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BOOKS & IDEAS : JACKET COPY

Every cover tells a story

January 13, 2008|Nick Owchar; David L. Ulin

How do you classify book jacket design? As art or advertising? The answer, it seems, is somewhere in between. Of course, illustrators create arresting images to draw readers, but they also want something enduring that will be linked forever with a particular book. Since July, Publishers Weekly has featured the forum "Jackets Required," developed by the design firm Fwis, in which booksellers, readers and designers weigh in on cover designs for new works of fiction and nonfiction.

The judges here can be a pretty harsh bunch, coming down hard on Milton Glaser's design for Philip Roth's "Exit Ghost" ("Looks like it was done under the gun") and Susan Mitchell's design for Denis Johnson's Vietnam epic "Tree of Smoke" ("It's like the Pantone Swatch Trend of 1975 vomited on a book jacket").

What do they like? For one, Chip Kidd's design for Orhan Pamuk's "Other Colors" ("the classic brooding black-and-white photograph of Pamuk's hometown"). None of the raves, however, comes without contentious remarks, but that's a good thing. The result of edgy debate is excellent work, and it also makes for some entertaining reading.

-- Nick Owchar

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Invocation of my demon brother

Zachary Lazar's second novel, "Sway" (Little, Brown: 260 pp., $23.99), interweaves three iconic stories -- the rise of the Rolling Stones from 1962 through Altamont; the long, strange trip of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger; and the sorry saga of Charles Manson associate (and convicted killer) Bobby Beausoleil -- to get at the dark side of the 1960s, the moment when the Age of Aquarius imploded into Luciferian light.

It's an odd book, all glittery surfaces and collapsing possibilities, but what may be strangest is that it involves so much history we can actually see. As I read "Sway," I used the Internet as an enhancement, a way to make some pieces of the story come alive.

After finishing Lazar's account of Anger's 1947 film "Fireworks," I looked up the movie on YouTube and watched it for myself. I did the same with "Scorpio Rising," the 1964 biker film that made Anger a minor celebrity when it was banned in California.

As for Beausoleil, I discovered that he's still in prison, where he makes art and music, which he sells on a website that offers only glancing reference to his role in the 1969 Manson-directed murder of music teacher Gary Hinman.

Then, of course, there are the Stones. We all know what they look like, but even 38 years later, it's shocking to watch violence explode as they play "Sympathy for the Devil" at Altamont, as if they've invoked a force they couldn't control.

This is the point of Lazar's novel, that the 1960s were a time in which all sorts of children (the Stones, Anger and Beausoleil among them) got involved with things they didn't understand. It's also the idea behind Anger's film "Invocation of My Demon Brother," which suggests that every invocation is followed by an evocation, desire become action and then unleashed upon the world.

That's a fascinating concept, but "Sway" (an apt title the novel shares with a Stones song) raises a number of wholly contemporary questions about the way literature operates in our own digitized and archived time. Does it enhance or diffuse the power of Lazar's novel to read it in conjunction with the computer, to look up and literally watch many of its scenes? What does it mean for memory, for reading, for our own power as writers and readers to invoke and then evoke a shared fictional dream?

-- David L. Ulin

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The late Diane Middlebrook

Not long ago, the phrase "Call Diane" unexpectedly flashed in my mind. Though I knew Diane Middlebrook had been battling cancer for several years, I didn't take this as an ominous sign. Then I received the news that she had died. There are many fine obituaries that pay tribute to her singular abilities as a critic, as the provocative biographer of poet Anne Sexton and jazz musician Billy Tipton. I can add little, except that I will miss her.

We never met, but we shared phone conversations and e-mail in recent years, ever since I was dazzled by her study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, "Her Husband." In that book, she reread both poets' works in light of their relationship, and her explorations, especially of Hughes' visceral imagery, were luminous and sharp. I asked if she would share her particular brand of stardust with our readers, and she warmly responded. She graced our section with reviews possessing an intimacy and lightness that any writer knows only come after a lot of hard work. Of a book of John Ashbery's selected prose, for instance, she began:

"Nobody but a reviewer will be likely to read John Ashbery's captivating book of bite-size essays on poetry and painting straight through from beginning to end. Some pieces look tastier than others right away. . . . But don't take the bait. Arranged as they are by date of publication, the essays produce, in time-lapse glimpses, the equivalent of a memoir of how Ashbery turned himself into Ashbery."

We had things in common -- a love of Roman poetry (her final project, a biography of Ovid, will be published in 2009) and personal experience with cancer. She talked about the cellular behavior of cancer so vividly that I felt sorry for her oncologist. The same formidable curiosity that informs her literary work was powerfully abundant in the way she thought about her illness.

My final thought, though, is less about Diane than about myself. I wish I had heard that interior voice months ago and given her a call. I won't be able to open her books again without regret -- but when I do, at least I'll hear her voice.

-- N.O.

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