Photography and illustration books are published year-round, but it's at holiday time that they really seem to start pouring into the stores. It's easy to see why. It can be tough to choose just the right novel for someone on your recipient list, but beautiful coffeetable books have something of a universal appeal.
The coffeetable genre may seem like a bit of a ghetto for books, but really, is there a better place in the house for them to get noticed? That collection of Winston Churchill's memoirs may look great marching across your bookshelves, but will anyone be tempted to pull a book down and leaf through it at your next party? Maybe not, but coffeetable books tend to attract a crowd.
Some feature celebrities, some show spectacular scenery, some delve into a social issue. Some are educational ("Hungry Planet"), others are just plain fun ("Crap Cars," "Bar Mitzvah Disco"). And with their size, weight, and ooh-aah factor, they make for great gifts.
Drive my carRarely has a book been more perfectly titled than Richard Porter's "Crap Cars" (Bloomsbury, $15). The 50 cars featured each date back to their own horribly sad chapter in automotive history. Some are gone forever, some are still morosely chugging down the road, but none of them escape Porter's hilarious skewerings.
And deservedly so. The Nissan NX (No. 44) had interchangeable rear ends. The Chrysler Imperial (No. 35) was randomly dotted with so much chrome that it looks "as if it had been attacked by a toddler with an electrolysis kit." The Subaru XT (No. 30) offered all-wheel drive that worked only when the windshield wipers were on.
Not only cheap cars come in for teasing here. Hummers, Aston Martins, Maseratis, Jags — it seems even the luxury car-makers have a skeleton or two in their garages. Fans of a particular make and model can wail in protest — was the Volkswagen Beetle really deserving of the No. 5 spot? — but Porter shows no mercy. Bring this slim book on a road trip — the passenger can read it out loud to the driver, and in between howls of laughter, you can make a game out of spotting Crap Cars as you fly on past them. The car-crazed and the bus riders alone will cherish this little treasure.
Marilyn Monroe was so frequently photographed that it's hard to believe she was just 36 when she was found dead. But even if Monroe's image feels unquestionably familiar, you're likely to find a new, surprising take on her in this new edition of Eve Arnold's "Marilyn Monroe" (Abrams, $35). Arnold's book was first published in 1987, but this version contains 28 photos that weren't included in that first edition.
Here's Monroe in a jean jacket, script pages clenched in her hand, puckering her pout for the camera. Here she tugs on a roughly twisted braid, staring at the camera as if it startled her. Bending over a store counter (which may be a set), she locks eyes with a baby. The actress may never have taken a bad picture, but she also wasn't afraid to reveal herself as vulnerable and uncertain, sometimes appearing a world away from the colossal movie star she was.Arnold and Monroe met at a party for John Huston in 1952, and Arnold was the only woman photographer Monroe allowed to photograph her so extensively. They both learned from the experience: Monroe appreciated the fresh image of herself that Arnold's camera created, and Arnold herself says "someone who I had first thought had a gift for the still camera ... turned out to have a genius for it."
Food for thought
Few coffeetable books are as educational and as thought-provoking as Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats" (Ten Speed, $40). The married couple traveled the world talking to ordinary families about what they eat, and photographing them with a week's worth of groceries. The results are illuminating and sometimes sobering. Menzel's camera zooms around the globe, peeking into kitchens, pantries and shopping carts. Accompanying articles explain the importance of food in each family's life, where it comes from, how they prepare it, how it's consumed.
In Bhutan, a lama chugs Pepsi. In Greenland, a father shoots and kills a seal from his dog sled (yet at home, his kids watch MTV). In Beijing, meals veer between KFC and deep-fried starfish on a stick. It's thought-provoking to see how families in the most developed countries tend to rely more on packaged foods as opposed to fresh meat and produce, while a family in Mali is surrounded by mostly open sacks of corn, millet and rice. It's also surprising to see how many American products fill the diet of a Kuwaiti family.
"Hungry Planet" also features thoughtful essays on everything from fast food to fish, and the chapters on the families also offer up useful fact boxes about their homelands. This is a book that can be picked up and nibbled from occasionally, or devoured in great gulps. Either way, it both informs and satisfies.
ToylandDespite the kid-friendly title, Tim Walsh's "Timeless Toys"(Andrews McMeel, $30) is no book for little ones. It's serious about its topic. Walsh was curious about the real people behind our favorite playthings, and so conducted over 150 interviews, resulting in dozens of toymaker profiles. He focused only on true entrepreneurs, so you'll find Matchbox cars, but no Mattel-owned Hot Wheels. Still, there are plenty of fascinating stories.
You'll learn fascinating toy trivia. Lincoln Logs were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright's son. The man who created Slinky left his family (and his invention) in 1960 to join a religious cult in Bolivia. Johnny Gruelle created Raggedy Ann as a tribute to a daughter who died when she was only 13.
Walsh, himself a toy creator (he invented games TriBond and Blurt!), chooses interesting toys and tells the stories well, but he's not a humor writer. Toy lovers may miss the fun facts that we all know about such toys — he doesn't mention the irresistible edibleness of Play-Doh, for example, or how everyone with a Mouse Trap game managed to lose the tiny pieces and could never quite play the game after that. His prose is a tad dry and some profiles are awfully long. But if the point of a coffeetable book is something fun and accessible that can be picked up and put down at will, "Timeless Toys" fills the bill solidly.
Party downThe charm of "Bar Mitzvah Disco" (by Roger Bennett, Jules Shell, and Nick Kroll, Crown, $24) is similar to the giddy laughs you get while digging through that forgotten box of family photographs from the 1980s. Oh, the hair, the fashions. Did every female have to look like Farrah Fawcett, and every male like a member of Flock of Seagulls? Mullets, lace gloves with the fingers cut off, Gunne Sax gowns, bubble skirts, three-piece suits, massive shoulder pads — it's like the decade smacked us all with a giant ugly stick, and no one escaped.
The photos that the editors dragged out for this book are centered around bar and bat mitzvahs from the late 1970s through early 1990s. But you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate them. It's really a book about the awkward stage in all our lives, when you can barely eat around a mouthful of braces, your parents thought a family portrait in matching clothing was genius, and since Sarah Ferguson wore giant bows and snoods, it seemed a good idea for you as well.
The photos are accompanied by hilarious captions and personal essays that complement the oh-so-doofusy images. A.J. Jacobs got caught playing an early computer game during a pal's bar mitzvah. Ben Mittman's mom had the men match their tuxedos to the brown wallpaper and drapes at the hotel where his party was held. Jordan Carlos waxes poetic about being the only black kid at a pal's event. Shaun Sperling convinced his mom to let him have a Madonna-themed bar mitzvah, complete with airbrushed Madonna shirt. Jewish or not, "Bar Mitzvah Disco" will shoot you right back to your own gawky days, and make you grateful you don't have to stay there.
Design in TV LandThose of you who proudly never watch TV, skip down to the Bob Dylan and wine book reviews. Diana Friedman's "Sitcom Style: Inside America's Favorite TV Homes" (Clarkson Potter, $30 is for those of us who've actually lounged around debating the location of Alice's room on "The Brady Bunch," or grumbling about how huge Monica and Rachel's apartment was on "Friends." We're the ones who will snatch this book up for the photos alone, luscious giant images of the Huxtable kitchen, or for factoids such as the street address of the Queens home seen in the credits of "All in the Family."
Actually, there's already a book out there that presents blueprints for famed television homes, Mark Bennett's wonderful "TV Sets." Compared to that book, "Sitcom Style" is a bit of an oddity. The photos and history of the sets is pop-culture manna, but was it really necessary to try and offer actual design tips based on TV sets? Does anyone need an image of the Buchmans' "Mad About You" home to learn that "built-in bookcases eliminate clutter"?
The table of contents is also misleading. While most of the shows get decent treatment, it's hardly fair to list shows like "The Munsters" and "The Flintstones" when all the book offers for them is a generic show photo and a paragraph or three, in giant type. Still, much of the book is a nostalgic treat.
I am womanTwo coffeetable books out this season focus on the many and varied modern roles of women. "A Day in the Life of the American Woman" (by Sharon Wohlmuth, Carol Saline and Dawn Sheggeby, Bulfinch Press, $35) sent out 50 photographers on one day, April 8, 2005, to shoot American women living their lives. A Marin County mom, 44, tracks her four kids' varied activities on a color-coded chart. Just down the coast in southern California, another 44-year-old mom waxes up her surfboard — she's the 2002 Women's World Longboard Champion.
These women are moms, boxers, entrepreneurs, senators. Hollywood actress Jamie Lee Curtis pops up, on both sides of the camera. The women serve in the armed forces, they get treated for cancer. Flipping through the book is like peeking through the window of your neighbor, watching a life that is familiar in its generalities, novel in its specifics.
While "A Day in the Life" focuses on American women, Joanne B. Eicher and Lisa Ling's "Mother Daughter Sister Bride: Rituals of Womanhood" (National Geographic, $35), goes worldwide with the concept. A Kyoto bride kneels in her exquisite kimono. Haitian women covered head-to-toe in a grayish mud dance with joy. Women in Maine compete for the title of Potato Blossom Queen.
In "Mother Daughter Sister Bride," photos from the modern-day mix with those from years past. 1920s women compete in a swimsuit competition, wearing more fabric than it takes to make 10 of today's swimsuits. Inuit girls in 1929 Alaska pore over a fashion catalog.
But as vital as the photos to this book are the essays. Rich with history and global in their scope, they offer a look at how the rituals of womanhood differ worldwide, and how such rituals have changed. It's not a book for everyone, but if you find National Geographic magazine's sociological portraits fascinating, you'll likely love this too.
Like a Rolling StoneIn 1964, Bob Dylan was just 23, a folk singer on the rise but still relatively unknown. Photographer Douglas Gilbert, himself just 21, was sent by Look Magazine to photograph the young man in Woodstock, N.Y. Look eventually refused to publish the results, calling Dylan "too scruffy." (Ah, America in 1964, still fighting what was already Blowin' in the Wind.)
Nearly 100 of Gilbert's photos from that time are collected in "Forever Young: Photographs of Bob Dylan" (Thames & Hudson, $30). The slim volume is certainly for Dylan fans only, but they will love it. Dylan's face here is like an untrodden road, fresh and pure, yet eager to get on with it.
He's shown sitting thoughtfully with children, watching Dean Martin on television, dragging deep on a cigarette, and on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. Famous faces cross his path — Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Alan Ginsberg, John Sebastian and others. But the star of the photos is always Dylan, not yet famous, but bound to be, captured as he hangs between obscurity and superstardom.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor.