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 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.