Few things are as Yule-tied as oversize books. The seasonal connection is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the gift-giver has an almost limitless array of titles from which to choose. And a curse for the same reason: A wide selection makes choosing difficult. A few themes are discernible in the bounty this year: The 19th century is strong, pop music edges out pop art, and the hankering to hit the road and photograph the odyssey is making a comeback. Everything, it seems, exists not just to end up as a book, but to end up as a book on a coffee table. Among the season’s best:
Images of War: The Artist’s version of World War II
Edited by Ken McCormick and Hamilton Darby Perry; foreword by John Hersey
It’s a little unnerving to discover that the most visually arresting gift book this season is devoted to war. Even stranger is the experience of looking at a recent war through painters’, not photographers’, eyes. And it’s also a surprise to see scenes rendered from all sides of the conflict (some 200 artists from a dozen countries are represented here). If the viewpoints are disparate, however, the tone is nearly uniform: Desolation is the order of the day.
Photographs by Birney Imes; introductory essay by Richard Ford
Birney Imes takes us on a photographic journey through the black joints of music and merrymaking in the Mississippi Delta. Actually, there’s not much merrymaking going on here. Most of the bars are empty; some have even been torn down since Imes took these photographs in the 1980s. Despite the work’s artfulness, his approach is that of a tourist from the other side of the tracks. But he’s an observant tourist, and the pictures are beautiful. Richard Ford’s introduction is both delightfully philistine and strangely ruminative.
The Motown Album Foreword
Even if it were a botch job, this celebration of pop’s golden age would be welcome as an antidote to the recent spate of ”What killed Flo?” and ”Who slept with Smokey?” tell-alls. As it turns out, however, the book is a beaut. The photographs of the Supremes — many of them previously unpublished — are priceless, especially one of the singers showing the famous ”Stop! In the Name of Love” move to a group of geishas. The writers who contributed to the book (in addition to Gordy, Ben Fong-Torres, Dave Marsh, and Elvis Mitchell) are a guy group as formidable as any Motown act.
Remarkable Private New York Residences
Text by Chippy Irvine; photography by Alex McLean
This is probably not the most auspicious moment to bring out a book extolling New York’s most palatial interiors. No doubt the project was conceived before the current economic downturn. And it must be said that the book’s creators have attempted to be democratic: Their peep into 30-odd interiors includes not only the comforts of the very rich but also the homelier charms of a ”West Village One-roomer” (though even the downtown digs boast a collection of Royal Bayreuth pottery). With the welter of magazines that regularly present this kind of thing, such a book could easily seem superfluous. Yet Private New York, whether approached as escapist fare, decorators’ guidebook, or incitement to riot, is quite enjoyable. The prose is helpful, nicely textured, and the photos are crisply composed, though somewhat dimly reproduced.
The Story of Kodak
The book is basically a commercial, but an impressive one. Kodak is the sine qua non of everything photographic. George Eastman didn’t invent the camera, but Eastman Kodak, the company he founded in 1892, popularized photography’s most familiar form: the snapshot. The book’s pictures — snapshots, moving picture stills, early astronomical photo studies, aerial shots — are exceptional. They make it difficult to concentrate on the text, which is professional, if somewhat pallid.
Romare Bearden: His Life and Art Myron Schwartzman
It’s no fluke that work by the African-American artist Romare Bearden has been seen in the living room of TV’s Huxtable family. Bearden’s life (1914-1988) intersected with that of virtually every important figure in 20th-century black culture. The patchwork structure of his collages owes something to Cubism while retaining an unmistakable verve and originality. Ritual, jazz, and family are recurrent preoccupations. And his colors, as this book’s reproductions remind us, are luminous. Schwartzman, a Baruch College professor who got to know Bearden during the decade before his death, provides a thorough, and thoroughly informative, discussion of the artist’s life and work.
The Sky’s the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers
Edited by Pauline A. Saliga; introduction by John Zukowsky
To pore over architectural photographs is to court nostalgia for what has vanished. When the pictures involve Chicago, a primary showplace for Louis Sullivan and Burnham and Root, among many other masters, such wistfulness can be unusually acute. Fortunately, the editor of and contributors to this volume let their information speak for itself. Sometimes the words ”now dismantled” in a photo caption are more than enough. Of course, this book also elicits awe for Chicago-led technical advancements in the skyscraper field as well as for the many buildings that the city has preserved. Mostly, though, you close this book with regrets — including one that there aren’t more color photographs.
PhotoGraphing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron
Donna M. Lucey
In 1889 Evelyn Cameron and her husband forsook their genteel English world for the wilds of eastern Montana. When their attempt to raise polo ponies failed, she took up the camera. Cameron’s late-pioneer-period scenes can seem posed and unadventurous in technique, but Donna Lucey was nonetheless correct in rescuing this photographer and her images from the dust bowl of history.
J.P. Morgan: The Financier as Collector
Behind every great museum lies a great robber baron, at least in this country, and J.P. Morgan was one of the greatest. His assemblage of rare books and manuscripts makes up the backbone of New York’s Morgan Library, which, except for the Frick, is the city’s premier small museum. According to Louis Auchincloss, the novelist whose text is characteristically more stylish than this book’s middling reproductions, Morgan’s artistic holdings were worth $60 million when he died in 1913. To have left such riches to an individual ”would have been impossibly expensive, in terms of taxes, today, but (then) it was still feasible.” Auchincloss is also a lawyer.
Route 66: The Mother Road
A suitably meandering journey along a suitably meandering thoroughfare, that romantic cobbling of concrete and macadam John Steinbeck called ”the mother road.” The highway begins in Chicago and snakes across eight states before emptying into the Pacific, at Santa Monica. Artists have projected their open-road fantasies onto almost every inch of this passage: Woody Guthrie sang of its Okies, photographers have loved its Southwestern stretches, and television traversed the road top to bottom in an early ’60s buddy show starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. Michael Wallis does more than make pit stops for souvenirs; his quirky account could singlehandedly stoke a rediscovery of 66’s charms.
Advertising in America: The First 200 Years
Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple
It came as quite a shock in the mid-’70s to learn that porn star Marilyn Chambers had once been a model for Ivory soap, but in fact the connection between Ivory and sexuality was not farfetched. During World War I, for example, several of the floating soap’s ads featured nude soldiers or sportsmen. That the scenes were innocent did not lessen their reliance on seduction. How to maintain decorum and yet tap desire is one of the many issues illuminated by this smooth, profusely illustrated discussion of the American science of persuasion. Part big-business chronicle, part overview of design, the volume is perhaps most interesting as social history. ”As early as the 1880s,” the authors tell us, ”the professional advertising literature consistently referred to their audience as ‘she.”’
Edited by Constance Sullivan; essay by Eugenia Parry Janis
We begin, as so many modern surveys logically do, with the Victorians. In this case with the pioneering group of female photographers — Lady Filmer, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lady Clementina Hawarden — who worked, according to Eugenia Parry Janis, ”in the relative obscurity of the closed family circle.” We end with the cosmopolitan image makers of the baby-boomer generation: Annie Leibovitz, Linda Connor, and Laurie Simmons, among others. Along the way, we wonder if this book’s concept doesn’t deflect the viewer’s focus from the quality of the work to the fact of gender. We decide we’re grateful for a chance to look at these pictures under any rubric.
Amid all the hoopla, what’s left for anyone to say about the five boys from Boston? Not much, it seems. Which is why the packagers of this relentlessly upbeat volume must have decided to dispense with a writer and let Jordan, Jonathan, Danny, Donnie, and Joe speak for themselves. The Kids’ message is familiar: Clean up the environment. Avoid drugs. Respect your neighbors, whatever their skin color. And above all, love. You almost forget that these guys are big business, and you keep wondering, Where’s the dark side? Still, this is a smartly produced tome — a great gift for any of the group’s fans.
Hollywood at Home: A Family Album 1950-1965
Photographs by Sid Avery; text by Richard Schickel
The photos here extend to the mid-’60s, but the feel is definitely ’50s. There’s Bogie and Bacall in front of the fire. Carson kicking up his heels. Ike at the barbecue. And Liz and Rock and Brando and McQueen leading the parade of younger celebrities caught in just-plain-folks poses. Sid Avery, a sort of Norman Rockwell with flash, had a particular knack for taming talent — his approach removes the hubba-hubba from even Jayne Mansfield. Avery’s work is ”insinuatingly artless,” according to movie critic Richard Schickel, whose urbane, slyly debunking commentary contrasts with the middle-class serenity of these photos as much as the images themselves differed from their subjects’ off-camera lives.
Nancy McMichael; photographs by David Emerick
Liquid-filled glass globes occupy a secure spot in the Western kitsch niche. They are a relatively new phenomenon, little more than a century old. The French got the ball rolling at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition, and the object benefited from various European enhancements before arriving in the U.S. in the 1920s. Since then, the form has been adapted endlessly. Nancy McMichael moves through this flurry of activity, touching upon each of the globe’s uses — seasonal, patriotic, religious. She mentions everything, it seems, except the object’s importance as an aid to memory in Citizen Kane.
High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture
Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik
The giant exclamation point adorning the cover of this weighty tome suggests a sunny enterprise. And yet when the exhibition to which the book is companion opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, critics were quick to complain. Most, however, agreed that this catalog, by the museum’s Renaissance man (Kirk Varnedoe) and The New Yorker‘s master-of-all-trades (Adam Gopnik), was entirely worthy. The volume details the use such modern artists as Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Warhol have made of pop culture (graffiti, caricature, comics, and advertising are the categories surveyed). The obvious examples (Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup-can paintings among them) are for the most part avoided. When familiar images do appear, they’re in fresh contexts. And the less widely known connections — for instance, between the work of American painter Philip Guston and that of the garish and grungy cartoonist Robert Crumb — are even more startling to behold.
My Time at Tiffany’s
Gene Moore and Jay Hyams
Viewing the Christmas windows of Tiffany’s, the Fifth Avenue jeweler, is like trying to see the Mona Lisa: The sight is small, and there’s always someone in the way. That it’s worth the effort is largely because of Gene Moore, who has been creating the store’s windows year-round for 35 years. Not content with simply showcasing merchandise, Moore has elevated window dressing to an elaborate art. He has been collaborative: The painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg helped with a Tiffany’s window in the ’50s. He has been bold: A 1965 display of fabrics for another store, but included here, was tinged with S&M. Mostly, however, he’s been inspired. And yes, his modest, chatty, anecdotal history gives the goods on Audrey Hepburn’s famous breakfast there.
Remington: The Complete Prints
Peggy and Harold Samuels
In 1902 Frederic Remington was the best-known artist in America. His Western scenes of cavalry and Indians, of branded cattle and snow-dappled ponies were familiar to readers of Harper’s Weekly and Collier‘s, and his prints were hung in homes everywhere. Remington, however, wanted to be considered a serious painter. He said he’d ”never come West again” — the frontier had become ”too tame” for him. He did go back, casting his cool, encompassing eye about for a while longer. But by then it was to capture a vanished, not a vanishing, world. The Samuels, who have also written a biography of Remington, narrate this sad journey in entertaining fashion, though their prose is at times as jumpy as a prospector’s mule.
The Civil War: An Illustrated History
Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns
Lincoln, Lee, Davis. Chesnut, Barton, Beecher Stowe. Bull Run, Vicksburg, Atlanta. Andersonville. Appomattox. The season’s favorite bedside book is also its best coffee-table volume: History repeats itself.
AUDIO BOOK GIFTS
A Brief History of Time
Stephen W. Hawking; read by Michael Jackson
The speed-of-light performance by ABC Radio personality Jackson may place too much emphasis on brief, but listeners may well be grateful for his quick version of this unlikely best-seller.
By Larry McMurtry; read by Betty Buckley
Buckley’s elegiac reading makes McMurtry’s latest venture into the Old West all her own.
A Life on the Road
By Charles Kuralt; read by the author
The hardcover edition of this best-seller is likely to show up on lots of Christmas lists, but only the audio program offers the attraction of Kuralt’s irresistible voice.
The Power of Myth
By Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
These tapes distill the popular PBS series to its essentials — the expansive, inspiring talk that listeners will go back to more than once.
The Fledgling Spy
By John le Carre; read by the author
The first of three audio excerpts from Le Carre’s fictional spy memoir, this reading shows the author delighting in his elaborate deceptions — as well as in the opportunity to take center stage, playing all parts in his grand entertainment.
Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie
Carolina cook Neal says that ”it is a Southern trait to have a story for every occasion,” and so his book on Southern baking has a history for every meticulously researched recipe, from raised biscuits to Robert E. Lee Cake.
Miller, chef of Santa Fe’s chic Coyote Cafe, dishes up inventive soups and salsas, borrows offbeat regional specialties from his Mexican travels, and translates ”inspirations” from other countries into the language of salsas and empanadas.
Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman
In the overcrowded field of Italian cookbooks, La Place and Kleiman have carved out a niche with food that is fresh, fast, stylish, and vivid.
Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj
”Fusion” cuisine that combines cold ham and naan bread, chapattis with Scotch whiskey marmalade.
Mrs. Witty’s Home-Style Menu Cookbook
Witty, who welcomes kitsch in her kitchen, has found excellent recipes for such old-time staples as pot roast and pineapple upside-down cake.
Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant
A cookbook harvest from vegetarian Mecca, the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y.
The Thrill of the Grill
Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby
Schlesinger, who does not believe in catsup, sets everything from tripe to squid flamboyantly a-sizzle — his is flashy, no-fuss food with a good strong kick.