Friday 8 April 2011

A Couple of Kingsley Amis Books; 2: How's Your Glass? (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984) – Last Orders with Amis

This second of two Kingsley Amis books I'm showcasing in swift succession is also the third book about booze that Amis wrote, so the acquisition of it completes my set of Amis alcoholic first editions:

How's Your Glass? was published in hardback in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1984. It is, essentially, a quiz book, comprising a series of quizzes on wine ("Elementary", "Advanced", "France", "Germany", etc.), beer, spirits, cocktails and so forth, with a short introduction to each section. Interspersed throughout are cartoons by Michael Heath, whose work has appeared in every major British newspaper and who has been cartoon editor of The Spectator since 1991 – he won a lifetime achievement award at the Cartoon Art Trust Awards in 2009. (The Heath cartoon-adorned dustjacket was designed by Gerry Downes.)

It is, as I say, the third of Amis's books on drink, the first being 1972's On Drink – which I done blogged about here – and the second being 1983's Every Day Drinking – which I done blogged about here. All three were collected together as Everyday Drinking by Bloomsbury in 2008. I bought this copy of How's Your Glass? at the recent Lewes Book Fair; I hadn't intended to get myself a copy of it, for reasons I'll outline in a moment, but the book fair was pretty disappointing from my perspective, and there was little else there I wanted to buy, so when I saw this for three quid, I figured, what the hell: nothing worse than coming away from a fair empty handed.

For me, How's Your Glass? is the least interesting of the three Amis alcohol volumes: I'm not terribly keen on quizzes, and if I absolutely had to pick a subject for a quiz, drinking would not be top of my list. But there's still much to enjoy about the book, particularly Amis's acerbic introductions to each section, which are as barbed as you'd expect. "It was in the early 1950s that vodka began its amazing progress to popularity in the Western world, " he writes at the start of the vodka questions, "doubly amazing when you consider what a dull drink it is, no good neat, unsuitable for cocktails."

The questions themselves are elegantly phrased and often pleasingly open-ended; the first one under "Alcohol and Your Interior" runs thus: "'Winter warmers' are a recognized category of drink, but does alcohol warm you? – it certainly makes you feel warm. Elucidate." So while How's Your Glass? is a slim, slight volume, it does possess a certain charm. And more importantly – at least from my crazed collector vantage point – it completes, as I mentioned at the top of this post, my set of sozzled Amis firsts:

Right then. What's next? Well, I still haven't been able to get my grubby mitts on the book I keep hinting about; the review of that mysterious tome will have to wait until I do. No matter though, because, excitingly, next week Existential Ennui will once again be exclusively devoted to political/crime/thriller writer Ross Thomas. I'll have a number of very scarce UK first editions (one of them sporting a dustjacket by our dear friend Beverley le Barrow), a review of perhaps Thomas's most ambitious novel, and a cover gallery or two as well. And if you're really lucky, Ross Thomas Week, Mark III (I'm including Bleeck Week in that count) will begin over the weekend...

Thursday 7 April 2011

A Couple of Kingsley Amis Books; 1: I Like it Here, 1958 First Edition, Plus a Bit About Victor Gollancz Dustjacket Design

As it turned out I couldn't get my hands on the book I hinted I might have for you today (if I get my filthy mitts on it in the next few days I'll try and get a review up, post haste), so I'm reverting to my original plan, which is to take a look at a couple of Kingsley Amis books I picked up recently. The first of which is this:

A UK hardback first edition/first impression of I Like it Here, published by Victor Gollancz in 1958. I won this on eBay for a few quid, and it's a very nice copy indeed: a little edgewear on the unclipped jacket, and a St. Thomas' Hospital Library stamp on the front flap, but the book itself appears little-read, with very lightly tanned pages and no sign of foxing on the page edges (ooh, get me and my fancy book collecting terminology...). So, considering a decent copy with a complete, unsoiled dustjacket (spine darkening is common) can set you back anything up to £150, bit of a find. There's a small inscription on the front endpaper:

But I don't mind that sort of thing; it lends the book an added provenance (something I discussed in that Richard Price post on Tuesday) on top of the St. Thomas' Library stamp. I Like it Here was Amis's third novel, following Lucky Jim (1954) and That Uncertain Feeling (1955), and it wasn't terribly well liked by its author. This downloadable PDF interview with Amis by Michael Barber (whose Hudson Review article on Amis I hosted back at the start of the year), which originally appeared in The Paris Review in 1975, has a good quote from Amis on his problems with the novel:

Well, it was written partly out of bad motives. Seeing that That Uncertain Feeling had come out in 1955, and it was now 1957 and there was no novel on the way, I really cobbled it together out of straightforwardly autobiographical experiences in Portugal, with a kind of mystery story perfunctorily imposed on that. The critics didn't like it, and I don't blame them really. I had a look at it the other day and parts of it are not too bad. But it's really a very slipshod, lopsided piece of work.

That obvious displeasure with the finished article didn't stop Amis dedicating it to "Philip, Martin and Sally", i.e. Kingsley's sons and daughter. And if, on reflection, Amis determined that parts of I Like it Here weren't "too bad", well: even faint praise from Amis (plus my enjoyment thus far of every other book of his I've tried) makes it a novel I'm very much looking forward to reading, whatever the critical reservations.

I think what's striking about the dustjacket of this Gollancz first edition is how little information there is on it. Aside from the title, author name and mentions of Amis's two previous novels on the front (and the title/author name/Gollancz logo on the spine, of course), there's no precis of the story or information about Amis on either of the flaps or the back cover; they're all just blank yellow. That's not untypical for Gollancz books around this period, though; my 1963/1964 Gollancz copies of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Le Carré Omnibus are similarly unadorned, aside from a pertinent press blurb or two. I guess even by this early stage in his career (as with Le Carré) Amis had already made a big enough splash not to warrant further embellishment.

And it's also true to an extent that those distinctive yellow Gollancz dustjackets almost sold themselves. The Gollancz house style was conceived by typographer Stanley Morison, a director at the publishing house who, among his multitudinous achievements, designed many of the typefaces we take for granted these days, including Times and Times New Roman (that latter with Victor Lardent). According to this V&A article, publisher Victor Gollancz "was something of showman and wanted his books and the advertisements for them to be as visually arresting as possible. In keeping with Gollancz's sense of showmanship, Morison created a bold, instantly recognisable design using strong typography on a bright yellow background. This house-style was used for many years on innumerable Gollancz books. Each book, often crammed with information in varying typefaces and sizes, became an eye-catching, poster-like advertisement both for itself and for the Gollancz brand."

It certainly did the trick. Secondhand bookseller aggregator AbeBooks recently posted an appreciation of Gollancz, and a cursory glance at the accompanying gallery of covers confirms their striking nature (it also had me drooling over some of the first editions of books by Amis, Le Carré, Anthony Price and J. G. Ballard).

There was, however, one flaw with the Gollancz yellow (and red) dustjackets – more of a production flaw than a design one – one which back then would have seemed unimportant but which for book collectors has become more of an issue as time's worn on. In common with many other publishers around this period Gollancz's jackets were designed to both protect the book and act as a bright advertisment for it. They weren't intended to be kept pristine themselves, merely to keep the book in readable condition. To that end they were unvarnished and printed on thin, rough paper, and as a result surprisingly few of them have survived to the present day without becoming torn, marked, or generally grubby. Which is why my copy of I Like it Here was, as I say, a bit of a find.

Let's move on to the second Kingsley Amis book I have to show you, which also marks the completion of my collection of booze-themed Amis books...

Wednesday 6 April 2011

A Tale of Two Clockers by Richard Price: Bloomsbury Modern Library, 1994, Signed

Rounding off this short series of posts on crime fiction writer Richard Price, and picking up the thread from yesterday's post on the Maze Prison Library copy of Price's 1992 novel Clockers, let's take a look at the other edition of Clockers I mentioned I'd bought:

This is the second UK hardback edition of Clockers, published by Bloomsbury in 1994, two years after their first edition. It's a much more compact book – still over 500 pages long, but just 73/4" tall as opposed to the first edition's breeze-block-esque 93/4" – so it's a more enticing prospect as regards actually reading the bloody thing. It was published as part of Bloomsbury's 1994 Modern Library initiative, which saw novels by, among others, Scott Turow (The Burden of Proof and Presumed Innocent), Joanna Trollope (The Rector's Wife and A Passionate Man) and Margaret Atwood (Cat's Eye) reissued in hardback with dustjackets sporting a photograph of the author on the front (the one on the cover of Clockers was taken by Ralph Gibson). All of the jackets in the series were designed by illustrator Jeff Fisher, who also designed the cover for Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

By 1994 Clockers was being filmed by Spike Lee, eventually seeing release the following year and helping the novel to become perhaps Price's most famous book. The '94 Bloomsbury edition mentions the fact that there was a film in production on the jacket flap but gives no further information, but the '92 Bloomsbury edition states that Martin Scorcese was slated to direct the film. Scorcese ended up producing it, but this contemporaneous New Zealand Herald interview with Price also notes that Scorcese was originally direct the movie, and is well worth reading for its background on the book and its road to the screen.

Price spent four years researching Clockers, hanging out with cops and drug dealers, a method he discusses in this 2003 Guardian interview. But there was actually a nine-year gap between the publication of the author's previous novel, 1983's The Breaks, and the publication Clockers, during which Price was writing screenplays himself (The Color of Money, Night and the City, etc.). This piece by crime writer Scott Phillips delves into that aspect of Price's career, as well as the long wait fans of Price's novels had for Clockers, while this post on the Dead End Follies blog offers a more recent take on the book, in particular how the novel stands today in light of Price's work on The Wire.

There's something else about this particular copy of the Bloomsbury Modern Library edition of Clockers, though, which makes it quite special:

It's signed on the title page, which, considering I paid a pittance for it, is pretty cool. There are only five signed copies of this edition listed on AbeBooks, and only one of those from a UK seller, for over thirty quid. Result.

And that's it for this run of Richard Price posts. Next up, I'll probably have a couple of Kingsley Amis books... unless something else turns up...

Tuesday 5 April 2011

A Tale of Two Clockers by Richard Price: 1992 Bloomsbury First Edition from the Maze Prison Library

After yesterday's rather worthy and consequently more-than-likely quite dull post on Richard Price's debut novel, 1974's The Wanderers, for the next two posts in this (very) short series on Price I'm stepping away from the ill-considered literary criticism to showcase two different editions of the same book – namely 1992's Clockers. Why do I own two editions of the same book, you may very well be asking? The answer being, they both intrigued me – for very different reasons – and they were both really bloody cheap. And the first of the two editions is this one:

The UK hardback first edition of the novel, published by Bloomsbury in 1992, with a jacket photograph and design by Nigel Coke and AdCo. Except, it's not a true first edition – not quite. It's a library re-bind, which means internally it's the same as the first edition, but underneath the dustjacket the case is a PLC replicating the jacket design, rather than the more usual cloth or arlin finish:

It is, in essence, the kind of edition I usually run screaming to the hills to avoid, i.e. an ex-library one. So why did I buy it, particularly when there are plenty of proper UK first editions for sale online for not much more than I paid for this one? Well, as anyone with more than a passing familiarity with this blog will know by now, one thing I'm interested in is books as objects, specifically the history, or life, of a given book. Most of the time when you buy a secondhand book you have no idea who it's belonged to before you. Occasionally a book will have an inscription in it, or will come with a letter from the previous owner enclosed. But by and large the life of a book remains a mystery.

One thing an ex-library copy of a book can provide, though, is provenance. With an ex-library copy, you know exactly where a book has been, at least for part of its life (which is something Book Glutton addressed in a post last month) – assuming the endpaper with the library docket affixed hasn't been torn out by some vandalistic librarian, that is. And this copy of Clockers comes from a highly unusual library, one which no longer exists, but which was situated in, at the time, perhaps the most notorious institution in the United Kingdom.

The library docket glued to the pink endpapers offers few clues as to the identity of that institution; you can see that the library was part of the South Eastern Education and Library Service, which would naturally lead one to assume South East England. But in fact the region in question is in Northern Ireland, and within that region is the city of Lisburn, just outside of which resides Her Majesty's Prison Maze.

Maze Prison, or the Maze, was operational from 1971 to 2000 (parts of it are still standing today), and was where paramilitary prisoners from both sides of the Northern Irish Troubles were held. It was the site of the infamous dirty protest of the 1970s and hunger strike of 1981, as well as a violent prison break in 1983 and an assassination in 1997. It was, in truth, a very scary place indeed. But the inmates also played an instrumental part in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, which in turn led to the closure of the prison and thus to (relative) peace in Northern Ireland, so the Maze was historically significant in a number of ways.

All of which is fascinating, I'm sure, but doesn't address the question of how I know this particular copy of Clockers came from the Maze Library. The answer being, I bought it from Simply Read Books in Scotland, who have a huge collection of ex-Maze Library books, bought on consignment in 2002 and offered for sale via AbeBooks. And each book comes with a certificate of authenticity:

So I'm about as sure as I can be that this copy of Clockers is ex-Maze Library. Simply Read make a point of stating in a lot of their AbeBooks listings that "Maze books are generally less well-used than public library books", I guess because the inmates had more pressing matters to deal with than a little light reading. But what's interesting about this copy of Clockers is that it was evidently very well-read. It bears the marks on the page edges of much thumbing, while the date stamps on the glued-in library docket suggest it was pretty popular, seeing constant use right up until it was withdrawn from use in August 1994 (possibly to make way for the edition of Clockers I'll be blogging about next).

It has to be said, there is a certain morbid curiosity with a book like this; you do find yourself wondering which Maze prisoners read it, what they made of it, whether its story of murder and a possible wrongful conviction especially appealed to them (the number of withdrawals would suggest it did). But it is, when you hold it in your hands, an unwieldy object: it's bloody huge, not so much a brick of a book as a breeze block of a book. Luckily, the other copy of Clockers I nabbed is a more manageable size – it's a good deal smaller and lighter – and is rather special in its own right. And I'll be discussing that edition – and some other aspects of the book, including Spike Lee's 1995 movie adaptation – in the next post.

Monday 4 April 2011

Richard Price, The Wanderers and a Review of the 1975 Chatto & Windus First Edition

I've got three posts on chronicler of urban decay/crime author Richard Price planned for this week – two of them focusing on the same book. Fear not: there is some method to my madness... or at least, I think there is; for all I know there might simply be madness to my madness. We shall find out in the fullness of time. But before we get to that book, let's begin with a look at Price's debut novel:

The Wanderers was first published in the US in 1974 by Houghton Mifflin (1975 Chatto & Windus UK first edition seen above, with its Graham Palfrey-Rogers-designed pop art/collage dustjacket). Price was just twenty-five when it was published and the book draws heavily on his own experiences growing up in New York's projects in the early 1960s. The specific year is never nailed down in the novel, but the songs, bands and artists mentioned – Little Stevie Wonder, Dion, etc. – place it around that early '60s period. The focal point of the book is the eponymous Italian teenage gang, primarily Richie Gennaro, High Warlord of the Warriors, and his friends Buddy Borsalino, Eugene Caputo, Joey Capra and Perry La Guardia.

In fact The Wanderers is more like a collection of short stories than a novel. There's no overarching plot to speak of; each chapter is titled but not numbered ("The Warlord", "The Party", etc.), and though main and supporting characters reappear throughout the book and previous events are referenced, you could lift any chapter out of the whole and it would stand on its own. The theme, however, is the same throughout: what it's like to be a teenager in a city – bored with school and consumed by nihilistic preoccupations like fighting, fucking, drinking and fooling about.

And there's plenty of all of the above in the book; all bases are covered by the time we get to the end of the third chapter, "The Game", which features a massive ruck at an inter-gang football match. Price is brilliant at capturing the excitement of the fight, but also the sheer terror of it, and the same is true of the Wanderers' various attempts to get laid (some more successful than others). By concentrating in each chapter on a different gang member, he gets inside their heads, detailing the confusion and frustration and joy and ennui of being a teenager, contrasting all that with the outward bravado and braggadocio of their frequently funny conversations as they trade (friendly) insults and sometimes (less friendly) blows.

In a sense, despite the violence that permeates it, The Wanderers depicts a more innocent time in inner city life. There are no drugs or guns, and while there are deaths, these come not at the hands of the Wanderers but mostly by misadventure. Richie, Joey et al are innocents; they're kids, prone to tears when they find themselves in truly scary situations, such as when they're caught up in a bowling alley scam in the "The Hustle", acting merely as bystanders to a brutal punishment meted out by their elders to the visiting ringers. And inevitably, inexorably, all of the Wanderers sense their relatively carefree time hanging out at Big Playground is drawing to a close, as graduation approaches and the concerns of the adult world bear down on them: jobs, marriage, pregnancy, moving on. When the five friends go their separate ways at the end of the story it becomes clear that what the book really is is a eulogy for Price's own childhood.

The Wanderers feels authentic in the same way that George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane's novels feel authentic: it's an evocation of a specific time and place, no doubt embellished, but essentially truthful. Price has continued to plough this furrow through a further seven novels, to critical acclaim and respectable sales, although those who followed in his footsteps have perhaps reaped the greater rewards. (It's notable that when Pelecanos and Lehane were drafted in to write for The Wire, it was at their behest that Price was brought in too.) Indeed, more recently Price agreed to write a series of detective novels, apparently reasoning that the financial gain of a one-a-year genre work will outweigh his more weighty, research-heavy once-every-five-years tales of urban realism. And who can blame him?

It was actually via The Wire that I became aware of Price (as was also the case with Lehane and Pelecanos), but I was already familiar with some of the movie adaptations of his books even if I didn't really know his name. The best-known of those is probably Spike Lee's 1995 version of Clockers – and it's that novel I'll be looking at next, in two rather special editions...

Sunday 3 April 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: Duma Key by Stephen King (Hodder, 2008, First Edition)

Let's have a look at one last Lewes Book Bargain before we head into the working week's more thematically linked posts (well, some of them will be, anyway), namely a novel I bought in the Cancer Research charity shop at the bottom of School Hill, Lewes:

A UK hardback first edition/first printing of Duma Key by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2008, with a front cover image by Lisa Kimmell. Now, the thing about Stephen King is, I've read a lot of his books. Back in the 1980s and 1990s I devoured every Stephen King book I could get my hands on (usually borrowed from Beckenham Library, south London), from Carrie (1974) to Desperation and The Regulators (1996). Only James Herbert, Richard Laymon and Gregory Mcdonald approached King in terms of the number of books from their oeuvre I consumed.

And then, inspired by Labour coming to power in 1997, I pretty much stopped reading fiction and started reading non-fiction instead – mostly political biographies and the like. And when I wasn't reading those, I was reading comic books. And so I completely lost track of King, until last year, when I read 2006's Cell. And while Cell wasn't quite prime King – not up there with The Stand (1990 expanded edition) but certainly better than, say, The Tommyknockers (1987) – it was good enough and apocalyptic enough to get me interested in the author again. And though 2009's Under the Dome was something of a step down again in quality – enjoyable in places, but kind of heartless – I'm still keen enough on King to want to try some of his novels I missed during the wilderness years. And uppermost among them, I think, is Duma Key (and possibly 2001's Dreamcatcher), which is about a writer who loses his arm and his marriage and decamps to Duma Key, Florida, where, encouraged by his youngest daughter, he begins painting pictures which turn out to be dangerously predictive...

Y'know, it was only when I got to the end of that last paragraph and sat back and took a look at it as a whole that I realised that every sentence within it starts with an 'and'. What are the odds of that happening? But rather than go back and edit it, I think I'll leave it as is as a testament to, er, something or other, and tell you about next week's blogging instead, which will consist of a short series of posts on Richard Price plus a couple on Kingsley Amis. How very, um, equally something or other. See you then.