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.