Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ian McEwan's Solar (Waterstone's signed limited edition)

Today I received my copy of Ian McEwan's Solar from Waterstone's in the UK. It's a signed, slipcased edition, limited to 1,000 copies worldwide. Aside from the gold lettering on the black cloth spine, the slipcase is the only portion of the book that features any sort of text. The front and back of the actual book are bound in printed, text-less boards, each with a different "extinguished" sun image. And finally, my favorite detail: the edges of the book are midnight black.

I think publisher's in the UK have got it right--go a little further with your big names and create a signed, limited edition for all the devoted collector's out there. I'm told that there's a leather-bound edition of Solar out there somewhere, limited to something small like 100 copies, but I can't even find an image of what that looks like. Looks like that will be quite a rare one...

To be honest, I don't know much about Solar yet. I've read it's about climate change and that it's not as heavy as his previous works. I'm just digging into John Banville's new one so it might be a bit before I get Solar... but I'm very much looking forward to it.

Since this is a Waterstone's exclusive, it can be found here for 35GBP.

Currently reading:
The Infinities (John Banville)
Farewells to Plasma (Natasza Goerke)
Black Jack vol. 10 (Osamu Tezuka)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

PIXIE MEAT, by Charles Burns, Gary Panter, and Tom De Haven

I've recently been reading some of Charles Burns's old "defetctive" detective comics. Each of these vignettes are led by a masked wrestler-turned detective named El Borbah, who investigates everything from punk-rock robot clubs to experimental cryogenics to mysterious wish-bone cults (this from a wonderful story called "Bone Voyage"). They're beautifully weird stories--Burns's artistry is brilliantly eerie and will transport you into a bizarre world where somehow this weirdness makes sense.

In a way, there's a huge element of restraint involved in his work, something that I believe creeps up on you as you experience more of his material. For instance: a female character in his excellent novel Black Hole is revealed to have a tail--she's afflicted with the "Teen Plague" which is mutating high schoolers--and somehow we think to ourselves, "well, at least it's just a tail". Burns paces his work so well with quiet hints of monstrosity that it's hard not to think of all the creatures that are pent up inside of him, that someday it might all come out in a horror of "Dunwich" proportions.

But actually, nearly 20 years ago, Burns was involved in a no-holds-barred project that shows exactly what he is capable of while working without his traditional restrictions. I'm very excited to share with you a book called Pixie Meat, originally published in 1990 by Water Row Books in an edition of only 200 pieces.

This is a hand-assembled letterpress book featuring collaborative art by Burns and Gary Panter, as well as text by author Tom De Haven. I'm not too familiar with De Haven's other work (aside from the recent It's Superman, which featured cover artwork by Chris Ware) but as a fan of both Burns and Panter I've been lusting after this book for ages. It's incredible to see what the two artists can do while working together. Looking through these pages makes Burns' and Panter's solo work feel uncomfortably simple and stable. Panter's wacky monsters throw Burns's familiar grotesquery completely off-kilter, and vice versa; if you thought Burns and Panter were strange, Pixie Meat proves that you've only just seen a fraction of their madness. And really, it's an awe-inspiring feat.

The book is 12" x 15", hand-bound and packaged in a velcro-sealed black folder. every spread has a red cellophane sheet laid in to give the book more of a retro feel. It features an epic fold-out page and is signed by all three contributors on a bookplate in the back.

WHERE TO FIND PIXIE MEAT: Good luck finding one in person, as you can't even find much about Pixie Meat on the internet. It seems Water Row has a few copies left, and they're selling it for what I think is a high but very appropriate price. After months of online searching from my apartment in Brooklyn, I was able to track down a copy (through a Russian auction site or something) that was actually being sold in the small town I grew up in. My copy came from Main Street Records, a store in Western Massachusetts I used to visit in high school searching for old vinyl by The Cure.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Collectible Paperbacks

With the book industry very obviously in check, I think that we're in the middle of an interesting trend in publishing with regards to how publishers work with the format of their books. Physical book sales are down and publishers are scrambling to hold on to those of us who still buy. And with sales down, we're seeing an increase in effort put towards book design. If we're going to pay $25 or higher for a book, it should look and feel like a special book---and we're seeing that more and more. Roberto Bolano's 2666 was stunning in its first formats--simultaneously published as a large hardcover and a slipcased 3-paperback set. Haruki Murakami's US hardcovers all feature wonderful jackets by the great Chip Kidd. UK publishers are frequently offering their books as signed, limited editions with collectors in mind. That most recent Michael Chabon book even had some kind of decoder ring attached to its jacket.

If I were one of those readers on the brink of buying a Kindle, this sort of stuff would probably keep me buying physical books... but I'm not on the brink of buying a Kindle. It hurts to say, but as a devoted book buyer I think there's a lot of greatness that can be taken away from the tricky position of the publishing industry has found itself in. While they're hustling for new buyers, us collectors are rewarded for our commitment.

What I find fascinating is the work some publishers are putting into their paperbacks. Many small presses have found that with a good design it's possible to make a relatively inexpensive paperback edition into that covetable tome that we buyers are looking for these days.

One of my favorite new publishers is Chin Music Press out of Seattle. After about four stunning hardcovers (including Todd Shimoda's Oh! which I highly recommend) they released Big In Japan by M. Thomas Gammarino. Big In Japan is the first in a new line of paperbacks that Chin Music calls their "Kami" editions--I'm told a few more Kami books are due out this quarter and I'm looking forward to seeing how they turn out. As you can see, Big In Japan is a beautiful little book; it's fairly light reading, but I'll shelve it proudly.

Let's also take a look at Peter Mendelsund's work on Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, published by Vertical, Inc. When Vertical started printing Black Jack they were very clear that this was going to be a monumental undertaking, reprinting all 18 volumes of Tezuka's comics. While this may seem just as daunting for book-buyers (a $300 commitment over the course of three years) they've crafted each of these volumes into something so wonderful to hold that I actually rush out to the bookstore whenever a new volume is released (I've actually marked my calendar for Volume 10).

As a special offer to fans of the comic, Vertical worked with Diamond Distributors to create special limited-edition hardcovers of the first three volumes. Although these limited editions have their perks (a hardcover-only story per volume), as far as their design is concerned I wish they were printed in the original paperback format. Frankly, I think the paperbacks are far superior.

Lastly, to steer away from Japan, here is a line of adventure novels Coralie Bickford-Smith designed for Penguin UK. I've talked about a couple of her projects in previous posts, so I'll let the books speak for themselves here.

Why don't we see more well-designed paperbacks? I think publisher's need to re-think their understanding of format and shake this notion that the paperback is what happens when the hardcover sells out. Just as the thriller/mystery genre cranks out those pocket-sized mass market paperbacks, why can't literary presses work in the opposite direction and make a more elegant, shelf-worthy paperback like the the ones above? If hardcover book prices are creeping higher and higher, someone needs to reclaim that $16-$22 price range and create more softcover books we can all be proud to own.

Currently reading:
Point Omega (Delillo)
Adolf (Osamu Tezuka)