Gift Books to Delight and EnthrallWith her gift book selections, NPR's Ketzel Levine will take you wandering through old maps and contemporary art galleries, courtside at the NBA, inside the minds of raucous high school kids, and into the embrace of poems.
Ketzel Levine is a senior correspondent for NPR, reporting for Morning Edition. With an academic background in music, a working relationship with sports, and a passion for plants and animals, she brought her many interests to bear in crafting this gift book list.
Alas, that will have to do for a disclaimer, because there isn't enough real estate on this Web site for me to walk you through the regret-ridden landscape of the gift books I didn't choose.
Please! Don't misunderstand me. I am enthralled by the winners. But when you omit little ditties like the awe-inspiring Oxford Atlas of the World or -- may the higher powers strike me dead! -- The Complete New Yorker, well, an explanation is due.
If a book has been elaborately featured by my on-air colleagues, it ain't here. (Goodbye, Calvin & Hobbes! So long, The Elements of Style Illustrated!) If it's part of a collection that might require an additional purchase, it's history. (Not so elementary, Volume 3 in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes! Je regret, A Life Of Henri Matisse, Vol 2!)
If its appeal seemed too specialized, particularly in a popular genre, it's gone. (But not forgotten, Stanley Kubrick Photographs 1945-1950!) And if the book sold out so fast that only promissory post cards are still available (mazel tov, Little Nemo in Slumberland!), I let it go.
(How's that for subterfuge; just snuck in eight more!)
To keep from losing my mind, I've had to narrow my definition of a "gift book." While firmly believing that any well-written book is a gift, I've favored books that were inherently aesthetic and beautifully produced. Trying to discern what kind of books people might not buy for themselves, I chose those I thought more of an indulgence, rather than those needed to stay sane. (Consequently, you'll find no novels, memoirs or short stories. Yes, I will burn.)
So now, if you're ready, I'll take you through old maps and contemporary art galleries, courtside at the NBA, inside the minds of raucous high schools kids, and into the embrace of poems. I've made certain to provide you with baby-boomer nostalgia, music lovers' notes, and nourishment for your favorite gardener's soil and soul.
Drum roll, please!
Under the category, "I Can Dream, Can't I?" here's the non plus ultra gift book of 2005....
'Atlas Maior of 1665'
Phantasmagoric sea monsters, Saxons in drag and very naughty cupids are only part of the delights in this astonishing reproduction of 17th century Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu's 1665 Atlas. Described as "the largest and most expensive book to be published during the 17th century" -- be forewarned, it still needs its own altar today -- this mesmerizing reference text takes us wandering through painstakingly realized, make-believe landscapes that are lusciously reproduced in other-worldly blues, saturated saffrons, and Middle Earthian greens.
Frankly, if you're as besotted as I am with this 25 pound, $200 mother lode of maps, it's time to start dropping hints, sending out group e-mails, or failing that, skip eight new hardbacks and buy it for yourself.
For a less grandiose but no less stunning indulgence for geography lovers, how about...
'Cities of the World: A History in Maps'
This tome, by Peter Whitfield, offers a honey of a concept: traveling, alphabetically, from Cape Town to Chicago to Cologne, on to Nagasaki, Naples, New York, and barely catching your breath as you read your way from Rio to Rome to Saigon. It's a well-designed and incredibly inviting journey, too.
The street scenes, city maps and illustrations that take us around the world in sixty cities are blessedly devoid of all that gritty, edgy, urban stuff, and focus (visually, anyway) on each city's past. The maps are beguiling (Amsterdam in 1544, Cape Town, 1795) as are the generous art offerings. I love the 1464 painting of Naples with its red turrets and white-washed buildings tumbling down to an azure sea.
And how's this for a cheap thrill: the 1660 map of Moscow was lifted from our cartographer friend, Joan Blaeu (see above)! Forgo his Atlas with no misgivings (this is one-fifth the price), and consider the bonus of a smart, engaging, and confidently-written text.
Another way to sample the world, of course, is through its people, and you'll find no more compassionate tour than this...
Open this substantial coffee table book anywhere and you'll walk into two photographs on facing pages, paired by content to underscore our family of man.
Choosing at random, I am enveloped in the bold black, white and red of carnival revelers in Venice on page left and opulent, golden bodies swirling in a Brazilian Samba Parade on page right. A different choice, and I join two people behind green material at a voting booth somewhere in Sweden, paired with three men putting their ballots into stark black boxes in Nairobi. More compassionate than simply sentimental, look no further for an affirmation of why each of us matters.
'Woman in the Mirror: The Photographs of Richard Avedon, 1945-2004'
If we're judged by our ability to ravish the camera, however, some of us matter decidedly more than others.
It's been a year since Avedon's death and I miss his "Yeah? So?" portraits in the New Yorker. Having had the honor of working on a radio documentary about the photographer, I will also say I miss his voice, his wit, his style. Fortunately, we have his books, and this one, the last, is a stunner.
These photographs of women will knock you out cold, whether it's '50s model Suzy Parker in haute couture worthy of Cinderella or the iconic portrait of aristocrat Marella Agnella, looking more Modigliani than real. Plenty of flesh and blood portraits, too, from a sweet (and so young) Janis Joplin to the bare-shouldered beauty of Arundhati Roy. (I couldn't believe it, either). Lots of moods and way too many models (I hate the late stuff), but ah, then you turn the page -- and there's Maria Callas.
If I might sneak in an aside here, if you're looking for a truly riveting photography book for an intimate friend who abhors pretty, you must consider this career retrospective of photographs by Mary Ellen Mark. A brilliant and fearless artist, Mark's highly celebrated work is sad, spectacular, desperate, disturbing and so much who we are. If you've never seen it, think Arbus, Weegee and Frederick Wiseman.
'Woody Guthrie Artworks: The Journals, Drawings and Sketchbooks of an American Original'
How about "A Photographer Without A Camera?" No, I cannot tell you what that means, nor can I understand why that obtuse slogan is being used to pitch this remarkably crystalline book... Wait! Don't assume you're not interested!
This book you've at least got to open. It's ingeniously conceived, as it cuts and pastes Guthrie's remarkable cartoons, drawings and journal fragments into a raucous kind of sketchbook, taking its cues from Guthrie's own filled-to-the-margin way with an empty page. So much artistic energy in these pages, so much implied with the nub of a crayon, the Picasso-like slash of a line. It's almost hard to square the sing-along songwriter with the powerful eroticism -- and humor, and rage -- between these covers. (" I do wish that I was 10 years younger," he writes in a 1946 illustrated journal entry. "I'd tear into you like a horse eats his corn.") A book literally full of surprises. (Yes, that's a hint.)
Of course, some surprises come in entirely predictable packages -- for instance, this book by John Updike. The text that accompanies gorgeous art books is typically joyless and too much work to read. Either that, or it's reverential filler. Which is why I choose this lyric if idiosyncratic portrait of American art seen through the essays of Mr. Updike.
The text is as vivid as the convincing reproductions; right now I'm looking at Whistler's Nocturne: Grey and Silver. Let me tell you, the evocative darkness as seen on the page feels just as it reads: "The painting -- a single blurred stripe of urban shore -- is additionally daring in that the sky and sea are no shade of blue but, instead, an improbably persuasive cobalt green." The book comes perilously close, within two paragraphs to be exact, of excluding all American women artists, but it is a delicious and easy pleasure of a politically incorrect gift.
Option No. 2 for an art book -- the theme inexplicably American this year -- is way P.C. ...
"Oh no, not another Basquiat book!" my artist sister cried, bemoaning what she sees as the disproportionate representation of Jean-Michel Basquiat's artwork. Feted at 20, dead by 27, the Brooklyn-born graffiti-turned-canvas artist evokes, for me, everything from Paul Klee to the now-ubiquitous graphic novel, where nervous scrawls and saturated colors tell vivid, if painful stories.
The right person (think: agelessly hip) will love what this young New Yorker did with oil sticks and acrylics and will skim the essays to fill in the biographical blanks. (For devotees, look for the just-published poetic "riffs" on Basquiat's art by Kevin Young, in To Repel Ghosts: The Remix.)
Alas, I am not quite agelessly hip enough to entirely understand what is and isn't a graphic novel. But this next book works for me.
I am strangely mesmerized by this cross between a high school kid's notebook and a twenty-first century pen and ink retrospective. The concept is brilliant: confiscated notes from Los Angeles students illustrated by two dozen grown-up artists... plus a sample of the furtive, scribbled missives, so hauntingly familiar I could swear that a few were written to me. ("Well, just to let you know, if you hurt him, me, nancy arn't your friend anymore...")
As it sat on my coffee table these last few weeks, I've watched friends aged 9 and 58 years marvel at the graphics (some very Basquiat-like ones at that), and go bug-eyed over the language (occasionally profane, therefore not suitable for sheltered readers). Darkly nostalgic, sadly adolescent and so stylistically in-your-face, you'll think the ink smudges came from your own hands.
'Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and The Women Who Created Her'
Moving on to lightly nostalgic, remember when girls were perky and wore matching sweater sets? (Oh, right, they're back)...
I was never into Nancy Drew, no way, but after seeing my friends react to its cover alone, I see the huge niche for this book.
Melanie Rehak's comfortable, sleuth-like biography of the three people who created Our Nancy -- no doubt you already know of the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene, all news to me -- is an easy read with nice big print that will keep Drew-ids feeling every bit a part of the club. ("By February of 1929... all that remained was to find a name for the main character... She might be called Nell Cody... or Stella Strong... or, possibly Nan Drew. Whoever she was, she was everything America had been waiting for.") For myself, as much as the knowledge stings, I did appreciate the reminder that it's only been in my mother's lifetime that "little girls were worth catering to as a [reading] audience." Ouch.
Little boys, on the other hand, were always a slam dunk when it came to action books. Then they became big boys and took their niche with them (though we do get to watch)...
I'd be more likely to recognize Doctor J half a dozen blocks away than to know that the guy behind me at the check-out was Kevin Garnett. So much for my dated romance with the NBA.
But I've always had an eye for the photos of Walter Iooss, and that's what drew me to these forty years' worth of his hoop dreams. An ant's-eye view of Wilt Chamberlain, sturdy as a sequoia; Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, flying for all time through air; Dr J, Julius Irving, in a yawning, arched stretch, his fingers hovering above over the hoop. No shortage of 21st century snaps, either; Carmelo Anthony looks like a very nice young man. (Yes, I am becoming my mother.) I did find myself wishing the text was a little weightier, but this book is for the looking.
'Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink'
If you want a sports book for the reading, then do I have 423 pages for you... This is the only book in the bunch I haven't read cover to cover, but I've perused plenty, and though it's not on my own must-read book (too many classics to catch up on), it's certainly my kind of sports story.
David Margolick has chosen to document two fights with all the high-stakes volatility a politically tuned-in and adept writer could ever want. Seventy years ago, Max Schmeling (who died this year) and Joe Louis (who died nearly 25 years ago) stepped into a ring packed with all the tensions of the world. The book's photos and cartoons support what now seems impossible: a Third Reich boxer, his Jewish manager, and an African-American hero called "The Brown Bomber."
Apologies, now, to all you canine-worshippers, as we move to that most crowd-pleasing of book categories, animal portraits. The loveliest book I found this year is for the feline-inclined...
Indiscriminate as I may be in my love for animal companions -- you mean you still deign to call them pets? -- I am a few steps short of a pushover when it comes to looking at their pictures. And so I am over the moon about this stunning collection of black and white "chatographie" (not my word, honest), lovingly curated by Jules B. Farber.
The cat snaps date from 1887 to 2000, the predominantly (though not exclusively) French photographers now legends for all times: Cartier-Bresson; Lartigue; Brassai, and how's this for a surprise, the impressionist Pierre Bonnard. Wonderfully atmospheric portraits by Steichen and a New York moment by Weegee are also featured. Human portraits (always justified by cats) include Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot, Wanda Landowska and the exquisitely feline-featured James Dean, and while all are thrilling in close-up, not a one is as poignant, thoughtful, agile and airborne as these ancient, scene-stealing chats.
'Bedside Book of Birds'
Perhaps it shows a lack of sensitivity to follow up with a bird book? They certainly got the title right with this book by Graeme Gibson. It's just the kind of gift one would hope for on a drowsy, damp morning, when you're not planning on staying in bed long but would like to luxuriate, say, 20 minutes longer.
The appeal of this bird book is far beyond life lists, though arguably, the folk tales, poems and short stories amassed here are certainly the stuff of life. Avian essays by unlikely bedfellows such as Marco Polo and Franz Kafka, verse from the likes of Aeschylus, Thomas Hardy and Margaret Atwood (the author's wife), and enough beautifully rendered birds to make the species newly wondrous; the vulnerable little blue tit rendered by Czech artist K. Svolinsky stole my heart.
'The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden'
If you've ever heard my name before, you might know me as the Doyenne of Dirt, a woman who was once perceived as loving plants and gardening beyond defensible reason. Yeah, lady -- so where are the gift books for gardeners? Surprisingly, the one I've chosen offers absolutely nothing in the way of information and everything a gardener needs to succeed...
This is a quiet collaboration between the poet and a few friends, and includes several remarkable pictures, poems and insights into this reverential journey some simply call life.
Stanley Kunitz, the former Poet Laureate, turned 100 this year and has had a long and intimate relationship with his seashore garden -- but the wisdom here is beyond managing soils and climates. ("I have a tendency when I'm walking in the garden to brush the flowers as I go by, anticipating the fragrant eloquence of their response. I get a sense of reciprocity that is very comforting, consoling.") This is precisely the kind of book a gardener would never take the time to read, and therefore just the thing to get that crazed being back into a state of grace.
'100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century'
Which is, arguably, the raison d'etre for poetry, and brings me to this collection edited by Mark Strand. I'm inclined to say that if you know the poetic preferences of your gift book "intended," you don't need Mr. Strand's 100-year overview. But his choices are so catholic, and include so many non-Americans, that I can't help but think that any poetry lover will discover new, sonorous voices.
Another former Poet Laureate, he describes his flock as "a hundred great poems", not "the hundred great poems", and that slight distinction gave me permission to enjoy without burdensome expectations. Don't go looking for anyone too contemporary, as all these men and women were born before 1932.
Who you'll find instead are under-represented Russians such as Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, some lesser known French, Turkish and Australian poets, and ample nourishment from old friends such as Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda and Robert Frost.
'Beethoven: The Universal Composer'
How reluctantly I come to the last book on the list! (What would you rather do, write book reviews or go back to work?) I will end, then, with an homage to the unfathomable...
I place into your cupped hands this beautifully produced little book boasting seductively deckle-edged pages, which complement the reverence in which we hold the man. This is a deft sketch of Beethoven, brevity being a key requirement in this Eminent Lives series, written by U.S. presidential biographer Edmund Morris.
The book begins like a ho-hum early sonatina, but becomes increasingly muscular (a very Beethoven-esque word) and satisfying. ("He would stand scribbling against tree trunks, at the side of the road, halfway through eating, halfway through shaving -- on fistfuls of manuscript paper or in large sketchbooks that bagged and dragged at his coat pockets.")
Beethoven is likely to entice the converted to do more substantive, musicological reading about the composer, and invite the newly initiated to do more thoughtful listening. I finished the book with a craving for the Missa Solemnis, so consider a CD combo for a knock-out, classical music gift.
Ok then! See why I'm humbled, as you shake your head in wonder at what I've left out (but don't you leave out The Rescue Artist, about the world of art theft!)? Whatever you choose, I have no doubt that any one of these books will leave friends and family marveling in the great, good luck of having you in their life.