Sunday, December 21, 2014

Top 5 books of 2014

It's always tough to put together my take on the year's Top 5 books -- I've read a lot this year but by no means everything. When the New York Times's "Notable Books" list came out, I saw that I was on a very different track than the general reading population: there were a lot of books I'd not yet read and a lot of books I had no plans to read at all. For instance, having read The Yellow Birds from a few years ago, I've little interest in reading this year's National Book Award winner Redeployment. I've also not yet made it to Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Brief History of Seven Killings, despite their positive reviews. There are other inclusions on the "Notable Books" list that I would object to: Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters, for instance, is unforgivably lousy, and Sarah Waters's The Paying Guests overloaded and uninspired.

Hopefully my list will illuminate a few books that have been left out of the more mainstream compilations. These five books have each entranced me this year in their own ways. They are all exceptional achievements and each get my whole-hearted recommendation. In no particular order:

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation

I've recently featured VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy on the blog, so I'll keep it brief: VanderMeer made a feverishly readable trilogy with Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, and introduced readers to the world of Area X in a wickedly memorable fashion. Annihilation follows an unnamed biologist who is sent with a team of women to investigate scientific anomalies in a mysterious jungle. The book is part Lovecraft, part Tarkovsky's Stalker, mixed with the conspiracy of the better arcs of television's LOST. Annihilation is maddening and gorgeously written, and although the subsequent volumes of the trilogy give VanderMeer's story a perhaps-unwanted level of clarity, Annihilation remains a fine example of literary horror and can arguably be read as a standalone book.

A longer review of Annihilation can be found here.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Book Three

I do not understand the Knausgaard naysayers. If you don't like Knausgaard, chances are you're letting the glut of rave reviews negatively motivate your experience with the text. If you're reading something, anything, solely because "everyone says it's the best thing they've ever read", you're entering into a intellectual relationship with your fellow readers instead of with the author, and if that's the case, why read it at all? This may sound biting but I think a good reader is able to separate hype from a hyped book and can take a text for what it is without the clutter of press shaping one's enjoyment. A review and a recommendation should be an encouragement to discover something great, not a challenge, and if you end a book thinking "I don't see what the fuss is all about", then you may have started it for the wrong reasons.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is an exceptional writer, and the third volume of My Struggle is a fine example. It's a 400-page childhood memory, unadulterated by the author's penchant for philosophy and chest-puffing. In fact, those two traits may be the only reason I'd accept for not liking Knausgaard (he is wildly self-aggrandizing in other volumes), but if that's the case I'd still recommend Volume Three. This is pure memory, so simple there's very little to dislike.

A longer review of My Struggle: Book Three can be found here.

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber tackles religion and science fiction in a fine novel that abstains from leaning too heavily towards either theme. The Book of Strange New Things is about a missionary sent to the nearby planet Oasis in an effort to connect with the indigenous population. It's a far-fetched concept but Faber sticks it: he gracefully steers clear of sci-fi tropes and resists lapsing into the religiously polemical. As insane as the novel is, it remains devastatingly realistic. This realism is achieved thanks to the difficult evolution of Peter the missionary's relationship with his wife back on Earth. Much of the novel is built on their transmissions to each other. Their love, and the difficulty with which they try to connect, renders the cosmic fantasy of The Book of Strange New Things almost as an afterthought. It's a remarkable book.

A longer review of The Book of Strange New Things can be found here.

witzend, ed. by Wallace Wood and Bill Pearson

First published in 1966, witzend was an underground comic made with the intention of giving artists and writers a platform for sharing their work while retaining rights and creative control of their characters. In a gorgeous, two-volume set, Fantagraphics has compiled every issue of witzend, including all front-and-back matter from each. Not only are the comics great, but there's an even better "narrative" flowing underneath the series, between each issue. Amidst letters from readers, editorial manifestos, messages from Wood how to best support witzend, and Wood's resignation from editorial duties after four issues, the entirety of witzend becomes a story in itself.

A longer review of witzend can be found here.

William T. Vollmann, Last Stories and Other Stories

Full disclosure, I've only read a third of Vollmann's Last Stories and Other Stories: at a massive 700 pages, Last Stories and Other Stories is unapologetically dense. The heft of this book (as well as Vollmann's other novels) makes Last Stories and Other Stories a tough review: oftentimes, a perfunctory early review will be rushed out around the time of publication and a more meaningful review left for after the early press rush subsides. Dwight Garner's worthless July 8th review "Dead Girls as Objects, or the 'ick' in Lovesick" seems to have nothing to do with the novel I've read partially read, and its publication takes all the emphasis out of Kate Bernheimer's excellent Times review from August 15.

Although I'm only a little over 200 pages in, I'm confident that Last Stories and Other Stories is one of the best books of the year. Vollmann writes with an old-world mastery: these stories read as if lost in time, like they were passed down orally from generations. Stories of pirate treasure, monsters, and paranormally bleeding statues are interspersed among semi-fictionalized tales of embedded reportage during the author's time in Bosnia. The story "Cat Goddess" follows female surrealist (Max Ernst's lover) Leonor Fini, other stories echo Poe and Lovecraft and other classic horror authors. A vampire story is coming next. Last Stories and Other Stories reads like a fever and is one of the most riveting works I've ever encountered.

Honorable Mentions

These go to Richard Powers's Orfeo and David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, two great novels that got a little too caught up in their ambitious conceits. They're still both very good, but don't say I didn't warn you if you get a little frustrated!

That's it for me this year - my next post will be a summary of reviews I've written in 2014 and then I'll be taking a short break. Back in late January!

Currently reading:
Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

Currently listening to:
FKA Twigs, "LP1"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (signed, limited edition)

Only a few months after the publication of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami's short story The Strange Library has just been released in an exciting fully-illustrated single volume. The story is a revised tale Murakami originally wrote in 1982, bulked up with affecting illustrations of old-fashioned academic curiosities. The story follows a boy's visit to the local library and his subsequent imprisonment in the library's labyrinthine basement. On the heels of the maturity of Colorless Tsukuru, readers will find The Strange Library to be vintage Murakami at his best (and worst): talking sheep, peculiar similes, and confoundingly literal magical realism. These quirks are lavishly illustrated throughout the book: talk of the "new moon" results in a page of old moon phases, and talk of being trapped inside a jar full of caterpillars gets an excerpt from an old entomology encyclopedia. It's an easy, fun read (cover-to-cover in about thirty minutes), but at around only $12 for the trade edition remains worth the price of admission. What's more, the US and UK editions are illustrated differently: Chip Kidd takes the US edition for a spin, and the UK version is full of found images from the London Library. Really interesting to see these geographical differences and consider how they might affect the book.

As expected, a limited edition was made of The Strange Library and it's really quite a nice piece. It is refreshing to see Harvill Secker tone it down for a change: their last two limited editions had retail prices of over $1000 each, and in my opinion sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of the concept, landing on something too nice for a bookshelf but not nice enough for a gallery. However, I think they nailed it with The Strange Library: the book is little more than a specially packaged, signed and numbered trade edition, but those little differences transform the book into something special.

This is the outer case. Curiously, that "2014 02 12" surrounding the "Strange Library" insignia is the exact publication date.

The edges of the clamshell have some nice marbling:

But it's not a typical clamshell: the front boards open up to reveal the book set inside a cut-away base. The marbling from the edges looks beautiful as full endpapers.

Sliding the book out, you can tell that the library pocket on the front (also stamped with 2014 02 12) has something inside.

Instead of a tipped in signature page or something bound inside the book, the pocket card is signed by Murakami and signifies the edition number. This is number 50 of a worldwide edition of 100.

I think the simplicity of this is absolutely lovely: the retail price of the book was 100 GBP before it sold out, and I think that's entirely appropriate. The humble design doesn't try to make a trade edition anything more than it is, but embraces its innate characteristics and overall vibe to transform it into a striking volume, perfect for the strange library of any collector.

Currently reading:
J by Howard Jacobson

Currently listening to:
Tom Waits, "Real Gone"

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (signed, first paperback edition)

Appearing on FSG's new "FSG Originals" imprint that specializes in first-paperback-edition novels by lesser-known names, Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy nearly took over my entire reading summer. Annihilation, the first volume, is a cross between LOST and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker with a pinch of Lovecraftian Old Gods in the mix and is a serious contender to be one of my books of the year. The book follows four female scientists through "Area X", a mysterious realm of ecological overgrowth that has been under scientific scrutiny for years by the Southern Reach corporation. The biologist in Annihilation seems to quickly lose her mind upon entering Area X and has an encounter with a remarkably strange creature in a tunnel who appears to be writing scripture on the walls with luminescent moss. Annihilation is a disarmingly good work of classic horror and will make you want to share it with all your friends.

I've hooked my wife, my brother, his girlfriend, and my co-workers on the Southern Reach and plan to with some lucky recipients this Christmas. I can't think of another book that instilled this kind of excitement in me.

I think, in part, FSG's to blame. They released this book exceptionally well. VanderMeer planned (or perhaps completely wrote) all three books first so the publisher could know with certainty that the trilogy wasn't going to fall victim to the same plot-loss that takes its toll on scads of other popular sequential fiction out there (I'm looking at you, Mockingjay). And, since the books were all essentially completed at the same time, FSG initiated a very tight release schedule for all three books. Annihilation hit shelves early summer, Authority (about what happens inside the Southern Reach) towards the middle, and Acceptance, the final volume, at the beginning of September. It feels the marketing and release schedule was laid out solely for the betterment of VanderMeer's books; no tricks, no stringing fans along, and little possibility that anyone would lose interest by the time the trilogy concludes. Pretty amazing planning, I think.

Here are my three Southern Reach books, signed to me and my wife at the Brooklyn Book Festival this September. 

Now, even better: FSG just released an omnibus edition of all three books in a single hardcover. It's really beautifully designed, and the list price is cheaper than all three paperbacks together. Here's a photo from the Drawn and Quarterly bookstore's instagram feed -- I have a copy here, but it's already wrapped and ready to give this Christmas. I encourage you to do the same!

If you're interested in reading more about The Southern Reach trilogy, I've written some detailed reviews here.

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (Review)
Jeff VanderMeer, Authority (Review)
Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance (Review)

Currently reading:
Superman Comes to the Supermarket by Norman Mailer
J by Howards Jacobson

Currently listening to:
The Serial podcast

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Henry Miller, "Notes on Aaron's Rod" (Black Sparrow Press, signed and limited)

Unless I'm terribly mistaken, Notes on "Aaron's Rod" is Henry Miller's only book with Black Sparrow Press. Notes on "Aaron's Rod" is a strange little volume that consists of Miller's annotations to the D.H. Lawrence novel Aaron's Rod, and runs at about 60 pages with Miller's actual notes filling only about a third of the book. Initially planned as a short critical pamphlet to be published by Obelisk Press, Notes on "Aaron's Rod" has been compiled and analyzed with an illuminating introduction and appendix by Seamus Cooney.

Cooney links Miller's notes into the author's timeline through some letters exchanged with Anais Nin and considers the importance of the text not just among Lawrence criticism but, more significantly, in Miller's personal oeuvre. "Most engagingly," he writes in his introduction, "it is a Henry Miller on the alert for points of agreement and resemblance between Lawrence and himself ("Lawrence is writing my story here"); finding in Lawrence many of his own preoccupations and interests; enthusiastically -- and with disarming lack of irony -- greeting shared opinions ("Exactly what I have felt and expressed"); and everywhere finding his semblance and frere."
As for Miller's notes, they read as a list of paginated citations, like the below:

p. 77. Aaron's speech to Josephine:

"I'm damned if I want to be a lover any more. To her or to anybody.... I don't want to care, when care isn't in me."

(Superb as speech of the artist who can not give himself completely -- who with[h]olds his love for creation. The theme of the book is not love or friendship between man and man. It's written to explain to himself the necessity for obeying his own creative impulse, the Holy Ghost within himself....

Fascinating, and makes me want to go track down a first edition of the Lawrence.

This is a signed and numbered copy, number 194 of 276 signed copies (which surely includes the 26 lettered copies). Miller signed the book not on the colophon like usual with Black Sparrow, but instead on a tipped in signature page before the book's table of contents.

 Currently reading:
Norman Mailer, Superman Comes to the Supermarket

Currently listening to:
Mountains, "Centralia"

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti, Hansel and Gretel (deluxe die-cut hardcover, signed by both)

Fans of comics surely know of the Pulitzer-winning Art Spiegelman, but may not be fully aware of Spiegelman's activity past Maus. I've seen Spiegelman at many events in New York and he's always busy promoting some new books he's edited, published, or contributed to, but wonderfully these appearances are for a different sort of audience than me. While I was in line to get a book signed by Charles Burns during the Brooklyn Book Festival, Spiegelman was over at the children's area, meeting kids who love comics and signing copies of his book for first graders, Jack and the Box. He and his wife, Francoise Mouly (art editor of The New Yorker), have made a successful (and arguably very important) side project with their publishing house Toon Books, a company that prints comics for kids.

Toon Graphics, an imprint aimed at older readers (older, in this case, being grades three and higher), was recently launched and is already boasting an impressive list of large-format comics. I remember the excitement I felt when I first discovered Herge and the adventures of Tintin as a kid; while these are substantially less complicated books, I imagine reading Toon Graphics at that age might bring a similar sort of feeling. I also like the wide scope of subject matter: it's exciting to think that a kid who picks up a new spin on Hansel and Gretel might also find themselves wrapped up in a story about Theseus battling the Minotaur.

Last month saw the release of Neil Gaiman's Hansel and Gretel, beautifully illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. I knew of Mattotti from a few years back when I reviewed his graphic novel Stigmata; he's an excellent illustrator and it's wonderful to see his work paired with someone like Gaiman.

This copy is one of the "deluxe hardcover" editions which features a die-cut cover, and was signed by Gaiman and Mattotti at an event at McNally Jackson books in Soho. 

Collectors, take note: a boxed edition is also available which includes a silkscreen print by Mattotti. Looks very nice to me!

Currently reading:
Superman Comes to the Supermarket by Norman Mailer

Currently listening to:
Lust for Youth, "International"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (signed first edition)

On November 19th, the winner of the 2014 National Book Award will be announced, and I suspect Marilynne Robinson's Lila will take the prize. She's an exceptional writer and in my opinion should be far more decorated. I've not read Lila yet but have heard rave reviews (just got my copy this week). The book completes a loose trilogy of novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Ohio, and if 2005's Pulitzer-winning Gilead and Home are any indication, Lila's sure to be an outstanding novel.

Signed first editions are still circulating of Lila at their list price and there'll be a modest spike in cost if she wins. Get one while they're still under $30! While the print run for Lila is probably quite large, it's hard to think of Housekeeping, Robinson's 1980 novel, which is now about $500-$1000 for a signed first.

Currently reading:
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Currently listening to:
Lust for Youth, "International"

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hunter S. Thompson, The Curse of Lono (Artist's Proof from TASCHEN's signed and limited edition)

One of my favorite parts about writing this blog are the comments that crop up from posts I've made a while ago. In 2012 I featured my copy of Hunter S. Thompson's ultra-rare book Screwjack and people continue to find the page and chime in with some news about the Cyclops Owl on the book's cover (I learned this week that it was created by Thomas Benton, who did some other work for HST).

In the spirit of that Screwjack post I thought I'd feature another rare Thompson edition: this is German art-book publisher TASCHEN's 2005 edition of The Curse of Lono. This copy is an AP, limited to 150 copies worldwide, and signed by Thompson (full signature) and Ralph Steadman (with a little face).

Firstly, the book is enormous, about 17 1/2 inches tall and 13 inches wide. The book is housed in an orange slipcase, with a internal ribbon for sliding the book free.
The book is bound in beautifully printed linen, which gives Steadman's cover art a magisterial feel -- remember, this book was originally printed as a cheap little paperback original in the early 80s.


Here's a look at the signature page. Again, this is an AP (Artist's Proof), which means in addition to the print run of 1000, 150 were made for a more private distribution between publisher, author and artist.

 As expected, the book is lavishly illustrated with a bunch of double-page, full-bleed spreads. Here are a few for you:

In my opinion, one of the coolest things about this edition is how TASCHEN dealt with the sections of correspondence between Running Magazine and Thompson and between Thompson and Steadman. Instead of 'transcribing' these letters to the page (as they were in the Bantam 1983 edition), the letters are actually printed facsimile and tipped-in to the giant book. Take a look:

I remember trying to find one of my favorite passages and realizing its hidden away at the bottom of a letter here:

It's a queer life, for sure, but right now it's all I have. Last night, around midnight, I heard somebody scratching on the thatch and then a female voice whispered, "You knew it would be like this."

"That's right!" I shouted. "I love you!"

There was no reply. Only the sound of this vast and bottomless sea, which talks to me every night, and makes me smile in my sleep.


I think this is one of the most gorgeous literary collector's editions in my library, and it's one that means a lot to me as I consider Thompson's books as my gateway drug into book collecting. This is also one of the last editions that Thompson formally signed before his suicide. He died in February 2005, just a few months before this hit shelves. Fire in the Nuts also came out in 2004, but if my timeline is correct this was officially released after. The Curse of Lono originally listed for $300 and is now marked as "SOLD OUT" on TASCHEN's website with a price of $2000. Copies on eBay should be around $900-1200, though.
Before I close, a question for collectors and dealers that may have one of these. There are APs out there numbered out of 200: do you think this mean that there were actually 350 APs produced? Or perhaps an additional 50 were made after the 150? TASCHEN can be a little slippery with their editions...

Currently reading:
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill

Currently listening to:
  The National, "Trouble Will Find Me"

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fall 2014 reading list, recent reviews

I just received a new batch of books from my editor at and thought I'd share what's on deck and link to some of my recent reviews.

I just finished my review of Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things and think it might be one of my favorites of the year. I've got a signed UK first coming my way soon and will do a post devoted to the book once the review goes live. I'm currently finishing up a review of Donal Antrim's The Emerald Light in the Air as well, which is also very good.

Coming up:

J by Howard Jacobson
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Dog by Joseph O'Neill
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

I've also got my eye out for Shark by Will Self, How to be Both by Ali Smith and The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson.

Recently, I've reviewed some great novels (and some not-so-great ones). Here are few links if you're interested... click around and let me know what you think. More rare books next week.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Currently reading:
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill

Currently listening to:
Moon Duo, "Live in Ravenna"

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Update: Newly framed! Karen Green, Bough Down (from Siglio Press)

Way back in May 2013 I featured a book called Bough Down by Karen Green, published by Siglio Press. In addition to a wide print-run, this was offered in a wonderful limited edition of only 25 copies where each book came with a small, unique collage by Green. I was lucky enough to get a copy. Those of you who are interested in seeing what another piece from this edition looked like, take a look at this eBay listing.

This collage has been on our "to-frame" list for about a year and half, and as of Thursday this week we finally finished the job. It looks fantastic - I realize now that my pictures from my earlier post hardly do the collage any justice. Here it is, in its complete glory, framed and puzzle-pieced into our new salon-style wall.

Currently reading:
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann

Currently listening to:
Mountains, "Choral"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ernest Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea" (First edition with facsimile jacket)

I finally got around to getting a facsimile jacket for my first edition of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. When I was in my early teens and discovered how to tell if a book is a first edition, I naturally went through every book in my parents's house to check if any of them might be worth something. My parents read a lot and I was lucky to grow up in such a book-centric household, and although they were not "collectors" I did find a worn out old copy of The Old Man and the Sea in the basement.

This belonged to my mother. She was surprised we still had it around, and even more surprised to find out it was a first edition. (She was also happy to let it live among my growing library.)

I learned from various websites online that a true first of The Old Man an the Sea needed a capital A in the colophon and the presence of the Scribner seal. This seal sets the book apart from the otherwise nearly-identical book club edition.

The lack of a dust jacket is problematic and ultimately the difference between a value of around $500 and $5000. For a while I thought there was some off-chance I'd find a first-state dust jacket in great shape with a book in terrible condition -- torn pages or something -- but then realized how completely unreasonable that kind of dream is and resigned to have a pretty ugly, very rare book in my collection.


But then, years later, I started looking into facsimile jackets. This is a tricky world of book collecting because it's kind of shady territory: it's essentially making your book look like it's worth a lot more and potentially misleading clients. For instance, there's a bookstore on the Upper East Side in NY that has an impressive collection of rare books and I was eyeing a first edition copy of The Crying of Lot 49 that was priced at remarkably low $300. I saw it in the window, asked the price, and walked off thinking maybe I'd start saving up. It was when I came back to discuss the book with the seller that I read the piece's full information: it was in great shape but had a facsimile jacket. The bookstore was completely open and professional about it, but I can't help but think there was something wrong with putting facsimile jackets in a display window. And what about those dishonest booksellers? Can you really trust a rare book on eBay, when anyone with a high-level Epson could've made the jacket you're buying?

Still, who wants a jacketless book? A faded, grey and silver-spined copy of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner? Considering the family history of my Old Man and the Sea and the fact that I'd no intentions of selling the book, why not get a facsimile jacket and at least make it look nice on the shelf? This was $20 from The Phantom Bookshop in Ventura, CA, and looks very handsome (it also explicitly says it's a facsimile on the back-flap, which is reassuring). It completes the book and makes it pop on the shelf; it feels odd to say, but only now do I really see that I've had a special book in my library all this time.

Currently reading:
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann

Currently listening to:
Max Richter, "Infra"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Rage of Poseidon" by Anders Nilsen, signed and personalized with a drawing

Seems I've found myself on a "signed with drawing" spree at The Oxen of the Sun. This week we'll take a look at last year's Rage of Poseidon by Anders Nilsen. I picked this up at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2013 and had surprisingly good enough timing to coincide that purchase with Nilsen's signing window at the Drawn and Quarterly booth. It's a lovely book and features a rarely-seen accordion binding glued in from the back endpapers. Rage of Poseidon collects a handful of short stories, each with a philosophical, modern twist on Greek and Christian folklore. The tone of the book is reminiscent of Nilsen's Monologues volumes and The End but demonstrates a far more refined text and artistic direction. Each page consists of a single panel of artwork that plays with silhouettes and gives a nod to the ethereal interpretability of myth; we all know of Poseidon and Noah, but hardly anything more than their outlines.

Nilsen signed this book for my wife and me at the Book Fair, sprouting a head, arm, leg, and hunchback from his table of contents.

I suggest everyone take a look at Anders Nilsen's website and check out his "Conversation Gardening" project. In an effort to bridge that widening gap between creators and their audience, he's asked his readers to buy his books from an independent store, send him proof of purchase and a question or idea written on a small sheet of paper: he will then, eventually, draw you an answer and send it back. I'm currently in the queue for an answer myself and will update with results. It's an incredibly generous and remarkably thoughtful idea, reminiscent to me of such question-based art projects like James Lee Byars and the World Question Center.

 Currently reading:
Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Currently listening to:
Kurt Vile, "God Is Saying This To You"