Category Archives: Misc.

Cuckoo’s Cover

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As we all know (and by now we have also sort of stopped caring since The Guardian publishes an article about it every week) the beloved J. K. Rowling published a novel, the first in a mystery series, last April under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The book, a hardboiled whodunit, had already begun to sell relatively well for a debut novel, and had received respectable reviews. But when the real author was revealed through a partner in Rowling’s law firm in July, The Cuckoo’s Calling became the talk of the global village, and the book was predictably catapulted at the top of bestseller lists everywhere.

The news was exciting, and even more so because the book has been expected by Potter fans for a long time. Rowling has long talked of her love for the mystery genre—and anyone who has read the Harry Potter series will recognize that they are essentially constructed like whodunits (Rowling has said so herself). Moreover, it was announced a couple of years ago that the editor for Rowling’s book would be David Shelley, who has edited several popular mystery writers. 

But that’s not really what I want to talk about! My interest in the affair grew when I realized how different the cover designs were for the UK and north american versions of the book. It’s a good example of completely different marketing strategies deployed for the very same product. 

The British cover of The Cuckoo’s Calling is classic mystery fare. Every poorly photoshopped element on it, from the flying crows gathering in an aquamarine sky to the silhouette of the lonely inspector in his mackintosh, spells whodunit. An added touch is the distinctly British row of houses and iron fencing. Locale, of course, is always  central to the atmosphere of any respectable mystery novel. In other words, you look at this cover and you know exactly what you’re getting. There is a practical aspect to this design choice, although at the same time it keeps the book from standing out besides other covers in the same genre. 

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The north american cover couldn’t be more different. Instead of focusing on the detective at the heart of the story, it represents the opposite end of the narrative by portraying the novel’s victim, a model named Lula Landry. The model is viewed from the back, a foreboding pose, but what catches the viewer’s attention the most is the multiple, sparkling camera flashes and the loopy, hand-drawn (almost scratched) font in which the title is written. 

This cover certainly packs more of a punch—it is immediately recognizable, and it’s certainly effective at conveying the world in which the novel’s detective will be investigating. But, somehow, I have some issues with it because I also find it misrepresents the book. This image, to me, does not spell out “hardboiled crime plot.” Rather, I would expect this on a chick-lit or gossipy YA novel about the underside of wealth and fame, à la Gossip Girl.

So, while I find the aesthetics of the North American cover more pleasing, I still think the British cover is more effective because it taps into a specific tradition, and will speak directly and immediately to fans of that genre. However, the advantage of the North American cover is that it may draw a different, and broader, audience to a novel such readers might not otherwise be attracted to. 

What are your thoughts? 

If you liked this post, check out my post about Harry Potter cover designs around the world. 


An Afternoon in Bloomsbury

 

ISS-Holborn

I’m visiting G. in Oxford for a few weeks, and Oxford being what it is of course she’s being kept very busy by weekly essays and exam prep. So on Wednesday I decided to escape the student city and take the Oxford Tube down to London to spend part of the day. By the way, Wednesday was also May Day, which means a big morning of celebrations in Oxford, including listening to a choir sing from the top of Magdalen tower at 6 am, followed by a delicious breakfast in a local café (or pub) open early for the occasion. No one jumped off Magdalen bridge this year, as far as I know. 

Bloomsbury is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London, so when I don’t have a lot of time in the city I usually end up spending it there instead of discovering new corners. My day in the capital started rather late in the morning at the British Library, where I wanted to check out an exhibit on crime fiction, Murder in the Library: The A to Z of Crime Fiction. I thought it was a full fledged exhibit like the Science Fiction one I’d seen a couple of years ago, but it ended up only being a series of small cases and panels in a corner of the lobby (there will be a larger exhibit on propaganda opening this month). The exhibit was still interesting, however—I just wouldn’t recommend making a detour specifically to go see it. 

After a delicious lunch at a favourite haunt, I enjoyed the beautiful weather and made my way down to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to visit the Soane Museum, a strange little collection I’d heard about but never gotten around to visiting. The building was designed by Neo-Classical architect Sir John Soane as a museum for his extensive private collection of artifacts, paintings, and memorabilia. After a polite welcome from butler-like museum staff who regulate the entry and ensure your possessions are carried in plastic bags, I was ushered into the house without further direction or information. The visit begins in Soane’s elegant library, and then moves into other rooms in the house, which are cluttered from floor to ceiling with classical urns, vases, busts, plaster, marble ornaments, bronze replicas, etc. I found very few explanation panels; I guess the point is to walk around and gaze in admiration at the impressively haphazard collection. There’s a room lined with large canvases, Hogarths and Canolettos among them, with walls that open thanks to a clever contraption and reveal plans for buildings designed by Soane. In the dank, dark basement of the house lies the massive alabaster coffin of Seti I, father of Ramses II. The whole experience was a little overwhelming and definitely a little confusing. I did very much enjoy the exhibit at the end of the visit, Piranesi’s Paestum, which gave a lot of context to neo-classical architecture and 18th century interest in classical buildings. 

It was already nearly time to go back to Oxford by then, but before I left London I had one more stop: the London Review Bookshop, near the British Museum. Every time I go there, I’m amazed and impressed by the bright surroundings and their incredible selection. Somehow, this bookshop manages to stock every literary writer, past and present; I firmly believe they have everything I could ever look for. Still, I searched around for something special to purchase, not any book I could’ve ordered online in a flash. I wanted something exiting, something I didn’t know existed. I wanted to surprise myself. Despite the thousands of volumes, however, I didn’t find anything that fit the bill. But then, just as I was leaving the store, something caught my eye in the front window: a small, elegant hardcover with a name I recognized, Al Alvarez. I’ve written a little about Alvarez before; he’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, a true “man of letters,” who wrote books on subjects as varied (although not altogether unrelated) as night, gambling, and suicide. His book on writing and reading, The Writer’s Voice, is one of the most helpful and engaging books of literary criticism I have ever read. I’m a big fan of his; I had no idea he’d written a new book.

So I entered the store again and grabbed the book from the window display to purchase it. It’s called Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal. It could’ve been about the life cycle of bullfrogs and I would’ve already been sold, basically. It turned out the book is made up of short journal excerpts Alvarez kept between 2002 and 2009 (the year he turned 80), focusing around his daily swims in the pond at Hampstead Heath. Exactly the kind of British non-fiction I love to devour. Needless to say I returned to the city of spires and honey-coloured stone with a London Review Bookshop bag in my hand. 

PondLife


World Book Night 2013

WBN Books

World Book Night is celebrated on April 23, a date which UNESCO coined international day of the book in honour of Shakespeare and Cervantes, who both died on this day in 1616 (Shakespeare was also born on April 23, at least according to the World Book Night websites—Wikipedia says otherwise). For the third year in a row, in the UK, the World Book Night organization prints hundreds of thousands of copies of free books, from 20 titles selected by the public. 20,000 book donors are given copies of the book of their choice to hand out to their communities, while others are distributed in schools, nursing homes, prisons, and other social institutions.

G. and I have a personal attachment to this event. We were lucky to be able to attend the very first World Book Night celebration in 2011, at Trafalgar Square. We were both studying in Bristol at the time so we took the train down to London and spent three hours freezing our feet off, surrounded by the London traffic, in front of a stage on which authors and celebrities read to us. We saw the likes of John LeCarré, Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, Alan Bennett and many, many others reading from their works. It was a beautiful experience. After the event, we found ourselves in a turmoil of book donors suddenly exchanging and giving away copies of their chosen World Book Night titles. We received two or three books and found another one hidden in a corner of the Bristol Cathedral that same week. 

This year, G. is studying in England again and applied to become a World Book Night donor herself. She chose to give Bernhard Schlink’s aptly titled The Reader to students in need of a study break. I happened to be visiting her this month, so we decided to go down to London on April 23 for this year’s World Book Night Celebration at the Southbank Centre. The evening was hosted by writer and comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli and featured a large number of talented writers, as well as the deep-voiced actor Charles Dance (of Game of Thrones fame) reading from Josephine Hart’s Damage, and Ian Fleming’s niece Lucy who read from her uncle’s essay “How to Write a Thriller.”

Highlights of the evening for me include Alice Oswald’s mesmerizing rendition of the Hector section of Memorial, her retelling of the Iliad; Sir Andrew Motion’s quiet excerpt from his novel Silver, a sequel to Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Mark Haddon reading from the hilarious opening pages of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; and Sebastian Barry’s explosive and delightful rendition of a scene from The Secret Scripture. 

It was a wonderful evening, and with summer warmth, sunshine, and a pleasant crowd to welcome us in London, we couldn’t have asked for a better night to celebrate reading.

WBN 2013 logo


Upcoming British Book Covers

The Queen’s diamond jubilee, the olympic games in London… it’s a big year for Britain. In literature, at least two big names of fiction will be coming out with brand new books later in the year—and the covers of these books have both been revealed in the last few weeks.

One of these much-awaited novels is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a foray into adult fiction for the immensely famous author and, more importantly, the first book she publishes that has nothing to do with the Harry Potter universe. Her new book sounds extremely British: it tells the story of a rural town left in shock after the death of a parish council member, revealing all the intrigues and feuds that lie behind the community’s idyllic facade.

And the cover is, well, a little bland? I’m not too sure what to think about it. The color pallet and hand-cut font reminds me of the cover for Al Alvarez’s The Writer’s Voice (although maybe not as nice, actually, there’s something squeezed about the way the title is written). I do appreciate that they didn’t put anything other than the author’s name and the title on there; it would’ve been so easy to write “universal bestselling author” or “from the writer who brought you the books that sold the most after the Bible” or something like that. Let’s hope they don’t mess that up before publication. I’m sure the temptation is huge.

And then, as I’ve mentioned earlier this year, Ian McEwan will be publishing a new novel in August: Sweet Tooth. Obviously there isn’t as much hype for this one, but it’s bound to sell decently and get reviewed everywhere and—who knows?—maybe even get long listed for the Booker Prize. We’ll see.

In the meantime, both the British and American covers have been revealed (still no cover in Canada, although we’ll probably get the same one as in Great Britain). Here they are, US cover first, and British cover after:

Comparing them is very interesting, because while the subject is essentially the same (lone woman walking in heels, slightly menacing atmosphere), the treatment is entirely different. The American cover, which I quite like, gets its inspiration from the novel’s 1970′s setting for the font and colour theme, and uses a sober, sepia-toned image. You get the sense of danger in a subtle, elegant way that matches McEwan’s careful prose. On the other hand, the British cover goes all out: apparently based solely on the novel’s spy-genre content, it screams INTRIGUE! MYSTERY! DARK ALLEYS! like a low-brow thriller, complete with awful photoshopped shadow-effects, silhouetted man, and elegant protagonist turned away from the viewer (which is meant to make the whole thing look even more menacing). It’s a complete failure, if you ask me, unless maybe Jonathan Cape, McEwan’s british publisher, are trying to open him up to new readerships by marketing him as “popular” fiction.

What do you think?


A Type of Book

The Periodic Table of Typefaces, designed by Cam Wilde.

Have you ever paused, while working on your word processor, before the choice of fonts available to compose your text in? It happens to me all the time. Each typeface, I feel, communicates a different vibe. It must be selected carefully, because it has to concord with the content of the text, in order to underline its meaning. You’re writing something anonymous, efficient, short, modern, and probably meant to read on screen: pick Helvetica. Something classic, ornate, and refined, which will be printed on faux-yellowed paper:  Monotype Corsiva. Something long, literary, thrilling, and probably fictitious: Baskerville. Something innocent, fun, short, and a little childish: Comic Sans. Something plain, factual, long, and serious: Times New Roman. It’s important to choose the right typeface in order to convey the right message. You don’t want to print out your wedding invitations in Papyrus (which, by the way, is one of the fonts I hate the most, and still crops up in various places, despite its ugliness—it was even used for the title and subtitles of the film Avatar).

There are other questions that come to mind. Who designed these fonts? How do you design a font? How old are they? Which is the most common? Which fonts read better? Which font did Gutenberg use? In search of answers to questions like these, I recently developed an interest in typefaces: their design, their history, their uses. Luckily, there are lots of places to find answers. The first is a fine little book, published in 2010: Just my Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield. This book is the perfect introduction to the world of typography. Its chapters go through the history and basics of type design, and are separated by smaller chapters on specific types, such as Albertus (used on the classic Faber and Faber covers) and Bodoni, an elegant font which was used on the cover of Vanity Fair for their special feature on Tiger Woods. The book evades the more serious technicalities of typography, but offers a fun overview of the subject. It is especially entertaining when dealing with the dark side of type design, such as the ongoing war between Helvetica, usually judged to be one of the most perfect typefaces ever created, and its clone, Arial (the rivalry is hilariously illustrated in this YouTube video). Another quirky bit of typographical trivia: a pangram is a phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet, and is therefore ideal to show all the letters of a given font; the most popular pangram currently in use by type designers is the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog (although, of course, it isn’t a perfect pangram because it repeats letters). 

Where Just My Type looses a few points (pun intended) is in its failure to properly celebrate the typefaces; instead, it dwells on everything that has to do with them. It’s a little too loud. Luckily, there are other books that offer a softer take on the subject. G. gave me one of them for my birthday: Letter Fountain. It’s a hefty volume, published by Taschen—a great publishing house for everything artistic—that is entirely devoted to the design of typefaces. It begins with an overview of the history of writing, printing, and the development of typography, then it organizes typefaces into their different families, and finally gives a large number of individual typefaces their own pages, complete with a brief history and description, an example of each letter and symbol, as well as an overview of its different variants (bold, italics, etc.) and sizes. Letter Fountain is a celebration of design and aesthetic pleasure: it’s a beautiful book that showcases the beauty of typefaces by letting them speak for themselves (which makes sense, considering that’s what they’re designed to do). It also includes cool features, like three ribbon bookmarks, a ruler and conversion chart for font-sizes, and an appendix that includes a glossary, four different indexes, and a timeline of a timeline of type founders. It’s impressive, and a little excessive. 

Naturally, typography, is inseparable from books. Without efficient, beautiful, and readable letters, there would be no books. I’ve always loved when there’s a little note on the type at the back of a book, detailing what font it’s set in, why, and what the history of the typeface is. For example, the volumes in the Everyman’s Library are set in Caslon, which, the triangular note on the last page tells us, “put a stop to the importation of Dutch types” when it was created in England in the 18th century, “and so changed the history of English typecutting.” Type design is serious stuff. More specifically, typefaces are also inseparable from cover design. A lot of book covers are made several times better or worse because of the font they use to spell out the title of the book and the author’s name. Sometimes, letters are the only thing used on a book cover. I’m thinking of the works of JD Salinger, who demanded that the covers of his books be entirely bare except for his name and the title of the book. That means Penguin had to get creative in their use of fonts when they republished Salinger’s work a few years ago for the UK market. They commissioned a type designer, Seb Lester, to do the job. The result is stunning:

So what’s the next step for the new typography fanatic in me? There are other books to get, even more hefty and complete than Letter Fountain, if you can believe it. For example, the ultimate reference in typeface remains the FontBook, aka “the big yellow book,” which calls itself “the most complete digital type reference in the world.” There’s also Giambattista Bodoni’s beautiful Manual of Typography, an 1818 Italian masterwork on typography, reprinted by Taschen in a luxurious two-volume set (pictures bellow). But before I spend that much money to look at pretty letters, I’ll begin by watching Helvetica, a 2007 film about the proliferation of one of the world’s most common typefaces. It’s probably going to change the way I see the world; that’s how important type is. 


My Year in Reading

I wasn't entirely sure what image to use at the top of his blog post to represent a year of reading and blogging. Then I found this beautiful flip book calendar, featuring a tree transformed by the seasons.

Most other book bloggers or book-related websites do some kind of feature on their best reads of the year in December or January, which is the traditional period to neatly tuck away what’s been achieved in order to move on to the year ahead. I love reading this type of list myself, but I find their number is growing exponentially and it’s easy to lose yourself in a deluge of interesting titles. I toyed with the idea of doing it myself over the holidays, but instead I decided to release a list of my years reading now, in the Spring, because it’s during the Spring, last year, that I began Book’s End with a post about book titles. That’s right, Book’s End is one year old.

And what a year it’s been! To be fair, I spent most of it reading for school—although there were pleasant discoveries in that domain as well. For example, I’ve been spending a lot of my time pouring over the short stories of three Irish writers for my undergraduate thesis: Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor, and Sean O’Faolain. I’m lucky to have chosen writers of such undeniable talent because I can honestly say that not once did I NOT feel like picking up one of their collections to read or reread a certain story. These writers are three masters of the short story form, and their works reveal many truths about human nature. I also very much enjoyed Bowen’s The House in Paris, which I studied in a class on the Uncanny last year. It’s a wonderful between-the-wars novel about displacement and inheritance. 

Thanks cdrummbks on Flickr for the image.

Other school-related discoveries include Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (a stunning, extremely well-wrought reinterpretation of a historical figure), Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley (a Canadian masterpiece I had never heard of before), Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (you’ll hear more about these last two modernist novels very soon), Jean-Paul Sartre Les Mots (I thought this book would be dreadful but it turned out to be a bibliomemoir, a genre I’m very fond of), and Toni Morrison’s pitch-perfect Jazz, about Harlem in the 1920s. 

My reading this year was also enriched by my membership to Mr. B’s Year of Reading Delights, which means I got a new handpicked book in the mail every month until February. Because of my otherwise busy reading schedule, I didn’t get a chance to read all of them yet, but among those I did take the time to open, I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, a hilarious, rambunctious Australian novel about a 19th century Tanzanian prisoner on a mission to paint and catalogue specimens of fish from the surrounding waters. This strange novel, which develops level after level of forgery, is also an exhilarating exploration of language.  I look forward to checking out the rest of the novels my bibliotherapist at Mr. B’s sent me, such as Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.

In the last twelve months also went from living in Bristol, England (where I’d gone to study abroad for two semesters) to moving back home to Montreal, Canada. I made the dreaded voyage at the end of June, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch provided the transition between my life there and my life here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I planned to finish the novel in Bristol but ended up using it over there as a kind of manual to explore the British countryside, and finished it in Quebec as a way of easing myself into my old, normal life… It was my first time reading Eliot, and as these things go I read it mostly for the interweaving of plot and the descriptions of quaint English country life. It demands rereading in the future. 

As for other books I picked up myself (or that were recommended by G.) during the year, the ones I enjoyed the most tended to be a little bit ludicrous (escapism, anybody?). There was Jocelyne Saucier’s award winning Il pleuvait des oiseaux (It rained birds, as yet untranslated), which I got as a gift at Christmas, about old people falling in love in the woods of Northern Ontario. There was Bulgakov’s thrilling The Master and Margarita, which I read in the train over a trip in Italy that contained way too many hours of transportation. There was Umberto Eco’s brilliant The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, about an amnesiac who remembers only everything he’s ever read. These are very different novels, but they are united by their originality and distinctive voices. Here are books that come blazing into your life with their own aesthetics, their own logic. You must accept them on their own terms: that’s what makes for a remarkable reading experience. 

One regret I have about my reading year is that I didn’t get a chance to check out any new publications. Reading books that have been out for a while is a safer choice, but it’s also fun to be able to take part in what everyone’s talking about, like Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning The Sense of and Ending, or Murakami’s 1Q84 or (more recently), Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision. There are some books I’m really excited about that will be coming out in the next months, such as Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (the sequel to Wolf Hall) and a new novel by Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth; hopefully I’ll be more inclined to pick up some reading material from the “hot off the press” pile at my local bookstore. 

School’s almost out, now, and there’s a daunting, exciting (and growing) pile of books on my bedside shelf (I realize I just said I was also looking forward to buying new books that will come out this year—it’s the paradox of my existence). Hopefully I’ll be able to spend the upcoming months with my nose between their pages. 


Guinness Lit

 

I’ve written about bathroom lit and comfort lit, but now, in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s only natural that I discuss one of my favourite topics: Guinness Lit (actually, a subgenre of the latter category), aka the kind of book that goes well with a pint of “the black stuff” and will get you in the mood to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day in high literary style. For example, I began declaiming Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916″ this morning, while G. read me some of her favourite play, Translations, by Brian Friel. It was awesome. Oh, and she wants me to make my Irish culinary specialty, soda bread

Ireland has one of the most impressive literary traditions in the world: it has produced no less than four Nobel Prize laureates (can you name them all?*) and many of the most important writers of the last 300 years, such as Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Synge, James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O’Faolain William Trevor, John Banville, Anne Enright, and Colm Tóibín… Not bad for a small island with a population of under 7 million (the Republic has 4.5).

Four years ago, when I had just turned eighteen, I went backpacking around the Emerald Isle for a month and fell deeply in love with it. What struck me about Dublin, especially, was how steeped it was in its rich literary history. I spent nearly all my time there visiting places related to famous Irish books and writers: the Dublin Writer’s Museum, the National Library (with its stunning exhibit on Yeats), the Abbey Theatre, the Chester Beatty Library, the Marsh Library, the Book of Kells and Long Room in Trinity College. I also went on a literary pub crawl and visited countless bookshops—Catach Books and the Winding Stair probably being my top two. Even the Gravity Bar, at the very top of the pint-shaped Guinness Storehouse, features glass walls with quotes from Irish texts describing different parts of Dublin. I love one on Trinity College, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The grey block of Trinity on his left, set heavily in the city’s ignorance like a dull stone set in a cumbrous ring…” New to the world of Irish letters, charmed by what I discovered, I soaked all of this in and bought myself a copy of Ulysses in the James Joyce Cultural Center (they’re behind the Bloomsday celebrations that occur every June). For the rest of my trip, I plodded through the book’s labyrinthian beauty (I got about halfway through, and understood maybe half of that).

The Statue of James Joyce, just off O'Connell Stree, in Dublin

Inside The Winding Stair bookshop.

Really, there is no better way to celebrate Irish culture on Saint Patrick’s than by reading something Irish. I personally suggest a short story (although I must admit I’m biased because that’s what I’m writing my undergraduate thesis on, so my head is filled with them); the form is often recognized as a particular speciality of Irish writers (critics believe this is because short stories tap into the rich tradition of gaelic oral tales). Irish short stories are still very much appreciated—as attested, for instance, by the publication of the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story last year. Suggestions? Frank O’Connor remains the master for me; he writes moving and simple portraits of Irishmen and women. Try “The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland” and “Guests of the Nation” (you’ll find them both in the Penguin mini modern classics series), which explore the human implications of politics. My favourite of O’Connor’s remains “My First Protestant,” about a man’s disillusionment concerning religion and Catholic-Protestant strife.  There are lots of other great Irish short story writers. Joyce’s “The Dead” is a classic, as is Elizabeth Bowen’s “Summer Night” and Sean O’Faolain’s “Midsummer Night Madness,” although my favourite of his is “The Lovers of the Lake,” about two headstrong middle-aged lovers who discover the depth of their relationship by doing a pilgrimage to Lough Derry. For something more modern, check out Colm Tóibín’s “A Priest in the Family” (from his collection Mothers and Sons), a pitch-perfect story about a case of Catholic sex abuse, from the point of view of the mother.

What Guinness lit are you going to pick up today?

*W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.


The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Did you watch the Academy Awards last Sunday? It wasn’t the best show, as these things go—but maybe I couldn’t appreciate it as much because I hadn’t seen the movies that were nominated everywhere like Hugo and The Artist. One of the night’s prizes did catch my attention, however. The Oscar for the Best Animated Short Film was awarded to a movie about books: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. My ears twitched at the word “book.” The film is only a couple of bucks on iTunes so I bought it the next day—I wasn’t disappointed.

In the case of this film, a kind of cross between The Wizard of Oz, Buster Keaton, and those kids stories about magical books, less truly is more: it only lasts 15 minutes, but it packs quite a punch. Visually, the creators have cleverly melded different animation styles to create attractive textures: warm, dusty interiors and crisp, lush exteriors. They also use both black & white and colors, often in the same shot, as a way of portraying the magical effect that books can have on the dreariness of everyday life, turning boring gray into vivid colors (The Giver, anyone?). Because that’s what this film—as the title certainly suggests—is all about: a book’s magical ability to bring joy. The story is a little naive, maybe, and the theme, though pleasant, gets repetitive, but overall it’s a charming, luminous work. 

The highlight of Mr. Morris (it feels weird to write this, since Mr. Morris was also the name of my college English professor) is seeing the books of the title come to life. Because yes, the books that Morris Lessmore meets in the film, and eventually comes to take care of (for example, feeding them alphabet cereal in the morning or putting on their dust covers when they go outside) really do fly. They also dance and play the piano and have emotions. Oh, and the best way to make them come to life is to read them—just like real books. In fact, the books are shown with such tenderness and humanity that I felt like going to hug my own books after watching the movie, and adopt all those that are left at the bottom wardrobes or on the highest shelves, sad and unread. 

Watch Mr. Morris — it’s a beautiful film — and go give your books some love afterward. They’ll fly, and so will you. 


Novel Suspects

The face of Kevin, from Lionel Shriver's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin,' as reconstructed by a law enforcement composite sketch software.

You must excuse my absence on these pages in the last several weeks; I’m afraid I’ve been very busy with grad school applications and the hours of document tinkering and running around for various letters and documents they imply. I’m all done, now, so all I can do is look away and let other people decide my future for me—and, in the meantime, blog a little.

The other day I came across a mention in The Guardian of a very interesting project: writer Brian Joseph Davis has started a tumblr page on which he posts mug shots of literary characters he created with a police composite sketch software. The project is called The Composites.  The idea is great—so great, it’s almost a surprise no one has done this before—and the result is often fascinating. There’s a innocent-eyed, slightly pouting Tess from Tess of the d’Urbervilles; a cocky Humbert who stares right at you; an angry, worn-out Madame Bovary; and a grim-looking Mr. Rochester with a great set of whiskers. While the results aren’t always splendid, the faces are infinitely more fascinating than movie representations of these characters because they’re based purely on authorial descriptions; you can’t guess a well-known actor’s face underneath the features. 

The creator of the site invites viewers to send in the descriptions of characters they’d like to see. Some, sadly, are impossible to do, such as Holden Caulfied, whose only description in The Catcher in the Rye mentions “a new crew cut.” Are there any characters you’d like to see an image of?


Long & Short: The Return of the Novella

The original, 1937 cover for Of Mice and Men

I write “return” with a degree of critical care. Did the novella ever leave? If yes, why had it gone? Or maybe it was never really big at all, and therefore isn’t making a return so much as a début. All of this is unclear to me. But what has become definitely apparent is that there’s been a recent surge in interest for novellas. The form is infamously tricky to define, of course. A novella is supposed to be book-length, because it can be published on its own, but not quite novel-length. But then, does the novella exist at all? Maybe it’s just a long short story, or else a short novel. In terms of content and form — this has nothing to do with length — I have certainly found this true on some occasions. Some novellas, like Ethel Wilson’s “Tuesday and Wednesday” and “Lily’s Story,” which are collected in her Equations of Love, feel like short stories that have been inflated. In terms of emotional resonance and narrative breadth, they remain, well, a little short. Other novellas, like James’ The Aspern Papers, are much shorter than novels, but pack the punch of longer, more ambitious works.

 

Some clues as to the return of the novella:

To begin with, there was Julian Barnes’ first Booker victory in October with The Sense of and Ending, which was the shortest book on the shortlist, and has been called a novella by some. Also, last year, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris inaugurated the Paris Literary Prize to celebrate the novella, which is awarded to a work of fiction between 20,000 and 30,000 words. And let’s remember how much ink was spilled a few years ago about Robert Bolano’s posthumous masterpiece 2666, which is really 5 interlinked novellas. Also, the American short story genius Jim Shepard’s most recent collection, You Think That’s Bad, contained a novella titled “Gojira, King of the Monsters”, which was also published separately as a stand-alone book. As for publishing houses, Penguin has of course recently had a lot of success with elegant collections of short books: Penguin Great Ideas, Penguin English Journeys, Penguin Great Loves… Last year, they came out with Mini Modern Classics, 50 short pieces of fiction, published as their own, lovely little books, to celebrate 50 years of Penguin Classics. What’s great about the selection is that the editors have generally chosen little-known stories; letting them stand on their own gives them some well-deserved visibility. To be fair, a lot of the stories that make up the books in the series are actually short stories, not novellas. Moreover, from what I can see most of the volumes collect more than one story. Borges’ The Widow Ching—Pirate, for instance, also includes 5 other stories from the Argentine master. The design for the collection is very nice, playing off the silver, black, and white of the traditional Penguin Modern Classics, with much bigger author pictures on the back covers. Penguin has also released 5 production videos for the series: they’re great fun to watch.

More directly novella-related, perhaps, Melville House, which is becoming increasingly renowned for great books and great designs, has published a collection of books called The Art of the Novella, featuring, among many others, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, and 5 different stories entitled The Duel (by Casanova, Checkhov, Conrad, von Kleist, and Kuprin). The whole series is a great idea, and is perfectly executed: the choice is varied and classic, and the designs are remarkably simple and fresh. Their selection is sometimes a little wobbly in terms of form, however: I’m not entirely sure The Hounds of the Baskerville, for instance, is usually considered to be a novella, but that’s another story…

All this attention on novellas is wonderful; for one thing, novellas are awesome. They’re short enough to be read in a few sittings and to be quite focused aesthetically, but they’re also long enough that they have the time to creep into the brain of the reader; they cut out their own space and demand that their issues be addressed. I have a short-standing theory that the act of reading happens en deux temps. Maybe this only happens to me, but I feel like I always need a short period of adaptation when I start reading a book, not really to get used to the characters and the setting so much as to adjust my reader’s ear to the rhythm of the writer’s voice and the linguistic rules of the book’s universe. I believe this is why I can’t immerse myself completely in a book and read long swaths of it in one sitting until I’ve passed a certain point (sometimes this point comes early, sometimes later, never after the midway point) — then all is well and I can drive on to the end, perfectly attuned to the story’s music. The advantage with novellas is that they’re so short and well-formed that even a reading en deux temps can occur quickly. You can begin with two or three short sittings to start immersing yourself in the world of the story bit by bit, like a swimmer gradually dipping his limbs deeper and deeper in cold water, and then finish off the rest of the story in a single, smooth dive. The novella invites you to do all of that in one day, or even a few hours. Ideally, I would suggest leaving a night’s sleep in the middle to allow the shift to occur and finish the novella the next day — it makes the experience last longer. 

Long-winded, baggy novels are great, but I have a particular fondness for the tight focus of short books. Among my favorite novellas are Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Alice Munro’s “A Queer Streak”, Mann’s Death in Venice, James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Henry James’ “The Lesson of the Master”, Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Disinherited”, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Some of these straddle the line with the short story or the novel, but the long and short of it is that they’re just the right length. Plus, they’re all exquisite and quick to revisit. Between lengthy dinners and short shopping sprees, why don’t we all dip into a novella for the Holidays? Happy reading!


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