Sunday, August 23, 2015

William T. Vollmann, "The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War" (Signed First Edition)

Always an exciting, daunting moment when William T. Vollmann unleashes another brick: this is The Dying Grass, the "Fifth Dream" of his "Seven Dreams" series on the conflicts of colonization in North America through history. The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce War of 1877 in the Pacific Northwest, but I expect it to sprawl across multiple timelines and narrative reliability in typical Vollmann way. Although I'm very excited to dig in to The Dying Grass, it is a book to clear the schedule for - it is a massive 1300 pages and I'll need to power through a lot of this year's major fall novels before I feel ready to take this one on.

I'm a huge Vollmann fan and have featured a lot of his books on this website, many of which are signed and limited editions. The Dying Grass surely has a very small print run in its hardcover sate (if its list price of $55 is of any indication) and I was determined to get a signed copy for my library. Vollmann did only a handful of events out west, and I reached out to the Haight Booksmith in San Francisco to see if they could get a book signed on my behalf. They were thrilled to help and kindly coordinated this personalized copy for me:

I'm very happy to have given them my business and even across the country I felt like I participated in their book launch event. I'm surprised collectors don't reach out like this more often - having put together a few of these events myself, a genuinely excited absentee phone order is a wonderful thing to facilitate (and the sales don't hurt either). Don't be shy to call your not-so-local bookshops!

Currently reading:
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

Currently listening to:
Kendrick Lamar, "King Kunta"

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Richard Kraft, Here Comes Kitty Art Edition (1 of 25 copies from Siglio Press with original collage)

Siglio Press is a great publisher of art books from Los Angeles that have put out some essential volumes on folks like Joe Brainard, Ray Johnson, and Jess. Following in the footsteps of publishers like Black Sparrow Press, they offer a number of their titles in a very limited run that include an editioned or original artwork. I strongly encourage collectors to keep an eye on their list - they always offer these at a modest opening price and incrementally bump the price as the book sells out. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get an order in of Karen Green's Bough Down with an original stamp collage, and was eager to try my luck with something new.

I hadn't heard of the artist Richard Kraft before Siglio announced they'd be publishing Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera but I was excited by what I'd seen: his work is absolutely crazy, like a cross between Jess's paste-ups and Monty Python's most hallucinatory animations. For only $70 more than the retail price of the book, I placed an order for 1 of 25 signed and numbered copies that would come with a randomly selected 4 x 6 inch collage.

I wasn't 100% confident I'd love what I ended up with, but it's a delightful, silly little piece; I just got it back from the framer and it looks wonderful (although it's really hard to photograph in my current evening lighting):

What's particularly fun about this collage is that it includes some of the original cut-up pieces that Kraft used in Here Comes Kitty. Here, the blue bird in my collage flies by a spaced-out soldier, only to stay in his thoughts pages later:

The leaning man, meanwhile, seems to cause some ominous stress as a soldier should "Abandon Ship!" below him:

Fun stuff. The collage looks great on our wall and is currently the most colorful thing there (it's next to some etchings, pencil drawings, and black and white photographs). Siglio's made another great book and another collector very happy - I can't wait to see what else they come up with.

***There are three copies left of Here Comes Kitty with an original collage. I am very pleased with mine, and although a bit more expensive now that when I ordered mine, I still think it's a very good buy.***

Currently reading:
Andrew O'Hagan, The Illuminations

Currently listening to:
An optimistic half-marathon training mix

Monday, August 10, 2015

REVIEWS: Anders Nilsen, Big Questions and The End

I just finished writing a review of Anders Nilsen's excellent new sketchbook compilation Poetry is Useless for Rain Taxi - if it's accepted it'll be included in either the print or online iteration of the Fall 2015 issue. This is the third time I've written critically about Nilsen and it got me thinking about my past reviews for the now-defunct To save these texts from vanishing entirely, I thought I'd reprint them here since they no longer appear in search results. I'll be occasionally doing this here for reviews I'm particularly fond of, so I hope you bear with me.

Needless to say: Anders Nilsen's one of the best out there and I find it wildly perplexing that he's not been permanently crowned with laurels by both literature and comics aficionados. Check his work out, and hopefully these texts will inspire.

Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
Published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2011
Review by Jeff Alford
Originally appeared on

It's been twelve years and fifteen issues since Anders Nilsen's first installment of Big Questions was published as a Xeroxed, staple-bound comic book. At long last, Drawn and Quarterly has compiled the entire run of Big Questions into a beautiful omnibus edition that allows Nilsen's story to flow uninterrupted from start to finish. Seeing Big Questions in its entirety will dazzle readers with its progression.

Nilsen's story doesn't just flow: it blooms. In the twelve years it took to complete Big Questions, Nilsen's creative skills have blossomed exponentially and readers will marvel at the transformation that takes place between the book's covers. In just 650 pages, we see Nilsen grow from a cartoonist to a true artist and watch his story slowly become what just might be the acme of the comics-as-literature movement.

The first issue of Big Questions featured crudely drawn birds and people, both species in equal states of existential crisis. "I hate the world and everything in it", one bird thinks to itself, unable to find the means to convert this sentiment into words. "Shit, seeds again", another bird says in a different strip, as his flock proceeds to peck away in silence. At first, these seem like short gag comics, but through Nilsen's impeccable pacing and frequent use of silence in his frames, even the simplest scenes find a way to distill a world of philosophical complexity into just a few lines.

After the first few issues of Big Questions, Nilsen shifted his spotlight entirely onto his philosophical flock. Although they all look identical, his birds are given names and they begin to take on new roles as representatives of the many intellectual facets and ideas that Nilsen grapples with in his story. Leroy is the unchained philosopher, prone to unwelcome monologues, and can be found early in the book trying to discuss his ideas with another bird named Zwingly. "If we change our behavior and try to direct our actions in a positive way, could we influence the course of world history?" he asks, "and yet, even if we could make such a difference, how would we know where to start?" A bird named Betty leans more towards the spiritual side of things with her beliefs, and is visited by the boney ghosts of passed birds (including the recently-killed Leroy, who "sought advice on philosophical matters from an owl"). Algernon leads another thread of Big Questions as he searches for his missing mate Thelma. Algernon is kidnapped by a snake and kept in a cave that allegorically will make any Plato buff proud.

Eventually, humans are introduced in Big Questions by way of an old woman and her mute, mentally unsound grandson. "The Idiot" (as he's referred to in Nilsen's dramatis personae) sees the world differently, from a mind stuck somewhere between that of birds and humans. The Idiot's curiosity and peculiarities manage to attract a bird named Bayle, who eventually becomes a devoted follower and almost a disciple of the man. Some of the finest scenes in Big Questions are with Bayle and The Idiot as they wander through the forest together in search of some kind of unknown connection.
Although Big Questions deals heavily with ideas and philosophy, some of the most exciting and awe-inspiring aspects of the story are two major plot points that further explore the relationship between man and nature. When a bomb drops near the birds' tree and remains undetonated, the birds are forced to reconfigure their simple world-view to include this new, metallic egg and its unclear origin. Later, hinting lightly at a large-scale political subtext, a plane crashes into The Idiot's house, killing his grandmother and completely leveling their home. The pilot survives and provides Big Questions with a much-needed and well-voiced human element as he struggles to regain his composure after his near-fatal accident.

Big Questions is an astonishing achievement and the many years that Nilsen spent with this story will shimmer through to his readers. This book has enormous potential to appeal across its medium; Big Questions's outstanding text and artwork should be capable of drawing in even the most comic-phobic lover of literature. Like Algernon's cave, Big Questions is more expansive the deeper you go. Multiple readings will surely lead to new discoveries and will keep readers captivated until Nilsen's next masterpiece, whenever that may land.

Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
Published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2013
Review by Jeff Alford
Originally appeared on

Published last year, graphic novelist Anders Nilsen's Big Questions (a 600-page tome about a flock of birds ruminating on life, love and death) is an exceptionally neat and meticulously detailed feat of illustration. Careful pen strokes render every leaf, blade of grass, and grain of wood with a precision that imbues Nilsen's rudimentary birds with a lofty presence. No detail has been glossed over: everything is exactly as it should be.

This precision makes the philosophical aspects of Big Questions all the more engaging: while there may not be one "Big Answer," it seems Nilsen's exposed all its pieces, plainly, beautifully visible.

But what happens when this foundation breaks, when a hand becomes too shaky for a neat, clean line? In 2005, Nilsen endured the loss of his fiancée Cheryl Weaver, a tragedy that fractally shattered the artist's interest in careful composition. Two cartoonists emerged from his loss: the Nilsen who maintained writing Big Questions up through its conclusion in 2010, and one more interested in abstraction, minimalism and the de-atomization of the comic book form.

The End was originally published in a staple bound format in 2007 under Fantagraphics's Ignatz imprint and has been expanded and re-released. With only 80 pages, The End is a quick read but it is hardly fleeting: these pages come from such a raw emotional place that they'll reverberate like an echo from a well.

There are three types of minimalist storytelling in The End and each represents a stage of grieving and overcoming that loss. Initially, the book is composed of sketchbook pages that will look most familiar to those readers who know Nilsen for his work like Big Questions and 2005's Dogs and Water. A chapter called "Since You've Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want All The Time" features floating cartoons of "me crying while doing the dishes," "me watering your plants," and "me talking to you though you're not even there," among many other lonely moments. Fascinatingly, the line work in these single-frame cartoons grows more confident as the pages go on. Nilsen removes the captions as the figure in the panels grows more used to his solitude. In just a few pages, absence becomes a routine. It's not uplifting, but it's progress.

Nilsen then shifts into a very difficult, metaphysical realm: the central bulk of The End features two crude silhouettes conversing amidst an ethereal blue page. It's through these pages, and through the mouth of a forlorn, questioning figure that Nilsen is able to converse and reconcile with some of the emotional hurdles that have him paralyzed. Early in the book, a short, bossy figure approached and berates the other over the course of seven frames:

"Why do you keep calling me? You've had a lot of time to think about all of this. You need to stop calling. And get on with it. You need to get over the whole thing. You need to stop putting it all on other people. …What if I give you twenty bucks? If I give you twenty bucks will you get over it and stop calling me? You aren't going to answer me are you. God I find this so irritating. Aren't you bothered by it too? Don't you want to move on? God you piss me off sometimes."

Nilsen moves from this aggressive self-reflection to something even more abstract: later (and in a similar, minimal format), the figure approaches a female silhouette, a vessel for his late fiancée. "Can we talk?" he asks, and it's possibly the biggest question the author's ever posited. Their discussion runs quickly through shared memories, uncertainty of the past as well as the future. "I still have a lot of questions," he asks. "If I fall in love, will you haunt me?" "I will always haunt you, no matter what," she replies, and he makes her promise.

The third format in The End doesn't actually end the book, but it provides some of the most uplifting closure in its attempt to inspire a continued, fulfilling life despite the tragedies endured. "How Can I Prepare You For What's To Follow" was originally screen printed in poster-format, and features a faceless figure illustrated over found imagery of beautiful landscapes and vintage photography. This section functions like an abstract Terrence Malick film, running quickly through worldly imagery while a faceless figure delivers an inspiring conclusory speech. "You get to eat whatever you want a sleep and dream and be warm, to comfort and be comforted," he says, screen printed over a distant view of Machu Picchu. He reminds the reader, standing over what might be the French Riviera, that "you have a small, fragile heart, the same as all of us." It's a message we've heard before, but its majestic delivery and the difficult path that led to this revelation make The End all the more exceptional.

Currently reading:
Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Currently listening to:
Jamie XX, "In Colour"

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Shirley Jackson, "Life Among the Savages" (1952 First Edition)

I'm excited to see the release of Shirley Jackson's Let Me Tell You this week, so I thought I'd share a First Edition I picked up recently of Life Among the Savages. First published in 1953, Life Among the Savages collects a number of fictionalized autobiographical stories that Jackson wrote about her family for various women's magazines like Good Housekeeping. The book was followed by a sequel called Raising Demons in 1957. It's curious to see such tame, maternal stories coming out between The Lottery in 1948 and 1962's remarkably eerie We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and it's fun to consider the sinister brain behind those horror stories as the mother in these yarns about a big, clamorous family.

Here's a photo of Jackson's kids on the back, can't you just imagine these little hellions growing up to be stone throwers in The Lottery?

This summer, Penguin reissued Savages and Raising Demons in two new paperbacks with outstanding illustrated covers by Graham Roumieu:

Absolutely wonderful.

...on a broad note: I think it's important in one's collection to maintain a focus that's somewhat in reach: one of my favorite novelists, Thomas Pynchon, only has a handful of books and, although costly, it is a reasonable endeavor to try and get first editions of his whole body of work. Collecting Hemingway, on the other hand, might be a lifelong feat (and would take up a whole lot of shelf space, to boot). I recently expanded my list to include Shirley Jackson, deciding she was a perfect candidate: she's got about ten books, and while all pretty tricky to track down only The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery are in the $250+ range. Following a purchase of The Sundial and a cheap eBay slam dunk with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I'm on my way with Life Among the Savages.

Currently reading:
Poetry Is Useless, Anders Nilsen

Currently listening to:
"I am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America" (3LP)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Charles Burns and Killoffer, "In The Garden Of Evil" (signed and numbered with Will Oldham record, Pigeon Press 2015)

Pigeon Press just put out an incredible new edition by Charles Burns and Killoffer called In The Garden Of Evil.

This is a staple-bound book, roughly 24 pages long, featuring gorgeous illustrations by both Burns and Killoffer (working together). It's amazing what they came up with as a team: the two artists trade foregrounds and backgrounds, Killoffer's soft anatomical skies and fields lurk around Adam and Eve, rendered strikingly familiarly in Burns's signature calligraphic line work.

The book is in an edition of 1000 copies, signed and numbered. This is copy 249:

Some other details that are particularly exciting: on the front flap, an embossed stamp of the publisher's logo, but on the back: this enigmatic symbol from Burns. He stamped my copy of Sugar Skull with this insignia in red ink last year in Brooklyn... how mysterious...

And lastly, and most suprisingly: a flexidisc record featuring a song called "Garden of Evil" by Will Oldham. 

I suspect that this has been sold almost exclusive at comic fairs this year; it's surprisingly hard to find at this point, although there have been copies on eBay. I got mine from Last Gasp in San Francisco, although it looks like they've since sold out.

Currently reading:
Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide

Currently listening to:
"I am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America" (3LP)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Haruki Murakami, "Hear The Wind Sing" and "Pinball, 1973", new Knopf translation and old Kodansha editions

I just received my review copy of Haruki Murakami's new Wind/Pinball, a collection of the author's first novels from the late 80s that, until now, were not widely released. Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 were previously only available in English in these very rare pocket-sized Kodansha paperbacks translated by Alfred Birnbaum (who went on to translate a number of the author's other books). I was able to track down a first edition of Hear The Wind Sing in this Kodansha state, but Pinball 1973 had eluded me up until now. It was a much more expensive book to find on the rare market (I think the print run was substantially lower). I actually found the text somewhere online about 10 years ago and made my own little edition with the printers in my school's library...

But now, thanks to Knopf and Ted Goossen's new translation, these two books are now available for everyone! The two stories read like hearing a great band's demo tapes - fascinating for fans, but I doubt new readers will find them particularly resonant. Most important, I think, is a new introduction in the Knopf edition by Murakami discussing the genesis of these stories and the dawn of his writing career. I'm excited to re-visit these texts with a more critical eye.

Always nice to see an understated Chip Kidd cover, too. For the translation geeks out there, thought it might be interesting to show the opening pages by Birnbaum and Goossen. Here's Birnbaum:

And here's Goossen:

And if anyone's interested, the Colophon to the Kodansha edition of Hear The Wind Sing.

Currently reading:
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

Currently listening to:
Pop Ambient 2015 (Kompakt)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review: All That Is by James Salter (1925-2015)

James Salter died today at age 90. I think he might be one of the most under-read and under-decorated greats of American literature. Like many other readers, I'm still slowly discovering him, but find that everything I've read has been nearly perfect.

I first read Salter a few years ago with his outstanding book All That Is. I had written a review for in 2013 but it seems it's been scrubbed from their site now that they're no longer updating. I figure I'd post it here: if anyone opposes, please let me know and I'll remove it. (The image, above, is from a signed first edition of Salter's memoir, Burning The Days.)

All That Is by James Salter
Knopf, April 2013
Review by Jeff Alford

All That Is, James Salter’s first novel in thirty-five years, follows the life of Philip Bowman through the middle decades of twentieth-century America. When the novel opens, Bowman is a junior naval officer in World War II amidst some action in the Pacific. The novel expands episodically: we next see Bowman a returned hero in New Jersey, then studying at Harvard, and eventually in Manhattan, getting his foot in the door of a publishing house. Bowman consistently takes what he wants when he wants, from his career to the women he sleeps with. He’s an unusual hero to follow, as Bowman’s American Dream is whatever the best thing is in front of him. This is a masterful work of subtle complexity: Philip Bowman is a difficult, new mind in a familiar trajectory, finely tuned with deficiencies most authors would overlook.

All That Is embraces Bowman’s philosophy and develops his story slowly through short, beautifully written chapters. Each episode could easily be presented as a short story and builds throughout the novel into a layered, achingly complex character portrait. Salter often drifts his spotlight from Bowman to one of the tertiary characters in All That Is, and their inclusion reveals additional complexities to Bowman’s character. In the company of the rest of the cast of All That Is it becomes clear what Bowman’s lacking: remorse, nostalgia, and wonder for the future. All he cares about is the man he is and if that man can continue to take what he decides is his. About halfway through the novel, Salter writes of one of Bowman’s many trysts:

“…in Spain with a woman who had given him the feeling of utter supremacy. He had crossed some line… He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder.”

Although All That Is is predominantly driven by Bowman’s story, it’s fascinating to step back and attempt to build a more conceptual understanding of Salter’s novel. Bowman’s character is classically confident and strangely unpredictable: chapters open that reveal him either on a plane, suddenly en route to Paris, or in the arms of a new mistress. Salter’s tempering of Bowman makes it uncomfortably clear how many of these movements are mistakes. For example, we watch as Bowman falls for a married woman:

“He had met her by chance…. She was married, she had said, but that was understandable – at a certain point in life, it seemed everyone was. At a certain point also you began to feel that you knew everyone, there was no one new, and you were going to spend the rest of your life among familiar people, women especially.”

We, as readers, see Bowman’s decisions to be just as poorly planned as his previous infidelities: he vies for the unattainable because he’s already tried his luck with the immediate vicinity. But somehow Bowman is oblivious to his history of social and romantic carelessness. And, it’s with this in mind that one can return to the title of Salter’s novel and ruminate on the author’s carefully succinct, properly tensed wording. Bowman lives entirely in the present and allows no past regrets or ambitious aspirations to distract his day-seizing vivre.

Salter’s handling of eroticism in All That Is is an extension of this hedonistic slant but is often executed at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment. Bowman’s actions between the sheets are in step with the brash decisions he makes outside the bedroom and are justifiably, frustratingly in character. One could stretch a connection from Bowman to Rabbit Angstrom or Nathan Zuckerman, but their sexual exploits are much more affirmative and often celebratory than Bowman’s empty, mirthless lovelife. All That Is could even be read an experiment in the anti-Roth, or anti-Updike: what happens when the glory days are removed from the mid-century American male’s identity? It seems only success is left, devoid of any gratification.

Having only read about four of his books, I can say that Salter was one of the best. 90 years is a long haul but it's sad to see him go.

Currently reading:
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Currently listening to:
Kamasi Washington, "The Epic"