by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Random Photographs”

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Posted 27 June 2008 in by Catriona

It never fails: I no sooner actually write a post about how I have nothing to post about than I think of fifteen different possibilities for entries.

In this case, though, I was sitting this afternoon desultorily flipping through the rats’ packs in Packrat—hoping a raincloud would pop up for me, but it never did—when I kept focusing on Judging A Book By Its Cover, a collection of essays edited by Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody that I recently reviewed for M/C Reviews.

I’m fascinated by reader-response work—though frequently horribly frustrated by it, as well—and it formed a key element of my thesis.

I’m also fascinated by the marketing of fiction, though not quite in the same way as the essays covered in Judging A Book By Its Cover, which focuses largely on twentieth-century publications: my nineteenth-century interests have more to do with advertising and networks of authorship than with graphic design.

But the book did make me realise that I have some books with truly hideous covers on my shelves.

(Of course, I also have a wide number of books with gorgeous covers; I may do a companion post once I’ve finished this one.)

These aren’t the worst, but they’re all fairly awful.

Of course, picking a 1970s reprint of an Agatha Christie novel is rather like shooting fish in a barrel; they’re all dreadful, really.

But this is one of the worst:

That poor owl.

I haven’t actually read this novel, I’m ashamed to admit (I only picked it up in May this year, judging by my inscription) so I have no idea whether a brutally murdered owl is central to the plot, but it’s certainly not something you want to look at on your bedside table as you’re dropping off to sleep.

Of course, I picked Endless Night over two others, which I think have much more revolting covers: Lord Edgeware Dies shows the back of a man’s head with a knife sticking out of the nape of his neck, while By The Pricking Of My Thumbs gives prime position to the broken, dirty head of a porcelain doll.

(That latter instance may not freak out other people as it does me, but creepy dolls are right up there with clowns in the terror factor, as far as I’m concerned.)

Either way, neither of them were images that I wanted on the blog.

If 1970s’ Agatha Christies are too easy a target, so are 1980s’ Rex Stouts. At least Endless Night probably never stood a chance. The image above is from a 1971 reprint, but the novel itself was published in 1967, and would almost certainly have always had a hideous cover.

But this cover of Some Buried Caesar is a 1982 reprint of one of the earliest Nero Wolfe mysteries, from 1938:

By all rights, this should have some lovely, elegant typography and minimalist artwork. Instead, we have a grimacing man about to be speared by a pitchfork (if it helps, he’s already dead. Spoiler!) and a fairly ugly font.

It doesn’t really seem fair, for one of the funniest and cleverest of the Wolfe mysteries.

But then, I revere Stout, so perhaps I’m taking up the cudgels on his behalf a little too readily.

But then, I also revere Sayers, and I’ve included this in the list:

This, like Stout, is a 1980s’ reprint of a 1930s’ novel: in this case, the 1988 edition of 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon. They’re dreadful editions—the type of paperbacks where the glue shatters after a decade, so every time you read it subsequently there’s a constant gentle rain of yellowish fragments into your lap.

Really, it doesn’t look as bad as the preceding examples. The font is rather pretty and period appropriate, and I rather like the portrait of Wimsey, although I suspect it flatters him.

But it gives away vital information.

Sayers’s (or rather, Wimsey’s) technique comes down to this: when you know how, you know who. This cover, then, gives away the murderer, if you read it the right way. And that always irritates me. (My copy of Ngaio Marsh’s Grave Mistake does the same: it’s as though they were designed by people who went on to write programme promos for Channel 7. But then Marsh’s title is a dead giveaway, as well.)

Still on the crime theme, how about a late edition Trixie Belden? This one’s from 1984: there’s no evidence that it’s a reprint and it’s a late title in the series, so it looks as though someone deliberately marketed a new title with this cover.

I mentioned in my second post on Tunnels the widely popular belief that boys won’t read books with girl protagonists—I wonder if that’s behind the androgynous image of Trixie in the middle of the cover.

I mean, I know she’s a tomboy, but honestly. She looks like Jimmy Olsen.

She’s more feminine in the bottom picture, assuming that’s her in the bottom-left corner next to Honey Wheeler.

Still, I’ve saved the best for last. This, I suspect, is the worst cover on my entire bookshelf:

This is a reprint—undated, alas—in the Abbey Rewards series, a series of reprinted novels sharply divided on gender lines: the list of “Girls’ Fiction” on the back includes Rosamund Takes The Lead, Sidney Seeks Her Fortune, and Polly of Primrose Hill, while “Boys’ Fiction” encourages them to read Adrift in the Stratosphere, Wreckers’ Bay, and Berenger’s Toughest Case.

The book itself is an inoffensive if unoriginal school story, but the cover is nightmarish.

No—I’ve unwittingly told a lie.

What Katy Did Next (1886) is the third of Susan Coolidge’s five novels about the Carr children and their lives in New England in the 1860s.

What Katy Did Next, actually, shows Katy travelling to Europe and meeting a handsome naval lieutenant with whom she could live happily ever after.

Some time in the distant past, I bought a copy of What Katy Did Next from this Abbey Rewards series.

If I hadn’t subsequently removed it from the house on the grounds that the enormous eyes and hideously disproportionate heads scared me witless, that would certainly have been the gem of this list.

It Wouldn't Be Winter (Or Nearly Winter)

Posted 24 June 2008 in by Catriona

If I didn’t drink so much coffee that I can only prevent myself from bouncing off the walls through sheer effort of will, and then upload a picture of my feet onto the Internet while listening to a Nine Inch Nails cover of a Joy Division song.

At least, that is the ritual by which I shall be celebrating the advent of winter from now on.

Inanimate Objects Have the Cutest Faces

Posted 2 June 2008 in by Catriona

Today, I decided that I wasn’t going to start my marking, but instead give myself a long weekend after what has been an exhausting if thoroughly enjoyable semester.

I’m not even entirely sure what I did do today, except that it was very little: if you don’t count chatting to friends via Facebook, drinking coffee, listening to Elvis Costello, reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and enjoying the rain—and I don’t count those things.

But some time during the afternoon, I decided to play a spontaneously invented game called “Let’s see what interesting photographs I can take in my living room.” This is no doubt connected to my new passion for putting photographs on the blog. (And, really, who doesn’t like looking at photographs on the Internet?)

But then it turned out that the most interesting pictures were all the little inanimate faces that watch me every day from various perches around the room.

Most of these objects are connected to my childhood: old toys and so forth, now relegated (or elevated, depending on your attitude towards toys) to the status of ornaments. Not all of them are very ornamental, but I like having them around.

Take my Puggles, for instance:

(They’re very difficult to take a clear photograph of, the velvety little things. And yes, that is a Star Trek-branded magazine file behind them.)

Do people still remember Puggles? (People who visited back in the days when I used to store them on the back of the sofa probably remember them, since they’ve almost certainly been beaned in the head with them while blamelessly watching television—I know I have. Although they aren’t, strictly speaking, beanbags at all; they’re filled with crushed walnut shells, which is a fact that used to fascinate me as a child.)

Puggles were all the rage back when I was, I suppose, seven or eight? Maybe younger?

But they were toys that came with their own particular brand of nightmare.

Puggles arrived in little, velvet, drawstring bags; in fact, the bags were made out of the same material as the Puggles themselves, but I have never considered—until now—whether that meant that the bags were made out of the skins of other, less-fortunate Puggles.

That’s not the nightmarish part.

The bags had brass-encircled holes in the centre, for you to poke the Puggles’ noses out of. And you were sternly exhorted, in an accompanying pamphlet, to make sure you put the Puggles in the bag at night—otherwise, hunters would come along and grab them, to make them into Puggle pies.

And people think we’re destroying the current generation’s innocence.

I wonder sometimes how many hunters crept into my room at night, while I had the Puggles hanging off the posts of my bed, only to be foiled by the fact that the Puggles were in bags.

It boggles the mind.

Or what about Strawberry Shortcake?

Neither of these is Strawberry Shortcake, of course. The one on the left is Almond Tea. She normally wears overalls, but this particular doll was part of the “Party Pleaser” line; apparently, even tomboys have to wear skirts when they go to a party. More frightening still is the fact that these dolls were scented and, even though this one is well over twenty years old, she still smells.

(I would give the actual date, but I’ve forgotten. And, as a public service announcement, don’t try Googling “Strawberry Shortcake” and “Party Pleaser” unless you’ve got plans to bake a dessert.)

I’ve only just discovered from Wikipedia that Almond Tea is supposed to be Asian; well, Asian in a Strawberry Shortcake kind of way. Apparently, she’s from the country of “China Cup.” (Well, it was 1983 when she first appeared.)

I suppose that explains her pet, Marza Panda—alas, missing from my set, along with the doll’s plastic Mary Janes. Why are shoes always the first thing to go missing?

The other doll is Lemon Meringue; her pet, Frappe Frog, is also missing, but at least she never had shoes. She’s originally from a slumber-party range, which explains her terrifying eyes; they’re supposed to slide closed when she’s horizontal.

Now, one of them closes and the other sort of flickers for a while before settling half open. And we’re back to nightmares again.

But Mandy’s not nightmarish:

Mandy’s from a Fisher Price range called “My Friends,” from 1977. I think I must have been given her around about that time, because she was a gift from neighbours while we were still living in Scotland.

(She is a first-generation Mandy, because the cloth part of her body is pink-rosebud fabric, not the later yellow-rosebud fabric. See, wasn’t that an interesting fact?)

What I’ve always found interesting about Mandy is that I always assumed she’d come with that kicky little late-‘60s bob, but apparently she is supposed to have below-the-shoulder hair; I suppose her previous owner brought her up to date with contemporary fashions.

Mandy now lives next to Paddington Bear in the living room, which explains the “Please look after this bear” sign in the corner of the picture.

In the interests of parity, we have one of Nick’s childhood toys on Mandy’s other side:

Being as this robot is not mine, I have no fascinating information to impart and no anecdotes to tell. But he really does illustrate the title to this post: doesn’t he have the cutest face?

This doll, on the other hand, has a story:

(This isn’t a great photo—there are better ones—but I like the slight leaning to one side: she looks so nonchalant.)

This is a Kibbutznik, so-called because she was made and sold as a fund-raising exercise for one of the Israeli kibbutzes: Kibbutz Tzora, in this case.

(Interestingly, neither “kibbutz” or “kibbutznik” trigger off the spelling filter: the first I can understand; the second is stranger. I must do some more research on how broadly that term is applied now.)

The Kibbutznik was bought in Israel in 1986, when we were over there for a conference that my father was attending. I named her “Delilah,” because I was nine years old and it seemed like an appropriately biblical name.

She’s getting slightly shopworn, these days, but she’s still perhaps the most exotic doll on the shelf, even if she is being used as a book-end.

The final image isn’t a childhood toy but, given the title of the post, I couldn’t leave him out:

I love this dog’s little face beyond reason.

As best as I can tell, this is a modern Chinese or—more likely—Japanese knock-off of a well-known English model, probably a Staffordshire dog. (Staffordshire the potters, that is—not a Staffordshire bull terrier. I would link to a picture, but the only ones that I can find are from antiques dealers and will probably expire, causing irritating dead links.)

But what I love most is the fact that, at some point, someone stood back and thought, “You know what this dog needs? Eyebrows!”

Now it has a wickedly sardonic look that, combined with the slight backward tilt to the head, makes it seem as though it’s looking down on everything else in the living room.

This was a Christmas present from my parents, which meant it met two criteria: it was bought at auction well before Christmas and my mother displayed it in her living room for about six months, getting more and more attached to it in the process.

The end result was this conversation:

MUM: Mind, he looks good sitting next to the fireplace.
ME: No.
MUM: Oh, no, I know he’s yours.
ME: Damn skippy!
MUM: Oh, is that what you’re going to call him?

So Damn Skippy he is, the supercilious little hound.

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