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Great Pretenders

Great Pretenders
Cover of Mimer by Lance Phillips

(Photo from author’s Instagram, by permission.) MIMER by Lance Phillips; Ahsahta (2014); 6 x 8 inches, 112 pages; cover design: Quemadura; interior design: Janet Holmes; type: Apollo

A couple of weeks ago in my first post, I offered a list of things a book cover could do. A lot has happened since then, both in our lives (wow!) and on this blog (whoa!). Let’s review:

It must visually entice. It must (usually) communicate the title and the identity of the author. It may illuminate, distill, or illustrate the text. It may hint or it may explicitly state. It must be disruptive to the attention, in order to attract and hold it, yet integrated well enough into its category to fill the expected function. It wraps at the same time it reveals. It should remain effective reduced to thumbnail size. It must first prompt the mind, and then the body. The book must end up in your hands.

So those are the kinds of things I’m evaluating, or at least where I’m starting, as I look at books to discuss. This week I noticed several covers that use a similar technique to attract the attention of the viewer, to turn the viewer into a reader. For lack of a better term, I’ve been calling them “faux finishes.”

Here are Mimer by Lance PhillipsThe Yolo Pages from Boost HouseThe Baltimore Atrocities by John Dermot Woods, and many a holy and obsequious tear by Carolina Maugeri—plus mention of a few more faux finishes.

MIMER by Lance Phillips

I think today is the official publication date for Lance Phillips’s new book from Ahsahta, MIMER. I happened to see the pic of the cover (above) as I scrolled through my Facebook feed. I recognized it as a design by Quemadura aka Jeff Clark, and not only because he’s a regular designer for that press—it’s spare but not cold, one of the characteristics I often appreciate in Quemadura designs. It may be hard to tell from the smallish shot here, but the front cover (and presumably the back, I just have this and a PDF) uses a photograph of a crumpled page, a sheet that’s slightly glossy and bouncing light. The title’s been scrawled tag-style in black Sharpie in the upper third, and again, upside down, in a hastier/less-legible tag below. Between them floats the author’s name, in a clean sans serif—the opposite of the titles in color, size, tone.

And that’s it.

“Thus the image is a stepping stone to the imageless” (p. 78). The spareness matches the spaciousness inside the book. I failed to count, but we’re talking minimalism. Most of the pages contain only a few phrases or sentences, many just a single line. Page 14 says only this: “The dahlias were surely beautiful as were their measurements and descriptions.”

Here’s a page from the title poem, in the final section of the book, set up as a dialogue between Aristotle and Alexander (p. 90):

Aristotle: wind over those crows

Alexander: rhinovirus

Aristotle: foot the arch

Alexander: one must possess protection as one’s own skin

When a cover succeeds in its wordless articulation of what’s inside it, as this one does, it can be pretty hard to explain how. Let’s try an analogy: Just as the initial smoothness of the cover is crumpled, the phrases here resist their role as speech—”rhinovirus” is not really an answer to “wind over those crows.” As the scrawled title asserts itself in contrast to its surroundings, so does that final phrase, the only one that sounds like something a guy might say in conversation.

Torn from paper fist valves of heart

Sleep against lips appellation once future

Appellation come with basket a weave from

Supper itself crease a wonder the vernix

Yellow slight wind already the women

Voice concern these are enough futures

Well formed before you one perpetuates


2 jays                          (p. 40)


THE YOLO PAGES by various authors

Cover of The Yolo Pages by various authors

(Photo from The Yolo Pages by Various; Boosthouse (2014); 5.5 x 8 inches, 206 pages; $15; Design: uncredited. Mostly set in Helvetica.

(Yellow Pages logo, from Wikipedia.)

Has anyone in this book ever even seen a Yellow Pages phone book? That’s part of the cleverness here, and it doesn’t stop at the cover. Yellow and black like the once-ubiquitous porch-thunking volumes it mimics, The Yolo Pages indeed functions as a kind of directory and compendium of alt lit, weird Twitter, and even a little Flarf, with the authors (are they all authors though? some of the work is mainly visual) arranged alphabetically by surname, and an appendix of inhabited URLs at the back.

A jumble of screenshots and typeset work, there are many ways in which the anthology’s design flouts expectations for legibility and arrangement—it’s mostly set in Helvetica, and at a point size more often used onscreen than for the page, with even larger/bold titles, and somewhat cramped leading. These aren’t really complaints. Thematically and tonally these choices work, and the texts (and um, texts) are not actually uncomfortable to read.

Melissa Broder's "Waterfall" and "Bye" in The Yolo Pages

Melissa Broder re: vomit & raspberries


Cayla Lockwood altered image piece says "lick your own wounds i'm on a diet"

Cayla Lockwood: Lick your own wounds. I’m on a diet.


Cassandra Gillig's "A Question of Ethics / A Question of Morality" & the beginning of "The Day the Government Banned Sex"

Cassandra Gillig re: ethics & sex

Looks like a phone book, reads like the internet. Sincerely (I know it’s hard to tell), yay.


THE BALTIMORE ATROCITIES: A Novel by John Dermot Woods

I’m not finished reading this yet, which is kind of a problem because I wanted to be sure to talk  about it at some length this week, in advance of the launch party. (Hey, come to the REAL PANTS LAUNCH PARTY, Jan. 24 in NYC.) So far though, I’m digging it. I’ll say what I can.

Here’s a pic I stole from Woods—a birdseye view of the box of his author copies when they arrived from the printer. (Don’t you just love book day? I even love other people’s book days.) You can see a bigger shot on the Coffee House website here.

Copies of The Baltimore Atrocities by John Dermot Woods in an open box from the publisher

(Photo from the author, via public Facebook post.) The Baltimore Atrocities by John Dermot Woods; Coffee House Press (2014); 6 x 8 inches, 328 pages,$17.95. Cover & interior design: Linda Koutsky. Illustrations: John Dermot Woods.

The cover is two-tone green, and designed to resemble a ledger or photo album, I think (it seems so familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it), with trompe l’oeil brass screws at the faux binding. The title and author name are set in a typewriter style. At first I thought my fountain pen had leaked on my copy, but those two little black stains at the bottom? Those are printed on. There’s also slight foxing, where the light green has turned a bit brown, seemingly from age. 

So this sets us up properly for what we find inside, an episodic novel, consisting mainly of vignettes linked by their setting: Baltimore. The structure’s pretty interesting, though since I’m still reading I can’t say how it all holds together in the end. But there’s a longer thread that runs through the book, the main thread, about two boys who get assigned as lab partners in 8th grade. At first only this circumstance throws them together, but soon enough they find out they have a much rarer thing in common—each of them has a missing-possibly-abducted sibling.

Each of the vignettes is paired with a drawing. I’m tempted to show you a bunch of these, but I’ll limit myself to one pair. Here’s “The Warehouses of Mount Washington”:

On a walk through the neighborhood of Mount Washington, which we knew was near a river, we decided to leave the road and scamper down a decline, hoping to find water. We did find the water, as well as several inhabited old warehouses. We walked through the open door of one to find a full living rom set up below a thirty-foot ceiling; no one was inside, but the TV had been left on and there was the smell of recent cooking coming from the kitchenette set up behind the couch. We inspected several of the other warehouses along the river, and in each we found a similar recently abandoned domestic scene. When we returned to town, we asked one of the local residents about the warehouses, as we were considering purchasing a permanent home in Baltimore, should we not feel ready to return home after a year. He assured us that the warehouses were not for sale. In fact, they had been long out of use, although the authorities tended to look the other way in regards to the homeless population that had moved in. When we asked him where they had all gone when we stopped by, he said he assumed that they had stepped out for their daily group bath in the river.

drawing accompanying Mount Washington

You can see a lot more of his drawings here (though not from this book), and read other excerpts here. But hopefully I’ve given you enough of a sense of the effect to explain why I’m hooked. The boys (now several years older) end up going to Baltimore (I knew it), in search of their missing siblings—whose disappearances share a compelling, chill-giving mystery. I’m putting aside a David Mitchell novel to finish this. I can’t spoil it for you yet, luckily.

many a holy and obsequious tear by Carolina Maugeri

cover of many a holy and obsequious tear by Carolina Maugeri

many a holy and obsequious tear by Carolina Maugeri; Horse Less (2014); 5.5 x 11 inches, 28 pages, $8; design & typesetting: Jen Tynes, Michael Sikkema & Carolina Maugeri

many a holy and obsequious tear is the chapbook version of a mixed-media work exhibited as part of a group show called Cinematic: Medi(t)ations Upon a Medium, inspired by the film School of the Holy Beast by Norifumi Suzuki. And the title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 31.

Layers upon layers! How many ply is that?

That earlier incarnation of the work was typed on toilet paper, which explains the cover. (Did you think those were the dimples of a golf ball, maybe, or the thirsty pores of the skin, or a orderly array of craters dotting the surface of some moon?)

I don’t know how the TP relates to the film, since I haven’t seen it, or if it does. But considering the tear in the title (which we can also read as a pun, sheets being perforated for easy in tearing), the stuff comes in handy, as we all know, having cried countless inopportune times in myriad tissueless places, and will soak those up in a pinch:


picture of original typed toilet paper from the group show, included in the book picture of poem "tissue ratings vs kleenex scale"

I’m digging that slight overlapping of text. The less-than opaque paper feels just right too.

The chapbook’s design, like the rest of Horse Less’s catalogue, is low-fi in just the right way. The poems are the point and the design supports them. Black-and-white cover and interior, totally unfussy yet carefully done, hand-sewn in black twine.


OK, so, I don’t really have a point to make about the faux finish approach, except that these are instances of it I like. If every paperback were designed to look like a hardcover, boring. But when it works, it works. As with the best design approaches, it can’t just look great. There’s got to be a reason for it, a logic.

Other faux finishes I can think of, offhand:

All three books by Jennifer L. Knox, designed by Charlie Orr for Bloof Books (ahem), featuring paintings by Charles Browning. A Gringo Like Me and Drunk by Noon both look like antique hardcovers. The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway is modeled after (one of the many) designs for the Nancy Drew series.

The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather by (who else?) Sampson Starkweather, cover art by Matt Bollinger for Birds LLC. This one also has a vintage feeling, with nicked corners, stains. Like Mimer, it also has hand-lettering.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, designed by Donna Payne. This one’s also stained and waterlogged, in faux fashion. Even the apple is distressed by age. But only the UK version from Faber & Faber. The US version features a different design.


If you want to show me a book design to consider, you can tweet at me (@Shanna_Compton) with #bythecover, or email my infrequently checked official Real Pants email address shanna at real pants dot etc.

Shanna Compton

About The Author

Shanna Compton

Shanna Compton's books include the poetry collections Creature Sounds Fade, Midwinter Constellation (coauthor), Brink, For Girls & Others, Down Spooky, and several chapbooks. She's the founder of the Bloof Books collective and works as a freelance book designer for several of your favorite small presses.

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Good hair, crooked gait

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