Reviewing a book I’ve yet to read.
“The belief I’ve acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed a journey.
Will Cooper in Thirteen Moons
I’m going to do something here that may seem ludicrous at first blush. I’m going to review and recommend a book without ever having read it. Give me the benefit of the doubt and read on—please.
Random House paid Charles Frazier $8 million dollars in advance for his 2nd novel Thirteen Moons. Frazier is quickly establishing himself in the pantheon of great contemporary American writers. His first book, Cold Mountain won the prestigious National Book Award in 1997—not bad for a first time out-of–the-chute author.
The almost inevitable follow-on movie, Cold Mountain, also did well earning seven Academy Award nominations and four wins including best cinematography, best leading actor (Jude Law) and best supporting actress (Rene Zelweger).
If you never saw Cold Mountain the movie, it deserves a look. But, as always seems the case, the book is better. Far better. Frazier’s writing embodies a lyrical style that flows much like free verse. In a word it is poetic. And when skillfully applied to the dangerous and lonely odyssey of an escaped confederate soldier trekking hundred of miles back to his Cold Mountain home and the woman he loves—it reveals a master storyteller with a knack for riveting readers. It got me in the first paragraph.
Now Comes Frazier’s next book, Thirteen Moons, given to me by my wife Donna as a birthday gift. I have yet to read it.
Instead, the book sits on my nightstand while I finish up another tale. Still, the anticipation of reading the works of a great writer like Frazier makes it irresistible. I find myself picking it up, thumbing through it, and hoping for some advance revelation to help satiate my curiosity and satisfy my constant need for a great story from a gifted writer. I am rewarded simply by touching, perusing the dust cover–and allowing myself a few peeks inside.
The physical qualities of the book—and all the ancillary notes and information—already speak to me. These are the things we often overlook in our zeal to get quickly into the story. On the cover, the title is set small in an italicized lower case non-serif font with a black raised bevel look. The words “A Novel” appear just under it in a formal flourish of black script. Frazier’s name is wrought large in all caps (serifed) near the bottom. It is white and beveled and fairly screams, as I am sure the publisher intended, “Look. Great Writer. National Book Award”. Publishers know what sells.
The “dust jacket” art features a muted color rendering of forested mountains and misty sky taken from a photograph, but made to resemble an old and textured painting. It depicts the Appalachians of North Carolina (Frazier’s home state and a first hint that the Cherokee Nation may figure in the story). The cover was designed, elegantly I might say, by a Mr. Thomas Beck Stvan. However, he was not the book’s designer. That honor goes to Ms. Barabara M. Bachman. I learn this on the inside fly sheets where copyright information and other required facts, disclaimers, and legalities are offered up.
I suppose I have known books have designers, but I never really thought much about it until now. Ms. Bachman chose Mr. Svan for the cover art, but she also chose the paper on which the story is printed—a premium cotton acetate made in America—as well as the font in which the story is set. It’s called Fournier, a serifed font named for Pierre Simon Fornier. A prolific French designer of fonts in the mid 1700s, Mr. Simon is said to have created 146 fonts during his life. His legacy seems to have endured in the modern font that bears his name. Would he be honored to have it used in a book by such a notable new writer? I suspect so.
Further hints: The inside covers and their fly leafs appear to be a kind of aged paper containing an unrecognizable form of faded rust colored handwriting. The copyright page sheds more light on these scribblings. They are from the Cherokee syllabary, an excerpt, in fact, from the Cherokee myth of Kanati and Selu dealing with the origins of corn and grain circa 1888.
And finally, there is the teaser copy on the inside front panel of the dust jacket. I am drawn to it, not only by the promise it holds, but by the fresh smell of new ink and paper that greets me when I open the book. The teaser copy does its job well, giving me a sense of what lies ahead in the story. Heres a sample:
“In a distinct voice filled with both humor and yearning, Will [the main character] tells of a lifelong search for home, the hunger for fortune and adventure, the rebuilding of a trampled culture, and above all an enduring pursuit of passion. As he comes to realize, When all else is lost and gone forever, there is yearning. One of the few welcome lessons age teaches is that only desire trumps time.”
For an old man who just turned 61 I instantly knew the truth in these words. And I was filled with a longing to know this Will character–to hear his story.
If all of this intricate examination of a new book created a certain allure serving to heighten my own anticipation of a good read (and it did) then I am left only with having to apply that final test I always turn to when evaluating a book’s potential—a reading of the first paragraph. Read it and judge for yourself:
“There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel. We’re called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there. A sorrowful path. And maybe not exactly Paradise at the other end. The belief I’ve acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed a journey.”
Again, true words that tear at the soul of this old man—broken in some ways to be sure, but still in the journey and still enjoying it from the perspective of that long view back over years and experiences.
Thirteen Moons is gonna be good. Get it and read it. And as for my wife; once again she gives the perfect gift at the perfect time. Love and marital longevity have a way of providing for that kind of insight, but I still find myself asking, “How does she always know just the right thing at the right time? And so it is that books reward even beyond their literary intent. I can’t wait to read this one.