Friday, December 23, 2011

2011: A year in review


In closing out the year, I thought it would be timely to weigh in on 2011 as a whole and compile a best-of list of sorts. It's been an exciting year in books for me...not only have some of my favorite authors come out with long-awaited new novels, I've had the opportunity to dig into some really esoteric independent publishers and geographically broaden my scope of world literature. A publisher I'd slipped away from has bounced back with two exceptional novels two years in a row and re-secured my interest in their output for the foreseeable future. And lastly, the annual literary prize circuit has continued to keep me busy, despite my better judgment. It's been a splendid year, though, and I'm looking forward to what 2012 had to offer. What I love about the literature horizon is that in all, there is very little hype over forthcoming titles. I can tell you a number of albums that bands are planning for 2012, but can’t really do that sort of thing with booka (you'll see below that most of my top 5 were completely unknown to me in 2010). Instead of anticipating, we're left to explore.

So, here we go: my top five books of 2011 in no particular order:


John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun



This book was somewhat of a game-changer for me and my relationship with historical fiction. This is the first book of history that I got truly lost in—Sayles’s style tapped into the parts of me that loves Pynchon and Vollmann and managed to sneak past a deeply illuminating history lesson under the guise of an epic novel. Sayles delves deep into the Spanish-American war and the Wilmington race riots and has single-handedly opened my mind towards other historical writing. And a final nod goes to McSweeney's, who had previously wowed me with Adam Levin's The Instructions—let's see if they can go three-for-three with another monstrous novel in 2012. I highly recommend the book! Those interested in a more thorough discussion of A Moment in the Sun can read my full review here.


Edouard Levé, Suicide



Suicide might be the best book I’ve read all year, but due to its tough subject matter it is practically impossible to gift or recommend. Suicide is composed almost entirely of short and dense poetic lines that begin with the word you (similar in form to Joe Brianard’s I Remember). Fragmented memories and heartsick accusations are thrown at the reader with such relentlessness that it's difficult to extract oneself from Levé's "you". No, the book is not written in second person, but addressed to a nameless character who suddenly shot himself before an outing with his wife. As the narrator tries to understand this death, we as readers are pulled in to try to understand ourselves and learn what could possibly provoke such drastic measures. To add to the novel's dolor, Levé himself committed suicide days after handing in his manuscript. The weight of his actions is inescapable, and permeates confounding emotions through each page of this novel. It’s a stunning, heartbreaking work.


Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie

Jamrach’s Menagerie was one of the best things to come out of this year’s Booker Prize lineup. I’ve gone through the 2011 Booker in much detail in earlier entries, so I’ll hold off on reposting those thoughts here—but if you like nineteenth-century adventure novels, this blends together H. Rider Haggard and the Whaleship Essex into one outstanding read.


Anders Nilsen, Big Questions

I just did a recent post here on Big Questions, which not only discussed Drawn & Quarterly’s new omnibus but the 15 issues Nilsen created leading up to the story’s conclusion. It’s hands-down the best graphic novel of the year, and I hope this book gets stocked in every bookstore. Big Questions has the potential to be a gateway book for so many readers who are looking to delve into comics. I recently wrote a detailed review for about.com, which can be read here.


Roberto Bolano, The Third Reich



I’m a huge Bolano fan, and I think The Third Reich ranks among his best novels, up with the likes of 2666. It’s a different sort of book for Bolano—The Third Reich doesn’t attempt to change the literary landscape like 2666 and The Savage Detectives, but instead is just an enthralling, pitch-perfect novel about a German couple vacationing on the coast of Spain. Take a look here if you want to read more.

What have been some of your favorites this year? What are you looking forward to reading next year, old books or new?

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. My sincerest thanks to each of you for reading my blog—while I’d like to think I’d continue writing even without an audience, your interest in The Oxen of the Sun is most often what keeps me motivated.

Currently reading/packed for Christmas holiday:

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Men in Space by Tom McCarthy
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas

Monday, November 28, 2011

Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Rem Koolhaas and Taschen)


Today we'll take a look at
Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, an exciting but esoteric new tome published by German luxury-publisher Taschen. It's fascinating to see how Taschen has progressed in the past few years. In most cases, it seems they're trying to refocus their books onto a broader, more general audience, and rightfully so--if they intend to open a growing number of bookstores, they'll need their shelves full of books they can easily sell. Perhaps they've traded their former, out-of-this-world quality and daring mindset with accessibility, but there is something admiral about spreading the appeal of a beautiful folio to those who'd normally never encounter such a thing.

Lately, I've been grumbling about the lack of covet-able books from Taschen. The excitement I have towards my enormous Ingmar Bergman book is nowhere to be found when I peruse their new book on Pedro Almodovar. The beauty that was 2009's MOONFIRE is not nearly matched by their new collector's edition on Marilyn Monroe.


But, then they slip this book out onto shelves: Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist's
Project Japan: Metabolism Talks. This is a dense, beautifully produced softcover compiling oral histories of Japan's Metabolist movement. There is so much to learn in this book's 700 pages-- with a mild interest in architecture and a ever-expanding interest in Japanese culture, Project Japan is doubly exciting for me. The book points an incredibly detailed eye onto the small group of architects and designers who had hopes of re-imagining the post-war Japanese lifestyle. With architecture these days unfortunately focusing on designer names and locations (though I confess I dream of moving into Richard Meier's slick Prospect Park building) it's incredible to see an era when architecture and design moved so closely in step with a nation's societal developments.

While the design of this book is really quite nice, at $60 I can't imagine many people will snag this one, as it doesn't have the beautiful spreads that many have come to expect from a Taschen book. I hope I'm wrong, though: this book is a reminder that the edgy Taschen is still at work somewhere. I think this is the most daring, unexpected book they've done all year.



This copy is signed by Rem Koolhaas from a launch event in New York City. Take a look:


Currently reading:
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas

Currently listening to:
M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"

Friday, November 4, 2011

A post-1Q84 reading season

Apologies for the delay in posting--much of my motivation in October was consumed by Murakami's new book 1Q84. I'm fascinated watching the reviews trickle in; this is certainly a book that will have fans divided. Most reviews, mine included, have been tepid at best. You can read my thoughts here:

Jeff Alford on Haruki Murakami's 1Q84


Admittedly, finishing 1Q84 and the above review feels like I've hung up a big albatross of contemporary literature. This weekend's NYT Book Review puts it very well, though--despite 1Q84's many shortcomings, much of it will linger with its readers.

One thing I'd like to point out is a link one reader left in the comments section of an old Murakami-related blog post. Jonas from Germany (thanks so much!) pointed me towards the special edition of 1Q84 that I wrote about a while back. Here's an image, and additional details on the whole set can be seen at the embedded link:


It's a stunning piece, and completely sold out. Perhaps still not quite worth the price, but the designers did an exceptional job.

So, what's next? I'll feature soon a great new architecture book by Rem Koolhaas and the new unbound book from Visual Editions. Below is a sneak peek of my books-to-read stack, which will be reviewed at about.com in the next month or so. Stay tuned!


Currently reading:
The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Currently listening to:
Irma Thomas, "Breakaway"

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Julian Barnes wins the 2011 Man Booker Prize with "The Sense of an Ending"


As you may have heard already, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his excellent novel/novella The Sense of an Ending. After a bit of reflection, this is without a doubt who the winner should have been. Sure, it's not the most fun title on the shortlist (that would Jamrach's, and I still stand by all my support of the book), but really, The Sense of an Ending showcases the most literary mastery of the lot. It's a book where every word counts, where every sentence is a tightly wound around a simple and devastating core.

Here's a signed copy of the first UK edition of the book. Take a look at the black edges--a well-placed design element that perfectly matches the book's somber tone.


And here's a shot of Barnes's surprisingly modest signature:


Those of you who were able to snag a reasonably priced signed copy ($20 for this one) will be pleased to know that these are fetching close to $150 dollars on eBay. Timing is always tricky with this sort of thing--too late and you might miss the rush, but list it too soon and you might not get as much money as you could.

-----

...it's been a strange Booker year. A lot of bad attitude emerged, and much of it, in my opinion, is from a reasonable place. The question of "readability" has come up with the suspicion that Booker judges have leaned towards this concept in lieu of true literary merit. When the longlist was announced, I felt this year's picks were similar to this rush of "mature" alternative and genre fiction that we've all endured these past few years in television and film. This was the comics-and-True Blood longlist... but as a fan of such things, I met these selections with open arms. Were these picks especially readable? Sure. But, do they represent the acme of literature from the British Commonwealth?

Well, I don't know the answer to this. As a US reader, nearly all these titles were new to me. I've deeply enjoyed following this list, and I think there's something to be said for that... but are these the best of the best? I've no idea. Since I'm not directly tuned into British literature, this is what I've got to go on... if it weren't for the longlist, it's likely I wouldn't have heard of any of these novels. The list of authors I've discovered through Booker nominations is pretty exciting: Sebastian Barry, Tom McCarthy, Howard Jacobson, John Banville... the marketing behind these guys is fairly minimal here in the States, so I'm very grateful to have found them through the various longlists they've graced.

This week, a new prize was announced called the "Literature Prize" and it hopes to counter the Booker by awarding "quality and ambition" over readability. Perhaps a little petty, but I see this new prize as nothing but a good thing--this will only spread the word of more great books that US readers might miss.

I don't really care to see whatever glaring difference there is between future Booker Prize and Literature Prize winners, because, as an avid reader, I have winners of my own. Last year, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet took my prize, and this year (despite Barnes's best efforts) that award goes to Jamrach's Menagerie. Because, really, all these awards are a matter of opinion and I surely have a few myself.

If there's anything to be upset about, it's over whatever titles are excluded from the longlist. This is where the real introductions occur, and where readers like me find new books.

Congratulations to Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending. I hope readers out there pick this one. Barnes deserves it. But I really hope Booker interest in the US doesn't end with that--I want to see Jamrach's and The Sisters Brothers out there just as much.

Currently reading:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Currently listening to:
The Marshmallow Ghosts S/T LP

Monday, October 17, 2011

2011 Man Booker Prize announced tomorrow

Hi everyone, a quick post to let you know that the Booker Prize will be announced tomorrow. Just for fun (and maybe some money if I'm right...), my bets are on Carol Birch and her excellent novel Jamrach's Menagerie:


Stay tuned tomorrow for a post on the winning title! It might be a bit later in the evening, but in that delay I imagine I'll be able to see whatever Booker buzz there is on the secondary market.
Currently reading:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Currently listening to:
"Kangaroo" by Big Star

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 US Edition (designed by Chip Kidd)


Although it'll be all over bookstores in a few weeks, I thought I'd give you an early peek of Murakami's new novel, 1Q84 (which I've decided to pronounce in my head as "Q-teen eighty-four"):

The book was originally published in Japan in three volumes, the first two released simultaneously and the third volume a year later. In an interesting move, UK publishers are trying to recreate that gap by releasing Books 1 and 2 in a single volume and Book 3 separately a week later... but here in the US we get all three volumes in one massive, 950 page collection. It's better this way, but very tough to read on a crowded subway train!

So far, the novel is a great time. I won't go too deep into plot details (and save it for a full review at about.com) but the story is split between two protagonists and deals with a hitwoman, a teenage sci-fi writer, a doom cult, and little lilliputian monsters (or something).

What I would like to focus on is Chip Kidd's excellent jacket design. The dustjacket is made from a very thin, nearly-transparent paper. The "1Q84" on the jacket is printed in color, but underneath, the year is written in white. On the spine of the jacket, only the "1" and "8" are printed, leaving the actual spine of the book to only have the "Q" and "4".

Sounds so simple, but it makes a great effect, and one that very successfully captures the twinning, mirrored themes of the novel. Here's what the jacket and boards look like when they don't line up straight:


And another shot with the jacket almost removed:


Lastly, there's some craziness with the page numbering. One side of every page-spread has the title and page numbers printed backwards! Take a look:


While very cool, I find the numbering just a little bit frustrating. The backwards and forwards numbers change sides inexplicably throughout the book, sometimes in the middle of a chapter. If there is some reasoning behind this switching, please let me know! I'm so curious...!

1Q84 hits bookshelves on the 25th. Murakami fans, I wish you happy reading! I'm very much enjoying the novel and I'm sure you will too.

Currently reading:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Currently listening to:
Something on WFMU

Monday, October 10, 2011

REVIEW: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (with early artwork)


My review of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marraige Plot is online and can be read here.

One perk of being a reviewer is seeing early artwork. Here's another look The Marriage Plot ARC:

This one's a bit more geometric than the cover art that's in bookstores. They did away with the Venn Diagram, and replaced it with a big "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" note. Both look pretty sharp, though!


Currently reading:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Currently listening to:
The Afghan Whigs in Basel, 02-03-1994

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tomas Tranströmer wins Nobel Prize for Literature


Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature this morning. I'm not a poetry buff, so his work is entirely new to me, but I did find online a lovely cover to an old poetry collection that I thought I'd share. It's always interesting when these awards come out, as I'm always reminded how worldly and non-American the Nobel is. I'll try to check on Tranströmer next time I see a good opportunity.

Anyone read any of his work? Any advice on where to start?


Currently reading:
My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (Open Letter)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nobel Prize for Literature, announced tomorrow

I don't know about you, but my bets are on Peter Nadas for the Nobel Prize tomorrow. There's something about the forthcoming translation of Parallel Stories that has me captivated. I'd previously read his short work A Lovely Tale of Photography (published in English by the outstanding Twisted Spoon Press), and although I've got nothing else to judge him by, the quiet hum I'm sensing over Parallel Stories gives me a hunch it might be Nadas's year. We'll see tomorrow--I'll update again with the winner in the evening! Stay tuned.


Currently reading:
The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyateslav Pyetsukh

Currently listening to:
"Alligator" by The National

Monday, September 19, 2011

Anders Nilsen and the evolution of BIG QUESTIONS

If you're a fan of literary comics, chances are you've seen the work of Anders Nilsen around. In my opinion, Nilsen is somewhat of a rarity in the comics realm, as his work is much more focused on text and ideas than on traditional comic values like artwork and format. This lean towards text puts Nilsen in this amazing place for crossover appeal; at times his work feels like reading a philosopher's notebook, a trait that would surely appeal to fans of heavy lit.

I got into comics well after I fell for literature, and Nilsen's Big Questions made that happen. Soon after an obligatory first purchase of Watchmen, I discovered the now-defunct "Holy Consumption", a Chicago-based comics collective consisting of Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, Jeffrey Brown, and the terribly underrated John Hankiewicz. Nilsen showed me how close comics can be to literature, and opened up many doors for me to explore in the genre.

I feel very lucky to have found Big Questions early enough to follow the story serially. Having started in 1999, its remarkable to see how Nilsen's story evolves over 12 years--what begins with fairly crude drawings of philosophizing birds grows into a dream-like story about a undetonated bomb, a crashed plane, and the relationship between man and nature. What's most incredible is that Nilsen's skill as an artist grows exponentially as Big Questions progresses. As you read through the series, you get to watch Nilsen turn from a cartoonist into an artist, and by the end of Big Questions, his pen and ink work is truly breathtaking.

An early page:

A later page:

I'll save my real review for about.com (Big Questions is on deck between the new Eugenides and Murakami novels), but I'd like to show you how this comic grew from a xeroxed zine into a stunning, limited edition hardcover.

Here are issues 1-4 (each bought for about $3 from The Holy Consumption):


And issues 5-8 (now with full-color covers):


And issues 9-15 (where the story and design really hits its stride):


At last, Drawn and Quarterly have compiled all the issues of Big Questions into a beautiful, 600+ page tome. They did two editions at once, a paperback and a signed, limited edition hardcover. Here's the hardcover:


I'll post my review of Big Questions once it goes live on about.com. I strongly encourage you to seek out Nilsen's work. I hope this book gets a huge reception. Nilsen deserves it.

(Also, thought I'd point you to Nilsen's "picture store" here. I've wanted an original work from Nilsen for ages and thought I'd tempt you as well.)

Currently reading:
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Twin Spica by Kou Yaginuma

Currently listening to:
The soundtrack to "Drive"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

2011 Boooker Prize shortlist


The Booker Prize shortlist has been announced! A very interesting list, including four of the six titles I predicted last night.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
Pigeon English by Stephen Kellman
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I read the first fifty pages of Pigeon English in a Barnes & Noble while killing a bit of time before meeting friends, and I truly doubt this one will win. It seems Pigeon English is this year's Room, a creatively narrated story but not much more.

So thrilled to see Jamrach's up there! Whether or not it wins, I hope more people read this one.

Currently reading:
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Currently listening to:
This morning's New York 1 news loop

Monday, September 5, 2011

2011 shortlist prediction


Tomorrow, the 2011 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I'll be back tomorrow evening with the list, but for now, I thought I'd feature my six selections:

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

The Barnes was one I was going to skip, but decided to go for it after finding a cheap signed copy on www.firsts-in-print.co.uk. It's a short, 150-page novel that's much more driven by Barnes's stellar prose than his cheeky dialogue (which I've grown a bit weary of). I just finished it this afternoon on a train back to Brooklyn from Springfield, MA... it's a lovely meditation of aging, relationships, and the reliability of memories.

Of the three I've read (Barnes, Hollinghurst, Birch), so far I might be leaning towards Jamrach's for how perfectly it renders ocean madness... I'll try to avoid spoiling anything, but the book achieves something great when its plot turns sour.

We'll see how things go tomorrow! Until then....

Currently reading:
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Currently listening to:
"In Tension EP" by Light Asylum

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Story by Jennifer Shaw (Broken Levee Books)



A perfect book for a day like today. As New York braces itself for Irene, lets take a look a Hurricane Story, a photography book by Jennifer Shaw recently published by Broken Levee Books, an imprint of Chin Music Press. Readers of the blog will recall some previous posts on Chin Music--they're a wonderful press out of Seattle that focus their list on Japan and New Orleans. Although there are plenty of opportunities for Chin Music to dwell dolorously on the historically bad fates that these regions have recently endured, they manage to nurture these places with beautifully crafted, celebratory books that remind readers of all the good these places can offer.


Hurricane Story is composed entirely of Holga-shot toy photography that recreates the onslaught of Katrina and the birth of Shaw's son on August 29, 2005. Shaw's photography is hazy and deeply intriguing, and provides the kind of brief glimpses that make you want to see a wider scope with a heightened clarity.


I found myself reluctantly itching for more large-scale imagery, but then, if that happened her story would turn a bit more toward the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman's "Hell":

By tightening her shots and limiting her canvas, Shaw makes Hurricane Story a much more personal book than a full-scale disaster chronicle. It's exactly what it should be: a very successful book of narrative photography, and one that will make viewers what to see what else she's capable of.

(This one I can very much relate to right now. Irene is on it's way--it's already looking a little dreary here in Brooklyn. We'll see what happens tomorrow...)

Currently reading:
There But For The by Ali Smith

Currently listening to:
"Tupelo", by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Sunday, August 21, 2011

William T. Vollmann's YOU BRIGHT AND RISEN ANGELS, UK 1st (with drawing)



After a bit of delay, I thought I'd come back with one of my favorite novels, William T. Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels. It's Vollmann's first novel and one that very much sets the tone for the rest of his oeuvre, both his fiction and non-fiction. Angels is one of the most insane books I've ever read and one of the most difficult to describe. If you could trade the cheekiness of Thomas Pynchon with something more vicious and incendiary you'd have something close to what Vollmann's up to.

First published in 1987 by Andre Deutsch, You Bright and Risen Angels is sort of an alternate-history novel. Set in what feels like a poisoned version of Horatio Alger's USA, an enigmatic figure named Big George runs the country, fueled by electricity and over-saturated branding. A revolutionary faction forms against Big George, led by a man named Bug and his army of insects and terrorists.

And Vollmann makes it work. It's an amazingly captivating novel and if you're at all intrigued by the above I suggest you seek it out. I apologize in advance for being so tongue-tied on this one--if you read it you'll understand where I'm coming from.

A major theme of the novel is the tension between insects and "electricity"... which makes this signed UK 1st even more exciting. Take a look:


After lusting after a similarly drawn-in copy at the now-defunct Skyline Books in Manhattan, I found this one on eBay and snagged it on a very modest "Best Offer".

Thought I'd also share a peek at the coda of the novel, written in some sort of glyphic alphabet:



(On a side note, I've finished 2 of my 6 picks from the Booker longlist, Jamrach's Menagerie and The Stranger's Child. I'm waiting on two more from the UK and will be back with an update when they arrive.)

Currently reading:
There But For The by Ali Smith

Currently listening to:
Light Asylum, "In Tension"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Two UK 1sts by Amitav Ghosh, (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke)

As Booker longlisted titles trickle in through my mailbox, I thought I'd share a pair novels by the previously shortlisted Amitav Ghosh (whose most recent novel was not longlisted last week, despite all my finger-crossing).

I just finished his novel Sea of Poppies (which was on the 2008 Booker shortlist) and was completely floored. Sea of Poppies is set in India on the cusp of the Opium Wars and follows the journey of the Ibis, an old schooner with its sails set for Mauritius. The novel reads with the adventurous spirit of a classic high seas yarn but maintains the expansive control of a Victorian novel. I highly recommend it!

(Here are the Sea of Poppies endpapers:)


What's most exciting is that Sea of Poppies is the first of a trilogy. The second volume of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, was just published, and I really hope it gets a wide readership despite its omission from the 2011 longlist.

Not only is Ghosh an incredible writer, the UK editions of his books are exceptionally well designed. The endpapers to River of Smoke are above, and the spines of volumes one and two together are below:

I'll be back in a bit with a new post once the handful of longlisted titles I've ordered are in-hand. Stay tuned...


Currently reading:
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Currently listening to:
John Maus, "We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourseles"