Monday, December 23, 2013

Top 5 books of 2013

After much deliberation, I've selected my picks for the Top 5 books of 2013:

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
James Salter, All That Is
Will Self, Umbrella
Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge


Set in the late 19th-Century in a mining town on the coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries revolves around a dead body and a missing fortune, with twelve men involved in the mystery and one out-of-towner who is pulled into the web of intrigue. Catton won the 2013 Booker Prize for the novel and should win tons more awards for it. I've read a number of books this year from the current generation of writing-school grads and found most of them to be exhausting and lacking in a unique voice. Catton spins the plot of The Luminaries through an allegory of celestial charts and cosmic revolutions and her commitment to this theme shines through beautifully in her writing. It's one of the best and most fun books I've read in ages. A more detailed review can be read here.


Where was James Salter when I was falling into the oeuvre of Philip Roth, looking for great American novelists and their related great novels? Salter's All That Is is his first novel in thirty-five years (that's probably where he's been), and in one swoop cuts through through the shenanigans of the old-world, uber-masculine great-American-males like Roth and Updike. All That Is follows Philip Bowman, a former naval officer who has worked his way up the ranks in a Manhattan publishing house. Salter doesn't have any hidden agendas or subtle incendiary themes here, he's just interested in a telling a sweeping bildungsroman of a complex character and his growth through America. This felt like a mid-century classic I'd never heard of, not of its time but lost somewhere in history. My full review can be read here.


(Umbrella was published in the UK in 2012, but released in the US early 2013). One of the most difficult books I've ever read, Will Self's Umbrella is a Joycean whirlwind through psychiatric medicine. Taking place in three timelines that actually switch between each other in midsentence, Umbrella will have you reading aloud to find temporal cluing in Self's magnificent array of voices. The book is an awe-inspiring riddle and perhaps should have won the Booker last year if the judges were given ten years to re-read the shortlist before making a selection. Not for the impatient or weak-willed, but an incredibly rewarding tome. A lengthy review can be found here.


Anne Carson writes with an elegance that I've rarely encountered in my reading. Her formal constraints and pitch-perfect voice turned a Greek myth about about a monster named Geryon into something relatable and deeply personal. I had the chance to meet her at an event at the NYPL and heard her read a lengthy addendum to Red Doc> that she wrote about a character's aimlessness after finally finishing Proust. She's an author that I'm trying to take very slowly -- her books are ones to simmer with, absorb, and re-read. A review can be read here.


Tied with The Luminaries for the top rank this year, Bleeding Edge is a stunner of a book that will resound spectacularly with readers depending on who they were in the year 2000. Me, I was a Nintendo kid in the middle of my teens, growing up essentially in tandem with technology's great advancements, but wasn't immune to the various fads and cultural manias that swept through the country. I remember dial-up internet, Geocities, Beanie Babies, the X-Files, the first signs of Pokemon, and really, to sum it all up, a world pre-Google and before the Apple-empire. Pynchon remembers all of this, almost as if the novel had been cryogenically frozen for 12 years and thawed now that we're deep into the digital frontier and political uncertainty. The book is your standard hysterical Pynchon mystery-fare, but written in a way that renders the millennium like historical fiction. Beneath the double-crossing and foul play of Bleeding Edge, it's bittersweet to see how far we've come in just over a decade.

I highly recommend each of these books. Perhaps you'll need some holiday reading during travels, or have a gift card or two to spend after Christmas. I wish you all a great holiday and New Year's and will see you next in 2014.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013: A Year in Reviews

As 2013 winds down, I thought I'd compile a list of the book reviews I wrote this year for I jumped around a little this year and reviewed a few things that weren't necessarily current releases, so instead of breaking titles down by their release month, I thought I'd list them in order of the ranking I gave them. It's fascinating to see this breakdown -- next week I've planned to feature my top 5 books of 2013 and realize now that some I've ranked relatively far from 5 stars are among my personal favorites of the year. It's a discrepancy I understand but find difficult to explain -- I guess it's because I try to consider not just my own opinions of a book but how I expect the general reading public will engage with the text. Not everyone will be able to crack Will Self's Umbrella, for instance... although I adored the book, isn't "brazen inaccessibility" a flaw that one should consider in a review? Stay tuned for my top five next week, which will likely include some books I've not written about.

5 stars:
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

4 1/2 stars:

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen
Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont
Red Doc> by Anne Carson
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa 
The Unknown University by Roberto Bolano
All That Is by James Salter

4 stars:

The Tragedy of Mr. Morn by Vladimir Nabokov
Tenth of December by George Saunders 
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beaumann
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Umbrella by Will Self
Momo by Michael Ende
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The End by Anders Nilsen 
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

3 1/2 stars:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Enon by Paul Harding
Open Door by Iosi Havilio

3 stars:

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island by Edogawa Ranpo
Personae by Sergio De La Pava
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

2 1/2 stars:

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

2 stars:

Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

1 1/2 stars:

The Best American Comics 2013
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

Currently reading:
At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcon

Currently listening to:

Friday, December 6, 2013

Marcel Dzama, Francis Picabia, and the Adoration of the Calf

The Canadian artist Marcel Dzama made a recent appearance at Book Court in Brooklyn to  launch two new catalogues of his work. One, Sower of Discord, is a career-spanning monograph produced beautifully by Abrams that features works from Dzama's early years with the Royal Art Lodge up through his forays into film and sculpture with David Zwirner Gallery. The second book, Puppets, Pawns, and Prophets was published in conjunction with Dzama's show at Zwirner's London space this summer.

Although I missed the event, I was able to pick up signed copies of both books. At the bookstore I discovered that each copy had a different drawing in it, including beasts, bats, red-lipped ladies and big vaudevillian heads. After much deliberation, I picked these two beauties:

I really like Marcel Dzama and I'm not embarrassed to admit to have been first introduced to his work through McSweeney's. He illustrated a Nick Hornby mix-tape-but-a-book called Songbook and had a portfolio of little prints called The Berlin Years published a year or so later by McSweeney's. They brilliantly (supposedly) snuck in five original drawings in five portfolios, causing The Berlin Years to become wildly collectible. His ink-and-rootbeer drawings of tree-men, outlaws, bears and bats struck the younger me as a quirky Henry Darger-esque world-building canon, but as I got older and started seeing Dzama's exhibitions in person, I realized that he was developing as an artist as I was developing as a viewer -- I began to see references in his work to other artists and eras that I had previously not yet learned about. His work got busier and more layered and he began experimenting more with various new forms. While his early drawings were fun and fascinating (an octopus in a tree, a four-person tree-man mariachi band, etc), now his work oozes meaning. Marcel Dzama's as fun an artist to watch evolve as his work is to look at.

In addition to some very fascinating sculptures, the Zwirner book has a number of exciting referential pieces. Let's take a look at one:

This is an iphone detail of a work from 2012 called "Opportunities mingling with combatants". It has lots of signature Dzama-esque cacophony and whimsy. The masked pianists, the striped corpses, and the conclave of mysterious figures in room 391. But wait, who's that singing backup?


It's none other than Erwin Blumfeld's "Dictator, Paris" (left), an important surrealist photo from 1937. Or could it be trickster-artist Francis Picabia's "Adoration of the Calf" (1941-1492, right)?


The Picabia link is a fascinating one. Although visually there's very little to link Picabia and Dzama, it's obvious that Dzama is influenced by Picabia's approach to surrealism, self re-invention, and dadaist subversiveness. Another clue is room 391, which typographically looks very familiar:

Picabia published a surrealist magazine called 391 from 1917-1924. This was in Picabia's phase of making strange mechanical artworks and long before he began painting from found photography. The above light machine/viewmaster reel actually makes an appearance in another work called "Myths, manifestos, and monsters" (2013) as the head of a figure. I pulled the below detail from amazon's page:

Absolutely fascinating. The calf-man, with an open tunic, can be seen here as well. I'll save a discussion of what all these connections mean for another day (as I've not yet moved past the excitement of discovering these links). I'll leave you with another untapped connection, a music video Dzama directed for a band called "Department of Eagles" (a title taken from Belgian surrealist Marcel Broodthaers's fictional museum, the "Departement des aigles"):

Currently reading:
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon

Currently listening to:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Live from KCRW

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Two signed Jeff Koons books (Hatje Cantz and Taschen, 2009)

Back in 2009, I attended a rare talk/book signing that Jeff Koons did at the Strand in New York. The event coincided with the release of a nice book of Koons's "Celebration" series that Hatje Cantz put out and had an overwhelming turnout. Koons and the Strand were almost careless in their generosity -- there was no limit of books that could be signed and Koons was whimsically drawing flowers, suns, and waterfalls in every book. About halfway through the line (about where I was) Koons's people realized that there was no way he could get through everyone and make it out of the store before midnight. The Strand was already closing up and it became apparent that he would either have to stop drawing or turn people away. I didn't make quite make the cut, and a drawing of a flower in one of my two books came out more like a cotton ball.

Still very exciting, and I'm fairly certain that not many copies of the Taschen book below have been signed. (The Taschen book with the lobster is the trade edition of one of their big sold out collector's editions. I owned a copy at one point but sold it -- I like Koons but not so much to turn down a decent profit...)

What I like about both of these books is the texturing of both the lobster and the heart have a gratuitously heavy gloss to them -- they're pleasantly tactile, rich, and unnecessary. 

Quick thoughts on Koons as an artist: when he's done something great (which happens occasionally), all the heartless, cold, and business-minded criticisms of his craft seem to vanish. His work can be unquestionably powerful at times. I don't need to see another balloon dog in my life, but something like the "Gazing Ball" exhibition at David Zwirner will come by every so often and remind viewers why he's achieved the status that he has.

 Currently reading:
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor

Currently listening to:
Savages, "Husbands"

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Limited edition of John Fante's The Road to Los Angeles

This is an unsigned but numbered limited edition of John Fante's The Road To Los Angeles, one of four books by Fante that chronicles the life of his fictional alter-ego Arturo Bandini. Originally written in 1936, The Road to Los Angeles was published in 1985 by Black Sparrow Press at the suggestion of Charles Bukowski. Black Sparrow released editions of a number of Fante's books, including the highly influential Ask The Dust.

This edition of The Road to Los Angeles is especially curious, as it was released about a year and a half after Fante's death in May 1983. The colophon claims to have been published in traditional Black Sparrow limitations, with 26 signed and lettered copies. Reportedly, these pages were signed very close to Fante's death, and all 26 lettered copies were not actually realized. This makes a signed and lettered copy exceptionally rare, and this edition of 150 numbered copies the next best thing.

I picked this up at PBA Gallery's "Beats/Counterculture" auction last month. It was my first purchase from an auction house - exciting stuff! They'll be having a second session in January that I will surely be watching.

Currently reading:
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Penguin Horror series selected by Guillermo del Toro

These three books are from a newly minted series of horror novels from Penguin. Guillermo del Toro is the "series editor" and provides an introduction to each book which discusses the six selections, which are as follows:

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Haunted Castles by Ray Russell
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
American Supernatural Tales edited by S.T. Joshi
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (with other poems and tales)

I'm a little suspicious of how much of a role del Toro had in the selection process (how many new editions of Shirley Jackson can Penguin crank out?) but that's no means a complaint: these are all excellent books and it's great to see Penguin succeed with another well-made series.

What these do so well is solve an issue that unfortunately is part and parcel with horror/speculative fiction. For some reason, book designers think a certain "something" in their cover art appeals to horror fans. This:

Has been upgraded to this!

This is great. Each of the titles have a glossy smattering of spooky sheen and feel great to hold. The books have black edges on all the pages, which creep inwards towards the text:

Unfortunately, the old-style horror book does sneak into this new series by way of its typography -- the title pages are a drastic shift from the illustrative and gothic cover art and seem a little careless, especially considering the successfully detailed other elements of these volumes. Still, very pleased with these and I highly recommend them. Finally, horror books worth owning.

Happy Halloween! Phnglui mglw nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah nagl fhtagn!

Currently reading:
The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen

Currently listening to:
Chris Kiehne, "The Holy Court of Baltimore"

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Eleanor Catton wins the 2013 Man Booker Prize with The Luminaries

28-year old Eleanor Catton just won the 2013 Man Booker Prize with her novel The Luminaries, making her the youngest writer to ever win. I've been meaning to check out the book -- it looks like an absolutely wonderful historical saga.

Of the rest of the shortlist, the only novels of particular interest to me were Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. I enjoyed both very much, but thought Toibin's short novella was a far superior book. I'll certainly be adding The Luminaries to my reading list!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jake and Dinos Chapman, THE END OF FUN

Two months off, but hope to get back into more regularly-occurring posts. With work picking up and my rare-book purchases slowing down (saving for an apartment!) it didn't seem right to seek out exceptional books with the same drive that I had earlier in this blog's history. To catch up:

The Booker Prize limped in and will be awarded on October 15th -- I've been trying to scale back my interest in this as the prize's importance/integrity/etc has changed drastically over the past handful of years. I did end up buying a very rare signed and numbered copy of Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart, which I finished before the shortlist was announced and had enough time to drum up some unreasonably high bids on eBay (the book had no chance of even making the shortlist, people!).

In other news, I've discovered the world of rare book auction houses (as in physical, real-life auctions) and have been tracking some items with a few absentee bids this past moth. These houses often have shockingly low estimates, and even with a 20% buyer's premium one could walk away with some steals. (I kept quiet on this development so as not to spread the word and be outbid). I nearly had three signed Samuel Beckett books for around $300, but the lot was withdrawn about an hour before the sale. Bummer.

Finally, I was lost in Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge for the second-half of September and think it's one of the most personally-poignant books I've ever read. One's enjoyment of Bleeding Edge will entirely depend on who you were in 2001 in relation to technology. If you, like me, grew up as the internet grew up and passionately followed its developments, if you remember hotbot and geocities and putting quarters on the ledge of an arcade's Time Crisis 2 machine (with that foot pedal!) to signify that you wanted next game, this book's for you. And especially so if you're up on the fascinating world of the Dark Web... Bleeding Edge flows like literary TOR-encryption, and if you can fathom what I'm talking about, you should drop everything and read it.

So: back to rare books. To herald this return and signify the conclusion of my time off, I'd like to share with you my copy of Jake and Dinos Chapman's The End of Fun.

 This evil little book was designed by FUEL (of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia fame) and showcases the Chapman Brothers's psychotically detailed visions of Hell. Nine large vitrines contain diorama-style  landscapes of madness and carnage in miniature (1:32 scale). Skeletons, mutant Nazis, dead bodies and heads on spikes fill these scenes like a twisted Where's Waldo book: there is endless amounts of detail to take in an marvel at. It's gross, sure, but there's so much to like about the work if you're into that sort of thing. 

Originally, these scenes were depicted in a different set of work from 1999 called "Hell". The nine vitrines were lost in the 2004 Momart fire, but were recreated by the artists (and retitled "Fucking Hell") in 2008. "The End of Fun" is a third incarnation (imagine re-making this thing three times!) and is currently in the Duerckheim Collection. The catalogue, published in conjunction with White Cube in the UK, features an essay by Will Self is in a limited edition of 1,200 copies. 100 copies were 'hand-burnt' and signed by both artists (a similar limitation was offered for 2008's Fucking Hell).

Currently reading:
Momo by Michael Ende

Currently listening to:
 CHVRCHES, "The Bones Of What You Believe In"

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ian McEwan's First Love, Last Rights (Signed, first edition)

 A surprisingly busy summer of weddings and various travels has resulted in a slight pause in activity on this blog. Quickly, before I sneak out to the Colorado mountains for a week, I wanted to post a recent 'update' to the library.

Last Monday I attended a reading at the 92nd Street Y of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. The evening was hosted by Salman Rushdie, who regaled the audience with stories of the good-old-days of the 1970s literary scene where the three writers first met. Amis read from Lionel Asbo (which I wasn't too keen on), and McEwan from Sweet Tooth (an interesting passage that summarized a short story by one of the novel's characters).

Afterwards, books were signed, and I was able to complete my library of signed, first editions by McEwan. Among a few other early, rare books, he graciously signed my copy of First Love, Last Rites (although grumbled a bit about how serious everyone was with their hardbacks):

The completist in me is very pleased.

See you in August!

Packed to read on vacation:
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
All That Is by James Salter
The Yiddish Polceman's Union by Michael Chabon

Friday, June 14, 2013

A glut of Gaiman

Something cosmic must be in alignment: this week has seen a plethora of Neil Gaiman excitement, most of which is surrounding the publication of his new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. My review copy just arrived today:

I'm only about forty pages in, but so far it's a lovely book. Reminds me a lot of the more 'earthly' Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells stories, those specifically dealing with the frontier of memories and history instead of outer space.

Gaiman has announced that this book tour will be the last he does, and he'll be making a stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next Tuesday. I'd be excited to go, but having been to the venue many times I know the place seats over 2000 and tickets are a massive $50. Sure, ticket-holders get a copy of the book, but it just doesn't sound to me like the intimate, magical time I would have hoped for. BAM has been sending a few reminders, and I see that there are hundreds of seats still available. Hope it's an enjoyable time for all involved.

Many months ago, I posted a round-up of forthcoming limited edition titles, including a signed, slipcased "gift edition" of Gaiman's wonderful adventure book Stardust. Upon hearing that it was an open edition, and perhaps identical to the trade version but signed and with a die-cut slipcase, I found the $150 price tag to be borderline outrageous. But, the book is currently a whopping 70% off (with free shipping) at The Book Depository (link here), so I think if you're a fan, the time to buy is definitely now.

In other limited edition news, The Ocean at the End of the Lane has a handful of collectible iterations in the pipeline. Goldsboro Books in the UK is doing an exclusive (sold-out) slipcased edition, and there's some 250GBP version out there that looks pretty gorgeous. Here are some pics from the publisher's facebook page for the book:

That's one of fifteen semi-transparent pages, illustrated pages throughout the book. Very nice! Then, there's this, illustrated by Dave McKean (of Sandman fame). Get your orders in...

And, finally: Subterranean Press has been hinting at the completion of their McKean-designed edition of Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors, which has been delayed for a few years by the publisher. They've got a great history of quality Gaiman books, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Of course, there is something suspect to all these limited edition books. A lot of Gaiman fans are comic fans (due to his work with Sandman) and it's a little difficult to see this parade of products without feeling like some completist super-fans out there are being taken advantage of. The price tags on a lot of these are very high, but I do give Gaiman a pass based on that quality (and genre) of his work. He writes stories that almost demand these tome-like bindings of banded leather and slipcases and ribbons. They're fit for the dustiest, top-most shelves in the creakiest of libraries, and it's nice to see this trait recognized by the production teams behind these items. I'll stick with it as long as he does.

Currently reading:
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

Currently listening to:
"Mazes" by Moon Duo

Friday, May 31, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald collection by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Considering the recent Gatsby fever that took over most of May in cinemas and beyond (a "Gatsby" line at Tiffany & Co.? Really?), I thought it might be timely to feature some of the nicest editions I've seen of Fitzgerald's work. This series was published by Penguin in the UK in 2010 and designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith (responsible for a number of beautiful collections of Penguin classics, from gothic horror to adventure novels to Jane Austen). In my opinion it's the best set she's done, particularly because she's working with a specific author and not a genre. This feels much more controlled or curated, and not like there are endless iterations available for subsequent volumes. (Strangely enough, a seventh volume was released after the initial six, which is Six Tales of the Jazz Age. All those stories are inside the black-and-gold Flappers & Philosophers.)

Here are how the six volumes look spread out:

The jackets all include a perforated bookmark that features quote from the novel in some nice art deco typography. Not that I'd ever tear them out...

 And here they are, lined up on my shelf:

At this point, these are not too difficult to find, and I think still around $20 a volume. If one slips out of print, though, completists will bump the value up substantially (I've got copies of Bickford-Smith's now-out-of-print Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment which have since become highly coveted items).

Currently reading:
Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

Currently listening to:
Moon Duo, "Mazes

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Karen Green, Bough Down (Limited Edition from Siglio Press)

My limited edition copy of Karen Green's Bough Down arrived this weekend. Siglio Press did a great job with this book--I've got a handful of their titles and I've not seen something as text-based as this one. Editorially speaking, they've achieved a great balance between Green's minimal collages and her brief prose-poems. Every ten or so pages, a delicately nuanced collage appears, reprinted no larger that about 2-3 inches per side. Most of the pieces are made from postage stamps, and like any good minimal art they can be unpacked of meaning and subtlety and take on a presence much larger than the physical image.

The text to Bough Down is similarly condensed and similarly expansive. An elegiac flow of tight, finely-tuned fragments, Green's Bough Down details her difficulties coping with her husband's suicide in both word and pictures, and is resoundingly successful in both iterations. Some might be interested to know that the late husband at the center of this work is David Foster Wallace, but Green's work both as an artist and a writer absolutely stands up without that name attached.

Like Black Sparrow Press did before them, Siglio Press offers very small editions of their books that include original art. As someone who is still searching for a Black Sparrow Press Joe Brainard book with an original drawing in it, I find Siglio Press's limited offerings to be very exciting. If I did miss out on Black Sparrow's lettered editions (which are now likely all in the locked cabinets of the world's rare book rooms), perhaps Siglio is the answer for me.

This is number 19 of 25 signed and numbered copies of Bough Down that includes an original collage in a glassine envelope pasted down on the front endpapers. The cost of the edition rose as the edition sold out and I was very lucky to get in fairly close to the opening price. The run has since sold out.

Currently reading:
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Currently listening to:
Jozef van Wissem & Jim Jarmusch, "The Mystery of Heaven"