Book Cover

“You can’t judge a book by its cover”, it is said, and this is true in the ultimate sense that after one reads a book, one likes it more or less than one expected at first glance.  But in practice, when one is browsing in a bookstore or on the Internet, one may think, “this looks interesting” (meaning: I like the feeling that I get about this book from the cover, and having read, on the back cover, what it’s about.)

I’ve agreed three cover illustrations for my novels.  Two of the covers I’m quite pleased with, and one less so.  Starting with my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I thought I wanted an illustration of a woman fishing in a rather strange place.  I felt this would be appropriate, given that the Sicilian heroine is accused by her mother of “fishing in foreign seas” by falling in love with an American man, instead of an Italian.  I didn’t like the first design the publisher proposed, and I commissioned a freelance illustrator to produce an illustration.  That illustration was what I asked for in terms of subject matter, but it wasn’t appropriate for a book cover: it looked too much like a cartoon.  The publisher produced a second design, which I liked a lot better.  Here it is:

Cover: Fishing in Foreign Seas

What I like about this cover is the drama and mystery implied by it.  But the fisherlady seems rather lonely.  Moreover, she doesn’t seem to be catching very much.  But it’s a love story – not about loneliness – and Caterina catches a pretty good fish.  Moral of the story, I  didn’t think carefully enough about what I wanted to say with the illustration.

My second novel, Sin & Contrition, is, as the title suggests, about human frailty and regret.  I suggested, vaguely, to the publisher that maybe the cover illustration should involve a stylised angel and a devil.  They came back with the photograph of a statue of a fallen angel in shades of green:

Cover: Sin & Contrition

 I thought this was quite eye-catching, and it conveys in one image what the book is about.

Efraim’s Eye is a thriller about a lone terrorist’s attempt to destroy the London Eye, killing all 800 passengers.  His financing for the special explosives he needs is supplied by his half-brother, who is the corrupt chief executive of a Moroccan charity.  The  charity is investigated by a British financial consultant and the operations director of the Moroccan charity’s British parent.  The ops director, a  young, multi-lingual, Israeli female and the consultant begin to untangle the web of deceit, and they discover the terrorist’s plan.  But how can they stop the attack?  Here is the cover of Efraim’s Eye:


Cover: Efraim’s Eye

This cover with the title, I think, conveys come of what the book is about.  But there is still the mystery: who is Efraim and why is it his eye?

My fourth novel, The Iranian Scorpion, has now been published.  It is a thriller about Robert Dawson of the Drug Enforcement Agency who is sent to Afghanistan to find ways of reducing the flow of heroin – produced from opium – to the US.  With the help of Kate Conway, a freelance journalist and Vizier Ashraf , a shadowy Taliban leader, Rob is disguised as a field hand.  He learns opium poppy cultivation and  the conversion of opium to heroin.  With his farmer ‘boss’, Azizullah, he enters Iran with 25 kg of heroin which is sold to The Scorpion, a drugs baron and governor of a remote Iranian province.  Rob traces the heroin to New York City, where a bust is made.  Furious, The Scorpion orders Rob to be captured and executed.  Meanwhile Rob’s father, US general David Dawson is in Tehran with the UN agency investigating Iran’s use of nuclear energy.  General Dawson learns of his son’s capture and threatened execution and decides to take action.  (You’ll have to read the book to discover the conclusion.)


The Iranian Scorpion

The cover is unusual in being largely white.  It identifies the setting of the novel and a major character in the story.  Those who have seen the cover say that it is quite striking.

Freedom of Speech

Several recent events have come together:

  • The reaction in the Muslim world to the stupid film Innocence of Muslims
  • The publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge
  • The renewal of the fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie

All of these have to do with freedom of speech/publication.  I have a particular interest in this subject as I ‘survived’ an attempt to block the publication of a novel.

Let me deal first with Sir Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses.  This novel, first published in 1988, is the fictional story of two men, both steeped in Islam, but distracted by the temptations of the West.  One of the men survives by returning to his roots; the other, caught between his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to Islam, commits suicide.  It won the Booker prize that year.  In February, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie.  There were violent protests throughout the Muslim world calling for the death of the author.  Over the following decade, thousands of people were killed, many of them secretly in prisons in Muslim countries.  In the UK , a private prosecutor sought to bring Rushdie to trial for ‘blasphemous libel’.  The magistrate refused, but the prosecutor took his case to the High Court.  Thirteen Muslim barristers tried to get the book banned, and as a consequence, they were forced to specify how the novel was blasphemous.  Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who defended Rushdie and the publisher says that the barristers were able to identify only six blasphemies, but nothing was found to actually vilify God or the Prophet.  The Home Office then announced that it would allow no further blasphemy prosecutions.  It said, “. . . the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers.”  For the next decade, Sir Salman Rushdie lived under constant police protection, in hiding and fearful of assassination.  In 1998, the reform-minded president of Iran, Mohammad Katami, declared to the UN General Assembly that the Rushdie matter was “completely finished.” But the fatwa has never been annulled, and now Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, head of an important Iranian foundation, has raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head to $3.3 million.  He said, “If the imam’s order was carried out, the further insults in the form of caricatures, articles and films would not have taken place.  The impertinence of the grudge-filled enemies of Islam, which is occurring under the flag of the Great Satan, America, and the racist Zionists can only be blocked by the administration of this Islamic order.”  (What I would say, in response to the Ayatollah, is that he can only assume that the insults would not have taken place.  It is also possible to assume that if the fatwa had been carried out, the insults against Islam would be even more common than they are now.)

Then we have the 13 minute film, Innocence of Muslims, apparently made by a convicted fraudster, who allegedly misled the cast as to the purpose of the film, and re-dubbed their voices.  The film, which is said to demean the Prophet, was dubbed in Arabic and up loaded onto YouTube.  Immediately, the violent protests and the killings (including an American ambassador) began.  It doesn’t matter that the film was made, unprofessionally, by an Egyptian Coptic, in likely violation of his parole terms, with an underpaid, misled cast.  It matters only that the film was produced on American soil and it demeans the Prophet.  Why this apparently mindless reaction by the Muslim world?  First of all, it has to be said that not all of the Muslim world acted mindlessly.  In an article for the Daily Telegraph, David Blair quotes a friend in Tunisia as saying: “My Prophet would not worry about a video.  He wouldn’t care about that.  My Prophet would care about the state of our societies.  He would want us to be developed, he would want us to be successful.”  It seems to me that there are several answers to the ‘Why?’ question.  First, some elements in the Muslim world stir up sentiments to support their own position.  For example, the Taliban have whipped up violent protests in Afghanistan.  Secondly, some governments seize on any criticism of Islam as a means of distracting the population from the failures of government.  In Sudan, there have been huge demonstrations against the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir.  He has allowed the crowds to attack embassies, rather than him.  Third, I think there is a general misunderstanding in the Muslim world, of what freedom really means in practice.  Certainly, freedom is what the Arab Spring sought to create.  But freedom also must include what Rushdie called the ‘freedom to offend’ (this does not include libel, which is intended to cause measurable injury).  In his article, David Blair quotes Inayat Bunglawala, who at the age of 19 was burning The Satanic Verses, but more  recently wrote, “Our detractors had been right.  The freedom to offend is a necessary freedom.”  Finally, it seems to me that some Muslims – particularly those not well educated – may harbour unconscious feelings of inferiority.  For them, their Islamic faith is a source of consolation.  When their faith is attacked, they take it personally.  They fail to remember that Islam is one of the world’s great faiths, with 1.5 billion followers.  They fail to reason that so great a faith, based on one all-powerful God does not need to be protected by a thousand or a million lowly humans.  They fail to understand that the “Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy” would want his people to live in harmony, not discord.  That is what I, as a Christian, believe.

So, since I believe in the freedom to offend.  Wasn’t the Duchess of Cambridge offended by the photographs taken of her?  Yes, she probably was.  OK, one might say, if she was offended,  and one  has the freedom to offend, what’s her problem?  The problem is that she has the freedom to be private.  Most of us take our privacy for granted.  But try to imagine what it would be like to have photographers trying to take your photograph during every waking moment.  If they could, they would follow you into the shower and beyond.  I think privacy is a particularly important freedom for the Duchess.  I hope that the paparazzo and the editor both spend a year in jail and have to cough up £36,000.

Anna Karenina: A Review

My wife and I went to see the film Anna Karenina last night.  It occurred to me that producing and directing a film is, in some respects, like writing a book.

So, what did we think of the film?  First, what we liked.  It is quite a beautiful production: eye-catching costumes, wonderful sets, and some of the characters are handsome/lovely.  The story – as far as I remember – is quite close to Tolstoy, and I’ve had a long admiration for the classical Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Sholokhov (And Quiet Flows the Don).

Having said that, we found the film disappointing.  The Daily Telegraph gave it a three star rating.  I guess two stars would be pretty harsh and it certainly doesn’t deserve four stars.

  • Casting: Keira Knightley is lovely, but she seemed one-dimensional as a great aristocratic beauty.  She didn’t convey the powerful erotic lust which Anna felt for Count Vronsky, nor did she capture the emotional degradation of a fallen woman.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson was mis-cast as Count Vronsky: he seemed more like a sallow youth than a dashing, bold cavalry officer and womaniser.  To be fair, his costumes were, I think, poorly chosen: plain white tunics with brass buttons.  Jude Law was excellent as Alexei Karenin, Anna’s emotionally chilly and reserved husband.  Kitty, a pretty young thing who fancies Vronsky, and Levin a wealthy farmer who is crazy about Kitty and finally wins her seem  very real.   These are the same challenges that the writer faces with his characters: how to make them real, and interesting.  I’m afraid with Anna and Vronsky, the director, Joe Wright, didn’t quite make it.
  • The Set: Much of the film is set in a 19th century dilapidated theatre.  This was done to keep the production budget under control.  Fair enough.  But, some of  the scenes are shot in the real world, so there is a back-and-forth between the theatre and the real world.  These abrupt transitions are distracting, and seem to have been selected only because it was difficult to get the desired effect in a theatre setting.  To me this is a cop-out.  If you’re going to choose an unusual setting, stick with it!
  • The Love Scenes: The scenes of Anna and Vronsky making love didn’t work for me.  They were shot as blurry close ups, and they failed to convey the personal, emotional and erotic dimensions.  As the scenes of the ‘love making’ transitioned, I kept wondering, ‘is that an arm or a leg? his or hers?’  There are probably restrictions on what Ms. Knightley will do on film.  Fair enough.  But one doesn’t have so show her off-limits areas to convey the splendid lust that Anna and Vronsky were feeling.  It is difficult to write good sexual prose, and I admit to not having mastered the technique yet, but I’m going to keep trying, because I think sex is an important dimension of being human.
  • Too Many Characters; Too Long: When one is writing a novel, one doesn’t worry to much about too many characters, as long as they are necessary to the story, and eliminating them would seem to short-change the reader.  In a novel, it is easy to introduce new characters: their names and relationships are usually made clear.  In a film, it is much more difficult: the director doesn’t stop the film and announce, “Now this  is Harry’s Aunt Margaret.”  In Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina there are characters who just appear, and who say important things, but one doesn’t understand what their relationship to others might be until later the film.  This suggests that Wright expected his audience to read the novel before coming to the film.  I did, but it’s been so long that I didn’t remember the minor characters.  I think that many writers – myself probably included – go on telling the story too long.  At over 800 pages for Anna Karenina, Tolstoy himself may have been guilty of this.  (The novel includes extended descriptions of Levin’s agricultural processes.)  In a book, writers may be able to get away with this: the reader just skips ahead.  For a film (this one has 246 scenes), it’s impossible to fast forward – unless you’re watching it as a DVD.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a variation of what is called ‘interior monologue’.  If interior monologue is the presentation of a character’s thoughts completely  and logically without intervention by the narrator, stream of consciousness attempts to represent a character’s feelings and thoughts in a jumbled way, as if the reader were directly connected to the consciousness of the character.  This jumbled presentation tends to violate conventional rules of  logic, grammar and syntax.  In many cases it makes the prose more difficult to read and understand.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is largely written in stream of consciousness, and here is an excerpt from Episode 13: Nausicaa:

Better not stick here all night like a limpet. This weather makes you dull. Must be getting on for nine by the light. Go home. Too late for Leah, Lily of Killarney. No. Might be still up. Call to the hospital to see. Hope she’s over. Long day I’ve had. Martha, the bath, funeral, house of Keyes, museum with those goddesses, Dedalus’ song. Then that bawler in Barney Kiernan’s. Got my own back there. Drunken ranters what I said about his God made him wince. Mistake to hit back. Or? No. Ought to go home and laugh at themselves. Always want to be swilling in company. Afraid to be alone like a child of two. Suppose he hit me. Look at it other way round. Not so bad then. Perhaps not to hurt he meant. Three cheers for Israel. Three cheers for the sister-in-law he hawked about, three fangs in her mouth. Same style of beauty. Particularly nice old party for a cup of tea. The sister of the wife of the wild man of Borneo has just come to town. Imagine that in the early morning at close range. Everyone to his taste as Morris said when he kissed the cow. But Dignam’s put the boots on it. Houses of mourning so depressing because you never know. Anyhow she wants the money. Must call to those Scottish Widows as I promised. Strange name. Takes it for granted we’re going to pop off first. That widow on Monday was it outside Cramer’s that looked at me. Buried the poor husband but progressing favourably on the premium. Her widow’s mite. Well? What do you expect her to do? Must wheedle her way along. Widower I hate to see. Looks so forlorn. Poor man O’Connor wife and five children poisoned by mussels here. The sewage. Hopeless. Some good matronly woman in a porkpie hat to mother him. Take him in tow, platter face and a large apron. Ladies’ grey flannelette bloomers, three shillings a pair, astonishing bargain. Plain and loved, loved for ever, they say. Ugly: no woman thinks she is. Love, lie and be handsome for tomorrow we die. See him sometimes walking about trying to find out who played the trick. U. p: up. Fate that is. He, not me. Also a shop often noticed. Curse seems to dog it. Dreamt last night? Wait. Something confused. She had red slippers on. Turkish. Wore the breeches. Suppose she does? Would I like her in pyjamas? Damned hard to answer. Nannetti’s gone. Mailboat. Near Holyhead by now. Must nail that ad of Keyes’s. Work Hynes and Crawford. Petticoats for Molly. She has something to put in them. What’s that? Might be money.

The above paragraph is taken out of context, which makes it difficult to understand, and yet, there are so many seemingly random references in this paragraph to other characters, places, things and past events that I, for one, have to wonder about the effectiveness of this style of writing.  Certainly, it takes a creative genius (as Joyce undoubtedly was) to write a paragraph – let alone a whole novel – like  this.  But, I can’t help but wonder whether Joyce’s genius is fully appreciated by most well educated readers.  In other words, did Joyce try to take well educated readers to too high a level of sophistication?  For me, it’s a little bit like one of Heston Blumenthal’s exotic recipes: do I really appreciate the delicate concoction of carefully prepared foam that tops one of his desserts?

When I’m writing about a character’s thoughts, I try to keep the description of his/her thoughts clear, focused on what’s important, and brief.  Here is an excerpt from Sin & Contrition.  LaMarr has gone to Cleveland to console the family of his friend, Mason, who was killed in Vietnam:

With the help of the custodian, who looked up Mason’s name in the register, he found the grave.  It was in an open area punctuated by dozens of headstones.  Mason’s headstone was small: it said only ‘Mason Bailey DeWitt’, and in numerals there were his birth and death dates.  Nothing more.  LaMarr gazed at the stone, lost in recollections.  I hope you’re OK now, Mason.  You were a good friend, and you deserved something more.  He stood, and looked once more at the headstone and grave.  Good bye, Mason.  He found a taxi to take him to the central bus station for the rest of his leave in Pittsburgh.  He reflected: What a terrible waste!  His sister sitting there crying on the couch.  Two little ones trying to understand.  His mother lost, and Mason gone.  I guess I’m like the little ones.  I don’t understand, either.