Monday, December 03, 2007

Holiday Gift Guide: Art and Culture

24: Ultimate Guide by Michael Goldman (DK Books) 144 pages

24 is one of those television programs that creates addicts. It certainly created one in me. I came late to the party, watching the seasons on DVD before having to endure the seven days between episodes that come when you watch every week on Fox. Seasons one through five were pretty epic most of the time, and season six tanked. Made almost no sense. Still. Now that the writer’s strike has put production of Season 7 on hold, give the 24 fan in your life a little something to hold him (or her) over: this book. It’s the ultimate look at the series, including story arcs, full character bios, weapons and gadgets, conflicts, behind the scenes juiciness, cool-as-heck photos and much more. Best of all, each season (that is, each day) gets an almost minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened, how. It’s great fun to flip through, getting the scoop on everything you might have wondered about as you were watching. The writing here is crisp and fast, no-nonsense -- just like the show. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Art of Dreamworks Bee Movie by Jerry Beck (Chronicle Books) 160 pages
“What about a movie about bees and call it Bee Movie?” When Jerry Seinfeld said these words to Steven Speilberg -- just to fill a lull in the conversation they were having over dinner -- he had no idea that Spielberg would take him seriously and that the next four years of their lives would involve how to figure out how to bring bees and their world to life in a movie. Jerry Beck’s The Art of Dreamworks Bee Movie takes fans of animation through the stages of what it took to make Sienfeld’s little conversation filler a reality. There is something very insider-ish with a book like this. Sitting down with it is like having a Q&A with the animators: How do you come up with a bee world? Did the characters always look like this? What was going through your mind when you designed the cars, the costumes, the city, the colors? On its own The Art of Bee Movie is a fun and happy and informative insight into the art of the animator, but books like this also make great companions to the movies they celebrate. -- David Middleton

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 edited by Dave Eggers (Houghton Mifflin) 320 pages
So here’s the deal: students at 826 Valencia, the San Francisco writing lab for young people that writer/editor Dave Eggers co-founded, are each assigned various publications. They have to keep tabs on their publications all year, collecting notes for the anthology. Then they meet and they vote and they debate on who should make the cut. And then the chosen few are published in this book. So here we have what Eggers and the students at 826 Valencia think was best in fiction, non-fiction, alternative comics, screenplays, blogs and even, this time out, a poem about bathing Ed Asner. Whatever is “best” is also always subjective. It’s the nature of the beast. But if it isn’t best, it’s certainly interesting with contributions here from Conan O’Brien, Matt Klam, Jonathan Ames and many others. Profits from the anthology go to benefit 826 Valencia.

Canadian Paintings, Prints and Drawings by Anne Newlands (Firefly Books) 368 pages
Canada is a vast and diverse country. It follows that the art the country has produced should be diverse, as well. Yet so much of Canada’s art and so many of her artists are not well known even in Canada, let alone outside the country. Author Anne Newlands would change all of that. Newlands has written extensively about art, including biographies of Emily Carr and Degas. She is also the author of Canadian Art: From its Beginnings to 2000. For this new book, Newlands set herself the seemingly impossible task of selecting just 164 artists to represent the many thousands who have contributed to Canadian art. Just as difficult, Newlands writes, was to then select a single image from each artist not to represent their body of work, Newlands stresses, but “as a glimpse into a lifetime of creative expression.” Within the book, the artists are arranged alphabetically, “which removes them from predictable associations and chronological relationships and frees them from the standard linear narratives of traditional art histories.” Despite the occasional encounter with this droning coolness of artspeak, Canadian Paintings is a wonderful book. It really is special to see a single well reproduced image from so many artists who have little to connect them beyond their Canadian-ness. All time periods are represented, all two dimensional mediums, all styles and types of work. Each painting is accompanied by a thoughtful, knowledgeable short essay, sharing information about the work as well as the artist. The resulting book becomes a sort of short course in Canadian art history taken at the leisure and desire of the reader.

Carve Your Own Totem Pole by Wayne Hill and James McKee (The Boston Mills Press) 131 pages
On the surface of things, it sounds ridiculously complicated. What would be needed to carve a totem pole, after all? A 20-foot log and some serious carving tools. Beyond that... perhaps luck and a tailwind? But Hill and McKee’s lovely book is as much spiritual journey as how-to manual. Sure: the necessary tools are described, as are some techniques. More importantly in the real world, though, they tell us about what all those animals really mean and why they’re situated where they are. (And, while we’re about it, just where the expression “Low man on the totem pole” comes from, exactly.) Here we have described for us the difference between a “Legend” pole and a “Family” pole, what considerations are necessary for design and what each figure means. Practical issues include choosing the right wood, how to seal your work and how to carve and sand. It’s certainly difficult to imagine a better, more clearly explained and illustrated book on this topic.

Dream Gardens: 100 Inspirational Gardens by Tania Compton and Andrew Lawson (Merrell Books) 352 pages
“Most creative endeavours are born of a desire to turn a dream into reality. In gardening the dream that may spur the transformation of a featureless site into a garden never ends.” So begins Dream Gardens, setting up the groundwork for a book on which those gardening dreams that are also creative endeavours can be based. The book is well named. There is no aspect of “how-to” to Dream Gardens. Rather, we are taken on intimate tours of what are arguably 100 of the dreamiest gardens in the world. So here we see the gardens at Tapeley Park in Devon, gleaming royally along the coast. Villa Marzotto’s private oasis in north-eastern Italy. The breathtaking organization of the bamboo garden of Sydney Australia-based landscape architect Vladimir Sitta; the riot of color that is Bingerden in the Netherlands. Cynthia and Edwin Hamowy’s Westhampton garden is nature brought close in a modernist setting. These gardens -- and 96 more -- will provide inspiration and the base of dreams for everyone who looks upon them.

Etched in Stone by Ryan Coonerty (National Geographic) 192 pages
What a wonderful book this is! I love great book ideas, and this is one of them, a look at the best monuments in the United States. Fifty places are covered here, from memorials to parks to gardens to theaters to sculptures and even whole buildings. For each monument, we’re shown beautiful images, some shot at an ideal distance, some shot up close, for telling details. Each one of them is perfect. There are also find brief, wonderfully written essays that cover the history, the reason the monument was created, important quotes, inscriptions and more. This book is an ideal way to see and go behind the scenes of the Lincoln Memorial, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the National D-Day Memorial, the Slavery Monument, the Blacklist Sculpture Garden, the Library of Congress, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center Memorial, even Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It would cost a fortune to actually travel to all of the places covered in this book -- but having this book on your shelf means you don't have to. Whoever you give a copy to will owe you a huge debt of gratitude. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Fame Us: Celebrity Impersonators and the Cult(ure) of Fame by Brian Howell (Arsenal Pulp Press) 183 pages
In a book filled with strong images, one stands out. It’s an impossible shot and, if you had no idea what was going on, it would hurt the eyes. The frame is filled top to bottom with living human forms, that’s clear. Some of the people seem to be posing. Others seem to be watching something off camera. Some appear to do both. What makes the shot seem impossible are the identities of those photographed. You can see Howard Stern, Bill Clinton, Marilyn Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Elvis and Patton. Some of the others look vaguely familiar, as well. You feel as though, if you looked closely for just a bit longer, you’d recognize still more famous people; put names to still more faces. That single photo seems to bring focus to all of Fame Us, a book that looks at the culture and lifestyle associated with celebrity impersonators. If you ever thought you knew anything about this topic, think again. Photographer Brian Howell’s strong black and white images and short, sharp biographies of his subjects gives us a sometimes humorous, always compassionate look at celebrity -- and near celebrity. How we view it, wear it, incorporate it into our lifestyle.

The Garden at Night: Private Views of Public Edens photographs by Linda Rutenberg, foreword by William Shatner, introduction by William Dewdney (Chronicle Books) 176 pages
A stanza from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” sets the tone in Linda Rutenberg’s The Garden at Night: “A sensitive plant in a garden grew, and the young winds fed it with silver dew, and it opened is fan-like leaves to the light, and closed them beneath the kisses of night.” More tone setting with an introduction by Christopher Dewdney (Acquainted with the Night) and a foreword by William Shatner (who I will not introduce because you already know who he is). And then, with the tone well and truly set, we’re away on an incredible adventure of Rutenberg’s imagination. And, of course, it is not her imagination: these are photographs. And yet. With her choices, with her technique and, of course, with her eye, Rutenberg shows us gardens as they’ve never quite been seen before. The images in the book were taken at 20 of North America’s best know gardens, including the Atlanta Botanical garden; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; Butchart Gardens near Victoria, British Columbia; the Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Quebec; United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. and many others. In her artist’s statement, Rutenberg writes, “The resulting photographs unearth an extraordinary secret -- plants and flowers that appear commonplace by day turn into something ethereal by the light of night.” We agree.

The House that Hugh Laurie Built: An Unauthorized Biography and Episode Guide by Paul Challen (ECW) 337 pages

Why is it we love Gregory House so much? And though the two couldn’t be further apart, we also love House’s alter ego, the actor Hugh Laurie. House is the perpetual bad boy, but with a strong moral and ethical center, a combination that has proven irresistible. And Laurie? Well, he’s someone completely different, yet the connections are clear. The House that Hugh Laurie Built will delight fans of either the hit medical television show House or the actor who stars in it, Hugh Laurie. Or both. Though the book bills itself as an unauthorized biography, it’s really more than that: an affectionate, respectful look at both the actor and all aspects of the show, including glimpses of all recurring characters and a blow-by-blow of all episodes through the end of season three. A great gift for House fans.

How I Write edited by Dan Crowe (Rizzoli) 192 pages
Jonathan Franzen uses a squeaky, battered green office chair. Will Self uses Post-it notes. Douglas Coupland uses chocolate. Jay McInerney uses an axe. What for, you ask? To write. That’s right: to write. And that’s what this charming book is all about. Not why these people write, but how. It’s about their habits and, more importantly, their talismans. Where do they get their inspiration? Their ideas? How do they keep those ideas organized? Imagine walking into the office of Joyce Carol Oates or A.S. Byatt, and you’d see portraits in the office of the former, a cabinet of curiosities in the latter. Written in short bursts of chapters by the authors themselves, the book comes across almost as a confessional, a “come in and see what I’m all about” sort of thing. It’s embarrassingly addictive and impossible to put down. Movie stars. TV stars. Sports stars. Just about any early evening entertainment news program will tell you everything you need to know. But authors? Nah. To what they’re really all about, you need this terrific book. Give it to someone you know who is as addicted to Nicholson Baker and Melissa Bank as others are to Brad and Angelina. -- Tony Buchsbaum

I’m A Lewbowski, You’re A Lebowski: Life, the Big Lebowski and What Have You by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt (Bloomsbury) 234 pages
There is only one sort of person for whom you should buy a copy of I’m A Lewbowski, You’re A Lebowski as a gift: someone you know has watched the Coen brothers movie several times, and perhaps already dreams of attending Lebowski Fest, if only in their mind. As the book itself suggests, to some people The Big Lebowski was a move. To others it was the movie. Obviously, this latter part of the population are the ones who need this book. (And they’re probably also looking forward to the chapter on how to Dude-ify you car, living space and office.) The authors -- all four of them -- are the “founding dudes” of Lebowski Fest (yes it’s a real thing) which will, I suppose, be an even bigger thing in 2008 when the movie hits its 10th anniversary year. But the book. A series of interviews on all things Lebowski, with a foreword by the dude himself, Jeff Bridges. Our authors talk to everyone who had anything to do with the production of the movie. In total, I’m A Lewbowski, You’re A Lebowski is like a big, juicy ad for Lebowski Fest. The thing is, the fans of this cult classic will probably think that’s better than cool. It’s all right.

Inside Game Design by Iain Simmons (Laurence King) 159 pages
“Increasingly,” Iain Simmons writes in his introduction to Inside Game Design, “the gap between mainstream culture and videogame culture is less about levels of consumption, and more about levels of understanding.” Well, OK. But we would also add that, over the last decade, perhaps slightly more, videogame design has been moving from being a realm of pure geekdom to take its place in the arts. Not animation, of course. Not filmmaking. But storytelling, nonetheless, albeit with huge interactive chunks. Still, it’s gone from being something vaguely untouchable to something at least contemplatable by mortals. “Perhaps the most important service this book offers,” Simons adds at one point, “is to question what ‘game design’ even means.” He does it beautifully: in true art book style, with color images, lucid text, the occasional storyboard, interviews with industry leaders, glimpses inside prominent studios and more. This will be an important book within this industry as well as a potentially critical link for those who aspire to take part.

James Bond Encyclopedia by John Cork and Collin Stutz (DK Books) 320 pages
Wow. I mean: Wow! I’m a Bond fan from way, way back, and I thought I knew it all. I’m one of those poor saps who can name all the films in order, tell you who played 007, the villain, the girl, the sidekick, who composed the music, who sang the title song, and on and on. (Disturbing, isn’t it?) So you wouldn’t think I’d even need to crack the spine of this book. Oh, but I do. There’s stuff in here no one knows, facts about every single film, from Dr. No to Casino Royale (the 2006 version, thank you very much). The contents are arranged by categories: villains together, then women, supporting players, vehicles, weapons and equipment, and the movies. There are endlessly fascinating bits of tid throughout, with full chapters on Ian Fleming, Bond Style, and the Role of Bond, which includes bios of the men who have played him (Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig -- I did that without looking, by the way). Best of all, this book is a treasure trove of photographs, many of them rare, along with poster art, behind-the-scenes images, full lists of cast and crew, and much more. I’m tempted to say this book will leave a lucky someone on your list shaken, not stirred ... but I won’t. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Japanese Style: Designing With Nature’s Beauty by Sunamita Lim (Gibbs Smith) 159 pages
The fact that this title and close variations of it -- Japanese Style and Japan Style -- have been used for books so often tells us something. The style we think of as Japanese has a strong appeal to people of many lands. And there is something in the arrangement of space that speaks to many people. Sunamita Lim, author of Japanese Style, feels this is because, when all is said and done, we need a break today. “Japanese interiors also provide sanctuary from a chaotic world at the end of the day, thus gifting inner renewal to soul and spirit and, consequently, for outer mind and body too.” As you may already be suspecting, the writing here is the weakest link. In fact, it contains one of the worst paragraphs we’ve ever seen: “Many appreciate the simple life. But living a life of simplicity is not enough. Rather, trying to simplify one’s life is a constant challenge...” Ummm... it couldn’t be... simpler? Fortunately, it’s not a novel, and though the crude wordsmithing prevents it from being a great book, it doesn’t mar its usability. Japanese Style is well organized, beautifully illustrated and filled with super design ideas. A great gift.

Making Records by Phil Ramone (Hyperion) 320 pages

Streisand. Sinatra. Joel. Charles. Dylan. Gilberto. Jones. Bennett. Simon. Grusin. Lennon. Loggins. I could go on all day and never hit the bottom of the list of music greats that record producer Phil Ramone has worked with. This book is part autobiography, part how-I-did-it manual and an intimate and intricate look at what goes into making records. In movies, it's the director who shapes the project; in records, the Chief Creativity Officer is the producer. The songwriter composes. The performer sings. But the producer determines the sound of the music, the feeling that the music should evoke. Ramone has been around longer than anyone, starting out as an engineer (the guy who actually records the music on tape) and working his way into the producer's chair, creating some of the best-known, most memorable and undisputed classic albums of the last 50 years. His writing is fast and easy, natural the way Sinatra’s singing was natural, and while it’s not exactly brilliant literarily, it needn’t be. What it needs to be is fascinating, and it is. These days, behind-the-scenes books are a dime a dozen; but check out the last names at the top of this review. Rarely, if ever, do we get to go into a recording studio to see them work. This gem of a book is as much a history lesson as an indelible portrait of how music is made. Either way you look at it, it's a chart-topper. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Motion by Design by Spencer Drate, David Robbins and Judith Salavetz (Laurence King Publishing) 159 pages
For anyone on your list who’s into animation, film and television credit sequences and cool television commercials, this is a terrific book. Every spread features a different project, with a dozen or so stills or film frame reproductions, detailed descriptions of the creative and process, production details and software tools. The pages are arranged by production company, which means you can easily track one company’s style. While some of the examples -- OK, several of the examples -- are less than stellar, most of the time the authors have chosen examples that do justice to the mission of the book, which is to showcase the best work of this kind. The volume includes a DVD, although I was far from impressed by it. In fact, I found it frustrating because only some of the work in the book is on the DVD; invariably, the most interesting-looking work wasn’t on it. A pity. But still, the book itself is wonderful. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Obsessed with Hollywood: Test Your Knowledge of the Silver Screen (Chronicle Books) 320 pages
Obsessed with Hollywood is an unassuming little cube of a book. Roughly -- though not precisely -- the size of a good CD box set, this compact little brick of a book potentially crams hours of fun between it’s well designed little covers. Here we have 2500 (2500!) questions about the silver screen, arranged thematically, no less. Though the questions are multiple choice (“What filmmaker made Marty and later All Quiet on the Western Front?” “Yo, what was Adrian’s last name before she married Rocky Balboa?”) on each two-page spread, one question has been given a beefed up presence and an accompanying photo. So question 441, for example, which is from “Classic Films,” tells us a little bit about George Lucas’ American Graffiti from 1973, background that has nothing to do with the question. You “play” the book by activating a cool, attached electronic device that feeds you a question number. You go to it, then enter the letter that correlates to your answer. If you’re right, you get a happy sound; wrong and the sound is less happy. Though this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a book-that-is-game, this one is perhaps the best executed. And never mind that: it’s actually pretty fun!

Prophets of Zoom by Alfredo Marcantonio (Merrell) 112 pages
Prophets of Zoom is a weirdly delicious little book. First weirdness: it explains itself on its tiny cover. The story of itself begins on the front cover, then winds its way to the back. “Seventy years ago,” says the cover, “a group of people created a series of cards that foresaw the future.” And so on. Here’s what really happened: in the 1930s, the world was mad for collecting cards of any kind. Since their product was flat and consumers always wanted more, cigarette boxes were a natural for distributing collector cards. A Scottish cigarette manufacturer cooked up the idea of producing a set of collector’s cards called “The World of Tomorrow.” (Disney didn’t use the phrase until many years later.) They used a series of commissioned illustrations as well as some stills from science fiction films to predict the future. While this was a completely oddball idea, all these years later we can see that -- lo! -- a lot of the time, they were actually right. Prophets of Zoom collects all of these cards and pairs each one with a contemporary image of the predicted thing. A lovely little book, wonderful in its weirdness and potentially the perfect gift for those typically difficult to buy for people who appreciate the off-beat.

The Star Wars Vault by Stephen J. Sansweet and Peter Vilmur (Harper Entertainment) 128 pages, slipcased
Steve Sansweet is one of the luckiest guys in the world. Abject Star Wars fan, the guy somehow corralled himself into the job of a lifetime: as Grand Collector and disseminator of all the coolest Star Wars stuff imaginable. He’s the author of other books on the subject, but this glorious addition to the canon is something else, as much book as treasure chest. There are goodies on every page: posters, programs, stationery, storyboard and production drawings, autographs, behind-the-scenes photographs, comic book covers, ads, handwritten notes by George Lucas ... the list goes on and on. But that’s not even the best part. Oh, no, friends. The best part is the stuff -- the goodies -- you can remove and hold in your hands. Stuff like the blueprints for Luke’s Skyhopper, an early poster reproduction, an actual T-shirt transfer, a program from a London Symphony Orchestra performance of John Williams’ music, a brochure from the original Star Wars press kit, a barf bag from the Star Tours ride at Disneyland ... need I go on? Throughout the book are crisp essays on everything you’d ever want to know (and probably a few things you don’t really care about), trivia galore. And as if all this weren’t enough, there are also two CDs -- one of them filled with radio ads, cast interviews, parts of NPR’s radio drama, a George Lucas commentary, and more. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen-and as a Star Wars fan, I’ve seen a lot. If the Force isn’t yet with you, after one look at all this stuff it will be. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Street Dogs by Traer Scott (Merrell) 128 pages
In 2006, portrait and fashion photographer Traer Scott had a hot seller on her hands with a work straight from her heart: Shelter Dogs. The book included portraits of American dogs in shelters, doing time for no crime other than not having a family of humans to love them. This year Scott follows that book up with the equally moving Street Dogs. The author/photographer traveled to Mexico and Puerto Rico to photograph these homeless canines living either alone or in street packs. In her introduction, Scott writes that she first became aware of the plight of these homeless canines on her honeymoon in Antigua. Back in the states, she read about the large number of stray dogs in many countries visited by American tourists, as well as the efforts to rescue at least some of them. “I kept thinking how remarkable it would be to photograph these dogs and bring their faces and their plight to a larger audience,” writes Scott, who adds that the success of Shelter Dogs finally made that possible. Scott’s introduction is lengthy and interesting, it details her trips and she shares many of her encounters: the stories behind the photos. But it is the photos themselves, of course, that take center stage: soulful headshots, curiosity and fear from a distance, interacting with humans, reacting alone. Over 90 of Scott’s beautiful photographs fill the pages of Street Dogs, by themselves telling a story so eloquent, no words are required. It probably almost goes without saying that a portion of the profiles from Street Dogs will be donated to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, making it an even more lovely gift.

To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios By Karen Paik (Chronicle Books) 304 pages
How do they do it, really? How do a bunch of people sitting in front of blank paper and empty computer screens create an entire believable world out of nothing but sketches, pixels and a lot of imagination? It’s like magic. Starting with nothing and ending up with characters and sets made entirely out of bits of information but often with more life and heart than some movies peopled by living, breathing humans. Pixar has long been in the forefront of realistic style computer animation. From their very first short film, Luxo Jr., Pixar has gone from commercial advertising work to feature work on films including Cars, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo as well as other types of animated work in live action films. The company has consistantly lead the way in which full length animated features would be told. To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios lets fans in on the behind-the-scenes stories and secrets of this pioneering studio. Like a cross between a biography and a how-to book, To Infinity is lushly illustrated with everything from animated movie stills to personal childhood photographs of one of Pixar’s principals, John Lassiter. -- David Middleton

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