Tag Archive | one book four covers

One Book, Four Covers: Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe

This is the YA novel for the cynical teen in your life, that teen that has a burgeoning sense of the absurd and the blackly comic. Beyond this book lies Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino. Buzzati’s never had a large English language following, and I wonder if there’s something in this book that the American mindset rejects as too cynical on the surface. Granted having taken part in Mussolini’s navy probably doesn’t help.

Above are the covers, half of them Italian. Most of the English versions feature the landscape and a fortress, while the Italian editions all reference the soldier in some wry fashion. The English language copy I read is the rightmost one. It looks like someone applied different photoshop filters to Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

I’ll say flat out I love The Tartar Steppe.  It is a great book, though I expect it’s one people either love or hate. I’m not going to talk much about the plot. You can speculate upon that from the covers. I do wish more of Buzzati’s work was available in English, especially his short fantasy fiction, (yes, I’ve seen The Bears March on Sicily book), but that’s my wish with a lot of authors. Only with Buzzati there’s something more to my fascination, since he’s an Italian from the same generation as my grandfather, and they appeared to have shared an affinity for the absurd.

One Book, Four Covers: Jan Morris’s Last Letters From Hav

This is the book that made me start this series.

I find it interesting when a book has had a few covers and each edition or subsequent publisher has put their own stamp on it. What’s also interesting is how certain iconic images become tied to certain books. Like Moby Dick — you pretty much have either a whaling boat or a whale on the cover. Dracula covers are predominantly black and red. Conan covers feature sweaty manflesh, etc. Other books may lack iconic imagery, but get sold on their iconic style. If you’ve ever seen Black Lizard’s Jim Thompson reprints then you know what I’m talking about. They’re dark books, film noir dark. Random House’s Philip K. Dick reprints from the 80s and 90s would be another example. They’re garish and weird with computer generated graphics for the garish and weird computer enthusiastic guy. (British PKD reprints went in a totally other direction — more classically SF.)

And then there are books without iconic content or where the iconic content has yet to bubble to the surface and you get character pin-ups, scene illustrations, bland photographs, or weird abstract expressionism like you did with SF/F from a certain era.

All of which brings me back to Hav. (I know I’ve used Hav and Last Letters From Hav almost interchangeably.) Hav is Jan Morris’s fictional travelogue to a country somewhere between Greece and Turkey. Morris made her name as a travel writer (best vacations a book can buy) and Hav largely reads as a straight travelogue until you remember she’s making the whole place up and using the country as … something … a metaphor or vehicle to write a memoir or critique of history or travel writing. It’s not really any one thing.

So how exactly do you convey that? The maze with the train in it is pretty cool. As is that fantasy cityscape with the Chinese tower right in the foreground. That may look too fantastic but I love that cover. The later printings like the NYRB one (and others I haven’t included because they’re too similar) also feature the Chinese Tower but show it on fire. If you have no clue what the book is about and see that cover, you might develop expectations regarding the book, ones it is not at all likely to fulfill. Sort of the same way if a friend recommended A Scanner Darkly to you by saying “it’s about an undercover cop in the future who’s trying to take down a drug ring”, you’d likely be disappointed. Maybe the cover with the De Chirico-esque city scape and typewriter does the best in capturing the book’s mood.

What’s most weird about these burning tower covers is that they attempts to make an icon from one event out of many potential ones. Is the maze race any less iconic, or the maze itself, or the sense of travel, or Mamoun’s trumpet, or the troglodytes and their snowberries? To picture that one event, the burning of the tower, to the exclusion of all others — well, I don’t know. Is that what the book is about? It’s not really what I think about when I think about the book.

But what exactly are covers for then? To attract buyers? To signify that the book is X instead of Y? To signify that we are X-type person instead of Y-type? To keep the inner pages from falling out? And then when books get multiple covers over decades how are they packaged for new readers?

Looking at an old cover for Hav after seeing the new NYRB one made me wonder all these things, and that’s how One Book, Four covers got started.

And now you know, etc.

One Book, Four Covers: Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

How about that crow cover? That’s pretty nice.

I found a used copy of this at What the Book in Seoul. It was published in the 1980s but the most recent story in it is an Aickman from the 1960s. The majority are from the 1920s, but all are from the 20th century.

In his introduction Dahl talks about the ghost story as a world tradition and the sheer wealth of source material available. This didn’t prevent him from putting together a mostly British table of contents. In fact my biggest complaint against this book is that it’s irritatingly British. Everyone is prim and proper and ducking into corner shops in search of bric-a-brac. Dahl also talks about how bad most authors’ ghost stories are. Even the big name folks’ stories are atrocious. He feels the same when it comes to children’s books too. People think they can write one easily, when the results are quite different.

There is a logic to Dahl’s selections and if you’ve ever read one of his stories you’ll see a kinship between them and his selections here. Most of them have zinger endings of the morbid sort.

Another little chestnut from the introduction is that Dahl records his surprise at how well women write ghost stories. After making a few wince-worthy generalizations, he applauds women as horror writers. They were so good he feared that the whole book would be nothing but women authors. But in the end the men roused themselves and prevailed, thirteen testicle-endowed individuals to eleven uterus-bearers.

Imagine if it had been otherwise. The horror!

One Book Four Covers: Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard

How about those covers, eh?

I dig the ones at either end, although the left one fits the book better. That one on the right, though? Gosh. I totally want to read that book.

For folks who don’t want to Google, Vermilion Sands is a fictitious resort at some undetermined time in the near future populated by the bored, artistic, insane, and/or wealthy. Ballard said his inspiration was Palm Springs, but I always imagine a Mediterranean locale. It’s also one of those books you’re either going to love or hate. If you’re a Ballard fan you won’t really mind that every story is more or less the same featuring nearly identical characters and plots. If you’re not a Ballard fan then I’m sure that will bother you — but only if you try to tackle the book head-on. If you were to approach each story on its own, you’d probably have better luck.

One Book Five Covers: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker is a bit like Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz mixed with Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Set in a post-apocalyptic England that resembles the Iron Age, Riddley’s written in this odd, “degraded” style of English that is difficult to parse at first but after a bit takes on a poetic power.

A quote:

“Where ben that new life coming in to? Widders Dump. You know what they ben doing there. It ain’t jus only forming they ben doing there with stock and growings they ben digging they croaking iron. They ben digging up that old time Bad Time black time. Now weare at the las weve come to No. 1 and Brooder Walker. Widders Dump and thats where Aunty come for him. Stoan boans and iron tits and teef be twean her legs. Brooder Walker dug her up and she come down on top of him o yes.”

Another conceit of the book is that puppet shows like Punch & Judy mixed with Medieval morality plays are used by the government to communicate official announcements. Riddley digs up an old Punch puppet and this sets him over the fence and wandering the outside world. Hence the appearance of Punch on two of the covers.

Those two covers at least give you some idea what to expect in the book. The second cover, full of quotes calling the book brilliant and what not, looks more like a back cover, and the third and fourth covers look like in-the-know covers, by which I mean that unless you’re in the know already those covers aren’t going to tell you anything about the book.

Regardless of the cover you find, it’s a great book and worth checking out.

(There’s also this whole theory about how the book inspired parts of Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome.)

One Book Three Covers: Missing Man by Katherine MacLean

This is one of those books I read about on a blog somewhere discussing “forgotten classics” of SF. The premise sounded neat: a pair of heroes (more psychic EMTs than cops) roams the weird streets of a future New York City that’s fragmented into communes.

The novel began its life as a series of novellas in Analog before going the fix-up route, so it’s no wonder that the Analog cover with its Apocalypse Chair is the most apt, sort of. The second picture is the first paperback novel printing and it’s your standard 1970s SF moodscape, like for real man, without any indication of setting or character. All it needs is a sketchy disembodied head screaming and you could call it Operation: Mindcrime. The next with the black cover is the Prime Books Wildside Press edition that’s in print now and it’s the copy I read, and, well, that’s the dullest of the bunch. It’s a road sign.

All of which is a shame because Missing Man is a fun book. It’s dated for sure, and a bit eyebrow-raising whenever the conflict centers on rescuing someone from a “crazy” ethnic or racial minority, but it’s also weirdly prescient in the way its fragmented NYC resembles the Internet: a world where people have segregated themselves from each other along the lines of their interests and via their computers so they never need to encounter someone who disagrees with them.

Missing Man may be wrong in the particulars and technology of this fragmentation, but I suspect it’s right in depicting some of the results.

One Book Four Covers: The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

A young Italian scholar captured by pirates finds himself the slave of a Turkish scholar. The two share more than a passing resemblance to each other, and this makes their relationship complex as each adapts and alters their own and the other’s identity. A short Borgesian novel ripe with potential allegory, which is great by me, my only wish is that for once someone would write a pomo novel with a reliable narrator.

Now on to the covers…

I love that they’re all so different. I read number one on the left. It looks like one of those Edward Gorey book covers from the 1950s. Number two mixes in some weird steampunky gears. That’s cool. The third is reappropriated Renaissance artwork. It’s there, it doesn’t suggest anything except the period. Number four is mysterious, if a bit dull, but it does hint at the issue of duality in the same way number two suggests identity. Just who is that behind the gears?