There's always one person on every holiday gift list who stumps even the most imaginative would-be Santa. Either it's your brother -- who says he doesn't need or want anything at all -- or your aunt who collects Venetian glass of such a rarefied variety that you're afraid you'll wind up shelling out a fortune for something she'll secretly consider passi. But no matter how quirky your problem recipient's pet interest may be, there's got to be a book about it out there somewhere. Here is our own eclectic, eccentric collection of picture-rich books, presented in hopes that it helps you to check off that last name.
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Romantique: Erotic Art of the Early 19th Century
By Hans-J|gen Dvpp
Elephant & Mouse Editions
The title for this collection of 19th-century lithographs and drawings supposedly derives from a theory about the Romantic movement fostering a whole new kind of pornography. If you're interested in that notion, you can read more in Dvpp's unbelievably tedious introductory essay (which abounds in sentences like "These images played a part in the oppositional discourse, which developed in the analysis of the official discourse of the bourgeois monarchy"). The rest of us will just look at the pictures, taken from Dvpp's impressive collection of under-the-counter artwork made and sold in France in the 1800s. They show ladies and gentlemen who look just like the ones in illustrations for Victorian novels doing things that people in Victorian novels never do. Though most of the images reprise the basic repertoire of sexual acts -- with a few interesting (if impossibly acrobatic) variations and some unconventional views of nuns -- the best things here are the fantastical spot illustrations in which smiling, hoop-skirted ladies satisfy their cravings for (disembodied) penises by fishing for them in a pond or plucking them from a maypole after shimmying to the top, and a wasp-waisted dandy has a vulva for a face, complete with a luxuriant head of (pubic) hair. Gleeful, remarkably well-endowed devils often appear in these naughty doodles, but the overall tone is of sweet and frisky fun.
By Walter Schels
An African elephant, trunk tucked into her own mouth, skin like muddy earth parched and cracked by the sun. Is she ... smiling? A brown bear, perched on what appears to be a leather chair, gaze turned away from the camera, looking for all the world like a dignified fellow in a fur coat. A pampered pooch, a Papillon, brushed, world-weary and slightly eccentric, dewy eyes narrowed like a challenge, fur fluffed out like a man in a ruff who's never worked a day in his life. Opposite a mutt, actor-proud, almost sneering, one ear cocked at a jaunty angle, this guy's seen some action. These are the gentle beasts that populate Walter Schels' remarkable "Animal Portraits," a series of glossy, black-and-white images that appear to capture the very personalities of their subjects. And if Schels seemingly evokes animals' basic humanity, he does so with no cutesy condescension, which makes this handsome book a fine choice for animal lover and aesthete alike. "Dogs, cats and many other animals are not the least bit shy about displaying their feelings," the photographer writes. "Perhaps that is why we sometimes think we recognize a carefully hidden part of our own inner selves in an animal's expression." Perhaps.
Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection
By Richard Whelan, ed.
Handsomely produced, this selection of 937 photos, well-chosen by Richard Whelan and Capa's brother Cornell, is the best collection of the great photojournalist's work we are likely to get. Capa, a Hungarian who fled his country as a political exile after secret police spotted him talking to a Communist recruiter, had a knack for finding himself in, or seeking out, trouble spots. From Hungary he went to Berlin, then, after Hitler came to power, to France. But it was the places Capa went on assignment -- like Spain during the Spanish Civil War (where he took his most famous photo, a Loyalist soldier caught at the moment a killing bullet sends his body flying backward), or the D-Day invasion of Normandy (where he photographed the first troops to land; 11 of the photos survive, the rest of the negatives were accidentally destroyed by a careless Life magazine technician) -- that deservedly earned him the mark of the greatest of all war photographers. And it was one of those assignments that got him killed. Photographing French soldiers in Vietnam in 1954, Capa stepped on a Vietminh land mine. The sense some veterans speak of, of being more alive in combat than they have been since, comes out in the photos, and in the words that end Capa's memoir of World War II: "There is no longer any reason to get up in the morning."
By Gwendolen Cates
I expected a book entitled "Indian Country" to be tragic and heartbreaking; what we usually hear about the now-depleted population of Native Americans are stories of reservations plagued by alcoholism, poverty and bitterness. This captivating book does memorialize those Indians slaughtered hundreds of years ago -- particularly with a wonderful two-page layout of the National Day of Mourning (Thanksgiving) -- but those stories are complemented by the images and voices of prosperous and inspired survivors, proud descendents of Cherokee and Santee Sioux, from Alaska to New York. The cumulative effect is not one of loss and disintegration, but of persistence and creativity. In fact, the majority of the people featured in Gwendolen Cates' "Indian Country" are artists, dancers, writers and activists. Some are young and unknown, other faces or names you will recognize. (Val Kilmer, a Cherokee, makes an appearance.) Cates lets her subjects comment on the pictures she's taken, which, as Sherman Alexie points out in his introduction, allows "these subjects to cease to be objects when they are given the typographical and spiritual space to comment on their own images." He's right: There's more than a sense of empowerment in the coupling of the mostly black-and-white photos with each person's reflection on his or her own image. In "Indian Country," it's almost as if the subjects took the pictures themselves. For example, one Ogala Lakota, William Means, says, "They think about us as a romantic part of history. Before casinos, Indians weren't thought of in an economic sense, except on the nickel." These Native Americans have reclaimed their present as well as their past.
Blast Off!: Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns, and Rarities From the Golden Age of Space Toys!
By S. Mark Young, Steve Duin & Mike Richardson
Dark Horse Press
"Blast Off!" pageants the candy-colored plastic space toys and tin robots manufactured between the late '20s and the Sputnik launch in 1957. The book separates a rainbow of trinkets and trifles into chapters with such themes as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Archer Plastics, Robots and Space Opera -- the last of which marvels at promotional goodies made for campy sci-fi TV shows such as "Space Patrol" and "Captain Video." This is a pre-"Star Wars" future: The Disengrator and Atom-Matic ray guns are bubble-curved and playful; the kiddie helmets are just plain goofy. Throughout the book, cogent essays about toys, manufacturers and collectors accompany neato photos bursting with space cars, Flash rings and Polaris rockets. Although the path from forgotten attic relic to $75,000 auction rarity is duly noted -- and collectors are praised for preserving almost-lost relics of childhood memory -- this is no "Hake's Price Guide." There are no dollar signs or "mints" accompanying the pictures -- just the look and feel of an era when science fiction anticipated science fact in comic books and on cereal boxes.
Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs
By Cyma Rubin and Eric Newton, eds.
Don't even open this book if you're not prepared to board an emotional roller coaster. There are some very famous photographs here: the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima in 1945; the little Vietnamese girl (Phan Thi Kim Phuc), naked and weeping, fleeing her napalmed village in 1972; Lee Harvey Oswald receiving a fatal shot to the gut in 1963; a college student weeping over the body of a friend during the Kent State massacre in 1970. And there are some less well-known but still stunning ones, ranging from the joyous (there are two photos of daughters greeting their fathers who have returned from war) to the gruesome (an arm emerging from the volcanic mud that killed 25,000 people after an eruption in Colombia in 1985) to the heart-rending (children dead and dying in famine, war and other catatrophes) to the strangely erotic (a lineman providing life-saving mouth-to-mouth respiration to a co-worker who dangles unconscious from a pole after receiving a life-threatening electric shock). These are images of human beings in extremis and history in the making, and many of them have the power to conjure up the raw emotions of the past with a startling immediacy. An hour with this book and you'll feel as if you've had an undiluted injection of life itself.
When We Liked Ike: Looking for Postwar America
By Barbara Norfleet
Big, shiny cars, trimmed lawns, freshly scrubbed faces, housewives with frozen smiles -- the photos in "When We Liked Ike: Looking for Postwar America" sure are tidy. But you can feel the tension in them. It's not tension that's beneath the surface, rather it's as if someone is pulling at the edges to get a few troublesome wrinkles out -- and at any moment the image might tear in two from the stress. Of course, we look at these photographs of the 1950s knowing what the next decade will bring. Author Barbara Norfleet, a photographer and former Harvard professor, mostly included white families in this collection, but a few photos contrast white suburban affluence with shots of impoverished black family life and men done up in blackface. Norfleet cunningly selects quotes from the time -- from Carson McCullers, William Styron and William H. Whyte's "The Organization Man," just to name a few. With these, Norfleet often displays a wicked sense of humor, a blessing considering that the photos so accurately represent an era of conformity, monotony and complacency. Beside a seemingly happy photo of a besotted teenage girl and her varsity letter-wearing suitor are these words from then college-age Sylvia Plath: "The most saddening thing is to admit that I am not in love. I can only love (if that means self-denial -- or does it mean self-fulfillment? Or both?) by giving up my love, of self and ambitions."
Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work, from Tennyson to Plath
By Elise Paschen & Rebekah Presson Mosby, eds.
In the days before radio and television, poets were popular entertainers. Unlike today's poetry, which is more often than not written to be contemplated by one reader at a time -- in silence -- but not read aloud or otherwise publicly performed, many 19th-century poets envisioned their work to be heard. W.B. Yeats went so far as to say that he spent his work life "clearing out every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone." It is no surprise then that "Poetry Speaks," a collection of poetry recordings on CDs, exclusively features voices of artists who are no longer among the living. Included are recordings that are among the first ever made by Thomas Edison on his wax cylinder phonograph: Alfred, Lord Tennyson reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and Walt Whitman's rendition of "America." In the style of a "best of" album, this collection brings back recordings of Robert Frost, H.D., T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Brooks, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath and more, accompanied by a book with the poems in print, reproductions of the original manuscripts and biographical sketches. Most important, however, the collection comes with insightful essays by contemporary writers examining the impact of each poet's life and work. While the lineup of essayists is impressive -- Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins and Rita Dove are among them -- it is the rare combination of spoken and written words that makes "Poetry Speaks" one of the most comprehensive and enjoyable anthologies available.
The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin
By Robert Kimball & Linda Emmet, eds.
Alfred A. Knopf
Irving Berlin's music is all around us; his songs are on the soundtracks of our lives. "Blue Skies," "Cheek to Cheek," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," even "God Bless America" and "White Christmas" were all penned by this great American composer. Berlin also wrote the scores to "Easter Parade" and "Holiday Inn," as well as three Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, including the superfabulous "Top Hat." He also wrote the music and lyrics for the Marx Bros. film "The Cocoanuts" and the stage classic "Annie Get Your Gun." But those hits are just a few of the highlights of Berlin's long career, which spanned 80 years, beginning in 1907, when, as a 19-year-old singing waiter in a restaurant in lower Manhattan, he co-wrote his first song: "Marie From Sunny Italy." From there, he began churning out the music, some 1,250 tunes, and they're all present and well accounted for in "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin," edited by Robert Kimball and Berlin's middle daughter, Linda Emmet. Approved by the composer himself before his death in 1989, at age 101, this impressively comprehensive collection, part of a series edited by Kimball, includes some 400 never-before-published works by Berlin, plucked from dusty attics, forgotten file drawers and neglected bank vaults. Some songs stand the test of time better than others ("My Father Was an Indian"? "Oh, How That German Could Love"?), but taken as a whole, they pack one heck of a lyrical punch.
Max Baur: In the Bauhaus Spirit: Photographs 1925-1960
By Stephan Steins, ed.
Max Baur was one of the lesser-known German modernist photographers, and this book is the first overview of his complete work, all in velvety black-and-white. Largely an architectural and industrial photographer, Baur also captured crisp, lush landscapes that, even at their most placid, look to be stirring with life. Tasteful without being cold, his architectural photographs have a sharp vitality: A spiral stairway railing has the delicacy of a trailing vine, even though it's made of polished steel. The architectural photos are balanced nicely by his warm, homey portraits of his children and by still lifes of pears and cherries that glow with a soft luster. His photographs of products and household objects are the perfect embodiment of luxury and simplicity: He shows us cigars laid out flat in a case like a row of glamorous soldiers, a chocolate bar molded into inviting, cushiony squares, a pair of round-rimmed bifocal glasses sitting on a flat pebbled surface, their shadow a curving, pleasing echo of their shape. The biggest disappointment is that you can't pick them up and hold them.