Aug 4 2008 6:24am

SF/F Book Cover Review, Hugo Edition: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

For the first official installment of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Cover Review, we’re going to take a look at some of the covers for the current Hugo Award nominees. (The winner of the Hugo for Best Novel will be announced this Saturday, August 9, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver.)

Since a quick look at the first post in this series (which includes the rules of the game) will remind readers that I’ve said that I won’t personally be reviewing Tor books in this space due to conflict of interest, I’ve decided to concentrate on the non-Tor books, and limit myself to very brief mentions of the two Tor nominees. Since I’m reviewing multiple books on this first outing, I figured I’d split the post into five segments, to be published one at a time over the course of the week leading up to Worldcon (five books, five days in the week--I love it when a plan comes together!). The last two posts will be the Tor books, and these will be mostly a space for people to chime in via the comments--unless someone outside Tor wants to use the previous posts as a model and submit a detailed critique of these two books. I’d need those by Wednesday night, kthx!

The Yiddish Policeman's Union US HardcoverThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
(U.S.: HarperCollins; U.K.: Fourth Estate)
U.S. Edition Design & illustration by Will Staehle
U.K. Edition Designer unknown.

A Chandleresque murder-mystery/alternate-history set in the present day of a world in which a temporary settlement for European Jewish refugees was established in Alaska in 1941, and the postwar state of Israel failed to survive its struggle for independence in 1948.

Overall, Staehle does a fantastic job of imbuing the Pacific Northwest/Inuit totemic iconography used on the cover with a distinctly Jewish flavor, without going overboard. It would have been very easy to overuse the Star of David as a design element. As it is, it’s there, and it communicates what it needs to communicate, but it doesn’t take over the layout, as very recognizable icons tend to do if given too much prominence. Additionally, it’s not the star of David that we normally associate with a Jewish state (eg: the flag of Israel), so it creates a little bit of ambiguity in that respect. The gun, the bullets, the skull, and the cityscape all clue the prospective buyer into the fact that this is a crime novel,  again without overtaking the entire design, which in turn helps to communicate the fact that the book is a mash-up of ideas, as alternate histories usually are. Although the cover is packed with graphic ornaments, it doesn't feel too “busy,” mainly due to the large field of black in the center of the layout (which also implies the long nights of Alaska), and the lack of heavy type.

The most prominent typographic element, the author’s name, stands out due to its being knocked out to white, more so than due to its size. The title is set in an outlined face, which helps settle it into a very defined position within the typographical hierarchy. Had the title been a solid color, it probably would have competed too much with the author’s name for prominence, despite its smaller size. As designed, the first typographical element to catch your eye is the author’s name (surely a requirement of the sales department, and not a bad one at that), which then leads you directly to the white “the” in the title. While the words “Sitka” and “Alaska” feel a bit unnecessary and incidental at first glance, they do help to give a reason for including the bright band in which they’re placed, which does serve a very necessary function: it provides a bit of balance to the composition, which would otherwise be too red-heavy on the bottom.

Limiting the color palette to two colors along with black gives the entire thing a very graphic, very crime-novel look, but making those two colors bright and day-glo firmly grounds the book in these (post) modern times, not to mention making it positively pop off the shelves when face-out.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, SpineSpeaking of shelf placement, the spine on this book deserves a serious tip of the hat. The typesetting is beautiful, and--as Joseph Sullivan mentions on his post about this spine in his Book Design Review blog-- the fact that the text reads as a complete sentence is a novel (no pun intended) and welcome surprise.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, SlipcaseAs an added bonus, Harper has issued a limited edition hardcover, complete with silkscreened, wooden slipcase featuring a faux-wood finish. The design of the slipcase complements the book very nicely, and the choice of material further reinforces the craft-ish nature of the Inuit iconography.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, UK editionThe U.K. version of this book sports a very different approach, concentrating mainly on the noir-ish aspects of the book. While competent, it positively pales in comparison to the U.S. edition, and garners a big ol’ “meh” in my book.

Special thanks to Jamie Stafford-Hill for links and commentary.

Tomorrow, we’ll tackle Halting State by Charles Stross.

Sam C
1. Sam C
Interesting review... did you know that there's another UK edition, designed to fit in with reissues of Chabon's other novels? See here. Not as elegant as the US edition, but better than the UK hardback you looked at, I think. And - barely visible at that link - also has those subtle stars of David...
Pablo Defendini
2. pablodefendini
Hey, thanks for the link, Sam! I was looking at hardcovers, so I guess I overlooked this. And yes, much better than the hardback UK edition.
CE Petit
3. Jaws
I have to disagree with one aspect of the praise for the design on the spine: It reflects remarkable ignorance of library practices. A substantial majority of public libraries cover the bottom 2cm or so of the spine of a hardback or trade paperback (and a clear, but less substantial, majority for a mass-market paperback) with cataloging and shelving data. It's pretty goofy to put the single most-helpful data on the spine — the author's name — in that location.

It would have been much more sensible to put Chabon's name above the "ad" for K&C, particularly since that information is repeated inside the book.
Pablo Defendini
4. pablodefendini
Jaws, excellent point. When designing, much emphasis is placed on how a spine will look on the shelf of a bookstore--not so much the shelf of a library. This is definitely something to keep in mind.

Transposing the 'ad' for K&C and the author name seems like a good solution to this specific problem, especially considering how much space K&C takes up on the spine.
JS Bangs
5. jaspax
My totally-instinctual preference is actually for the UK cover. The American cover strikes me as too busy, and the mash-up of styles overwrought. De gustibus and all that, I suppose.
eric orchard
6. orchard
There's something about this cover that signifies mainstream to me.I would have loved to have seen a Manchess or Foster cover. I do love the inclusion of west coast imagery though.
Jeff Hentosz
7. Hentosz
I love this cover so much I want to snuggle in a bear skin with it.

Pablo, you mention the utility of the bands with "Sitka" and "Alaska" in them. It goes beyond adding balance if you look at it again, flipping negative space for positive: the bands and clouds form epaulettes on the shoulders of a uniformed officer (the night sky and center totem head forming the body). Very nice!
Madeline Ferwerda
8. MadelineF
I love the art. The way the cover is a flattened brick-sh:thouse-body-style guy is an endless source of amusement, because different cover elements keep swapping meaning when considered in that light. The Star of David bits at the top? Those are epaulets on his uniform. The Sitka Alaska line, which I missed every time I saw the cover until you pointed it out? Again, embroidered patches on the uniform. The clouds at the top of the black space emphasize that those are shoulders.

The cover says that this city is encompassed within this bear-like policeman, which really backs up the actual story that follows a week or so in the life of a guy as a way to explain the history and soul of the place.
Vanessa Paolantonio
9. vanessa_p
what I noticed about the US cover, the red bands at the top that say "sitka" and "alaska" almost look like the flaps on top of a military jacket, where typically metal ranking pins are put. Perhaps the designer was attempting to complete the shape of the police/authority figure that makes up the outer frame.
Pablo Defendini
10. pablodefendini
Jeff, Madeline, Vanessa-- indeed! As a matter of fact, the policeman even has 'hands/bearclaws' (framing the cityscape)!
Tara Chang
11. tlchang
Which is cool beyond words - because it is both so subtle and yet so obvious. I like this cover more the longer I look at it as it is so multilayered in image and symbolism. I live in the Pacific NW and see many of these types of elements frequently. I *really* like how they have been adjusted for the context while still totally keeping their 'native' flavor. I think this is a great cover!
Dave Bell
12. DaveBell
The car on the UK cover puts me in mind of a Morris Minor.

Photographs in the Wikipedia article show the general similarities.

These are a bit different to the usual US police car. One version was apparently used as a "panda car".
Sam C
13. peter c.
Thanks for drawing my attention to a part of a book I rarely spend much time considering as the books usually sit on the shelf with only the spines visible.
One note: I have the slipcased edition of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and the slipcase is not made out of wood. Mine is actually made out of fairly flimsy cardboard.
Sam C
15. Brad Bartkus
Wow. I just noticed on the barcode for the Limited Collector's Edition with the Wooden Slipcase (signed and numbered) that it's $150 in the U.S. and $185 in Canada.
Sam C
16. Brad Bartkus
The Limited Collector's Edition (signed and numbered) is actually made out of a thin veneer of wood.

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