Monday, April 27, 2009

Haruki Murakami, After Dark

Today I'd like to show you my leather-bound edition of Haruki Murakami's recently-translated novel After Dark. Published a few years ago in the UK by Harvill Secker, After Dark (and many of Murakami's recent books) was simultaneously offered as a limited edition. There were two options for this limited edition: you could purchase an unsigned clothbound and slipcased edition that was numbered out of 700 copies (possibly exclusively offered through somewhere like Waterstone's, I don't remember exactly) or you could spend a bit more and get a the signed, leatherbound edition that's limited to 100 copies worldwide. This copy is #41. The book's leather boards are illustrated with a silver embossed television; the slipcase features the TV cord. The book is signed via bookplate on the title page.

Now, Murakami is an easy target for modern book collectors. His earlier books are difficult to find as hardcover 1st editions and their prices on the rare markets have risen quite a bit. I believe Chip Kidd designed all the US 1sts, and as you can imagine some of them are incredible to see in person. The 1st edition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for instance, features a Chris Ware-illustrated semi-transparant schema over the bird on the book's jacket of it's inner "mechanics". It's something that can't really be photographed, and I believe a lot of people don't even know it's there.

These days, Murakami's widely known as a literary great that has an ever-expanding readership. In the US, at least, all his books post-Wind-Up Bird are printed with a substantially larger print-run. One would think his days as a collector's author were over--not so! Starting with Kafka on the Shore, Murakami's UK publisher began printing signed limited editions of his books. These are snatched up quickly at publication and they rarely show up through online retailers. While it's frustrating if you're trying to track one down, I imagine the rarity of a second-hand copy means most of the limited editions are secured proudly in private collections.

WHERE TO FIND THESE SIGNED/LIMITED EDITIONS: Honestly, ask the publisher. Write them and say you want to be on the waiting list for a copy and you'll probably get one.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

CRIME (and punishment), by FUEL

In 2006, Penguin UK released a 5 book set called the "Penguin Designer Classics". The series paired up some of today's top designers with a classic novel of their choice. These designers were given free range with boards, paper, dust jackets and so on, and each created a piece representative of their design aesthetic. Each book was limited to a run of 1000 numbered copies and housed in a plexiglass slipcase. The chosen titles (and their designers) are as follows: Crime and Punishment (FUEL), The Idiot (Ron Arad), Tender is the Night (Sam Taylor-Wood), Madame Bovary (Manolo Blahnik), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (Paul Smith).
Instead of writing up the entire series in one post, I'd like to focus on each designer individually. This doesn't mean the next five weeks will be devoted to the Designer Classics series; I'll feature the other volumes of the series occasionally as this blog grows. This week, we'll take a look at the graphic design team FUEL's take on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

As for who FUEL are: you may know them from their Russian Criminal Tattoo books, just recently spanning to a third volume. Also, according to their wikipedia page, FUEL were responsible for the title sequences in the films "The Proposition" (written by Nick Cave!) and "Lost in Translation". (Unfortunately I don't recall what either looked like, so I'll take this as a cue to jump back on track...)

For some reason, FUEL's Crime and Punishment was the easiest volume for me to find. Early 2007, when I started looking for the series at online book sites, quite a few copies of Crime and Punishment wound up on eBay (in fact, I think that's where my copy came from). Looking back, I find this a bit surprising; sure, Fuel don't have the star-power that someone like Paul Smith has, but their book is structurally a further departure from a traditional book than (nearly) all the others. Let's take a look:

You might not be able to see it from the picture, but the "boards" of the book are hardly there--the front and back cover are printed on the same paper that the pages of text are printed on. To add to the peculiarity, the paper feels and looks like a recycled grocery bag. The constructivist red stripe on the cover is printed around the entire circumference of the book, running off the front and around on the side edges of the book. Beautiful!

To compare and contrast, I'll show another of FUEL's books: Alix Lambert's Crime.

The red edges and compact form make the book a standout on the shelves--while it is much more traditional in format (I imagine because the book was to be distributed on a substantially wider scale) one can still see similarities between it and Crime and Punishment. As for the text of this book "Crime", it's interesting--first-hand testimonials from a number of major players in the world of crime. While I'm not especially interested in true-crime, I found these vignettes to be haunting and truly captivating. However, Lambert also includes testimonials from many famous names on the outside of that world. Many sections of the book are devoted to stories told by various actors and actresses who played criminals on screen. While some were riveting, others I could do without and resulted in a diminished interest in the book as a whole.

As hot-and-cold a book as Crime was, it's still fantastic to see graphic designers publishing their own books on such an international scale. It shows that they care about the book world more than just as artists, but as readers and collectors as well.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

His Mistress's Voice (Philip Roth)

This week I'll feature my copy of Philip Roth's His Mistress's Voice, published in 1995 by the Press of Appletree Alley in Lewisberg, PA. The title story, which spans just shy of sixty pages, was originally published in 1986 in issue 53 of the Partisan Review. The book is bound in quarter leather with burgundy silk boards and a matching silk slipcase. His Mistress's Voice is limited to only 195 signed and numbered copies worldwide; this is copy #46. Content aside, this is a book that makes a reader long for the days of private presses who were concerned with not only the quality of the text but the actual structure of the books that they printed. As I read through the story I found myself racing to the finish in anticipation of the colophon. I needed to know the paper type (Arches, a French paper mill that has been around since 1492!) and the name of this nostalgic font that linked the letter pairings "st" and "ct" with a subtle flourish (Garamond with Arrighi display). It's a shame books like this are so difficult to track down but it gives me great comfort that something this good was printed as recently as 1995 and that there are still many fine press publishers around today.

Now, let's talk about the actual story. A rambling and seemingly structureless train-of-thought, His Mistress's Voice reads to me as Philip Roth's answer to Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses. While the title should have tipped me off, it took me about ten pages to grasp that the book's narrator was a woman. While I am a huge Roth fan, I'm no stranger to the criticisms of how masculine and misogynist a writer he seems. Coming from the guy responsible for a letch like David Kepesh (a sexually over-charged professor who narrates three Roth books, The Dying Animal being one of the most uncomfortable books I've ever read) I was shocked to see Roth take this narrative stance in His Mistress's Voice. The nameless "mistress" thinks in sprawling chains of thought fragments, her sentences rarely lasting more than seven or eight words. In fact, the story is riddled with punctuation and desperately lacks conjunctions. It's as if Roth wants to get as far from Joyce's conception of how a woman thinks and give us a different (but still inescapably masculine) take on feminine inner monologue. Yet, what first seemed sexist seems later quite pointed. Early in the story, amidst complaints about her mother and mentions of what she read in magazines like Vogue, the narrator receives a letter from the man she's seeing:

"I did a fandango in the hall after his letter came. I don't think I exhaled while reading. Every single comma the best thing under the sun. I almost passed out. My astrologer will see great things in this letter: the slop is gone, she'll say." (p.24)

We reach a devastating turn later as this man tries to instill in her an interest in classic literature. She read because he made her, and they discussed the books just as he wanted her to:

"I would show him how I'd advanced, and I meant it besides. 'I've been reading Jude the Obscure and can't really see why you're so crazy about it. He is a boring, obvious writer. Jude is a dull, absurd character....I like Phillosten best--an old man with a letch. I'm just halfway but the only thing that saves it at all is that it reads like a magazine saga." (p.50)

This man has given her an entirely new voice, nothing like the "real" voice Roth started her with. It's as if Roth believes that men inherently try to imbue a woman's mind with their own. This is probably the reason we've (to my knowledge) never encountered a female narrator in a Roth book; he believes men are incapable of writing as anyone but men.

(and, coincidentally, "Androgynous" by The Replacements just came on the stereo...)

Gender issues in Roth's books will be eternally discussed, and I feel this story is an important part to that debate. It's a shame it hasn't been anthologized, but I imagine with the Library of America series currently cranking out books this will find a home in some larger anthology.

Where to find His Mistress's Voice
: There's one on eBay right now at a whopping $750. Punching it in to google brings up some book dealers, one of which is asking $3200 for it. I found this one on eBay at around $100 about two Christmas's ago. For you collectors, this is definitely one to just keep an eye out for because a far more reasonable price is sure to be had somewhere.

Now, if only I could find Roth's chapbook "Looking for Kafka"...!

Until next week,

Monday, April 6, 2009

Penguin UK's Ten Tales of the Supernatural

Recently, Penguin UK released a new series called Ten Tales of the Supernatural, a reprint of ten classic gothic horror novels in their Red Classics format. The books are all designed by the amazing Coralie Bickford-Smith, who has designed a number of other equally stunning series in the Red Classics list.

What's wonderful about this series is the balance of relatively well-known titles with ones that were completely new to me. For example: I just finished Richard Marsh's The Beetle, an inherently quite disturbing story of an ancient Egyptian mind-control curse transmitted through invasive and hallucinatory (and sometimes slightly erotic? or is it just me?) encounters with a large beetle. Published in 1897 (the same year as Stoker's Dracula as I'm told by the author bio), The Beetle was quite well-received and I understand why. Marsh shifts the narration between four characters, providing readers with insight into the minds and motivation of all the players, including (gasp!) a woman. It's still a captivating yarn after over 100 years, one I would have never discovered if it were'nt for this series.

Where to find Ten Tales of the Supernatural:

Unfortunately, this series is not available in the US. As it's published by Penguin UK, I ordered my first 5 volumes through With the overseas shipping they're not as much of a bargain as I imagine they are over there, but I think the design alone is worth the $10 or so each book costs. Further, I've found that a lot of these Penguin UK Red Classics are available through Amazon Canada, including Ten Tales of the Supernatural. At the moment many look to be out of stock but it's a great secret for us collectors here in the States.

A book collecting blog

Welcome to The Oxen of the Sun, a book collecting blog. Each week I intend to feature a book from my collection and share with readers details of each acquisition.