Monday, July 18, 2016

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1st US edition)


My wife and I will be going to Vienna, Prague and Budapest in August for our holiday this year and I've been working through a themed reading list for the past month or so. I picked a number of books from each realm, from Franz Kafka to some more obscure Czech titles from the wonderful Twisted Spoon Press. 

Milan Kundera may be one of the biggest names in Czech literature, but somehow The Unbearable Lightness of Being has evaded me until just a few weeks ago. I have a number of friends who call Unbearable Lightness one of their favorite books and consider it a masterpiece, and I think the resultant high expectations had an inverse effect. But, with this trip coming, I decided to go for it and picked up a nice-looking hardcover.


It's great. Perhaps discovering it at a particularly formative era in one's life might elevate the book in a person's mind to masterpiece-status, but it wasn't quite there for me. The ideas in the book are immensely rich, but their presentation as a novel felt a little too 'serial', as if he could have better mapped out his ideas beforehand. Still, absolutely worth a read: as a "literary philosopher", Kundera is a tremendous voice.


Currently reading:
Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vancura

Currently listening to:
Blood Orange, "Freetown Sound"

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein (Black Sparrow Press, 1971, signed and numbered limited edition)


Here's a strange new addition to my library: Black Sparrow Press's 1971 book A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, edited by Robert Haas. The book is absolutely gorgeous and features a slipcase of marbled paper and a red and and tan silk binding. Photo below, along with the wonderfully '70s' title page:


For this compilation, Haas has compiled a 1946 interview along with twelve texts by Stein that each represent an era of her craft. Two critical essays round out the collection's "gradual understanding"; one by Gertrude Stein Raffel and one by Donald Sutherland. Take a look at the title page:


Here's where things get even more interesting: this book was originally issued an edition of 500 hardcover copies and 60 numbered copies, each with a pasted-in holograph (ie, hand-written) signature by Stein. This in number 53 of those 60. I've never seen anything like this. Of course with this book being published 25 years after her death, it would be impossible to make a signed edition with the traditional Black Sparrow limitations, so it appears they found 60 instances of Stein's signature to paste into the colophon:

 

This brown rectangle is a thin sheet of paper that's been glued in. It is indeed Stein's signature (matching all the ones I've seen online) - perhaps these came from letters or some sort of set of expendable documents? Absolutely fascinating.



Currently reading:
The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

Currently listening to:
"Wish" by The Cure

Sunday, June 26, 2016

John Pham, Epoxy Cartoon Magazine (self-published)


I first discovered John Pham through his excellent Sublife books that Fantagraphics published in 2008 and 2009, but something happened after book 2 and he dropped off my radar. Now, with the publication of the most recent Kramer's Ergot anthology (which features a searing fluorescent-pink cover by Pham) I'm on a rush to catch up with what I missed. Turns out Pham was consistently busy throughout his Fantagraphics foray on a self-published magazine called Epoxy, and it's become one of the most stunning comics publications out there. The books are handmade, risograph printed and feature curious excitements like nested sections of smaller-trim 'zines', stickers, and fold-outs. After five issues of Epoxy, Pham just came out with the first Epoxy Cartoon Magazine, a massive 16 1/2 inch by 10 1/2 inch supplement that features full-page spreads of sugary trippiness and two pages of J&K comics.

 


The book is inspiringly gorgeous and I've honestly just thrown down the money to buy everything else that Pham's ever made. You should do the same here. I'll surely feature some of these other comics here, so stay tuned.


Currently reading:
James Salter, The Art of Fiction

Currently listening to:
Preoccupations, "Anxiety"

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Best Books of 2016 (so far)




Instead of saving my big recap of the year for December, I thought it might be nice to check in on the ranking so far, now that June's winding down. This has been a great year full of fantastic novels, many of which I'm sure will fight for the top spot on critics' year-end lists.

Zero K by Don DeLillo

I'm surprised at how many negative reviews I've read of Zero K, a book I found chillingly relevant to today's digital era. The novel is about how the fact that we all die is the last thing that separates the top 1% with the rest of the world, and how an experimental cryogenics facility may relieve the wealthy of that plebeian burden. There's no need to weigh Zero K against the rest of DeLillo's body of work: taken alone it's still miles better than a lot of books out there. My review of Zero K can be read here.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

I just finished a review of Imagine Me Gone (here) and am still floored by its deeply affecting prose. The book is about a family of five coping with the loss of their patriarch to suicide. This is one of the best family-dramas I've read and is hugely successful due to Haslett abstaining from trying to make his book more than just about his characters. No agenda, no cultural mirror. Folks like Franzen could learn something here.

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell

A short novella of an American teacher in Bulgaria and his love affair with a local gigolo named Mitko, What Belongs To You may be the best love story I've ever read. It finds a relatable center in what should be a difficult, foreign story, and absolutely soars. My review can be found here.

Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Beverly is a masterful debut by cartoonist Nick Drnaso, composed of six interlocking stories about repressed suburban sexuality. It's devastating, disgusting, absolutely icky and ridiculously compelling. His artistic style is equally unsettling. I have a review of Beverly in the Summer issue of Rain Taxi and described his characters as looking "as if they came straight from the casting call for a medical pamphlet: in another life, they could have advised us how to react when someone is choking or how to get through puberty without feeling so clueless and alone." If you like comics, I insist you check out Beverly.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

This inclusion is cheating a little bit, as The Year of the Runaways came out in the UK last year, where it was a shortlisted contender for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Sahota's novel is a packed story that traces the lives of three Indian men living illegally in London. The Year of the Runaways is a transportive masterwork and one to get absolutely lost in; my review can be read here.

So far so good. What's on your top 5?


Currently reading:
A Bouquet by Karel Jaromir Erben


Sunday, June 12, 2016

César Aira, "The Musical Brain" (signed, first edition, New Directions, 2015)



Last year I had the pleasure of seeing César Aira read from his recent collection of short stories The Musical Brain. This event took place at the estimable Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, and I believe was considered the book's launch party. I had been on the fence about Aira for a while -- I discovered him like most while riding the great Roberto Bolano wave of 2009, and I had difficulty separating Aira's work from Bolano's, since they were so often praised in the same breath. But now that Bolano's been sort of 'secured' in the canon and finally left alone (everything ever has finally been published) I can re-discover César Aira as a separate, kinetic writer. He was brilliant at the reading and I'm looking forward to reading more. I'm still working my way through The Musical Brain here and there, and I've got a galley of Ema the Captive that I'm looking for (which will be published this December).

The Musical Brain has a fantastic design - not only is it Aira's only hardcover with New Directions, it features a lenticular cover of a neon hand tapping out a rhythm:


Further, the signature here is particularly notable. I did a quick look online to retailers and there isn't a single signed book by César Aira out there for purchase. There's no telling what the value might be here (no real comparables) -- Aira seemed quite reluctant to sign books at all in Brooklyn, so there might not be many of these out there at all.


Currently reading:
Swamp Thing by Alan Moore

Currently Listening to:
Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

R. Crumb, Art & Beauty (signed and numbered edition of 400 from David Zwirner Books)



My wife and I stopped into the David Zwirner pop-up bookstore this past Saturday after seeing their outstanding Sigmar Polke show and found this catch: a signed, slipcased and numbered edition of R. Crumb's Art & Beauty, published a few months ago by David Zwirner Books on the occasion of their London Crumb exhibition.

I'm a big Crumb fan, although I'm taking things slow on the collecting front: I've got The Complete Zap Comix, a collaboration he did with Bukowski and Black Sparrow Press, and a signed copy of his Book of Genesis, but have yet to get into the scads of other material that's out there. There's a ton. Crumb seems really into limited, collector's editions of his books, things that come with lithographs, silkscreens, and so on - there are now four separate Crumb-related releases with TASCHEN, for instance. But, the trouble is that the affordable few of these tend to sell out very quickly. I remember trying to get a copy of Genesis that Norton put out with a print but it was already gone.



This Zwirner book is great -- Crumb did two issues of Art & Beauty with Fantagraphics around fifteen years ago, and just this year a third issue with Zwirner (I suspect the exhibition that just closed had all the original pages on view). For $35 you could buy the hardcover of all three issues, but for $150 you can get a slipcased copy with a signed and number bookplate. This is #370 from a relatively small edition of 400 copies. Copies can be purchased here. 


Currently reading:
James Joyce, Dubliners

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mick Rock, The Rise of David Bowie (TASCHEN, signed and personalized)


This evening I stopped over at the TASCHEN Bookstore on my way home from work to get a copy of Mick Rock's The Rise of David Bowie signed by the man himself. This is the smaller, more affordable edition of last year's signed-by-Bowie limited edition, and is impressively comparable. TASCHEN's "unlimited" editions are managing more and more to almost de-value their first, limited incarnations -- this book is remarkably huge, has a lenticular cover like the Collector's Edition, and the reproductions are stellar.



If you were ever thinking about how cool it would have been to have the limited edition, then this book is a must-buy, especially at its retail price of $70. It's really really nice, just missing the clamshell case, edition number and Starman's signature (sigh). I was also pleased to see it includes an essay by Michael Bracewell, who has written some outstanding things I've happened upon lately.


Mick was a blast, chatting with everyone, personalizing each book with some cheeky, scribbled fun. (The guy before me got a BUGGER OFF! in his book.) Mine is below:


Currently Reading:
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Currently Listening to:
Arthur Russell, "Another Thought"