The Best Books of 2003









Art & Culture

The Acme Novelty Date Book by Chris Ware (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

The Acme Novelty Date Book is an often disturbing and personal look into the mind of Chris Ware. With his award-winning graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid On Earth we saw Ware as a full-fledged cartoonist and illustrator. Combining brilliant design and droll story telling, Corrigan was a delightfully oddball and darkly sad view of the title character's world. Take a look into any artist's sketch book and you will likely see his soul laid bare. The Acme Novelty Date Book is no exception. Filled with a variety of drawings ranging from hastily scribbled cartoons, finished portraits and figure drawings to crisply laid out comic panels, Ware has given us a glimpse into his emotional weaknesses and insecurities. Individual pages of a sketchbook are not always important, but if several are combined and taken as an overview of an artist's career they can become a time capsule, illustrating the evolution of the artist and his ideas. There are times when The Acme Novelty Date Book can be unflinchingly honest: sometimes even cringeingly so. Ware's views on sex and masturbation and his personal views about his ability as an artist are all shown equally and honestly. Outstandingly designed and absolutely filled from cover to cover with Ware's unique style of design, minutiae, marginalia and meanderings, The Acme Novelty Date Book is s a refreshing bold and bravely gutsy book highlighting Ware as one of the finest artists in his genre. -- David Middleton

Bond Girls Are Forever by Maryam D'Abo and John Cork (Abrams)

Honey Ryder. Tatiana Romanova. Pussy Galore. Tiffany Case. Solitaire. Holly Goodhead. The list of Bond girls seems to go on and on. And as such, they deserve a celebration. Bond Girls Are Forever is an oversize book that contains a wealth of film stills, memorabilia and more, all to examine that unique sorority of women who are -- ahem -- associated with James Bond. Written by 007 expert John Cork and actress Maryam D'Abo -- who played the Bond girl in The Living Daylights -- this book is a wealth of memories, all from the perspective of the girls themselves. Divided up into sections on the history, the allure, the stars and the impact of the film series, Bond Girls Are Forever is yet another testament to the never-say-die attitude of those involved with the Bond franchise. If you're in the proper mood, it's sure to leave you shaken and more than a little stirred. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Dwellings: Living With Great Style by Stephen Sills and James Huniford (Bulfinch)

For most people, securing the services of a top New York interior designer is simply not an option, even if it was on your personal to-do list. But even if you couldn't -- or wouldn't -- hire a really good designer's services, wouldn't it be great to be able to get a consultation? Dwellings by Stephen Sills and James Huniford of Sills Huniford Associates is like that. With a client list that includes members of the Rockefeller family, Vera Wang and Tina Turner and whose work has graced the pages of Architectural Digest, House & Garden and Vogue, the work of Sills Huniford is very much in demand. Unlike some of the books put together by designers, Dwellings is much more than a showcase of very good work: though that is certainly one aspect here. In Dwellings Sills and Huniford lucidly, carefully and even cheerfully explain how to find your personal style, how to plan a room, deal with color, think about furniture and surfaces and details. Even how to embrace life changes that alter our design needs. This is down to earth advice with practical examples of classic modern home design. Very little wit, almost no whimsy but beautiful photographs and very solid writing on how to accomplish the style you desire. -- Monica Stark

Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon by James Henke (Chronicle Books)

James Henke's Lennon Legend is not so much a book as an interactive tour of the life of the late former Beatle, John Lennon. Lennon Legend includes everything imaginable that could be included with a book. A 60 minute CD of John Lennon speaking about his life almost goes without saying. Henke also includes a facsimile -- that pulls out of its own onionskin sleeve -- of Lennon's handwritten lyrics of "In My Life," reproductions of his fourth form report card (The headmaster notes that John "has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is often misplaced.") and a copy of the Daily Howl, a comic book the teenaged Lennon created -- which indicates where a lot of the youngster's energies were directed at the time. Another page includes a removable photo booth picture of Lennon in the Quarry Men era, as well as a reproduction of The Quarry Men's business card. Almost every page in the book reveals some new treasure, so much that your first tour through Lennon Legend you'll likely look at little else. It's such a rare treat for adults to be served up books that actually do something -- Nick Bantock's books being the obvious exceptions -- that it makes you feel very special and childlike. And you know that the little pencil sketches by John Lennon that you're holding in your hand are reproductions -- it even says so on the back in case you're confused. Still, there's something exciting -- even sensual -- about this level of physical involvement with a book. Once that excitement is dealt with, Lennon Legend is excellent in all of the ways we ever judge books to be excellent. A coffeetable-style book, it's beautifully designed and reproduced. And though there's nothing startlingly new here, Henke is perhaps better equipped than anyone to provide the background text for this tribute-like book. Henke is chief curator and head of exhibitions at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which he came to directly from Rolling Stone where he'd been a writer and editor. Some of the material in Lennon Legend obviously came from Hall of Fame archives and was inspired by the exhibition called John Lennon: His Life and Work. If either the show or the book seem especially rich, it's because Yoko Ono dipped into her personal archives for material for the book and aided Henke by answering "seemingly endless questions." Lennon Legend is certainly not the most exhaustive work on the life of John Lennon, but it's difficult to imagine one that is more fun. -- Sienna Powers

Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown (Drawn and Quarterly Publications)

There are many people in this would who think that Canadian history is boring: and the majority of those people would be Canadians. American and European history has always been told with excitement, pride and panache. American heroes are recreated larger than life. Great men with great visions and great passions. Canadian history always seemed a tad too polite, as if the deeds of Canadian heroes were merely adequate; just enough to get the job done, thank you very much. No need to prattle on and on. But it is really all in the telling, something proven in Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. Chester Brown has managed to take one of Canada's more infamous heroes -- some think visionary, some think mad man -- and make his story as interesting and as passionate as Riel himself. Told in comic style panels and bound into a regular novel format, Brown has expertly condensed the story of Louis Riel into a beautifully graphic black and white retelling of the story surrounding the Riel rebellion of 1885. The author of 1989's Ed the Happy Clown and 1998's The Little Man, Brown has taken on the difficult task of turning history into graphic novel without it coming off as cartoony or trite. Brown has done his homework here and creates a well balanced look at what perhaps was not such a well balanced individual. A landmark work that deserves a place on your bookshelf among other important histories and biographies. -- David Middleton

Mythologica: A Treasury of World Myths and Legends (Raincoast)

It's a fairly common thought that you can't judge a book by its cover. But how about judging a book by its starkly impressive purpose-built heavy cardboard suitcase? Mythologica is, as near as I can tell, a completely unflawed book. In any case, it meets -- and perhaps surpasses -- all my criteria to call it a perfect book. And, frankly, I don't encounter a lot of those. It is, first of all, simply gorgeous, large enough to command a dominant place on most coffee tables and beautifully produced enough to set most book lovers hearts to fluttering. To my non-expert eyes, the contributor list seems unflawed, as well. They are an international panel of historians and experts in mythology, with a couple of journalists and even a novelist thrown in for good measure. And though most -- though not all -- of the book's contributors are attached to universities, the text of Mythologica never bogs: it imparts its mother lode of information on mythology briskly, sensibly and in an interesting manner. And it is the mother lode. If its related to mythology, you're likely to find it here. Greek, Roman, Celtic and Irish, Germanic and Norse, Finnish, Slavic, Romance, Arthurian, Egyptian, African, Mesopotamian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Oceanic, Australian Aboriginal, Maori, North American, Mosoamerican and South American mythologies are all beautifully covered in a surprising amount of depth. And all of those words -- and, truly, there are a lot of them -- are supported by wonderfully reproduced works of art relevant to the topic at hand. The scope of the book doesn't allow for every detail of every mythology included to be covered with great intimacy. However, the amount of detail that has been included staggers the mind. Mythologica is, quite simply, a wonderful book. I can't imagine one better on this topic. -- India Wilson

Myself Among Others: A Memoir by George Wein, with Nate Chinen (DaCapo Press)

The impresario George Wein (pronounced WEEN, but you knew that) has done as much as anyone to popularize and prolong the life of American jazz music since World War II. A Boston pianist and club owner, he organized the seminal Newport Jazz Festival, which incidentally spawned the Newport Folk Festival: an epochal tradition in its own right. This charming, informative, conversational and opinionated memoir is filled with fine stories and colorful personalities -- none more colorful than Wein himself, who can settle a score as handily as he could take a solo chorus with the mainstream musicians he most admired and whose ranks are all but depleted now. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein and Thelonious Monk are among the dozens of figures who make memorable appearances in this heartfelt and highly readable book. -- Tom Nolan

Pictures by Jeff Bridges (PowerHouse)

I've always loved Jeff Bridges' work as an actor, so it was a welcome surprise to discover that his talents extend beyond the moving picture camera to the still camera. The portraits in Pictures, all taken on set during his films' production, capture his costars both in off moments and posed ones, all with a loving sensitivity and an eye for drama. The images reach as far back as Bridges' debut, in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. There are shots from virtually every set since, including Starman, The Contender, Arlington Road, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King and The Mirror Has Two Faces. In his incredible photographs, Bridges bridges the often significant gap between movie sets and real life. Somehow these images make making movies seem just a touch less glamorous, and even more so -- all at once. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books)

Summing up the influence that Monty Python's Flying Circus has had on a generation is no easy task. While the majority of the original cast has gone on to produce even more brilliant work, the fact that Monty Python helped to pave the way for even more outrageous television is undeniable. Thick, large, wonderfully designed and produced and full of stuff most Python fans have never seen before, The Pythons Autobiography is complete and incomplete at the same time. You see, it actually is an autobiography. Each of the cast members have contributed there own life story -- where they were born, grew up, went to school, blah, blah, blah -- their thoughts on other cast members and what they were up to when they all met. It's all really very interesting, funny and sad at turns, as life often is -- particularly poignant is everyone's recollection on the death of Graham Chapman. Everyone writes about what it was like to be a Python, how it influenced and changed their lives and how it continues to influence them today. And it is all so very complete, so very rich and gritty and full of texture. An ideal and quintessential volume, not always on Monty Python the show, but on Monty Python the people and philosophy. The incomplete part comes when you've finished the book and sit back, full of information and anecdotes, and as honest and forthright as you know the cast has been with their stories, you can't help thinking, in true Python fashion, that as deep as this book goes, you are sure that there is one more funny story to be told, one more daft face to be made. But then there can only be so much put into a book without the need for a forklift to read it. The Pythons is an essential read for the true Python fan. Or if you want to be rebellious, give it to a non-Python fan and maybe they'll understand what all the fuss has been about all these years. -- David Middleton

The Quiet Hours: City Photographs photographs by Mike Melman, essay by Bill Holm (University of Minnesota Press)

Though he doesn't say so in the book, it's apparent that Mike Melman's Quiet Hours gains its name from the time of day that the photographer prefers to shoot. In most of his work, it appears to be three in the morning when the only people we sense are echoes. People spaces, then, without people in them. Though there are a few late 1980s and early 2000s exception, most of The Quiet Hours was shot throughout the 1990s and the subtext -- though unintentional -- becomes preservation. "It saddens me to think," writes Melman, "that some of my older photographs may be the only visual record of buildings and streetscapes that no longer exist and would otherwise be forgotten." That is not, however, the point of The Quiet Hours, as essayist Bill Holm tells us." These are not pictures of the good old days..." writes Holm. "These are practical, everyday places, used places, streets where ordinary people carried their lunch buckets to work." They are also, it should be pointed out, Midwestern places, having been shot mainly in St. Paul, Minnesota and environs. And while this will provide an added historical bonus for Minnesotans, for me that is also not the point. Melman's photos catch at the throat. There is a timeless beauty and dignity in the way he captures the light and frames the architectural elements that are important to him. For me, the book is named perfectly: Quiet Hours. Portraits, then, of quiet places, beautifully rendered. -- Sienna Powers

Revelation: Representations of Christ in Photography by Nissan N. Perez (Merrell)

The premise tickles and the execution lacks for nothing. Revelation: Representations of Christ in Photography is, basically, as the title suggests, a photo album of Jesus. Or, rather, photographs depicting the hand, face and family of Jesus in various ways by various photographers throughout the history of the artform which, incidentally and just in case you weren't paying attention in Sunday school, is a lot more recent than the birth of Christ. This is an art book on the grandest of art book scales. The execution is flawless, the writing superb and the photos reproduced with astonishing clarity. And, make no mistake, it's an art book in every sense of the term. The pious or those looking for a godly hit will want to look elsewhere: Revelation is not a religious book. Rather it visually explores a classic art topic in one of the newer mediums of art with flashes of humor, irreverence and even -- occasionally -- sex. I love this book for its ability to reopen our eyes to the possibilities of interpretation in art. -- Aaron Blanton

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s by Gerald Nachman (Pantheon Books)

Remember when comedians got laughs not from rude language or cynical cracks or extreme attitude, but from humor and wit? Remember when comedians were actually funny? Gerald Nachman does, and he revisits that time (not all that long ago) at length and to great effect in this hugely entertaining and engrossing book. Drawing on new and archival interviews, Nachman (whose most recent book was a tribute to old-time radio) recreates the careers and resurrects the performances of some two dozen comic legends of the past half-century, among them Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Woody Allen and the teams of Nichols and May and Bob and Ray. The briefest chapters here (such as one about Godfrey Cambridge) are succinct evocations of their subjects' essences; the longest ones (including the Nichols and May piece) are detailed, well-wrought mini-biographies. And a few entries -- the one on impressionist Will Jordan, for instance (best known for his Ed Sullivan Show turn), set during a recent visit to his New York apartment -- are like strange short stories. "These days," writes Nachman, "Jordan ... performs all too rarely ... Today's stars bore him. He says that 90 percent of today's celebrities have no mannerisms, citing Robert Redford and Tom Hanks. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, there are no more voices. So Jordan stays stuck in his own era, burnishing his vintage collection of Robert Shaw, Ray Milland, and Peter Lawford. 'That's where I'm very ashamed of myself. I'm terribly aware of being antiquated' -- but he just can't let go of those resonant old voices." As one of its more recent practitioners has reminded us, comedy isn't pretty. But with Nachman guiding us through the lives of some of its past masters, it's darned interesting. -- Tom Nolan

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