and were cloned from the dregs of the society - drunks, homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes: ostensibly people who won't talk and give these secrets away. (I kept hoping one of these people would have cleaned up and sought out their clone, but alas, Ishiguro keeps it way too real). You also know that they were cloned to have their organs harvested at some later date. You also know that there's been this rumor going around, that if two people can prove that they are in love, then they can get a deferral for five years, and they can live in peace and not have to continue donating all their vital organs until they "complete."

So Kathy and Tommy show up at Madame's house and tell her their theory about The Gallery, that it's used to substantiate a couple's claim that they are really in love. Madame laughs at them and says, no, we took that art to prove to the scientific community that y'all clones have souls, and that you deserved to be treated humanely up until it's time to harvest all your organs to cure cancer. But now that Hailsham's closed down, we've gotten rid of The Gallery. No one believes that clones ought to be nurtured anymore.

This big reveal was too close to what I suspected to be surprising and fulfilling. And afterwards, Kathy and Tommy just go on with their lives. Tommy completes after his fourth donation. Kathy takes a long drive and mulls over her memories.

I realize that my comments imply that I'm trying to turn this quiet, evocative, and sometimes effecting novel into a Hollywood action movie, or yet another work of American Values that affirms the undeniable pull of freedom, and our right to blaze our own paths, determine our own futures, even for clones. That's not exactly what I'm saying. Never Let Me Go just seemed too much like real life. Which is a great compliment, or a great criticism, depending on what you're looking for in fiction.

*Other books I've read by authors who've won the Man Booker Prize:

Man Booker: A Prize for Thorough Introspection.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Bigger They Come, by A.A. Fair

For reasons I won't go into, I've been on this kick where I want to read mysteries with fat female detectives, a la The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. My boss recommended this book, which, as you can see from the cover, is written by Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. I couldn't find any cover art of this book on-line, so I just took a picture of it. It was originally published in 1939 by William Morrow. My edition was published in 1943 by Pocket Books. Brand new, it cost 45 cents. On the back of the book is an ad for Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl, which "was for many weeks a record seller!" It cost 75 cents brand new.

But back to the fat female detective: The Bigger They Come has a great one - Bertha Cool, of the Cool Detective Agency. She's self-possessed, no-nonsense, cheap as hell, and astoundingly fat. She's summed up nicely here:

"Mrs. Cool, perfectly at ease, continued to hold down the desk with her elbows. She had that motionless immobility which characterizes the very fat. Thin people are constantly making jerky motions to alleviate the nervous pressure which possesses them. Mrs. Cool didn't have a fidget in her system. When she sat down, she was placed. She had the majesty of a snow-capped mountain, and assurance of a steam roller."

The narrator is Donald Lam, a penniless shrimp of a man who doesn't weigh a pound over 120, and is hired as "The Muscle" for the Cool Agency. Yeah, I know, I know - A Bertha "Cool" and Donald "Lam" Mystery, but whatever, I didn't let it bother me.

Lam is hired by Cool to serve a man named Morgan Birks with divorce papers. The problem is that Morgan's a fugitive, so he's in hiding. His wife, Sandra Birks, refers Lam to her brother Bleatie to help find him. Despite a recent car accident that has left Bleatie's head in a bandage, he leads Lam to Morgan's lover, who in turn leads Lam to a hotel, where she will ostensibly meet with Morgan. Lam waits in the room next door to Morgan's lover for Morgan to appear.

In the meantime, Sandra and Bleatie show up at the hotel too. Sandra can't wait to give Morgan a piece of her mind, and Bleatie is there for suspicious reasons - it seems like he's working for Morgan, and is very afraid of being accused of having led Lam and Sandra to Morgan. When Morgan finally shows up, Lam serves him the papers, Sandra screams at him and his lover, and Bleatie pleads for forgiveness. It's quite a scene. The job is over. Except, of course, it's not. It's really just began.


Lam gets kidnapped by toughs the minute he steps outside of the hotel, and the plot, as they say, thickens. I won't go into all the details, except to say the Lam deduces from a fashion faux-pas that Bleatie and Morgan are the same person! It's an almost Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or What Not to Wear moment, when Lam reasons, "would a guy with a two inch diameter bald spot really part his hair down the middle? Of course not!" With that, the whole head bandage / broken nose disguise falls apart. This was a great moment, and, it seemed to me, one that a writer today would never try and pull off. It's my theory that today's writers think in much more cinematic terms, and some part of their minds are picturing the movie adaptations of their book when they write. This technique - where one character is pretending to be two people - is hard to pull off on screen, so I wonder if writers who've considered it have just let it drop. Not that they didn't have television in 1939, but it wasn't the cultural centerpiece that it is today.


But that great Ah-Ha moment is only the half way point in the unfolding of the plot. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Lam was disbarred for claiming to know a legal loophole in which you can commit murder and get away with it. And true to his word, Lam shows us, quite brilliantly, how it's done.

Between Lam's brains and Bertha's size and poise, this was a great read for me. It's the most ingeniously plotted mystery I've read in a while, though I must admit to getting a little bogged down with the legal intricacies of Lam's murder-without-consequence scheme. But I've already ordered the next two books in the Bertha Cool - Donald Lam series.

It's impossible for me to read a book this old and not wonder about what the publishing environment was like when it was published, and how much the business has changed since. I've been reading this print-out from Columbia University called Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975 - 2002 by Gayle Feldman (thanks Stephen!). Even though 1939 and 1975 don't have very much in common, they are both Before My Time In The Publishing Industry, so I thought I'd share some of the more interesting stats in this report:

-"The number of new books being published each year increased more than 300%, from 39,000 in 1975 to 122,000 in 2000....[however] total unit sales only increased 150%, from 955 million in 1975 to almost 2.5 billion in 2000. The overall title/unit sales ratio, therefore, effectively shows a decrease in sales."

-"Book prices have risen in every format....Mass market paperback prices have quadrupled since 1975."

-"In the past, we'd sell ten mass market paperbacks for every hardcover. Today we sell two mass markets for every hardcover. We sell one trade paperback for every hardcover, except for the exceptions of course!" - Carolyn Reidy

(This is the fault of Boomers, who like to buy Hardcovers)

-"In 1975, novels had long stays on the bestseller list; in 2000, more novels made the list but generally enjoyed far shorter stays, with a few exceptions."

-"Twenty-five years ago, a book's shelf life was far longer. Today, many new books only stay on the shelf for three months, and in some cases, even less."

-"And acquiring big books became the badge of the successful editor. Farrar, Straus's Elisabeth Sifton says that by the 1990's, it was clear that "editors were valued for the deals they could do, not for work well done or talent nurtured."

Unfortunately, the stats I find interesting could also be considered depressing. I'm not one of those Doom and Gloom people, out predicting the apocalypse of the publishing industry. Just chew on this.