Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (signed first edition, dated on Pulitzer day)

Here's a serious catch: a signed, first edition / first printng of Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, dated April 18, 2016, the day he won the Pulitzer for fiction.

I can't imagine anyone saw this coming -- I for one hadn't even heard of The Sympathizer until the award was announced. Whenever this sort of thing happens, whether it's the Pulitzer or the Booker longlist or shortlist or winner, there's this strange moment online where traces of suddenly-collectible books appear to be available only to suddenly be out-of-stock upon adding a book one's abebooks cart. It's a weird kind of race, and then this sort of thing happens:

While seeing that Symapthizers were disappearing off the internet by the minute, I went to Viet Thanh Nguyen's website and saw that he was doing a signing that night at the Harvard Bookstore. They recently sold me a signed Marilynne Robinson book from a previous event, and while there's not a good way to check editions on a phone order I took a gamble and bought the last hardcover they had in stock. They were gracious enough to get it signed for me and ship it to New York, and lucky for me, a first printing with a complete number line:

Currently reading:
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Currently listening to:
Cold Cave, "Love Comes Close"

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Daniel Clowes, Wilson (signed)

I recently picked up Daniel Clowes's new book Patience but have yet to crack it: after reading through the recently-released Eightball #1-#18 box set, I decided I would go through the complete Clowes on my way to Patience. Plowing through Ice Haven (Eightball #22) and The Death-Ray (Eightball #23) kind of left me a little nonplussed (I don't think those two are particularly stellar stories) but revisiting 2011's Wilson has been a real treat. I've been cracking up over how dark and sad and hilarious the book is!

I got a chance to meet Clowes five years ago at The Strand and he signed this copy for me. Yo Wilson!

Currently reading:
Lian Hearn, Emperor of the Eight Islands

Currently listening to:
"Lost Themes II" by John Carpenter

Sunday, April 17, 2016

David Foster Wallace, Girl With Curious Hair (1st edition)

As I mentioned a few months ago, I've been participating this winter in the David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest book club, Infinite Winter. This weekend I rounded the 900-page corner and have the end in sight - I think I'll finish the novel some time this week. To commemorate this, I thought I'd feature one of my David Foster Wallace rarities, this first edition of Girl With Curious Hair.

My David Foster Wallace collection has a bit of an awkward history: I was on the fence with him and his books for quite some time, having only really read his essays (which were perfectly fine, I figured at the time, but certainly not masterpieces). Coming off the heels of reading the sorta-fine-sorta-useless Both Flesh and Not I decided I wasn't into him. Overrated. I'd picked up a substantial set of Wallace books in library sales and old bookshops over the years, and with Infinite Jest still unread on my shelf I committed to selling the collection to a local bookseller in an effort to fund an art purchase (I had thrown my signed Consider the Lobster up on eBay for a hefty sum already). Fast forward six months, artwork framed on the wall, I find myself nose-deep into the absolutely exquisite Infinite Jest and realize, perhaps too late, that David Foster Wallace was indeed one of the greats and any good library deserves the collection of books that I so coldly treated like a pawn shop cartridge-player.

It's actually kind of fun to "keep an eye out" again and drift through bookstores, which is something I stopped doing once my tastes and library got a little too specific. Now I can pop in and see if someone might have a hardcover 1st of Brief Interviews... or Oblivion, which I still need to pick back up.

This copy was recently picked up, like last week's Arion Press edition, from Powell's ridiculously generous 30% online sale a few weeks ago. Here's the colophon and front-flap of Girl With Curious Hair:

Eyes are peeled for a 1st/1st Infinite Jest. My old copy was a later printing, and not particularly valuable, so no great loss there, but reading through Infinite Jest is a massive important read and one that I think might, looking back, define this point in my life. Really special stuff.

Currently reading:
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Currently listening to:
Underworld, "Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future"

Sunday, April 10, 2016

How I Came to Be the Governor of the Island of Cacona, by The Hon. Francis Thistleton (1852, reprinted by the Arion Press in 1989)

I recently picked up this little oddity from the wildly generous 30% everything sale that Powell's did a few weeks ago: this is How I Came to Be the Governor of the Island of Cacona by William Henry Fleet, writing pseudonymously as the Hon. Francis Thistleton. Originally published in Montreal in 1852, the Arion Press reprinted the book in 1989 after Andrew Hoyem (the founder of Arion Press) discovered a copy of the original volume.

It's a small volume bound in dark green cloth and ochre paper boards, beautifully typeset and letterpress-printed in black and green ink. There's an introduction by Robertson Davies, and each chapter features a delightful illustration in black and yellow ink by Andrew Hoyem himself. Here's a few of those illustrations:

Here's the original title page:

and Arion Press's updated title:

Cacona is a fictional Canadian island (how great is that map on the cover!), and the story here is in the realm of 19th Century British amusements like Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King and Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zenda: in Thistleton's novel, a man is surprisingly granted governorship of Cacona by Her Majesty the Queen. Antics ensue as Cacona is further colonized and their government set up.

This is from an edition of only 325 unsigned/unnumbered copies. Here's a photo of the colophon:

Cacona is my second book from Arion Press (after Robert Louis Stevenson's The Silverado Squatters) and I'm looking forward to picking up more as I see them!

Currently reading:
Don DeLillo, Zero K
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Currently listening to:
Max Richter, "Sleep"

Monday, April 4, 2016

William T. Vollmann, The Ice-Shirt (first edition, signed with drawing)

With 400 pages to go in my Infinite Jest book club and about 1000 pages of books to review currently on my books-to-read stack, I'm finding my eyes are wandering more and more to those volumes that have been lurking on my shelf for years, waiting for my schedule to clear up. I've been itching to get back into a William T. Vollmann novel, and while The Dying Grass beckons, I'm not sure I'll be ready for another 1100 page book so soon after Infinite Jest. So, I think it'll be The Ice-Shirt, and I happen to have a really nice copy.

Vollmann is an outstanding author but also a mesmerizing visual artist. His books are riddled with doodles and sketches and I recently learned that Vollmann will occasionally include a drawing with his signature at book events. When I bought Last Stories and Other Stories from City Lights, I kind of swore that I'd wait to fill in my collection until I was able to find copies of the books I didn't have that were signed with drawings. Someday I hope for a book exclusively composed of his illustrations, but until then, I'll have to settle with these.

The Ice-Shirt, a volume in Vollmann's Seven Dreams series is about Greenland; this copy, fittingly, is illustrated with a viking axe.

Currently reading:
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Ricky Jay, Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living

Currently listening to:
Underworld, "Barbara Barbara We Face A Shining Future"

Monday, March 28, 2016

Joe Brainard and John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook broadside (signed and numbered by Ashbery, 2001)

This broadside by John Ashbery and Joe Brainard is currently hanging in our kitchen (which recently got decked out with some new cabinets!). I bought this for my wife (then-girlfriend) back in 2006; it was our first year in New York. I remember going out to an old church on St. Mark's Place in Manhattan to the offices of the Poetry Project to pick it up -- this was the last broadside they had for sale, and is number 115/125. Before I left the apartment, the girl who helped me on the phone described the Brainard illustration as "kinda like a landscape, but kinda like a salad" and I was absolutely sold -- it was a great gift and, looking back, somewhat of a beacon previewing the collectors we'd become (we've since acquired a lettered copy of The Vermont Notebook with an original ink drawing inside).

The broadside was made to commemorate the Granary Books / Z Press edition of The Vermont Notebook and was printed by Soho Letterpress (whom I coincidentally work with now at my office). The poem is fantastic (and appropriately kitchen-y) and I'm very pleased to share it with you. Be of good cheer.

Currently reading:
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an America Heroby Timothy Egan
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Sunday, March 20, 2016

REVIEW: Howard Jacobson, J (and a signed US first edition)

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of seeing Howard Jacobson and James Shapiro talk about The Merchant of Venice at the 92nd Street Y. Jacobson is an absolutely fantastic writer, and he and Shapiro each read some of their own work and discussed Jacobson's recently published Shylock Is My Name, and in, general, the portrayal of Jews in Shakespeare's plays. I reviewed Shylock Is My Name at Run Spot Run and while I didn't think it was as brilliant as I knew Jacobson was capable of being, it's still a worthy effort. What was most fascinating about this talk was that Shapiro and Jacobson both addressed the limitations of Shakespeare and how the Bard's plays are by no means flawless (save Hamlet, I suppose). The Merchant of Venice is full of strange moments that a more casual reader might fault Jacobson's Shylock for including. I realized, that night, that many of my nitpicks about Shylock stem from the source material, and that Jacobson did a better job with the uneven hand he was dealt that I had ever imaged.

After the talk, I went to get my books signed and I told Jacobson that his novel J absolutely floored me and that I hope he wanders back into that novel's strange territory again. Sadly, he told me he wasn't sure: "it didn't do as well as we all had hoped", he said, and seemed genuinely surprised and humbled that anyone actually liked this book. This was one of my favorites from a few years ago, and I'm honored to get the "J" in my name crossed by the man himself.

While I am only one small voice in the reading and review community, I can't help but feel like I failed with regards to J. So, for one last time, here is a review I wrote back in January 2015 for I sincerely hope some of you go pick it up.

Howard Jacobson
Hogarth, 2014
Review by Jeff Alford

Howard Jacobson's J is a dystopian novel of a rarely seen complexity, in line more with Samuel Beckett's Endgame than The Hunger Games. Set in the damp, rustic village of Port Reuben, J follows the paranoid woodworker Kevern Cohen's courtship with Ailinn Solomons, a local paper-flower florist. Cohen describes his own temperament as "heavy, ornate and unwelcoming" and "out of place", which is almost perfect for their village. Port Reuben feels lost in time, the near future stuck in a cultural leap backwards. Something happened here, recently or eons ago, that seems to have reset the world's cultural progression. Elsewhere, a cast of characters secretly keeps tabs on Kevern and Ailinn: for some reason, their union has placed them on a watch list of sorts. Perhaps Kevern's secret trove of illicit jazz records and historical documents he inherited from his father is to blame, or maybe something from his mother's side. Maybe his lineage has done him a grave, unspoken disservice.

J is a novel of suppression. This suppression is most noticeable at the start of the book, where Kevern Cohen is seen twitchily crossing his lips with two fingers while speaking. A tradition of his father's that he neurotically picked up, Kevern manually attempts to block the "J" sounds of certain words from exiting his lips (this is actually rendered typographically in J with a crossed letter). He seems to speak carefully, circuitously avoiding J words so as not to activate his tic, but later it's apparent that there are not many J words to speak about. His jazz records, for instance, are "not banned...[but] simply not played," and the dystopian landscape of Port Reuben seems not the place for cracking jokes, championing justice, or much of anything else. Those who have read Jacobson before will immediately sense the absence of another J, whose suppression is later revealed to be the chilling core of this peculiar novel.

The characters of J speak of a drop-capped, central cultural event, referring to it as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Jacobson spirals around this event with careful omission, revealing the shadows of a social horror without brightening the center. Of the world before, "Kevern couldn't remember what they were like, only that everything was like something else, as though what had destroyed the city was not disease or overpopulation or an asteroid but a fatal outbreak of febrile fantasy-fiction metaphor." What Happened is strangely contemporary, and seems to have been driven by social media and the ease of transmitting messages to an entire population. One local scholar, who is secretly employed to watch over Kevern in Port Reuben, refers to what happened as Twitternacht, a reference (surprisingly obvious in a book so hazy) to Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom. The name "Twitternacht," the holocaust-denying vibe "IF IT HAPPENED," and the suppression of the J's all point to the atrocities of some 21st-century ethnic cleanse.

What Happened lurks behind the direct events of J, and as the nuances of Kevern and Ailinn's relationship are revealed so too are the details behind the event. A diaspora, perhaps forced, perhaps secret, has transplanted a certain cultural community to Port Reuben and likely other nearby islands. Under the auspices of Operation Ishmael, the community adopted new names for themselves and for their village. On the surface, there's little to connect J to modern-day Britain, but a smattering of clues will leave a careful reader with enough facts to click J into place. 
The difficulty with J is that readers will need to work to see the novel's true shape. A book about Judaism and anti-Semitism that not once uses the word "Jew" demands a developed range of knowledge; Jacobson does not spell anything out here and relies on his readers to understand his well-placed intimations. And the complexities of J extend even beyond religion: Jacobson utilizes much of Port Reuben's outlawed and overlooked media as descriptive touchstones that might be lost on a less learned audience. Fats Waller lyrics provide a musical connection, and references to fine art are used to transmit (albeit perfectly) some relatively simple ideas: a character, for instance, is described "as though Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Mists had suddenly turn around and shown himself". It is a roaringly great vision for those familiar with the painting, but one that falls flat for everyone else.
Once the dust settles and Jacobson allows his readers to see through the haze of What (really) Happened, he barrels even further into some even more difficult sociological territory. "What we have lost," a character explains, "is the experience of a deep antagonism. Not a casual, take-it-or-leave-it, family or neighborly antagonism—but something altogether less accidental and arbitrary than that. A shapely, long-ingested, cultural antagonism, in which everything, from who we worship to what we eat, is accounted for and made clear. We are who are because we are not them." And suddenly, the scariest idea of all emerges: what if this book has been about hate not to scourge the haters but to show the uncomfortable necessity of hate, and its effect at balancing society?
It's an arduous journey to reach J's core, but well worth the struggle. Jacobson is a fine writer, but is also at times too tempted by diversions. As if his "equipoise of hate" is not enough to enrapture readers, a peculiar local murder clutters up the middle of J with a few questionable turns. These seemingly dead ends and the occasional haughtiness with which they are traversed ultimately hold the novel back. J is a riveting, wickedly thoughtful read, but one caught between exceptional and essential.

Currently reading:
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an America Hero by Timothy Egan
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace