How to Judge a Book by Its Cover

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There. I said it. I told myself this was not my battle, that I should remain an casual observer rather than a participant. But the debate rages on, and I can’t help myself.

In what I assume (in my limited knowledge of the publishing world) to be true publishing style, the book has been re-released with a new cover, informing those of us who might not have been aware before that this is, indeed, an anniversary edition. No problems so far.

Yeah, right.

Critics, teachers, readers, and writers have latched onto the cover with steely fervor, berating it as misleading, confusing, and contradictory. Readers, they fear, will think The Bell Jar is nothing but chick lit, a “light and fluffy read.” The cover gives the wrong impression, they say. The book has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with angst. It is an offense to Plath as an author and an offense to The Bell Jar as a literary work.

I see the merit of these arguments. However, I think we’re all being nearsighted. We are missing the point.

Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the fact that after fifty years readers still find The Bell Jar hauntingly relevant, that despite the social changes that have occurred readers still find something with which they identify? There’s something to be said for the fortitude of such a book, published first under a pseudonym. Instead of focusing on the book’s cover, can we instead give readers the benefit of the doubt? Can we allow the unknowing to make the glorious mistake of stumbling accidentally, if that is possible, onto a work from which they might otherwise have shied away? Critics of the cover seem to be under the impression that readers today are not discerning enough to know what The Bell Jar is, that readers today cannot read the blurb on the back of the book (or inside the front cover flap) and tell that Plath’s work is not a sip-on-a-soda-and-read time killer. 

I find it odd that in a culture that so values the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra for every other aspect of life we so willingly embrace that judgement when it comes to actual books. There is a lot to be said for a cover, yes. And generally speaking it is, perhaps, the first thing to which we are drawn. That, however, does not form the only basis on which we choose what we read. It does not negate the reader’s ability to distinguish content from presentation. 

I say that to say this: given that Plath’s novel has withstood fifty years of readership and criticism, it is possible that we are allowing the cover too much importance. For some the cover will never be right; certain people will always be finding fault. And while the cover is a visual representation of the novel, it is not the novel itself. The Bell Jar can and will speak for itself, whether it is accidentally or deliberately read. 

 


Novel Thoughts: The Grievers by Marc Schuster

Adulthood is a wonderful thing. We evolve from pimply teenage mess into responsible, productive members of society. At least that’s the ideal progression. But for some of us, the voice of the inner child doesn’t fade as readily. For some of us, it becomes difficult to let go and face reality, so we hold onto that which keeps us innocent, inculpable. And somehow it becomes easy to maintain this childlike revery. That is until the reality of adulthood comes hurdling towards us at full steam like a bully in the halls of Anywhere USA High School.

Marc Schuster’s Charley Schwartz of The Grievers is one such individual. Throughout the novel, readers will find themselves growing increasingly frustrated with Charley until they realize that he represents the parts of themselves that they must deny in order to function as adults. In many ways, Charley behaves in a manner that we have all envied at some point. He is sarcastic, irreverent at times, and completely unsure of his adult self. This uncertainty of just what it means to be an adult is precisely what allows Charley to ingratiate himself with readers. By the time he comes to the realization that none of us is sure what it really means to be an adult, readers are already sympathetic to his plight.

The Grievers contains a number of examples of people we could all be, paths we might have taken when we reached the proverbial crossroads that separate childhood from adulthood, and it is interesting to note that no one seems completely confident of their decision. Some characters are better at faking it than others, but for the most part, everyone involved in the story is operating under some sort of pretense, a quality that lends itself to both believability and relatability. Anyone reading The Grievers will find someone with whom they can identify, and it becomes very comforting to note that everyone has uncertainties.

While the story itself is very realistic and the portrayal of the characters makes them both endearing and frightening, there are times throughout the book when the dialogue seems better suited to reading than to speaking. In other words, people don’t really talk that way. However, these instances are so few and far between that they do not detract from the novel, its purpose, or its impact.

The Grievers is an ideal novel for those of us who sometimes seek to read books with which we can commiserate, rather than books into which we can escape. It allows us to be more aware of our humanity, while learning to accept it (flawed though it may be) at the same time.

The Grievers will be available for purchase in May 2012. In the meantime, interested readers can get more information here and here.


Novel Thoughts: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Media-painted portraits of Afghanistan are rarely favorable. What we see on the television and in newspapers and magazines exposes a war-torn country where everyday life is precarious and little to no order exists for its citizens. Over the last decade, the emotions of the American public have run the gamut from enraged to indifferent regarding the state of that country and the continued presence there of the US. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, however, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon carefully weaves the true story of what it’s like to live in a Taliban-centered world.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story of the Sidiqi family and begins in 1996 when the Taliban first came to occupy Kabul. Through Kamila’s story and that of her family readers are able to see the human face of the conflict-ridden country, a valuable history for those of us who aren’t necessarily well-educated regarding the history of the Middle East prior to the events of September 11.

Lemmon’s writing style allows the reader to forget, if only momentarily, that she is in fact telling a factual story. Sure, details have been changed, altered, or omitted for the sake of safety, but nonfiction is not at all infallible as a genre. The storytelling style used in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads as though it is fiction until Lemmon includes a detail that makes the story altogether too real.

Kamila, the “protagonist” of the story, comes to be the head of her family when her parents are forced to move north after the Taliban occupation. Through her ingenuity she is able to sustain not only her own family but numerous other families in her neighborhood as well. Her story is one of intrigue, perseverance, daring, and danger, a timeless inspiration for any reader.

Although the book seems to be ultimately geared toward a female audience, both males and females will enjoy the history related in Kamila’s life story. Through the book, we come to learn that the conflict within the borders of Afghanistan was not initiated just prior to September 11, that the conflict had in fact been raging there for a number of years, something not necessarily pointed out in media reports today. Readers are also educated as to the difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, an important detail since we generally tend to conflate the two terms.

By the end of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, readers will have gained a better sense of what it meant to live in Afghanistan then and what it means to live there now. While it remains certain that there are pockets of resistance (as there have been for a number of years), a sense of hope also remains, a hope that someday the country and its citizens will again assume their normal ways of life without the added stresses of war and conflict.


What’s New?: Celebrate Like the Dickens

Capital L Literature is slippery to define, even on the best of days. Generation after generation has struggled to define the qualities inherent in Literature (as opposed to literature, or the stuff that populates both the bestseller list and the book stands in local grocery stores). We ponder over innumerable cups of coffee what it means to be part of the great literary canon: what characteristics link the greats to one another? How can those characteristics be replicated? How do we define them in concrete terms? What happens when we try?

Over the years, the literary canon has changed, multiplied, divided, become inclusive and exclusive all at once. But some things never change. Some authors remain constant fixtures in Literature, and no amount of debating, dissecting, or declaiming can ratchet them from their honorable places.

Among these sit illustrious, albeit misunderstood, literary geniuses (the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Poe, and Louise May Alcott), of whom Charles Dickens is one. Today marks what would have been the author’s 200th birthday, and a celebration is seemingly in order.

Even those who are not readers of his works have been influenced in some way by Dickens. His story A Christmas Carol has become part of the holiday catalogue, inspiring animated films and Christmas decorations. The film and television industry has been arguably generous to Dickens, ensuring that each generation has its theatrical embodiment of the classic holiday tale, and each generation has bent the story to its purpose.

Dickens’s works are full of one-liners familiar to us all for one reason or another:

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

“Please, sir, may I have some more?”

“Bah humbug.”

And for these the world owes a debt of gratitude. Not only have they illuminated poignant moments in literature, but they have also provided the masses with entertainment and laughter at their own expense.

To say that Dickens had a way with words seems trite and inadequate. The names of his characters alone are enough to inspire both readers’ and writers’ imaginations. One needs little more than the name of a character in any given story to understand the true nature of him. Take, for example, Wackford Squeers of Nicholas Nickleby or Lord Verisopht of the same novel. While Dickens has absolved himself of outwardly accusing these characters of certain natures, their names provide the reader with enough context to form an opinion before the character has even acted.

Dickens had a knack for making a point with his work without overtly using his authorial voice to comment on the state of his world. In Nicholas Nickleby, for example, he uses Squeers and Smike to illustrate the deplorable conditions of boys’ schools, but he allows the text to resolve the problem, allowing Wackford Squeers his just deserts.

Important writers, those with canonical staying power, are few and far between. Many aspire to greatness, but few are able to achieve it. Today we celebrate one of the few who did, one who gave to the world more than he could have ever realized in the voices of Tiny Tim, Pip, and Oliver Twist. For this a celebration is indeed in order.


Novel Thoughts: Separate Beds by Elizabeth Buchan

Elizabeth Buchan’s Separate Beds weaves together many different stories to which many of her readers will be able to relate. Annie and Tom, arguably the main story’s protagonists are struggling with marital, familial, and economical woes, and their children are not faring much better. The story is realistically told and the characters realistically constructed in a way that adequately portrays the hardships with which they are dealing without over simplifying or hyperbolizing.

Buchan takes a tone of hopeful realism in relating the various tribulations of the family in the novel. Readers will find them sympathetic and relatable given each different set of circumstances. Since the reader’s life could potentially mirror that of any character in the novel, the predictability and tidiness to be found at the book’s end become assets instead of liabilities.

However, while the story ends nicely enough, it takes its time getting there. After awhile, readers might become overwhelmed by the sense of boredom associated with books that have become long-winded. Most subplots are given far too much attention, causing the story to drag its feet across the finish line, and one of the most important subplots, arguably THE most important, while embedding itself in some way into every subplot, is only superficially dealt with at the book’s end.

Despite its eventual slow crawl to its finish, Separate Beds gives readers a chance to interact with characters similar to themselves without the gloom and doom imposed so often on them by reality. Readers will find themselves contented and hopeful at the novel’s end, an end that engenders positive feelings for the reader’s own life.