IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Art books get a summer makeover

Summer's a lighter season, and the coffeetable books of summer are a different breed. Sure, some of the books reviewed here are elaborate, but others are small and easy to handle.
/ Source: msnbc.com

At holiday time last year, Kim Rollins reviewed a slate of new coffeetable books for us. Without exception, the books were huge (she called them "flat, square, and heavy as paving stones"). These are the kind of books most of us think of when we think of coffeetable books — books almost too heavy to be read slouching comfortably in bed or on the couch.

But summer's a lighter season, and summer's coffeetable books a different breed. Sure, some of the books reviewed here are large and elaborate, but others are small and easy to handle, books you wouldn't shy away from reading in bed. Some topics are serious, but many fit the summer season with goofier, light-hearted topics, including Tucker Shaw's goofy chronicle of all the food he ate in one year, and Mike Nelson of "Mystery Science Theater" fame and his humorous reviews of über-cute art.

Mouthing offI'm a sucker for food Weblogs, both those that offer recipes and food commentary as well as those that simply show photos of the proprietor's meals. Tucker Shaw's "Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth" (Chronicle, $15, to be published in July) is like one of those blogs, but one you can carry around with you and read comfortably in the tub.

There are doubtless many people who can't possibly imagine caring about what a stranger ate every single day for a year. I find it fascinating in a voyeuristic and weird way. Shaw might eat one meal at Emeril's restaurant, then for another, rip open a bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips. He consumed a corn-shaped lollipop at the Mitchell, S.D. Corn Palace and lots and lots of oatmeal at home. The photos are sometimes straightforward, sometimes sly: In one, a deep-fried Mars bar sits atop two issues of Cooks Illustrated magazine — would magazine editor Christopher Kimball approve of this meal?

It's mind-boggling to think of the chore it must have become for Shaw to drag out his Elph camera every single time he planned to put something in his mouth. But in a cutely hand-written introduction, he swears that's exactly what he did. The book could have used a little more text — after the introduction, there's only the simplest of food descriptions accompanying the photos. Readers don't know what foods Shaw loved or hated or why he chose them when he did. It's a book to flip through for fun, not one you'd read page by page. Many will dismiss the book as self-indulgent and ridiculous. Still, you're either quirky enough to love the concept or not, and I loved it.

Oh, for cuteThe brains behind "Mystery Science Theater 3000" aren't making new episodes these days, but they're still out there skewering American culture. Head writer Michael J. Nelson has done humorous commentaries on several cult movies ("Reefer Madness" among them) and now, in cooperation with the Charles S. Anderson Design Company, he's written the text for "Happy Kitty Bunny Pony: A Saccharine Mouthful of Super Cute" (Abrams, $15).

Maybe the best advice I can give you about this book is to stay away from sugar for about a week before you pick it up. The photos and illustrations contained within have come straight from some special corner of hell, or maybe Japan, where only the most sicky-sweet, coma-inducing images reside. Endless adorable kittens play with unlimited balls of yarn. Adorable lambies bat eyelashes that Tammy Faye would kill for. Unicorns prance, duckies dance, it's all one over-the-top baby nursery of the damned.If you're a rabid MST3K fan, you'd read a cereal box if Mike Nelson was writing it (maybe that's his next plan: Frosted Flakes 3000). His commentary includes such gems as "A single cat can be responsible for the deaths of more than 100 birds and small animals every year. But not this cat. His fused back end and peglike front leg make it difficult to move stealthily." But Nelson has to share center stage here with the images, which will alternately delight and horrify the artists in your life.

Getting into trainingRail travel sees few bright patches these days, which makes Keith Lovegrove’s “Railroad: Identity, Design and Culture” (Rizzoli, $30) as sad as it is delightful.

The London-based Lovegrove clearly has a Brit’s sensibility about life on the rails. He details shining locomotives, sleek designs (right down to approved corporate typefaces) and luxurious accoutrements of the world’s railroads, past and present, with a tone that’s appreciative, if not reverent. (He even avoids any major digs at British Rail, itself a major feat.)

Chock-full of photos that strike a keen balance between insight and beauty, this latest effort mirrors Lovegrove’s previous book on the airline industry.  The uniforms aren’t quite as natty this time around, though the seats appear more comfy and the food looks a lot better: The bento box served on the train to Kyushu is a minor work of art.

As Lovegrove recounts for us nearly three centuries of hard-fought battles to make trains faster, sleeker and more glamorous, you can’t but help be a bit dismayed by the state of the modern railroad, at least in the United States. One look at the gleaming lounge on Union Pacific’s 1938 art-deco City of Los Angeles, followed by a spread of a worn-out Amtrak Superliner, and you conclude that in this particular realm, Americans have given up the fight.

No question that “Railroad” is a coffee-table effort, but as someone who’s kept more than his share of railroad tomes in his living room, I’m comfortable saying that Lovegrove stretches the genre as far as it will go. He is determined to be substantive, and his penchant for the obscure (a century-long comparison of Canadian Pacific logos; an ill-fated German rail zeppelin) makes you stop flipping pages and start paying attention.    —Jon Bonné

Look out, honey, 'cause I'm using technologyTechnology has created instant nostalgia for many of us. I still dream of getting my Atari 2600 back from the nieces to whom I bequeathed it, and my husband refuses to toss an Osbourne portable computer (1981) that no one has touched in years. If there's a computer geek in your life who won't give up the old ways, pick up a copy of Pepe Tozzo's "Retro-Electro: Collecting Technology from Atari to Walkman" (Universe, $30).

Some of the photographed items will be familiar to just about everyone, such as the 1984 Apple Macintosh Classic, and 1964's lava lamp (said its inventor: "If you buy my lamp, you won't need to buy drugs.") Others are worth scanning for the sheer bizarre appeal, as with 1975's Calcu-Pen, a writing instrument with a calculator built in.

The book is divided into three sections, Workstation, Home Base, and Playtime. For me, Playtime was the most colorful and fun, featuring everything from the goofy Panasonic Toot-a-Loop phone, which could be twisted and worn as a bracelet, to my husband's beloved Mattel Electronics football game, to my own precious Atari 2600 console and Simon games.

The book seems to be geared towards collectors, offering estimated prices for each item and information about how well different offerings have survived the passage of time. While intense collectors will surely find more in-depth resources for their item of choice, those of us with a more passing interest in our own past also will enjoy paging through "Retro-Electro."    —G.F.C.

Let the music playMix tapes are a dying breed, being quickly replaced by mix CDs and iPod playlists. But for those of us with a few shoeboxes full of rapidly disintegrating cassettes, “Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture,” edited by Thurston Moore (Universe, $22.50) is filled with fond memories.

Moore, founder of band Sonic Youth, writes a charming introduction about his own discovery of mix tapes in 1978 and their influence on him (kids attending Sonic Youth concerts would hand tapes to the band, and they'd listen to them on an enormous boombox in their van). He also made a box of mix tapes for bassist Kim Gordon to listen to when she was in the hospital after delivering their baby, and notes how the mere sight of those tapes flashes him back to that life-changing time.

The heart of this colorful, tape-shaped book, however, is a great selection of mix-tape lists, complete with handwritten notes, photos, and art from the tape-makers themselves. Filmmaker Allison Anders and Frank Zappa's son Ahmet are just two of the contributors. (Zappa notes on his: "This mix is filled with the power of rock and is fueled by Satan himself.") Many lists have a punk flavor, but at least one bucks convention, offering up tunes by Donny and Marie, Anne Murray, and even Don Ho. And some truly take advantage of a concept of a mix, slotting Nancy Sinatra next to The Smiths, or putting the Bee Gees next to Bongwater.

Some tapes were made for a specific purpose or person, and some come with lengthy explanations for the chosen tunes. Others come with only a sentence or two, sometimes nearly illegible. Designer Kate Spade notes only "In high school, I would drive around for any reason at all to smoke and listen to this tape." Glen E. Friedman calls his 1995 tape "Oral Surgery Disasters" because he made it to distract himself from frightening dental surgery. Note: If you don't instantly recognize Friedman's name from his "Dogtown" skateboard photographs, the book's not going to tell you who he is. The book assumes a certain level of hipness that this reader, for one, could not completely live up to.     —G.F.C.

Sneaking around
There are expensive collectibles, such as jewelry and cars. And then there are the objects that fall in almost everyone's price range, and are so common that it's almost tough to think of them as collector's items. Sneakers (tennis shoes, gym shoes, trainers, whatever you want to call them) fall into the latter category.

"Sneakers: The Complete Collectors' Guide" (written and designed by Unorthodox Styles, published by Thames & Hudson, $30 is a true sneaker encyclopedia. The London-based firm that wrote and designed it also producers mega-sneaker Web site CrookedTongues.com, and they know their stuff.

The book is sorted by brand, with Nike and adidas (the book notes that brand uses a lowercase "a") naturally dominating, but a nice bit of attention paid to classic brand Converse (now Nike-owned), skateboarder favorite Vans, and others. The design is clean and colorful, showcasing close to 200 pairs of sneakers.

Those of us who only buy one pair every decade or so are not the audience for this book. But we can still be fascinated by shoes like 1985's adidas Adicolor H, which came with 8 markers so the wearer could fill in its plain white stripes with the color of their choice. The photos, too, are delightful, showing shoes hanging from playground fences, pedaling bright-red bikes and standing on hideous home carpet.

There's no doubt that sports shoes continue to fascinate — just check out the elaborate displays in your nearest mall. Those who just can't pass by those displays without stopping will love this book, whether for reading or reference.    —G.F.C.

Treat your feetIf sneakers aren't your thing, perhaps you prefer fancier shoes, such as stiletto heels. Thames & Hudson, publishers of the above "Sneakers" guide, also have published "Shoes: The Complete Sourcebook," by John Peacock. ($40).

Like its subject matter, this book feels fancier than the sneaker guide. But shoes have a longer history than sneakers, and the book dives right into it, noting that it "follows the history of footwear from ancient times to the present day."

Divided into six historic eras, the book begins with both simple and elegant drawings of ancient Egyptian sandals, circa 2500-1085 BC. Pages of drawings are followed by identifying guides to each page, describing and dating each shoe and offering information on the materials and making of each.

Even modern shoes are depicted in thorough drawings, not in photographs, which may bother some. But the drawings are elegantly done and descriptive. It's easy to see echoes of the sharply pointed toe of an Italian shoe from 1280 in our modern women's pumps and flats of today. And even those who aren't shoe devotees will find the march of fashion intriguing: Those curled-up toes seen today only on Santa's elves? Were quite the fashion in fourteenth-century France, it turns out.

If you're looking for a text-heavy history of footwear, this isn't your book. But if you want or need a very visual guide to how foot fashion has changed, this shoe fits.    —G.F.C.

Tut’s treasuresKing Tut, the boy king, continues to fascinate. This month, the first exhibition of Tutankhamun's Egyptian treasures in nearly 30 years has headed out on a four-city tour (L.A., Fort Lauderdale, Chicago and Philadelphia are the lucky four.)

National Geographic's companion book to the exhibit, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs" ($35), was put together by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. As such a topic deserves, it's an exquisite and large book, with many full-page photographs. Especially breathtaking is a full-page forensic reconstruction of how Tutankhamun himself may have looked, made following CT-scan data of his skull. It's eerily lifelike, as if a photo was taken of this centuries-dead king.

In true National Geographic style, the book doesn't squish its images into tiny squares. A photograph of two gilded figures takes up two whole pages, as do numerous shots of Egypt today. The bulk of the photographs display items from the exhibit, of course, from a gorgeous gilded coffin to wooden animal carvings.

This is not a photo-only book, text sections are thorough and readable. Especially of interest to me was a section on Howard Carter's famed 1922 discovery itself, showing the explorers actually opening doors that had been hidden for centuries and cleaning and wrapping what they found inside. If the Tut exhibit is coming nowhere near your town, this book is the next best thing.    —G.F.C.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor. Jon Bonné is MSNBC.com's Lifestyle Editor.