They're big, they're bodacious and they look great with a big bow wrapped around them. We're talking about coffee-table books, marvelous tomes that fill bibliophiles with glee yet are densely visual enough to win over even the most reading-averse friend. Here are our suggestions for the perfect last-minute gift.
-- Joy Press
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"My Last Supper" by Melanie Dunea (Bloomsbury)
Melanie Dunea's "My Last Supper," in which she has asked 50 of the world's most famous chefs to describe the menu, setting and company they'd wish to savor for their last meal, seems like a gimmick too cutesy, too navel-gazing to be enjoyed. But the lavishly photographed volume turns out to be more moving than expected. In page after page, cuisiniers from El Bulli's Ferran Adrià to Jean-Georges Vongerichten describe how they would like to experience their final earthbound hours. Their vivid tableaux of laden tables and bucolic repasts remind readers of the electric bonds between life and food, satiety and death. Some of their fantasies are overblown, quite obviously designed to postpone through excess what they believe will be the deprivations of death. Masa Takayama's menu includes "grilled shirako risotto with white truffle, clear blowfish soup with temomi somen noodle; and blowfish testicle pudding with thousand-year-old balsamic vinegar." But many of Takayama's schmanciest colleagues choose the sturdiest of snacks. Eric Ripert opts for "a slice of toasted country bread, some olive oil, shaved black truffle, rock salt, and black pepper," to be consumed under an oak or banyan tree with the people that he loves. This is more than a coffee-table book, it's a mirror: In the final moments, do we want solitude or company? Simplicity or luxuriance? Do we gulp or do we sip?
"My Last Supper" captures the quick fade of what it means to live and to kill. It's clear that recent extinguishment of life is key to the enjoyment of several chosen dishes: Anita Lo imagines a scallop that is still moving, and Dan Barber would like his final nosh to include "rack of Boris." He is photographed with a large and noble piggy we can only assume is Boris himself. Happily, for those who would like to partake in some of the hedonism, the book includes recipes that instruct on how to simply roast a chicken and how to make buttered noodles with Perigord black truffles (should we be lucky enough to get them). But what makes this such a stealthily compelling document is that it's here, on the imagined edges of our lives, that we can revel in the limitless possibilities not only of what we might eat, but of who we might be, if there were not to be a tomorrow.
-- Rebecca Traister
"The Here and Now" by Sam Jones (HarperEntertainment)
"Alison Jackson: Confidential" by Alison Jackson (Taschen)
Sam Jones' photography in "The Here And Now" offers an earnest, more thoughtful version of the high-glazed celebrity shots of Annie Leibovitz. He conspires with his subjects for big gimmicks (David Duchovny with a face-full of acupuncture needles; Will Ferrell with a Santa Claus beard of soapsuds) to create a good-natured if staged spontaneity. But there's an unpretentious warmth to Jones' photographs, and when he gets his best subjects to light up, the photos glitter with their stardust: George Clooney, Joan and John Cusack, Renée Zellweger and Heath Ledger -- all stars with an ineffable sparkle -- seem even more fascinating after we look at them here. (In fact, this is a great book for the Clooney obsessive -- he's in eight uniformly great shots, and contributes a cheeky foreward.) And Jones shows he really gets Tom Cruise when he lights up that beautiful, maniac smile of his with carnival freak-show lights. Others (Damon, Paris, Keanu, Jessica Biel) look lovely ... and that's about it. Sometimes, after all, a pretty face really is just a pretty face.
That's definitely not the case in "Alison Jackson: Confidential," where we see candid shots of George W. Bush and Tony Blair lolling in a sauna, Britney Spears inhaling a Twinkie while on a treadmill, and the queen daintily reading a magazine while on the loo. They're all fakes; Jackson employs look-alikes for her gotcha shots, which do a lovely job playing with our expectations of celebrity and photography. Jackson's intentions are highfalutin -- "I'm trying to break down the image as a false God," she has said -- and that's well and good, but her comedy has a pretty broad appeal. Not all the look-alikes are successful -- a shirtless "Brad Pitt" is immediately not well-toned enough, "Jennifer Lopez" is too squat -- and when that happens, this big book can feel a little silly. But when the likeness is there, the ideas really hit home. The extended Bush-Blair photos have a wry comedy to them that's a far cry from the usual treatment (typically obvious and vaguely homophobic) of their high-profile partnership. And sometimes the models' imperfections even aid Jackson's cause; a soft-chinned, too fragile "Eminem," dolled up in red fuck-me pumps, frilly pink knickers and a blasé expression, somehow seems just right.
-- Kerry Lauerman
"© Murakami" edited by Paul Schimmel and Lisa Gabrielle Mark (Rizzoli)
You probably know contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, even if you think you don't. Murakami's adorable, cartoony designs adorn the permanent collections of plenty of major modern art museums, not to mention the arms of scrawny Hollywood starlets who pay good money for his colorful take on the Louis Vuitton monogram. "(c) Murakami," published in connection with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art retrospective, catalogs his work from the early 1990s to the present. This hefty tome -- weighing in at 327 pages -- displays the vertiginous span of Murakami's work: images of his paintings, sculptures, toys, prints and monograms, paired with critical essays by Dick Hebdige, Paul Schimmel, Midori Matsui, Mika Yoshitake and Scott Rothkopf, help explain why Murakami, long compared to Andy Warhol for his savvy mix of high and low, has become a true art-market rock star. (Or is that pop star?)
-- Megan Doll
"Mafia: The Government's Secret File on Organized Crime" by the United States Treasury Department, Bureau of Narcotics (Collins/HarperCollins)
"Mafia" might be the ultimate anti-coffee-table book. It is, at least, the anti-Establishment coffee-table book, a facsimile of 1960s secret government files on the criminal underworld. Thick as a phone book, with a similar aesthetic (and narrative arc), "Mafia" is 800-plus pages of joyless mug shots and typewritten pages that practically come with their own stale cigar smell and blinking fluorescent lights. Good luck keeping focus for 800 case files typed out on a clunky Smith-Corona, featuring such details as "Criminal History: FBI #672564." But for mobheads and true crime fanatics, it is the equivalent of a hijacked truck of unmarked bills. It's also a quirky little slice of the American dream. As crime writer (and nephew of the Chicago crime boss of the same name) Sam Giancana says in the introduction, these are "true American legends who are as much a part of the fabric of this nation as the hallowed threads of the red, white, and blue." Hey, some people decorate their homes with West Elm furniture and glossy dog books; some people give you the middle finger at the door.
-- Sarah Hepola
"Stylist: The Interpreters of Fashion" by Sarah Mower (Rizzoli)
Most of us think of photographers as lone geniuses, but on fashion shoots, stylists leave their aesthetic fingerprints on every frame, often dreaming up a visual tableau and seeing it through from conception to final cut. Between its pristine white covers, "Stylist" pays homage to 16 of the most influential stylists, who play such a large role in the images we absorb via magazines and ads but are rarely themselves glimpsed (except for an occasional appearance in the contributor pages of Vogue or Elle, looking windswept but glamorous). Although the profiles in this book will be a bonus for any budding fashionista in your life, the real treat is the selection of photos that accompany each stylist's bio. Polly Mellen's work with Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon in the '60s and '70s does, as the text by Sarah Mower suggests, "still radiate a radical charge" -- just look at the Newton photo of a woman rubbing raw meat over her glittery eyelid, or the splayed-legged model oozing tough sexuality. On the other hand, the images in the section on London stylist Venetia Scott are more like ragged, brazen anti-fashion. Working with arty photographers such as Juergen Teller and David Sims, she conjured a rampant, vintage look that resulted in her becoming Marc Jacobs' muse (and a member of his design team). This is a fascinating peek at these gorgeous, terrifyingly fashionable creatures.
-- Joy Press
"The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies" by Thomas Hine (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Earth shoes, "Star Wars," Nixon, "Shaft," Patty Hearst, punk rock, pet rocks and the pill. Thomas Hine's latest pop-culture adventure, "The Great Funk," is a satisfying history that touches on all of those things. But it's even more fun as a photo album. The decade begins in the summer of 1969 with Woodstock and the Stonewall riots and ends 11 years later with Ronald Reagan and the release of the Iran hostages. It is a long period of "funk," which Hine defines as panic, stink, anarchy and improvisation. The picture-filled pages portray the '70s as a jumble of individual style, social movements and early technology. The Apple computer prototype resembles a homemade birdhouse; early porn looks quaint. But for each positive development (like the birth control pill, "Saturday Night Live" and gay pride), Hine reminds us of a negative (the Jonestown massacre, the oil crisis, Watergate and bathroom carpeting). Without too much sentimentality or nostalgia, "The Great Funk" entertainingly explores the complex identity of a decade that embraced the disco ball and the Honda Accord.
-- Caitlin Shamberg
"American Ruins" by Arthur Drooker (Merrell)
The Bethlehem Steel mill is an enormous edifice of metal pipes, silos and rusting staircases, a ruin out of a post-apocalyptic summer flop starring Kevin Costner. But the thing is in America -- in tranquil Pennsylvania, no less. Like the other structures in photographer Arthur Drooker's "American Ruins," which calls itself the first photography book to document America's historic ruins, the steel mill has been ravaged by time, but it's not beaten down. Here it is, 103 years old and still standing, and in Drooker's pictures -- shot with a custom digital camera that picks up infrared light and the closest details of damage -- it's magnificent. So too are the South's great antebellum mansions, even if all that's left of them are rows of Corinthian columns; ancient Native American missions overrun with brush; and Harper's Ferry's beautiful masonry piers, which once supported a bridge across the Potomac, a bridge no longer there. The bridge is no longer there, but the sight inspires awe regardless.
-- Farhad Manjoo
"Life: America the Beautiful: A Photographic Journey, Coast to Coast -- and Beyond" by the editors of Life (Life Books)
At first glance, "Life: America the Beautiful" looks like the most pedestrian of coffee-table books -- pretty pictures of places across the United States, accompanied by blurbs of text and a removable bonus black-and-white photo of mountains and sky by Ansel Adams, suitable for placement over easy chair or dorm bed. But look more closely and you'll see an amusing quirkiness to the editors' selection of our country's 100 most spectacular sites. Why the Cloisters (a cliff-top medieval-art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and not anything else in New York City, when cities like San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., are included in their entirety? What are Tennessee's Ryman Auditorium (former home of the Grand Ole Opry), Iowa's Amana Colonies (site of "one of the longest-lasting communal experiments in history") and New Jersey's Pine Barrens (perhaps best known as the creepy bog where the Russian mobster eluded Paulie and Christopher on "The Sopranos") doing alongside the California redwoods, the Florida Everglades, the Tetons, Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and the like? Saving us all from boredom, that's what.
The occasional odd choice -- and the lack of clear criteria for inclusion in this handsome tome, apparently a deliberate hodgepodge on the part of the editors, who say they were going for a "variety" of sites, each "the best of its breed" -- imbue this book with a whiff of the unexpected, a pinch of the peculiar. Such curiosities also serve as something of an antidote to the shamefully unimaginative, disappointingly predictable pick for the No. 1 site: Washington, D.C., "the heart and soul of America." Honestly, couldn't the original thinkers who honored Oregon wine country over California's Napa or Sonoma have come up with something a little more unexpected? Well, no matter. Just turn the page and lose yourself in crisp color photography of magnificent mountains, lovely lighthouses, adorable wildlife and buildings captured at sunset (by Joel Meyerowitz and Michael Medford, among others) -- and pretend you're on the ultimate road trip. Are we there yet?
-- Amy Reiter
"The Vice Photo Book" (Vice Books)
Vice magazine exploded on the cultural scene in the late '90s like a loud fart at an overcrowded Belle and Sebastian concert. The bloody, porny, excessively politically incorrect, free magazine felt downright fresh after the frequently inert '90s indie scene, even if it was contrived most of the time. Vice thrived on alternately romanticizing and ridiculing an imagined Pabst-swilling, drug- and sex-addled middle (and much lower) class culture that its middle (and upper, way upper) class readers had no actual idea about. It functioned a little like nostalgia porn for its hipster readers, who felt a little ripped off by the gentrified Giuliani era. It also managed to attract some of the best emerging photographers -- Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, Richard Kern, Jerry Hsu -- whose work is displayed to riveting effect in "The Vice Photo Book." This 13-year retrospective charts the magazine's growth from little Montreal upstart to foulmouthed New York mainstay, and we watch Vice progress from the self-consciously naughty (and still undeniably gripping) photos of friends bloodied from fights, artfully doing drugs or having sex to serious photojournalism (an outlawed women's school in Taliban-era Afghanistan stands out), adjusting its "anticensorship policy" along the way. "We had to institute a 'no pussy, no penis' policy because our advertisers were leaving us in droves," writes one of Vice's founders, Suroosh Alvi, in a foreword. In that way, this pure rush of juvenile adrenaline provides its own nostalgia porn for a Vice that's grown up -- and out of its addictively naughty childhood.
-- Kerry Lauerman
"The Art of the American Snapshot: 1888-1978" by Sarah Greenough and Diane Waggoner (National Gallery of Art/Princeton University Press)
This elegant book features casual snapshots taken by a range of unknown photographers over 90 years, published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name. Like treasures unearthed at a flea market, they offer a peek at strangers' intimate lives: playful glimpses of private silliness and awkward poses. Some photos catch their subjects unaware or trying to duck out of the frame. Many of the landscapes, still lives and amateur experiments with shutter speed and perspective easily stand on their own as art without curatorial fluffing -- but an illuminating essay accompanies each time period. Standing out in the collection are 30 or so snapshots from the mid-'50s credited to "Flo" (real name unknown). They're intrusive portraits of the young photographer's co-workers, and the fellow residents of her rooming house. Her subjects all seem to despise the camera: They turn away, scowl or cover their faces. But Flo keeps after them, doggedly trying to figure out -- like many of the unknown photographers in this book -- what the camera can tell her about her world.
-- Eryn Loeb
"A Lifetime of Secrets" by Frank Warren (William Morrow)
"I destroy videos of myself as a child because it pains me to see a time before I ruined my innocence," reads one of the staggering secrets in "A Lifetime of Secrets," the fourth book to spin out of Frank Warren's PostSecret Web site. The site, which Warren calls a "community art project," publishes missives from strangers wishing to unburden themselves about their lives. The art comes in how people tell their stories -- scrawled out on postcards in so many clever, deeply personal and moving ways you're bound to feel, after reading these things, something like a deity on the receiving end of the world's prayers. The book compiles some of the site's saddest secrets -- one, scribbled on a sealed envelope, reads, "This is the letter that I'll never have the guts to send you. And the one that I'll regret for the rest of my life" -- but also some of the funniest: "I am an editor for a large online atheist newsletter ... and I believe in GOD!"
-- Farhad Manjoo
"The Art of William Steig" edited by Claudia J. Nahson (Yale University Press)
I fear, thanks to Eddie Murphy as a flatulent donkey, that William Steig might now be known to young people solely as the guy who once wrote a book about an ugly green ogre on which their favorite movie was based. Happily, Yale University Press has published "The Art of William Steig," a companion to the Jewish Museum's current exhibit, "From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig," which opened in November, when Steig would have turned 100. The volume features essays by Steig colleagues Maurice Sendak and Edward Sorel, and by his family, including widow Jeanne and daughter Maggie, who affectionately observes that her father's untamed hair "had velocity."
Mostly, though, it is a compendium of the images -- funny, sorrowful and trenchant -- that Steig created as a cartoonist and illustrator at the New Yorker and other magazines, and later, as a writer of beloved children's books. Steig's style brings the shaggy, the rotund, the hirsute and the exasperated to life, be they human or animal. The book includes his native Bronx street scenes (two yentas sit on a trash-laden stoop; one says, "A good day for falling in love") as well as his early "Small Fry" series about mischievous city kids who throw snowballs from behind hydrants, and the "Agony in the Kindergarten" drawings, including one of a girl with every appendage crossed, above the heading "Are you sure you have to go?" Steig understood the daily pains of ordinary existence and brought them to life on the page. For readers of a certain age, the highlight of the book will be the trip through Steig's children's books, which include "Shrek," the shattering tale of inter-species friendship "Amos & Boris," the piccolo-playing pooch "Dominic," and the marital strife of "Caleb & Kate," in which we learn that couples love each other, "but not every single minute." But for my money, perhaps the greatest -- the Steig-iest in its humor, its pathos, its beastie heart -- is a comparatively recent New Yorker illustration of a fortuneteller solemnly regarding an eager turkey across a crystal ball, one fat tear rolling down her cheek.
-- Rebecca Traister
"Antarctica: The Global Warning" by Sebastian Copeland (Earth Aware Editions)
Buying a thick and heavy hardback book about global warming isn't generally considered an act of environmental activism. But even the most skeptical green may be swayed by photographer Sebastian Copeland's stunning images in "Antarctica: The Global Warning." The sticker saying it's a carbon-neutral book doesn't hurt, either. Copeland visited the Antarctic Peninsula, which is warming five times faster than the rest of the world, to create a collection of startling photographs that serve as both a call to action and an elegy for a rapidly melting landscape. Amid the vast monoliths of ice sparkling in white, blue and green, signs of human life are minimal -- the white cross of a grave, the ruins of a wooden boat. But there is a stark subtext: No matter how remote this frigid land may seem, our actions are changing it every day. So rather than booking a trip to Antarctica to enjoy its splendor, consider grabbing the book instead. That's a net conservation of greenhouse gases.
-- Katharine Mieszkowski
"1,001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die" (Universe)
As if your to-do list weren't long enough, here comes "1,001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die" to heap a few hundred more items on the pile. Like the other volumes in this prescriptive series, "1,001 Buildings" offers a crash course in its chosen subject, zipping from the crumbling marvels of ancient Egypt to the postmodern commercial projects of the present day in 939 pages. It isn't a coffee-table book in the glossy, design-geek sense -- the cover features an uninspired shot of the Chrysler building, and the overall quality of photography is uneven -- but it's an engrossing resource for armchair travelers.
Must-see lists become notorious for what they exclude as well as what they include; "1,001 Buildings" courts controversy by leaving out the Eiffel Tower (in his introduction, general editor Mark Irving explains that the Parisian landmark is a feat of engineering, not a building). But there are more egregious omissions: Many buildings lack accompanying photos, which is a bad choice, since most readers will breeze by the text-only entries. Still, certain entries provide a wow factor that compensates for a multitude of sins. In addition to showcasing the work of modern rock-star architects, like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Liebeskind, "1,001 Buildings" introduces readers to lesser-known wonders like the Temple of Kailashnath, a fabulously ornate shrine to Lord Shiva, which was painstakingly carved out of sandstone. I may die having seen it only in the pages of a book, but at least I'll have seen it.
-- Page Rockwell
"Silent Pictures" by Pat Graham (Akashic Books)
Sam McPheeters of the band Born Against is kneeling on the floor, screaming into a microphone; his socks, visible in the small, accidental gap between his pants and his sneakers, have stars on them. Jennifer Finch of L7 bends over her bass guitar; frozen in the motion of flinging her long hair forward, her head looks like an explosion. Pat Graham has photographed the underground music scene in and around Washington, D.C., for almost 20 years, and the pictures included in his debut collection, "Silent Pictures," capture the heady energy of that subculture. Elliot Smith surrounded by streaks of red light, a blur of Ted Leo, a levitating Ian McKaye: all this delicious noise, and no sound. The images here are intimate -- portraits of people snarling, grunting and sweating, sprawled on stage floors and bouncing giddily in front of crowds. Graham captures not just the exhilaration of watching live music, but also what it feels like onstage.
-- Eryn Loeb