For every book I read in 2018, I’m designing an alternate cover and writing a short book review.
There are a lot of reasons I’m excited (and also nervous) about this project. I love book design. I often love the existing covers of the books I read, which makes it tough to think about alternate design ideas. But this is something I love about design – there are multiple solutions to any design problem, and every designer will arrive at a different end result. I thought it would be fun to approach each alternate cover as a challenge to myself to iterate – even when I think the existing cover is damn near perfect.
I’m also stoked to do some writing for this project, something very far outside my comfort zone. I love to read, but I tend to breeze through books and don’t always do a great job of sitting with the content I intake. With this project, I want to challenge myself to choose books that will add something to my life and worldview, and engage with reading in a different way by doing some brief critical writing myself. This might mean reading fewer books than usual this year, but will hopefully lead to a deeper understanding of what I do read.
You can follow along with this project here on my website, or on my Instagram. And if you have any book recs for this project, please send my way!
"The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: 'All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies." - Cat's Cradle, pg. 5
Have you read Cat's Cradle? Have you re-read it? My first read was when I was 14 or 15, but reading it again now was like "Ohhhh most of this went way over my head." The book was published in 1963 - a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the midst of the Cold War - and looks at how people and societies deal with something as big and uncontrollable as the threat of nuclear war. It's critical of religion, but in a somewhat affectionate way. It's quite critical of science as well, particularly of the idea that scientific research exists outside any moral implications.
The book is told through the eyes of a journalist named John who, through the course of his work, becomes acquainted with the children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a physicist who helped develop the atom bomb. Hoenikker's three children each have in their possession a crystal of ice-nine, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and freezes any molecules it comes into contact with. Their father developed ice-nine on a whim, inspired solely by curiosity and without any concern for how it might be used as a weapon. His kids are just about the worst people you would want to have a substance like that in their possession - vain, selfish, and irresponsible in very human ways.
Much of the book takes place on the island of San Lorenzo, where the narrator goes on assignment to meet with the oldest son of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, accompanied by the other two Hoenikker siblings and a whole zany cast of characters. Life in San Lorenzo is extremely difficult - the people are poor, the ruler is a cruel dictator, and the land is inhospitable. The residents deal with their lot in life by believing fervently in a new religion called Bokononism, created by an exiled saint who once ruled the island. The Books of Bokonon are a balm to the suffering on the island, an example of religion as something purely functional to help a people or society through difficulty. Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut uses humor throughout the book to help readers through the nihilistic and oftentimes hopeless circumstances he describes. And it is hella funny.
The only thing I didn't wholeheartedly enjoy about the book was that its treatment of some of the characters of color and women felt two dimensional. It was written in the 1960s so a lot of the attitudes are just outdated, but in particular I cringed at the character of Mona Aamons. Mona is a sex symbol on San Lorenzo, the adopted daughter of the island's dictator. We see her through the eyes of the besotted narrator who objectifies and overly eroticizes her. It's a bummer, especially because I would have liked to learn more about her character outside of that extremely flattening lens.
But I still love this book and would definitely recommend it. It has a lot of interesting things to say that still feel super relevant. And honestly it feels weird writing this review, when I can't do much justice to the things Vonnegut says really well. So here are some excellent quotes that I particularly enjoyed:
"God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely. "Everything must have a purpose?" asked God. "Certainly," said man. "Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God. And He went away.”
"He had a dazzling talent for spending millions without increasing mankind's stores of anything but chagrin." (sounds like a certain POS currently occupying the White House).
"I could carve a better man out of a banana."
“Maturity...is knowing what your limitations are...Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.”
“Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
"See the cat? See the cradle?"
Alternate Cover Notes: It was tough to think of something new for the cover design, since there are so many nice existing covers for this book. I liked the idea of having the apostrophe in "Cat's" be a crystal of ice-nine that froze the title. And I also wanted to have a yarn cat's cradle binding the two C's. The lettering style and color choices are whimsical to reflect the tone of the book.
The first in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation is the story of four women who make up the 12th expedition to a strange, abandoned environment called Area X. As part of their training to enter Area X, the women are stripped of their names and discouraged from relating to one another on a personal level. They refer to themselves and each other solely by their occupations: the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the psychologist. The story is told from the point of view of the biologist, who has a complicated personal history which colors her narration and understanding of events. Part of what led her to Area X was that her husband was a volunteer in a previous expedition. He came back home, but he was deeply changed.
Area X is truly creepy. It’s an uninhabited environment near the ocean that used to be home to a small town. It’s a place that is in many ways beautiful and familiar like a protected natural habitat, but slightly off – you get the feeling that the environment is predatory in some way. There’s an eerie quality in Vandermeer’s writing that makes even the most banal details seem ominous and ill-fated. I think I read the whole book with my shoulders slightly tensed.
I don’t want to give too much away, but for me, the book was always unexpected and always interesting. From a narrative standpoint, I was really compelled by the character of the biologist and unexpectedly moved by the story of her relationship with her husband. There was something pretty human about it to me – the ways we can take a connection for granted or not see it clearly until it’s gone. I think the through line of their relationship grounds the book and helps it transcend the confines of the “New Weird” genre. If you read it, you should expect to be thoroughly creeped out, but you might also find yourself appreciating the more human aspects of the story.
Ideal location to read this book: In a sparsely populated environment with extreme ecological diversity and other-worldly landscapes. Iceland, or maybe Greenland?
Overused literary device: At several points in the book there were moments of heavy tension that seemed to be leading to a big reveal, and then the biologist would make a complete left turn in her narration to talk about some detail of her childhood or marriage that would eventually tie back to the current situation she was in. I couldn’t figure out why the author did this. He may have been hoping to draw out the suspense, but for me it just undercut the tension in the scene and made me want to rush through the biologist’s backstory to get back to the cliffhanger. If I ever read the book again, I’m sure I’ll be able to enjoy those detours more, but the first time around it felt frustrating. Kind of like when The Last Jedi would go from the Luke / Rey / Kylo scenes to…literally anything else in the movie. Just kidding, The Last Jedi was awesome in it’s entirety. Okay, maybe we didn’t need the casino planet scenes. But I stand by the Poe/Admiral Holdo storyline. He learned a valuable lesson!
Number of times I had to stop reading and remind myself I was safe at home and not anywhere near Area X: At least a dozen
Alternate Cover Notes: For the cover design, I pulled from one of the most evocative images in the book for me. The expedition members come across a tunnel, or tower, and inside they find words written in cursive raised out of moss and vegetation. I wanted to make the illustration eerie – a bright, glowing green – but beautiful at the same time, true to the vibe of Area X.