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

Bobby Fischer's Conquest of the World's Chess Championship by Reuben Fine, Ph.D.

First edition published by David McKay Company in 1973
Reuben Fine's seminal book recounts and discusses the entirety of the World Chess Championship in 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Arguably some of the most famous matches ever played, the championship during the summer of 1972 at the height of the Cold War were some of the most widely talked about and covered in the history of chess. Spassky, a Russian, and Fischer, an American, embodied the Cold War on chessboards and Fischer's victory was a global symbol and triumph for America. In his book Fine, a chess grandmaster and psychologist, discusses his views on the matches and the psychology behind them. With amazing, simplistic cover design by Lawrence Ratzkin, this first edition is a great volume about a great part of history.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

First American edition published by Pantheon in 1966 
Let me begin by saying that this is my favorite book cover, ever. I think it's pretty easy to see why this jacket designed by acclaimed designer George Salter is so amazing, and why in a lot of ways more important to me than the contents of the book itself. If you've read Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, the cover illustrates and condenses the feel of the book's contents incredibly well, which is something Salter was considered revolutionary for being able to do. Without question one of the world's most important book designers who did covers for every major 20th century author, Salter designed this beautiful cover of Hopscotch the year before he died at the end of his career of many decades. Between the covers Cortazar's novel is an interesting one, and there was definitely nothing like it before its publication—it is, however, not an easy book to read for a lot of reasons. It is very long and can often be tedious, but it is also absurd, witty, inventive, and sad. What makes Hopscotch so interesting is that Cortazar devised the book to be read either in a linear fashion, from chapters 1 through 56, or by playing "hopscotch" so to speak, and jumping to the chapter Cortazar tells you to at the end of the one you're reading. By reading it using the "hopscotch" method you end up reading all six hundred pages or so. Although very daunting, I think it's more fun to read it that way.

Back cover author photo of Cortazar sporting a nice unibrow

The Pope of Greenwich Village by Vincent Patrick

Paperback edition published by Pocket Books in 1980
Vincent Patrick's first novel, originally published in 1979, chronicles the lives of some New York low-lives and the mob at the end of the 1970's. Focused largely in downtown Manhattan, Patrick's novel was the inspiration for the film starring Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, which Patrick helped write. While many more people are aware of the film version, in my opinion the book is much better and slightly different—a main change being that Barney, the safecracker, has a retarded son who was left out of the movie. The language and dialogue Patrick uses are excellent and authentic; the first of his three books definitely deserves reading, whether you've seen the movie or not.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

First edition, second printing published by Bantam in 1946
Originally published in 1939 on the brink of World War II, Geoffrey Household's thriller/adventure novel tells the story of a hunter's attempt to assassinate an unsaid European dictator. The protagonist, who has no name, goes on this mission for "sport," but it obviously turns into much more and adventures ensue. A later Penguin paperback (that I unfortunately don't own) features a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Hitler on the cover, further insinuating the dictator's identity. Featuring nice 1940's cover art by an unattributed artist, this book is a great read and I strongly encourage picking up the NYRB reissue from a few years ago, currently in print.

Back cover featuring a picture of the original first edition 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Big Bob by Simenon

1981 First American edition of Big Bob by Simenon
Another book from Simenon's series of "psychological novels," Big Bob was originally published in France in 1954. The reader learns that the eponymous Bob has died on the second page, and the rest of the novel is spent investigating his life and supposedly accidental death. Big Bob is an engaging character study in reverse, from his death forward, and is one of Simenon's better non-Maigret, psychological books in my opinion. This book is maybe most amazing for its cover art designed by Bascove (signed with the "B" on the front cover), who did the covers of most Simenon novels published in America by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Under the Volcano & The Voyage That Never Ends by Malcolm Lowry

1965 Hardcover edition published by J.B. Lippincott 
While Malcolm Lowry isn't one of my favorite writers, he was a pretty fascinating guy. Probably most well known for his vicious alcoholism, and Under the Volcano, which addresses it, Lowry didn't successfully publish very much in his lifetime although trying to for many, many years. Lowry spent around a decade and a half writing and trying to get Under the Volcano published, which is now considered one of the better books in the English language. I don't know if I'd go as far as that in my own estimation, but it is worth reading if you've never tackled it before. The above edition from the mid-1960's features great jacket design by David Lunn. Below is an out of print NYRB edition of The Voyage That Never Ends, a collection of Lowry's unpublished shorter works that give some interesting insight into the man's creative process.

First edition hardcover published by NYRB in 2007

Monday, May 21, 2012

This Planet Is Doomed by Sun Ra

First paperback edition of This Planet Is Doomed by Sun Ra
From the back cover by Bhob Stewart: "Beyond the interplanetary theatricality, catchphrases, non sequiturs, science-fictional costumes and kozmic chaos, Sun Ra (1914-1993) was an innovative bandleader, a potent pianist, an electronic keyboard pioneer, a visionary Afrofuturist poet-philosopher, an inventive composer and a prolific recording artist, releasing more than 100 albums totaling over 1000 tunes. Downbeat called him 'the prophet of modern jazz.' When the avant-garde arrived, they found that Sun Ra had already been there. 'I'm a troubleshooter for the cosmos,' said Sun Ra, 'sent here by the outer space beings from my home planet, Saturn.'" Sun Ra was, without question, a weird guy. Collected in this book for the first time by Kicks Books in 2011 are all of Sun Ra's celestial, be-bop musings and stories from space in the form of mostly free-verse poetry. This book is more fascinating than it is good, especially if you're in to Sun Ra at all—it also pioneered a "unique" genre of poetry. The cover design by Patrick Broderick is amazing, especially for something not more than a year or two old.

Death & The Magician by Raymund Fitzsimons

Paperback edition from 1985 of Death & The Magician 
First published by Antheneum in 1980, this Harry Houdini biography by Raymund Fitzsimons encapsulates the magician's life from birth to unfortunate death. One of the greatest performers and magicians of the 20th century, this book particularly goes into great detail codifying and explaining all of his famous tricks. Almost as good as this later biography itself is the bibliography at the end of it, with a list of nearly every important piece of literature on Houdini and magic. Featuring great cover design by Craig Dodd based on an original Houdini performance poster, this book at least deserves being flipped through.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Harder They Come by Michael Thelwell

First edition of The Harder They Come by Michael Thelwell
Published by Grove Press in 1980, Michael Thelwell's novelization of The Harder They Come came eight years after Perry Henzell's film starring Jimmy Cliff. Thelwell, a Jamaican writer, adapted this story about real-life reggae singer Ivanhoe Martin and his later turn to dealing marijuana and other criminal endeavors. The book stays true to Henzell's seminal film more or less except for the addition of many Jamaican proverbs interspersed throughout the novel. If you enjoyed the movie at all this book definitely deserves reading. The cover features a reprinting of the original 1972 film poster.

Washington Square Ensemble by Madison Smartt Bell

Penguin paperback copy of Washington Square Ensemble from 1984
Washington Square Ensemble is Madison Smartt Bell's first novel and my favorite. He's more famous for his later works but I like this book best—it chronicles the streets of 1980's downtown New York City, especially the eponymous park, and centers around the struggles of five Washington Square regulars. With characters named Johnny B. Goode, Yusuf Ali, Holy Mother, Santa Barbara, and Porco Miserio, this book is nothing short of interesting. Largely centered around the using and selling of drugs at the height of crime-addled New York, Bell's novel is now an engaging time capsule from a bygone era. The cover features a nice 1980's illustration by David Berkner.

A practically illegible inscription by Madison Smartt Bell

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick

First book club edition of The Man In The High Castle
Philip K. Dick's nightmarish alternate history was published by Putnam in 1962, and won the Hugo Award the following year. It tells of a world in which the Axis of Evil triumphed in World War II, and in the story's present they effectively run the world. The alternate future begins with FDR being assassinated prior to taking office, and then after the war's outbreak the Nazis take over Russia and later Africa, and everything else goes downhill after that. It is a grim but fun book that makes you think about how close we all came to potentially living in an inane world like the one Dick invites us inside. It's not my favorite book of his, but it definitely possesses all the hallmarks of a Philip K. Dick novel. The stark jacket design by Robert Galster also gets the point of terror across well.

The Dead All Have The Same Skin by Boris Vian

Reprinted copy of The Dead All Have The Same Skin by Boris Vian
Boris Vian was a really odd guy in that a lot of his books were about part-black people and Americans, yet he was from Paris and never visited America. He was also completely white. They all take place in cities he never visited, and were about things he had never really experienced; but for this reason, his books are that much more interesting to read. Originally published in France in 1947, Vian claimed to have translated this book and several others from an American author called Vernon Sullivan—more than likely to distance himself from the lewdness, extreme sexuality, and racism that star in this book and most of his others. It soon came out that Vian himself had actually written them, both to popular acclaim and horror. They were successful in France and in the US for their bluntness, "forward-thinking," and ingenuity. The Dead All Have The Same Skin is about a quarter-black man who outwardly appears fully white to his family and co-workers, but whose world is overturned when his fully-black brother appears to extort him. Part noir and racial commentary, the story takes place in an awesomely imagined New York and Brooklyn in the late 1940's, features murder, fighting, drinking, police chases, profanity, and no fewer than 20 sexual exchanges in a novel that's just barely a hundred pages. This book—if you can believe it—is the most straightforward and least ridiculous of Vian's controversial work, although I highly recommend all of it. TamTam books reprinted this novel in 2007 and have since republished most of Vian's works.

Monday, May 14, 2012

J R by William Gaddis

First edition of J R by William Gaddis
Published by Knopf in 1975, J R is one of the trickier books among the American canon of 20th century literature. Over 700 pages long (it has a small typeface) and written almost completely in dialogue not attributed to its speaker, J R is not easy to read; it is definitely unique though. It tells the story of an eleven year-old named J R who, after a school trip to the stock exchange, starts manipulating the value of penny stocks over the phone and builds a small fortune. J R is a satire and commentary on capitalism and American commerce, which actually isn't predominantly why I like the book. J R himself is funny and interesting, along with most of the scenes in the novel, and that is what is most enjoyable about it. As a reader you have to discern what is going on and who is speaking from the sounds everywhere and the people's voice and character—it is a book you have to participate in to read, which can be difficult but had never been done before. It won the National Book Award in 1975, twenty years after Gaddis' first and previous novel, The Recognitions, flopped. His other books employ a similar style, but none to the extent that J R does if that helps persuade future readers. The cover is also a pretty solid illustration in the theme of money, designed by Janet Halverson.

Homicide by David Simon

Reprinted paperback copy of Homicide by David Simon
This book falls more into the "Cool" category than any of the others heading this site, but it is definitely that. Journalist David Simon spent a year in the late 1980's with the Baltimore Police Department's homicide division at the height of a major crime surge—this book recounts his experiences shadowing homicide detectives as they worked their cases that year. It is an incredibly vivid and in-depth account of how police and detective work are done for murder cases, and can at times be slightly disturbing but definitely worth reading. This book of Simon's reportage later served as a partial basis for the HBO series The Wire, and anyone reading it after seeing the show should be able to spot the origins of certain things.

The Great Ponds by Elechi Amadi

Heinemann paperback copy of The Great Ponds from 1976 
The Great Ponds is a short novel by Nigerian author Elechi Amadi, originally published in 1969. While lesser known among Nigerian writers of his generation that includes Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart, among other things), Amadi is just as good the others if not better. The Great Ponds is about the struggle between two villages over possession of a massive pond that sits in the middle of them. It is an engaging and wonderfully written story that focuses on tribal village life in Africa, and these two clans' epic battle for Wagaba pond. Featuring illustrations by Stanley Houghton throughout and an awesome cover photo that wreaks of the 1970's, The Great Ponds is a great read.

An illustrated scene from the novel showing a medicine man at work

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Movie Magic by John Brosnan

First printing of Movie Magic by John Brosnan
This book is clearly dated, but still interesting. John Brosnan published this book in 1974 on St. Martin's Press chronicling the history of special effects in film. It covers everything from Jason and the Argonauts to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with amazing illustrative pictures and information. Brosnan, who was part film scholar, was also a writer of science fiction in the 1960's and 70's. This book is obviously irrelevant at this point in time, but it serves as a pretty good historical almanac as to how movies were once made. It also has a great cover of a still from the original King Kong movie.

March 1940 Vol. 1 by J.D. Salinger

Bootleg anthology of previously unpublished Salinger short stories
This copy of collected J.D. Salinger short stories was more than likely published in 1975, originating somewhere in California. Known as March 1940 Volume 1, it collects 17 of Salinger's first short stories published in various magazines mostly from the 1940's to mid 1950's. Among these stories is "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," which is Holden Caulfield's fictional debut, along with others that contain various Caulfields in them, or at least references. These stories bridge the gap before Catcher in the Rye to when he first began publishing. Volume II contains five slightly longer stories, and I've been after it for some time—they aren't cheap though. After an injunction that Salinger's lawyers filed, most copies of these volumes were seized and/or incinerated, hence the weighty price tag. The cover of this slim volume is a reprinting of the March-April 1940 cover of Collier's, in which the story "The Stranger" first appeared.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

First Gold Medal paperback of The Man Who Fell to Earth
The above paperback copy isn't in the greatest condition, but it's the only one of The Man Who Fell to Earth I have with this amazing cover. Published in 1963 by Gold Medal following Walter Tevis' success from The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth tells the story of the alien Newton who comes to Earth in a human body to try and rescue his home planet of Anthea. Tevis' novel was adapted into an equally good film in the 1970's, appropriately starring David Bowie as Newton. I'm a big fan of Walter Tevis' work—he only wrote six novels in his lifetime, most of them in varying genres and all of them very solid books.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

First Edition of Mr. Vertigo
Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster isn't, in my opinion, the greatest book; its first edition cover is great though. With jacket illustration by Art Spiegelman, Mr. Vertigo was first published by Viking Press in 1994. The book is about a young runaway named Walt who is propositioned by a mysterious man calling himself Master Yehudi, and promises Walt he can teach him how to levitate—which he eventually does. Walt and Master Yehudi tour the nation with their spectacle and various plot twists ensue. I'll be perfectly honest and say that I've never been able to get through finishing this book, for whatever reasons, but that still doesn't mean physically it's not great. Auster inscribed this copy to someone named Adam right after its publication, who in turn more than likely sold it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

First American paperback edition of The Black Cloud
The Black Cloud was Sir Fred Hoyle's first foray into science fiction and is one of the best books to emerge from the tail end of the Golden Age. Published in England in 1957, Hoyle's novel is about a large cloud that enters our solar system and appears to be heading to block all of the Earth's sunlight. I'll leave out the twists and turns that the team of scientists, who are the stars of the book, discover about the cloud, but it is an incredibly gripping, well-written story about a fictional fate for our lives on Earth. Part of what makes the book so great is that Hoyle was a renowned cosmologist and astronomer, and his knowledge of actual science informed his fiction amazingly, particularly in The Black Cloud. A noteworthy biographical fact is that Hoyle was responsible for coining the term "Big Bang" about the theory of how life on Earth began, which he ironically didn't believe in. The cover art, along with most sci-fi books from this period, is exceptional. Illustrated by Charles & Cuffari, the only other cover I've seen from them is the first edition of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon from the mid-1960's, but beyond that they seem to have done nothing else book-related unfortunately.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass

First American edition of The Tin Drum
Originally published in Germany in 1959, pictured above is the cover of the first American edition of The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. Published by the Pantheon imprint of Random House in 1961—which specialized in foreign titles—The Tin Drum was first translated into English by superstar translator Ralph Manheim. Gunter Grass' first novel is, simply put, one of my favorite books; there is nothing quite like it, and in my opinion none of his other books really compare. A war ballad combined with proponents of magical realism, The Tin Drum recounts the epic of Oskar Matzerah and his family in Danzig, Germany before, during and after World War II. Oskar willed himself to stop growing at the age of 3, only maturing mentally, and can shatter glass with his voice. He dons a tin drum, which he can play to conjur any memory from the past. It is a ridiculous and special book. The cover drawing is one of my favorites—drawn by Grass himself—and has been incorporated in some way or another into nearly ever future edition (see below).

Oskar character on the back cover of a later Pantheon paperback
Another Oskar from the cover of a British Penguin paperback

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mr. Arkadin "by" Orson Welles

A more recent printing of Mr. Arkadin
This is a newer copy of the novelization of Mr. Arkadin—Welles' largely unsuccessful 1955 film—that remains more or less true to its film counterpart. Combined with the aura of Harvey Lime and the supposed missing memoirs of arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, Welles created what has been referred to as a sort of Citizen Kane in reverse. The film, which was never totally finished and features Welles sporting an insane fake beard, flopped after being edited down into a few different versions. In an attempt to recoup some of the film's losses, Welles sold Mr. Arkadin in book form. The reason the word "by" in the title of this post is in quotations is because Welles more than likely didn't write any of it himself—his assistant was charged with that task and then signed Welles' name to it. In certain ways the book is better than the film because it is a good, consistent and fully-realized story; on the other hand Welles didn't really write any of the book though.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Kwaidan compiled by Lafcadio Hearn

A collection of Japanese ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn
Pictured above is the cover of a collection of fifteen or so ghost stories compiled and translated by the worldly Lafcadio Hearn, published in 2010 by Fall River Press. Kwaidan in Japanese means "ghost story," and this book was originally published in 1904 as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Hearn, who later made Japan his adopted nation, collected these ghost stories together from different texts and scriptures at the beginning of the 20th century. Kwaidan was made into a movie in Japan in 1965 and this text served as the basis—the Criterion Collection released the film on DVD several years ago. My favorite story in both the book and movie is "Hoichi the Earless," which tells of a blind minstrel player who performs for the ghosts of dead nobility unbeknownst to him. His priest friend soon discovers this and paints his entire body with prayers so the ghosts won't be able to see him; unfortunately, though, he forgets to paint Hoichi's ears.

Bring Me Your Love by Charles Bukowski

First edition with illustrations by R. Crumb
While this isn't a book per se, it is a nice paper printing of a short story by Charles Bukowski with great illustrations and cover by R. Crumb. First printed by the famous Black Sparrow Press of Santa Barbara in 1983, this story is only 15 pages long and nothing short of ridiculous with three or four Crumb drawings scattered throughout. Bound with brown matte cardstock, the inside also features hot pink endpaper.

Cover page
Final drawing inside by R. Crumb

Sunday by Simenon

First edition of Sunday
Above is a first British edition copy of Simenon's Sunday, first published in 1960 by Hamish Hamilton. While this isn't one of Simenon's best books in my opinion, it centers around a pretty decent love triangle and some class issues, which are always interesting. But better than this psychological novel is the amazing cover art by P. Youngman Carter. Carter (sometimes credited as just Youngman Carter) did the illustrations for a number of Simenon novels, as well as the covers for many other British mystery novels and editions from the 1930's up through the 1960's. It should also be said that they are not easy to find and usually worth a pretty penny.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Men Die by H.L. Humes

First edition of Men Die by H.L. Humes (front)
This is H.L. Humes' previously mentioned second and final novel, Men Die. It is much shorter (less than 200 pages) and was published the following year in 1959 by Random House to similar acclaim. While the title is maybe a little blunt, Men Die is much more daring and technically-inventive than The Underground City, in addition to being far more compact. It centers around an explosion in an American munitions depot just before the outbreak of World War II in the Caribbean. The Underground City is a better book in my opinion, but Men Die has its own merit and is also the last piece of writing from H.L. Humes. The back and front cover art is some of the finest I've come across—the current reprint only has the front title in black being that it's a paperback.

(back cover)

The Underground City by H.L. Humes

British First Edition from 1958
This is H.L. Humes' first novel, published in America in 1958 by Random House and in Great Britain the same year by Heinemann. It is a sprawling World War II novel (758 pages!) about the French resistance, politics, war, life, and humanity—it is without question one of my favorite books. Humes was a co-founder of the Paris Review, among many other things, and this was the first of two books he published in his lifetime. I have had the extraordinary pleasure of archiving Humes' papers, which are now currently in the process of finding a home, and I think it's fair to say at this point that I know a great deal about the man and his works. 

A note to Humes from the Publicity Department at Random House (image courtesy of the Humes Archive) 
Part of a stellar review clipped from the Chicago Sunday Tribune (image courtesy of the Humes Archive)
Both his novels, The Underground City in particular, are incredibly under-read and unknown despite being very successful upon release. Humes later suffered a breakdown that in many ways he never recovered from in the mid-1960's, and stopped writing for the most part. Both his novels were reprinted 40 years later by Random House at the beginning of 2008, which you should go and buy without question.

An advanced reading copy of The Underground City
Currently in print new edition of The Underground City