She Weeps Each Time You're Born
Despite what you might think, non-existent reader, book club has not ceased to exists just yet, nor have I personally stopped caring or learning about said book club books, the artwork that covers them, and the type that helps tell our favorite characters stories. But as a freelancer, work comes in waves, and as of late, I’m finally able to catch my breath.
Since my last post, there have been a few posts I've been intending to write since I've gotten off track—from borrowing my friends advanced readers edition of the latest Miranda July book, to admiring Wave with Bluets while crying, and as many designers probably would, appreciating the beauty of the constraints found in Sphinx—which, unsurprisingly was noted to be one of the best covers of 2015 from Casual Optimist. Crap, that's another one too, all the beautiful, exciting, but long and forgiving lists of the hottest book covers of 2015. But as I mentioned, and as every freelancer knows, work comes in waves, and for the past few months I’ve been fortunate to be extremely busy, working alongside (and remotely) with the Everlane creative team, while branding a shop in San Diego—which I will write about later. So here I am, finally able to write about the latest Book Club Book, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born.
S U M M A RY (from Amazon):
At the peak of the war in Vietnam, a baby girl is born along the Song Ma River on the night of the full moon. This is Rabbit, who will journey away from her destroyed village with a makeshift family thrown together by war. Here is a Vietnam we’ve never encountered before: through Rabbit’s inexplicable but radiant intuition, we are privy to an intimate version of history, from the days of French Indochina and the World War II rubber plantations through the chaos of postwar reunification. With its use of magical realism—Rabbit’s ability to “hear” the dead—the novel reconstructs a turbulent historical period through a painterly human lens. This is the moving story of one woman’s struggle to unearth the true history of Vietnam while simultaneously carving out a place for herself within it.
With each new book, there's always something at least mildly interesting in terms of design and production—in this case, lifecycle. I purchased my copy of She Weeps Each Time You're Born used off Amazon, as I usually do these days since I no longer have ~*that tech money*~ or a truly consistent salary. This first edition copy happened to come from the San Francisco Public Library. Yes, it has the plastic covering taped vertically on the flaps, along with the stamps and sticker to prove it (removed for post), but it also has a ThriftBooks sticker placed directly on top. It's both depressing and fascinating to think about the journey this book has made in a short amount of time, as the reason it was probably sold through ThriftBooks and BooksSquared to Amazon from the Library, was probably due to poor circulation and general disinterest—and if there's anything I've learned from this book, one that Barry jammed into my fucking head, is that life is a wheel. Life is a wheel. Life. is. a. wheel. Jesus.
I tried to not just blame it on the cover, for clearly there are other factors as to why books make this journey, and lord knows the plastic wrapped around it doesn't help. But come February of next year, Pantheon will be releasing this book in paperback form with a more modern cover, one that differs pretty drastically from the existing one. Seeing these two covers side by side, clearly under unfair circumstances since I don't have a copy, presents a fun challenge; how do you learn from the success and failures of the hardcover, which is typically released first, and apply it to the softcover (or are they designed simultaneously)? And how do you maintain the tone of the book while presenting it in a more interesting way in order to support the authors work, meeting marketing and consumer demands, all while ultimately preventing it from becoming a stale and forgotten library book? Type, color and layout, of course.
Now I don't mean to discredit the original cover, for it does seem more on point with the novel than the upcoming version, as it leaves more room for mystery while providing an eerie tone that seems genuine with the text, welcoming the reader to figure out why. The minimal background image used for the cover was based off a beautiful 1910 woodblock print, Bat Before The Moon, by Japanese artist, Biho Takashi, where inspiration for both color and layout are apparent. It is on the edge of being obvious, yes, as the moon is frequently mentioned throughout the novel, the main character herself being one who is born under a full rabbit moon, but since the title is so poetic and neglects said word, at first glance it works—you'll just have to get past the whole text stripes across the cover thing.
This text stripe issue is something the new cover resolves by adjusting the same letterforms into something easily readable so our eyes don't glaze over the text. I assume the same cover designer, Joan Wong, worked on this cover since the lettering is the same, but has since been improved with the elimination of the edge to edge stripes created by the loose leading, and decreased text size found in the original. In the process of expanding from hardcover to softcover though, the tone has been significantly altered with the use of new colors (again, I don't have a copy so this image could be particularly high exposure and contrast) and a new illustrative layout. The new tone is much more positive and optimistic with the composition of the tree and its colors, clinging to the bits of magic and folklore weaved throughout the story, abandoning the sadness to something more generic that sells.
That being said, you can easily find any reason as to why this cover could make sense for the novel, for the tree can represent the wisdom of all seeing lady, who's arms are outstretched like the branches on a tree, all hearing, all seeing. Along with the makeshift family created during times of war in order to survive, and the spirits of soldiers fallen, rising up because their stories were finally heard. And for good measure, because EVERYTHING has to have a REASON, let's just throw in the pure. white. ever-flowing breastmilk of another mother figure, spilled over the page, bringing one back to life, to follow the very map that goes as many directions as Barry so chooses. because poetry. because prose. because poetry.
Lets just hope the image above is over exposed and exaggerated for web, and the somber colors of the hard cover actually translate smoothly to the soft cover, because that seems like the best compromise between the author and marketing, to the consumer. Probably goes something like:
Sad neglected layout + Sad colors = Too sad and stale to pick up. Already dead.
Modern layout that screams Optimism + Sad colors = Well balanced. Socially acceptable.
T Y P O G R A P H Y:
She Weeps Each Time You're Born is one of my favorite books set typographically I've written about this year due to the minimalism of the type, concentrating on one specific typeface throughout. The book designer, Betty Lew, used Monotypes' Bembo, a well known legible book typeface, for the running heads and drop caps, while and taking advantage of their italicized forms for all of the poetic interludes that bring a moment of reflection as the voices tell us of the all seeing lady.
With the transition between these two realms, and the confusion the storyline brings, it is important to let the verses softly carry you without being crushed by tight leading, or being unintentionally wounded by serifs that stab. With this book, the body copy is one less thing to stress out about while you're trying to figure out the order of things in the novel itself, though you'll still have to reread a page or two, or ten.
L A S T W O R D S:
This book was a bit of a struggle for me because I just kept trying to get through it (some book club members are still trying to get through it), but it could be part of Barry's intention, for the story spans decades. It's a great novel once you're able to piece it all together and have the time to shut everyone out and get lost in it, but I wish the whole novel was written like the poetic interludes. But I guess I could just read her poetry. And only her poetry.
ANNNND SINCE IT'S CHRISTMAS ANNNNDD as you can tell by the date up top, the New Year is nearly here, which means I've been slowly, somewhat unintentionally, writing about book design-ish or something for basically a year now (next post, actually)—but I want more of it. I never made it a goal to start this, but when I found myself talking to myself about each book I figured I should start keeping track of these things. So, I suppose I should set a few general goal for next year to make some improvements to future posts. One would be to make a book cover for each book club book I read (one a month), and fill the posts with more descriptive quality content that isn't just me rambling. And though I am very selective over what I present, maybe if I finally think it's just good enough to start sharing. That's general enough to you, non-existent reader, but I know what I mean, and you can just find out later, future reader.