Tacky Covers: Books from Our Shelves

I was discouraged when I searched our shelves for books with tacky covers to find mostly Penguins, Viragos, and other beautifully-designed books. We have great taste.

That was not always the case: there used to be cheap mass market paperbacks. For instance, my dad’s copy of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 featured a scantily-clad woman on the cover, probably modeled after Elizabeth Taylor, who stars in the film.  (We have a Modern Library hardback of O’Hara’s short novels!)  And a green-haired woman adorned the cover of my first copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

I did find a few books with ridiculous covers, though. Tacky, tacky!

These quasi-pornographic covers bear no relation to the content of Jane Gaskell’s books.  In 1979, Ms. magazine praised the English fantasy writer’s five-book Atlan saga.   I have read these whimsical feminist novels twice:  the narrator, Cija, a cranky princess raised in a tower, has been told erroneously that men are extinct.  When she is taken  hostage by the Dragon-General Zerd, her nurse exhorts her to seduce and assassinate him.  Well, Cija is just out of the tower! She is not an assassin. Throughout the saga, Cija remains his enemy, though, and later tries to protect an Edenic continent, Atlan, from Zerd’s invasion.

Gaskell is a compelling, entertaining writer, with an eye for detail and a talent for witty dialogue.  The hardcovers have perfectly tasteful covers, by the way. 

Julian Barnes once wrote in the  London Review of Books that we don’t need more translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  He suggested that publishers commission new translations of Balzac’s lesser-known works, including the neglected novel, Seraphita

I  tracked down a Dedalus European Classic paperback of Seraphita with a hideous cover and an awkward 1901 translation by Clara Bell. The book jacket avers that it is the story of “the angelic and mysterious hermaphrodite Seraphita, who seems to inspire love in all she meets.” 
I did not enjoy it.  Was it the translation?

The cover illustration of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Rigadoon, “Wounded Soldier,”by Otto Dix, horrifies me. According to the jacket copy, the novel “re-creates a nightmarish trek through Germany in the last days of World War II.” I would be more likely to read this if the cover were less repulsive, but I would have to be in a dark mood. 

The award-winning Clifford D. Simak is one of my favorite science fiction writers.  I loved his novel, City, a charming story of talking dogs, left behind on Earth by humans as archivists of the human experience.  His later books are uneven:  he has gone astray in Shakespeare’s Planet (1979). And what a cover!            

In the 1980s, Frederick Barthelme was a critically- acclaimed novelist, but most of his books are out-of-print. The Baltimore Sun said of his novel, Tracer:  “He does for 7-Eleven what Edward Hopper did for the all-night diner.”  

Nonetheless, this cover is completely off:  what is that yellow thing with the pink crest?   

I love Frederick Barthelme’s books, though.

6 thoughts on “Tacky Covers: Books from Our Shelves”

  1. Céline’s Rigadoon is the third part of an autobiographical trilogy. Céline himself was a deranged anti-semite – so extreme that even the nazis noticed. He collaborated with the nazis and ran to save his life, so while the cover isn’t pretty, it is very appropriate – especially as Céline’s madness may have been associated with head wounds he received in WWI – and warns you what you’ll get.
    I wonder what the covers of the first two books are like.

    1. Yes, and his novels are extremely depressing, too. Kurt Vonnegut and other American writers defended Celine in the ’60and wrote intros to his books, which they claimed were pushing the envelope in literature and were disliked because they were so disburbing.

      He’s not for me, though

  2. When I go to book sales I like to look through the old sci-fi and fantasy for the crazy covers. (I find that Shakespeare’s Planet cover hilarious.) Gaskell is a new author to me–I’m definitely going to try to hunt down one of her books.

    The weird monstery thing on the Barthelme cover resembles an inflatable pool float that existed back then.

    1. Yes, SF/fantasy covers – especially the old ones ones – are bizarrely funny. We buy those at sales, too.I It’s a pity about Gaskell’s covers: no feminist will buy them.

      And thanks for identifying the monster at the pool!

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