Friday, December 14, 2012

Maigret in Vichy by Simenon

First US edition of Maigret in Vichy published by Harcourt Brace in 1969
One of Simenon's later works featuring the renowned Inspector Maigret, Maigret in Vichy is a slightly different Maigret tale in that it doesn't take place in Paris and Maigret is not in the driver's seat for this mystery. While relaxing on vacation with his famously passive wife in the town of Vichy, Maigret can't help but let his detective mind get to work analyzing the town's inhabitants and others on vacation. He is quickly drawn to a lone woman he keeps seeing, and when murder invariably ensues the local police look to Maigret for his expertise, once again putting his poor wife on hold. Maigret in Vichy is a quick engaging thriller like nearly all of the Inspector Maigret novels, but with a pleasant twist and change of scenery. This first American edition also has one of my favorite covers ever, featuring stellar, simplistic jacket design by Ken Braren.

Monday, December 3, 2012

There's No Business by Charles Bukowski

Later printing of Bukowski's short story with illustrations by R. Crumb
First published by the legendary Black Sparrow Press in 1984, There's No Business is another short story by Charles Bukowski published in a stapled, matte card-stock volume with amazing illustrations by R. Crumb. Bukowski's short story (barely 7 pages not including illustrations) tells the brief tale of over the hill comic Manny Hyman and his failure of an act. Like the majority of Bukowski's characters, Manny is an aging and depressed drunken mess, and this story highlights the travails of less than mediocre show business as Manny receives heckle upon heckle. Eventually a fracas breaks out, and, surprisingly though, a new star is born. Bukowski's short stories never disappoint and There's No Business is no exception, not to mention being part of a great illustrated volume. 

An R. Crumb illustration depicting ailing comic Manny Hyman in his dressing room 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Subway Lives by Jim Dwyer

First edition of Subway Lives published by Crown Publishers in 1991
Journalist Jim Dwyer's Subway Lives is an amazing series of non-fiction vignettes that revolve around the New York City subway system over a 24 hour span. Dwyer's account follows higher-ups in the Transit Authority, especially David Gunn, who is famous (and infamous) for ending the graffiti pandemic on the subway, a pregnant woman who gives birth on the subway, petty thieves, a mentally challenged teen, traffic control rooms, subway police, a conductor with a strange penchant for singing, and a few of New York's most famous graffiti writers at the time, Reas, JA, Soni, and Slick. Interspersed with a bevy of historical information about the subway system and statistical figures, Dwyer's book is a treasure trove of late 1980's/early 1990's New York City. While this book will obviously appeal more to New York natives or people who have lived here, it is still an interesting social study from a particularly transformative time in the history of the city and it's world renowned subway system. Dwyer himself is a New York City native and covered the subway beat for New York Newsday in the late 1980's before reporting for the Daily News and eventually the New York Times. With excellent book design by June Bennett-Tantillo, Subway Lives remains an artifact of a bygone time in New York City.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Library edition of Brave New World from some time in the 1960's
First published in the UK in 1932, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has since become a modern classic of dystopian literature. While it is a great book, there is hardly anything rare about it—with the exception of this obscure made-for-library edition which I haven't encountered again since acquiring the copy pictured. There is no exact publication date anywhere on the inside of the book, but I was able to track it to sometime in the early 1960's through Harper & Row's publication history. I don't know if a definitive publication date exists anywhere though, at least not according to my research. Aside from having wonderful and simple jacket design wrapping around from cover to cover, this edition is remarkable for having the artwork printed directly onto the hardcover. I'm guessing the logic behind this decision was that the publisher assumed these copies would be handled a lot more and wanted to prevent the dust jacket from eventually deteriorating. If you happen on a copy like this one definitely jump on it—especially if you've never read about Mustapha Mond, Soma, and the Savages before.

Simple back cover stating the Harper Crest library edition

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud


Later printing of The Magic Barrel published by FSG in 1967
Bernard Malamud's collection of 13 short stories pictured above won the National Book Award in 1959, his first of two, and solidified his presence as a major emerging American writer. Writing largely about Judaism and its people, The Magic Barrel collects some of Malamud's finest short stories from the beginning of his writing career, some published as early as 1950. Malamud came to be considered a master of the short story, publicly praised by many of his colleagues, and now has a short story award named after him given out by the PEN foundation. The eponymous story from this collection is about a young rabbi named Leo Finkle about to begin his congregation, who is in search of a bride in order to get a bigger flock. Finkle sees a marriage coordinator, who gives him pictures of potential brides, except the one he likes most is the coordinator's daughter and comedy ensues. This later edition, which is virtually identical to the first edition, has amazing jacket design by Milton Glaser, the famous designer who made the I ♥ NY logo among many other things. Pictured below is Malamud's simple, script signature on the front endpaper.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Poema a Fumetti/Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati

First Italian edition of Poema a Fumetti from 1969
Poema a Fumetti, or Poem Strip in English, is Italian novelist Dino Buzzati's graphic masterpiece; it tells the story of singer Orfi and his quest to reclaim his girlfriend Eura after she disappears through a small door into a mansion on their street, the via Saterna, that isn't located on any maps. Loosely based on the myth of Orpheus, Buzzati's graphic novel is in many ways the first of its kind—it is literally an illustrated novel roughly the physical size of an average hardcover that traces Orfi's decent down into the mansion. Poema a Fumetti was entirely written and drawn by Buzzati himself, and features beautiful, surreal cityscapes and even more beautiful nude women (a healthy sampling of both are pictured below), clearly drawing on influences from Fellini and de Chirico. There are a bevy of weird characters and scenes, particularly a talking jacket among them, as Orfi navigates the netherworld looking for Eura. Buzzati's work remains standing as a perfect sampling from the height of 1960's Italian avant-garde art and literature. Originally published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Poema a Fumetti was most recently republished in English by NYRB Classics in 2009 and is well worth the quick, bizarre read.



 





Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

First edition of Tree of Smoke published by FSG in 2007
I'll start by saying that Tree of Smoke is one of my favorite books; it tells the sprawling tales of Skip Sands and the Houston brothers, among others, during and partially after the Vietnam war. Focused largely around the CIA's involvement in the war during its formative years, Tree of Smoke is told from many intertwining points of view, including Vietnamese intelligence officers, German assassins, and world-weary Colonels. Johnson's novel even has a complete, masterful recreation of the Tet offensive that is insanely gripping. Readers of his other work will remember the Houston brothers from his first novel Angels, which takes place later in time during the 1980's. Johnson's novel isn't particularly weird or rare, having won the National Book Award for 2007 and being a bestseller, but it is awesome, as is my copy he signed pictured below. This first edition hardcover also features great jacket art and design done by Susan Mitchell, which is increasingly rare these days. I strongly recommend picking up a copy especially seeing as they're not in short supply.
 
An inscription made out to me on the title page—note that he initially misspelled my name so there's an e with a dot over it

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

62: A Model Kit by Julio Cortazar

First US edition of 62: A Model Kit published by Pantheon/Random House in 1972
Julio Cortazar's fifth novel is an offshoot of chapter 62 from his mammoth book, Hopscotch, which is only a few pages long and recounts the outline for a potential novel from a few scraps of paper that the character Morelli is planning to write. The primary basis for the novel is that it takes place in a world wherein human behavior is indefinable by psychology. This novel, 62: A Model Kit is at the same time a continuation of that brief chapter about Morelli as much as it is a follow-through of the novel upon which the notes were based. Cortazar's slimmer, semi-sequel to Hopscotch isn't quite as good as its progenitor, but it is still a whimsical, interesting read about a pre-ordained world only Cortazar could have created where anything can take place. It can also be read independently of Hopscotch, which may appeal more to first-time Cortazar readers not brave enough to commit to a 500+ page read. This first edition features great companion cover art to Hopscotch by Kenneth Miyamoto—George Salter unfortunately died five years earlier, otherwise I'm pretty sure it's safe to say he would have done the jacket design for this book as well.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Rififi in New York by Auguste le Breton

Paperback edition from 1970 published by the New English Library
First published in France in 1967, Rififi in New York is part of Auguste le Breton's series of Rififi crime novels featuring an assortment of criminals and cops that take place in various cities around the globe. Le Breton himself began his career as a small-time crook, calling himself "a man of the underworld," and later became a hero in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. After the war le Breton turned his focus to writing, and became a prolific writer of novels that typically revolve around criminals and their schemes or heists. Le Breton was a big proponent of slang in his novels, and coined the word "Rififi," which he legally owned, and is slang for a sort of conflict or melee. Rififi in New York is one of the better Rififi novels (next to the original Rififi) and features a crew of independent gangsters as they try and steal $20 million in jewels from the Diamond Exchange, all the while trying to stave off the mafia and the police. Le Breton came to New York to write this novel, and it features a greatly detailed landscape of 1960's New York City. With great cover art and typography by an unknown designer, as well as an odd Charles Bronson look-alike, le Breton's novels and Rififi in New York definitely deserve checking out.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen

First edition of Perfect Rigor published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009
Perfect Rigor is an interesting biography in that it recounts the life of famed, reclusive mathematician Grigori Perelman, but was written completely without any interviews or information of any kind from Perelman (who is still living). Perelman became famous in the last decade for his solving of the Poincare Conjecture, one of the world's more famous unsolved problems and one of several Clay Millenium Problems whose solution earns the winner a million dollars. Perelman oddly posted his solutions on the internet in three relatively brief papers that took years for others to digest, and was ultimately correct. He is particularly famous for rejecting a Fields Medal and the million dollar prize, among other things, and retreated back to Russia to live in a depressing flat block with his mother. Perelman has also since ceased trimming his beard or fingernails. Gessen's biography recounts Perelman's upbringing as a bright math prodigy and Jew behind the Iron Curtain, through the collapse of the Soviet Union and his eventual migration to America to begin teaching. Told mostly through interviews with contemporaries and people who've known and worked closely with Perelman, Gessen's book paints a seemingly accurate portrait of a genius who has no interest in others knowing about his life, and is enthralling to read. With book design by Brian Moore, this edition is surprisingly inoffensive for a more recent hardcover publication and is currently still in print.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel

Early French paperback printing of Impressions of Africa
This French novel by Raymond Roussel was an inadvertent forefather to the surrealist movement; Impressions of Africa recounts the fantastical tale of shipwreck survivors to a fictitious land in Africa. Together, each distinct member must perform their unique, ridiculous talent before Emperor Talou, and great absurdities ensue. First published in 1910, Roussel's novel was also unique for its unusual narrative and sentence structure, which relies heavily on puns and other wordplay. Aside from being a little on the nonsensical side and somewhat dated, Impressions of Africa is not difficult to read and is definitely worth giving a shot. This French edition by Livre de Poche from 1963 is particularly notable for it's amazing covers done by renowned designer and illustrator Pierre Faucheux, who revolutionized book covers in France from the 1950's and 1960's on, treating them as works of art. These surrealist collages that don the front and back of this edition are perfect examples of his work. 

Back cover with Roussel's photo, note the Faucheux credit in the bottom left corner

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

A later printing of Solaris from Berkeley Science Fiction in 1980
As it says on the cover, Solaris is probably Stanislaw Lem's greatest and definitely his most well known work. First published in English in 1970, Polish science fiction writer Lem's novel recounts Dr. Kris Kelvin's travels to the eponymous planet along with his research team to gather data. Solaris is mostly compromised of a strange ocean that the scientists are there to study and communicate with, but what they soon discover is that the highly-sentient planet is actually studying them. Facing each of the scientists with reconstructed people and problems from their past, Solaris is observing the frailty and ultimate inadequacy of human life as they each break down. While Lem's novel has been adapted into several film versions, none of them focuses so much on the extraordinariness of Solaris and its ocean, which Lem believed likely to actually exist, and only showed more of the human weakness instead. This edition features great traditional sci-fi paperback artwork by an unknown cover artist.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hebdomeros by Giorgio de Chirico

First English edition of Hebdomeros published in the UK by Peter Owen in 1964
Giorgio de Chirico was primarily known for his large body of surrealist art in the first half of the 20th century; Hebdomeros was de Chirico's only foray into fiction. This slim novel, also titled Hebdomeros the Metaphysician, was first published in French in 1929 and recounts the protagonist Hebdomeros' travels throughout a bevy of surreal landscapes as well as his journey inward. Hebdomeros isn't easy to read in that it doesn't have a narrative so to speak, but it is like reading a really good succession of dreams. Written during a "block" in his painting career, de Chirico's novel ironically deals largely with Hebdomeros' humanity and the people around him, which comes in stark contrast to his paintings which are almost always barren landscapes devoid of people. This first English edition comes peppered with illustrations by de Chirico and features nice jacket design by Keith Cunningham.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

First edition of The Big Clock published by Harcourt Brace in 1946
This thriller by Kenneth Fearing is my favorite of his books; The Big Clock tells the enthralling story of George Stroud, family man and news executive, who is the last person to see his mistress Pauline Delos alive. The problem is that he knows his boss, powerful news magnate Earl Janoth, is the murderer. Janoth knows someone was in the shadows the night she was killed but he can't figure out who it was, and uses the vast media resources of Janoth Enterprises to track down this supposed murderer, most specifically his publication "Crimeways," which George Stroud heads up. Tasked with having to track himself down, Stroud must race against time to prove his own innocence and Janoth's guilt. The Big Clock is stylistically unique, especially for a crime novel from 1946, in that most of the chapters are told from a different character's point of view while juggling the plot. It is also poetically eerie in certain ways like how each member of George Stroud's family has a variation of the name George (i.e. Georgette and Georgia), and all of Janoth's publications have the same kind of title ("Futureways," "Newsways," etc.). Fearing's novel feels like it exists within a noir-ish microcosm of old New York and is tremendously fun to read. This first edition features great cover art attributed only to someone who signed "Roger" on the top right corner of the front cover.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Book of the Month Club edition published by Little, Brown in 1951
This is a book that doesn't really need an introduction or synopsis; it also isn't predominantly weird or rare (except for the edition), and falls mostly into the category of cool. This copy of The Catcher in the Rye was published later in 1951, the same year as its initial publication, although was part of the third or fourth printing for the Little, Brown Book of the Month Club (BOMC). The main aesthetic difference between later printings and the first edition is that the first run had Salinger's photo on the back cover and he demanded that it be taken off for future editions. A secondary printing by Grosset & Dunlap around the same time had advertisements on the back cover, which he also demanded be taken off, and so all subsequent printings just had blank white on the back (which I would have scanned except it is literally just an empty white space). The cover of Salinger's only full-length novel features amazing, and now iconic, jacket design by Michael Mitchell (sometimes credited as E. Michael Mitchell) depicting a carousel horse in Central Park and part of the city. After its publication, Salinger became friends with Mitchell and corresponded for the better part of four decades. On the back flap Salinger is quoted as saying, "I've been writing since I was fifteen or so. My short stories have appeared in a number of magazines over the last ten years, mostly—and most happily—in The New Yorker. I worked on The Catcher in the Rye, on and off, for ten years." I value this copy immensely, despite the small physical imperfections on the cover, and will have to do because first printings go for many thousands of dollars.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Warlock by Oakley Hall

First edition of Warlock published by Viking Press in 1958
Oakley Hall's most famous novel is about the denizens of this eponymous town and their struggle to maintain order against criminals and cowboys in the Wild West. Amid a sprawling cast of characters in Warlock, Clay Blaisedell becomes the hero gunslinger meant to restore order to the lawless town and its people held captive under the oppressive rule of free-wielding outlaws. Hall's novel is lengthy and can be difficult at times, especially given its high degree of attention with regards to language—also one if its greatest feats. Thomas Pynchon and Richard Fariña initially bonded at Cornell over their shared passion for Hall's masterpiece, and according to Pynchon, spoke to each other "in Warlock dialogue, a kind of thoughtful, stylized, Victorian-Wild West diction." In reading their work it's clear to see the influence Hall's novel had on both of them. This first edition features great Western pistol cover artwork by Charles Egri and Evelyn Curro.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford

Fourth Bantam paperback printing of The Short-Timers from 1988
The Short-Timers was Vietnam veteran Gustav Hasford's first novel based largely on his experiences as a combat correspondent during the war. First published in 1979 to the bestseller list and currently out of print, The Short-Timers was adapted into the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket in 1987 to great acclaim. Kubrick's film largely remains true to the novel with minor differences, and Hasford himself helped pen the screenplay; following an Oscar nomination, however, the amount of Hasford's actual work came under scrutiny by co-writers Kubrick and fellow veteran Michael Herr. At the same time, it was discovered that Hasford had been checking out and never returning books from various university libraries around the country under a phony social security number. Nearly ten thousand stolen books were discovered in his storage locker in California, for which he ultimately paid restitution and served three months in jail. The Short-Timers is a great piece of fiction by itself, and without it Full Metal Jacket couldn't have existed; that said, Hasford's literary career was a short, staggering one that only saw the publication of a sequel to this novel 12 years later (probably written for the money) and a flimsy, unnoticed detective novel published a year before his death. The Short-Timers is without a doubt Hasford's slim masterpiece, and supports believers of the notion that some writers only have one good book in them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Iron Clew by Alice Tilton

Hardcover first edition of The Iron Clew from 1947
Pictured above is the eighth and final installment of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Leonidas Witherall mystery series (writing under the pen name Alice Tilton). Published by Farrar, Straus and Company (before Giroux was around), The Iron Clew continues the story of Leonidas Witherall, an anonymous mystery writer himself whose novels recount the adventures of Lieutenant Hazeltine, who is interrupted from his pastime when he must attend a dinner at fellow banker Fenwick Balderston's home. Upon arriving Balderston has been murdered with a bust of Shakespeare, and Leonidas and his band of helpers must set out to solve his murder. Tilton's Witherall novels are all engaging murder mysteries but of a lighter, more whimsical sort, and she comes up with some of the best names in fiction. While the cover of my copy is unfortunately slightly torn at the top, it still shows one the best book cover illustrations I've come across by Ronald Clyne. These mysteries are obviously dated, having been written over half a century ago, but they still exist as a unique, sardonic take on a genre that is almost always overly serious.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Tarot by Paul Foster Case

Paperback reprint of The Tarot from 1975
Originally published in 1947 a few years before his death, The Tarot by Paul Foster Case is largely regarded as one of the seminal texts on discerning the Tarot. Born in 1884, Case became an occultist in his teens and developed his lifelong passion for the Tarot in 1901, 46 years before the publication of this book. Case was at times a Freemason, a member of the order of the Golden Dawn, and later founded his own Mystery School called The Ageless Wisdom which is still in existence. Case's text, published and reprinted by the Macoy Publishing Company, discusses and explains in depth the 22 major arcana from the Tarot deck for divination, and is to be used in conjunction with Case's own deck that he developed called the B.O.T.A. deck (for Builders of the Adytum). Case's book was revolutionary for relating each of the keys of the major arcana to their Hebrew letter counterpart from the Qabalah and the Cube of Space/Tree of Life, and especially in a time when few people studied such things. Despite any belief or practice of the Tarot, Case's book is interesting nonetheless and explains to a degree the origins of playing cards. Pictured on the cover is an illustration of The Hermit, which is key number 9 of the major arcana, and is one of many beautiful wood-cut illustrations by an unknown artist that fill Case's book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis

First edition of The Queen's Gambit published by Random House in 1983
Walter Tevis' fifth and second to last novel is about the ascent of female chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon. Orphaned when her mother dies at age 8, Beth spends the next five years in the Methuen home for girls and learns how to play chess covertly with one of the janitors while combating an addiction to tranquilizers. Beth is eventually adopted and steals money to play in a tournament, where she finally becomes recognized as the talent that she is. The Queen's Gambit follows Beth from her humble beginnings to challenging the world champion at 18, and, despite being extremely chess-heavy in detail, is incredibly gripping and fun to read. I have yet to read or even hear of another book that deals with the plight of the female chess player in an almost always male-dominated field. The Queen's Gambit is easily in contention for my favorite of Tevis' novels, and this first edition features great jacket art by Will Barnet.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe

Reprinting of The Bodysurfers from 2009 Penguin Australia
First published in 1983, Robert Drewe's The Bodysurfers is a classic of Australian literature. Hailed as a sort of J.D. Salinger from Australia, this short-story collection recounts the ups and downs of the Lang family over multiple decades. The settings for most of the book are the many Australian beaches that members of the Lang family frequent, which Drewe himself grew up going to and clearly loves. For some reason Drewe doesn't have the biggest audience in the U.S., although a lot of his books have been printed here. I've only read The Bodysurfers, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but from what I understand his other books are just as good. This Popular Penguins paperback is an Australian edition with the awesome stock cover used for all overseas paperback editions. It should also be self-evident that this book makes for great summer beach reading.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Army of Shadows by Joseph Kessel

Pocket Francais paperback edition printed in 2007
Known in English as Army of Shadows, the official title of Joseph Kessel's 1943 novel in French is L'armee des ombres. I have read other books by Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour, The Lion, etc.), which have translated copies currently in print, but I have a feeling that they pale in comparison to Army of Shadows—unfortunately, I've been unable to track down a readable copy of the only English translation printed in 1944 by Cresset Press. The main reason why I'm even aware of this book, along with most other English speakers, is because of Jean-Pierre Melville's film adaptation of the same name from 1969. The movie is a pleasantly sprawling tale of the French Resistance and its members as they try to combat oppressive Nazi forces in their homeland. Told on the bleaker side and shot in beautiful blue and gray hues of color, Melville's film adaptation is by far one of his best movies and my favorite. All of these things lead me to believe that Kessel's novel must be equally as amazing, if not more so. Based largely on Kessel's own war-time resistance experiences, as far as I understand it, the movie remains pretty faithful to the text. A year ago I sent an inquiry to NYRB about printing a new English translation but no one ever got back to me. Maybe there are rights issues or other things connected with Kessel's estate that I'm unaware of, but I hope that someday someone releases another English edition of this book so I can finally read it.

Back cover of an older Pocket Francais paperback from 1972 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Corridors of Time by Poul Anderson

Book club edition of The Corridors of Time from 1965
Published by Doubleday Science Fiction, Poul Anderson's The Corridors of Time is about former death-row inmate Malcolm Lockridge's travels through time, guided by Storm Dalloway, who has just broken him out of prison. In one corridor of time Dalloway was a leader of the Wardens, a group warring against the Rangers, who enlist the help of Malcolm Lockridge before he can settle down in a time period of his choosing. Spanning many centuries and different eras, Anderson's novel can be a little hokey at times but still enjoyable enough to read. Anderson belonged to a sect of science fiction writers who were beyond prolific in their lifetime; this book was probably written among four or five other novels in 1964/1965 and sort of shows. I think this book is most important, though, as a relic from a period of publishing and literary history that no longer exists—incredibly imaginative, pulpy science fiction novels with amazing book design by masters of the genre. The Corridors of Time is a great example of all these things, and features beautiful jacket design by Tom Chibbaro.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Movie tie-in paperback edition of Fat City from 1972
Leonard Gardner's first and only novel remains a relatively obscure classic of boxing fiction. Set in the small town of Stockton, California where Gardner grew up, it follows the emerging career of Ernie Munger and the washed-up career of Billy Tully, two semi-professional lower-class boxers. Originally published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1969, this paperback edition was published by Dell in conjunction with John Huston's film adaptation written by Gardner himself. Fat City is a fairly bleak book but an incredibly gripping one to read, and highlights a particular time and sub-genre of people in rural California as they try to make it to the big time, or "fat city" as it were.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Purgatory Street by Roman McDougald

First edition from 1946, published as an Inner Sanctum Mystery under Simon and Schuster
This beautiful pulp-mystery by Roman McDougald (his third book) tells the story of Mona and her husband Chan, who has just returned home from World War II. Except that Chan is not the same man he was before the war—at all. As Mona falls deeply in love with this impostor, she must come to face the grim reality that he has murdered her husband to claim his inheritance and will invariably have to kill again. This simple story from over half a century ago is fun to read despite being incredibly dated. Published by Simon and Schuster as part of their Inner Sanctum Mystery series, Purgatory Street also features amazing jacket design and illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman.

Rear cover featuring an advertisement for The Widow-Makers by Michael Blankfort

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Kremlin Letter by Noel Behn

Fourth edition hardcover from 1966 printed by Simon and Schuster
Noel Behn's first novel and spy thriller was made most famous by John Huston's film adaptation from 1970, several years after The Kremlin Letter was first published. The novel and film both tell the story of several American intelligence officers clandestinely fighting against the Russians at the height of the Cold War to capture this eponymous letter. Filled with intrigue, Behn's book is equally as engaging as the movie and definitely deserves a read. Along with beautiful, simple jacket design by Paul Bacon, this edition is particularly amazing and unique because of the marketing strategy employed by Simon and Schuster. As stated on the front cover and on the inside, "IF you can put this book down without reading it to the end, you may return it to your bookseller with the seal unbroken for a full refund." Below are pictures of the seal (which clearly remains intact—I read a different copy), that begins on page 67 and binds the remaining pages of the book. Simon and Schuster were apparently convinced that readers would love the book so much that they offered this free return option if the reader didn't like the first few chapters. I have never seen another book or publisher employ this technique, and I'm guessing for that reason it didn't work very well and wasn't worth the effort. Still, I think it's amazing that they even tried.

The seal pictured from the front

Side view of the seal showing it "unbroken" 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow

First edition published in 1959 by Viking Press
Saul Bellow's fifth novel is about a rich, waspish, middle-aged white man who becomes restless with all that he has and sets out to Africa to "find" himself. All sorts of adventures obviously ensue and Henderson finds himself entrenched in the native life of the Arnewi, where he befriends the leaders of the tribe and eventually matures to some degree. I read somewhere once that Bellow thought of Henderson the Rain King as his favorite of his own books (it is my favorite as well), and, ironically, is the only one of his novels without a Jewish protagonist. This first edition cover features a beautiful African "jacket painting" by Bill Preston, and pictured below is Bellow's signature.

Saul Bellow's signature on the front endpaper

Friday, June 8, 2012

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

Softcover British edition published by Faber and Faber from 1989
This British edition of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot differs largely from most popular American versions because Edward Gorey didn't do the illustrations; instead, "Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures," according to the front cover. First published in 1939 with Bentley's illustrations, this book of whimsical cat poems is a lot lighter than most of T.S. Eliot's other work as it was written mostly for his godchildren. It also served as the basis for the musical Cats, although whoever adapted it definitely took a lot of creative liberties. This slim volume is entertaining for adults and children alike, and features a nice monogrammatic Faber cover with one of Bentley's illustrations.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Devil's Home On Leave by Derek Raymond

First British paperback edition from 1985 published by Abacus
This is the second book by Derek Raymond, the pen-name of English author Robert Cook, in his Factory Series about an unnamed Detective Sergeant working in the Unexplained Deaths department. The Devil's Home On Leave follows the Detective trying to solve the murder of a body chopped up, boiled, and casually dispersed on the street amongst five plastic shopping bags. Featuring a gritty cast of London underworld characters, known as "Villains," and the Detectives who pursue them, Raymond's novel is filled with intrigue and written mostly using amazingly authentic British slang. Raymond himself was a British gangster at one point, among many other things in his lifetime, before later becoming a novelist, and is considered to be the founder of British Noir with this series. Although this is the second book of five in the Factory Series, The Devil's Home On Leave is the best one in my opinion.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Doubleday Science Fiction book club edition of The Foundation Trilogy from 1961
Published between 1951 and 1953, Isaac Asimov's three landmark books collected in this single edition recount the story of Hari Seldon and his plan to save the failing Galactic Empire by forming a new colony to preserve their remaining society, known as the Foundation. In an attempt to maintain the Foundation using a branch of mathematics he developed called psychohistory, Seldon can predict the future on a large-scale and, throughout the trilogy, attempts to navigate the new Foundation to safety from the perils of warring civilizations in the universe. These books are considered a pinnacle of Science Fiction, and mark the beginning of a new kind of writing by the master Isaac Asimov. This book club edition has a great, simple cover, although whoever designed it was never properly credited.

Back cover with author photo of Asimov

Friday, June 1, 2012

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Movie tie-in edition published by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
This edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin was released sometime after Rainer Werner Fassbinder's adaptation aired in 1980, although the exact year is unspecified. Döblin's novel was originally published in German in 1929 with cover art by George Salter early on in his career. Lauded as a masterpiece of European literature, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of criminal Franz Biberkopf upon his release from prison and follows his attempt to lead a crime-free existence—trouble and crime obviously ensue. I read somewhere that Döblin finished his first draft of Berlin Alexanderplatz and then read Ulysses by James Joyce and completely rewrote the entire book, which was subsequently published. The stylistic parallels between the two are thinly-veiled at best. That said, it also isn't an easy book to read, nor is it easy watching Fassbinder's fifteen-plus hour film version, but they both have a fair amount of merit and a solid story. The cover features a still from Fassbinder's film designed by Ted Bernstein.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dagger of the Mind by Kenneth Fearing

Bestseller Mystery edition from 1941 
Originally published by Random House in 1941, Kenneth Fearing's Dagger of the Mind was reprinted in this digest-sized Bestseller Mystery (published by Lawrence Spivak) softcover later the same year. According to the title page, "Titles for the Bestseller Mystery are chosen from those mysteries which have had a large and continuing sale. Sometimes they are reprinted in full, but more often they are cut to speed up the story—always, of course, with the permission of the author or his publisher. This book has not been cut." Publishing has come a long way since 1941 and, thankfully, Fearing's second novel was spared from being ellipsed in any way. Fearing was a progressive mystery writer who began as a poet and brought new stylistic twists to a genre that was usually pretty formulaic. This book, although out of print since the 1960's, along with Fearing's other novels (a couple are currently in print on NYRB) definitely deserve reading.

Close-up of the Bestseller Mystery logo on the back cover