30 September 2013

Dust Jacket : Every Day

Every Day
Jacket art by: Adam Abernathy

I love me some black and white photography. Even more so if the tone of the print is icy cold.

The cover to this really great young adult novel takes those loves and adds another - off-white paper.

In these covers posts I don't usually read the book I'm talking about. It's meant to be about the design only.

BUT. Read this book.

David Levithan is a great author. Every Day is about a person who wakes up a different teenager each day. Different sex, different race, different everything. The main character falls in love and must overcome the weirdness of the relationship. It manages to be a perfect metaphor for general teen angst, transgender issues, gay issues, etc. So so so so good. Read now.

Now that I got my infomercial out of the way.

This cover immediately reminds me of:

Garnet Lake (2010) - Peter Essick
 Person Floating - Jens Sage
The sense of wonder in it. Of drifting. It is beautiful.

Outside of the photo work, the use of a window motif makes the whole thing feel like we, the reader holding the book, are watching this scene from inside our own home. Do we open the window or not?

It's a nice visual nod to the role of reader and author. That promise that something awesome may lie inside. If you open the cover.

Dust Jacket is a sometime article about the design and art of book covers. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the work of the designer separate from the author. Literally judging a book by its cover.

05 September 2013

Review : Emmaus

Author: Alessandro Baricco
Publisher: McSweeney's
Date: 7/16/13

Have you seen Andre?

With that question Alessandro Baricco begins a study of teenage boys and the perils of becoming an adult.

What’s interesting about books like this – coming of age tales – is that they all follow a basic formula. A narrator will make it through. Some bad shit will go down for everyone else. Chances are one will die. One will fall into drugs/sex. Etc. And that formula is mostly a lie. I don't know anyone who lived a life like this. And the closest to it was hardly this dramatic.

There are totemic films in this vein: Stand By Me, My Girl, The Virgin Suicides. Both the film and book versions of The Virgin Suicides weigh heavily over this short book.

The four main boys in Baricco's book obsess over Andre. She is the archetypal aloof, sexy, free-wheeling girl who hangs out with older men and gives blow jobs in the back of cars. The boys circle in periphery, judging. Like Eugenides Greek chorus of unnamed boys, ours are called Bobby, Saint, Luca, and the unnamed narrator. The names feel like aliases.

It all feels like the unnamed boys from Eugenides 1993 debut given more agency in the tale. When he is asked that opening question the narrator responds with “Everywhere”. And it is literal. Our boys follow Andre’s every move, or are aware of it. She is living a life that they can only dream of. She personifies something they cannot speak out loud. It all feels calmly juvenile and benign.

At first.

That’s because our boys are also obsessive Catholics. They stew in a blind self-righteousness that oozes ‘this is what I was taught and I don’t question it’. They perform as a band for mass. They volunteer at the hospital where they empty bags of urine from bed-ridden men. They show up at Andre's house to get her mother to send her to confession.

The homoerotic nature of the Catholic church enters in the hospital. The boys must handle these men. Remove tubes from penises. Then we are told that priests touch thighs and it is ok. That they love Andre because she is masculine. By the time the narrator tells us about giving a hand job to a transvestite prostitute we must question what these boys are up to.

What follows is the destruction of childhood. A literal destruction of the children. All four are torn apart. The tropes neatly checked off. Death, murder, drugs, sex. A vague non-redemptive redemption.

Through the imagery of Catholicism we are treated to metaphors of original sin, Lazarus, the Madonna. Special focus is paid to the Virgin and Christ child. And here is where Barrico draws the closest to his Virgin Suicide inspiration. Andre is pregnant, no one knows the father. She is suicidal. Luca's father is suicidal. Luca is suicidal. They stare longingly at the dark waters of a river.

We learn that Andre tried to commit suicide the year before. That she was ‘insoluble’ to both life and death. The boys seem to follow her there. Only our narrator makes it back to the beginning. A church. A band playing at mass. Him staring into their faces and seeing himself. And then Andre, in the back of the church, staring forward.

There is no movement. They begin where they end. Saint tells the narrator late in the book that there was no ‘before’ Andre. That they were always who they were. There is no nostalgia to be had for a lost childhood. They just grew into who they were. And that seems to be the whole point of Emmaus. A sense of death and resurrection. But the death is childhood's end and adulthood's start and I am not entirely sure that those are real things.

The bleakness feels terrible. Beautiful. Though Baricco’s prose and brevity save this book from being a mere pastiche on Eugenides or Sophia Coppola’s film, it feels too much like a retelling from Virgin Suicides unnamed boys perspective. Which may be reductive. The revelation of Eugenides was that is was book about girls through the eyes of men. This is a book about boys through their own eyes. It is a beautifully written story. But one that has been told many times. And few childhood's resembled the ones portrayed within these pages.

Saint’s final words to the narrator are “Nothing ever happened.” And they may be the truest saddest words ever written. The prose saves this otherwise cliched story. I feel like this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn't. The writing is magical and captivating. The story pulls you in with atmosphere and a touch of mystery. It's short so you will fly through it in a sitting.

I just wish that there were other ways of telling growing up stories. Ways that weren't so loaded with guilt and fear and adult feelings of loss of something. Something that never really existed.

02 September 2013

Hadrian the Seventh

The official List of Popes spans 21 centuries of human history. It begins with St. Peter and ends, obviously, with Francis. In between are 266 men. A few highlights:

St. Peter by Peter Paul Rubens
- From August 1799 - March 1800 there was no Pope. The previous, Pius VI, died in France while imprisoned by Napoleon. There have been 4 other breaks between Popes. Those were for 2 or 3 years and were mainly caused by politics in the church.

Pope-elect Stephen died 3 days after being elected and before his ordination. The Catholic church removed him from the official list of Popes in 1961. Though Stephen's after him counted him in the number after their names.

Benedict IX was Pope 3 times. He was deposed all twice and sold the Papacy to Gregory VI because he wanted to marry. What's amazing is that he became Pope the third time AFTER he sold the seat.

John Paul II has the third longest reign behind Pius IX and St. Peter. He was Pope for 26 years. Pius IX for almost 32. St. Peter is said to have reigned for 34 years.

Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953
This is just scratching the surface. This leaves out the Borgia Popes and the 41 Anti-Popes. And when Pius IX declared himself Prisoner of the Vatican in 1870 and the title stuck until 1929. And countless other things.

My favorite Pope-related artifact is the series of Pope Innocent X paintings by Francis Bacon. In all, there are 45 variations. Bacon was painting after the famous Velázquez painting of Innocent X.

I've always loved the horror in the paintings. The feeling of a caged soul. A trapped thing. That yawning mouth eating the world.

It is critique without being critique. Bacon famously said that he painted the Pope because he merely sought "an excuse to use these colours, and you can't give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner."

I bring up Popes because I just finished reading Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe. The book concerns George Rose, an Englishman who is basically elected Pope on accident after Leo XIII dies in 1903. What follows is one year in the life of the new Pope. He sells off the Vatican jewels and forces Europe to redefine its borders. And then he is assassinated by socialists.

Fr. Rolfe
The book is an interesting look at church politics. There are pages of Papal machinations and in-fighting. There is a scene where Hadrian removes his Papal ring and confronts his Cardinals not as Pope but as George Rose that is one of the most interesting exchanges I've read recently. The compartmentalization that Hadrian/Rose puts himself through to allow himself to BE Pope is amazing.

Frederick Rolfe's book is also mostly a thinly coated wish. He was a failed Catholic priest. He shortened his name to Fr. so people would think he was a friar. The book reads like one long fever dream of a man who felt that the world owed him more. And for that alone, you should go read it. Each page is a screed on what Rolfe thinks the church should be doing vs. what they are doing.

I could discuss Rolfe's at length, but will just add that he dabbled in photography. Of young boys. He was an open homosexual in Victorian England. He died alone and penniless in Venice at the age of 53. And he carried on a long distance affair through love-letters and poems with a priest.