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Best Gift Books 2010: Art, Nature, Cute Canines

There's no doubt: Publishers are cutting back on the number of "big" books they're willing to bet their businesses on. By big books, I don't mean insta-blockbusters like George W. Bush's new memoir, Decision Points, or the next Wimpy Kid diary. I'm talking about lush photography books, coffee-table extravaganzas, exotic and quirky art projects; these are the beasts on the endangered species list.

Yet even in 2010 -- a year notable for economic bust and an e-reader boom -- art books, photographic retrospectives and other collectible gems continued to roam the earth. And for the person with a love of things substantial and beautiful, these books continue to make thrilling gifts.

But how to pick? For every taste and type of book I considered this year, there seemed to be two tantalizing choices. ("Decision points": They're not just for presidents.) So, for each of the 10 titles featured below, I've put a second option on the table -- a briefly described bonus book. You be the decider.


Natural History

Natural History: The Ultimate Visual Guide To Everything On Earth, hardcover, 648 pages, DK Publishing, list price: $50

Sorting through stacks of gift books is a guaranteed joy ride through landscapes of beauty. And no book in 2010 was more beautiful than Natural History. Another of DK Publishing's exquisitely realized reference guides, this one -- produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian -- is the perfect antidote for a world so enraptured by its smart phones that it has stopped seeing the wonders outside its door.

DK renders, in hundreds of pages of mesmerizingly detailed color photographs, our planet's incomprehensible variety of life: plants, flowers, fungi, rocks, minerals, microorganisms and a breathtaking menagerie of animals. Set down your Angry Birds for a sec and consider the unassuming majesty of the scarlet ibis -- or the apothecary rose, the peacock mantis shrimp, the crimson waxcap mushroom. If its quills make you quiver, wait until you get a load of a porcupine's teeth. You'll see the world anew, and be appropriately awed.

Then there's ...

Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race, hardcover, 256 pages, Grand Central, list price: $27.99

This loopy follow-up to America (The Book), from Jon Stewart and the gang at The Daily Show, borrows DK's visual-encyclopedia template and mines it for laughs. The premise: Create a handbook that makes sense of our earthly existence for the inevitable arrival of aliens. This is how Earth explains one leisure-time activity: "Staring into the void, embracing the nothingness, feeling one's own consciousness going blank -- no hobby provided an experience nearer to death than stamp collecting."


Finishing The Hat

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim, hardcover, 480 pages, Knopf, list price: $39.95

Most of us look back on, say, the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Hitchcock or Hemingway, and admire it from the distance of time. The privilege of witnessing the flowering and sustained brilliance of a living master, however, is rare. Rarer still is the chance to peek inside the creative process, examining with him the nuts and bolts of craft that somehow yield art -- in the case of composer Stephen Sondheim, the most thrilling musical-theater art of the past half-century. Finishing the Hat, the 80-year-old Sondheim's self-penned exploration of the first half of his extraordinary body of work, has been greeted with rave reviews since its October release, and it deserves every ovation.

For many of us, the Sondheim shows -- Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Sweeney Todd, to name just some of the theatrical works for which he wrote both the lyrics and the music -- have done more to inform our lives than almost anything else in our lives. Reliving them with Sondheim as our guide -- through backstage anecdotes, photographs, song sketches and a hypercritical dissection of his own work -- is like being the pencil in his hand as he pours his art onto his sheet music. It's no overstatement to say that this is the theater book of the decade.

Then there's ...

Sondheim On Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, by Mark Eden Horowitz, hardcover, 584 pages, Scarecrow Press, list price: $49.95

Understandably but unjustly overlooked in the whirl surrounding Finishing the Hat has been the just-released second edition of Library of Congress musicologist Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music. Where Finishing the Hat focuses almost exclusively on Sondheim's peerless lyric writing, Horovitz's much more academically minded book quotes the composer extensively about the music that makes the words soar.



Decade, by Eamonn McCabe and Terence McNamee, hardcover, 512 pages, Phaidon, list price: $39.95

Rocky though they may have been -- with terrorist attacks, two wars, the Indian Ocean tsunami, a global financial meltdown, Katrina and the BP oil spill, et al. -- the aughts ought not be forgotten. Decade, Phaidon Press' sequel to its best-selling photo history Century, tells the story of these many crises in riveting, chronologically ordered reportage photographs. Thankfully, it counterpoints the darkness with just enough wonder-inducing images to renew our faith for the decade to come: a Kiev old-timer, in men's bikini swim trunks, soaking up the sun in a full yoga headstand; the survivors of Sully's miraculous Flight 1549 awaiting rescue in the Hudson on heavenly wings. Given the perspective of a few years, even Madonna and Britney's lip-lock is worth getting misty over. The book opens with an image taken on Jan. 1, 2000, of L.A. County emergency workers bracing for the dire repercussions of the "Y2K" bug. It ends exhilaratingly with a 2010 photograph of a jubilant Quinceanera celebration in Mexico City.

Then there's ...

The Endless City, by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, paperback, 512 pages, Phaidon, list price: $49.95

If Decade is all about looking back, The Endless City hurtles us into an uncertain future of teeming urban life. Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic's book focuses on six explosively populous urban centers -- London, New York, Berlin, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Mexico City -- and explores the unruly character of each with fascinating factoids, statistical pie charts, photographs and essays. Heads up: By human gravitational pull alone, we all might end up in one of these hot spots some day.


40: A Doonesbury Retrospective

40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, by G.B. Trudeau, hardcover, 696 pages, Andrews McMeel, list price: $100

"A few words about what this collection is not," writes Garry Trudeau in his introduction to the mammoth 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. "It's not about Watergate, gas lines, cardigans, Reaganomics, a thousand points of light, Monica, New Orleans, or even Dubya. ... Admit it, you're relieved." Only grudgingly so.

For millions of readers, Trudeau's lacerating comic strip -- launched in 1970 as a campus doodle called Bull Tales -- has helped make tolerable some of the past four decades' most stupefying political outrages. Perhaps because it doesn't dote on Trudeau's beltway hobbyhorses, this gorgeously produced anniversary set -- compiling 2,000 or so of the 14,000 strips in Doonesbury's still-thriving run -- cuts closer to the core of modern American experience. What started as a riff on a lone knucklehead jock named B.D. has blossomed into a pen-and-ink chronicle of relatable (Mike), earthy (Joanie), egomaniacal (Roland), hallucinatory (Mr. Butts) and perpetually baked (Zonker) characters. There are so many of them, in fact, that they're impossible to keep up with. Just like our families and friends.

Then there's ...

Simpsons World The Ultimate Episode Guide (Seasons 1-20), by Matt Groening, hardcover, 1,200 pages, It Books, list price: $150

Half the age of Doonesbury but just as cockeyed, Matt Groening's The Simpsons gets its own thorough going over in the remarkable Simpsons World. This too is a monster of a book, with all 443 episodes of the show's first 20 seasons annotated in lunatic detail. These sublime trivialities include a tally of every time Homer has uttered "D'oh!" ("…after getting his head caught in between two sides of a drawbridge," in episode #5F17) and "Hmm" ("'Hmm … feed,' after Bart mentions the live NBC news feed," in episode #DABF20).


Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, by Peter Galassi, hardcover, 376 pages, MoMA, list price: $75

When the Museum of Modern Art mounted the career-spanning "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" this past spring, it was the late photography master's first retrospective in the States in three decades. Cartier-Bresson's work is so pervasive and his influence so complete that it hardly felt like he'd been away. The visual vocabulary the young Frenchman established in the 1920s, wielding his 35mm Leica with the ferocity of an artist and dexterity of a magician, earned him his enduring reputation as the "father of photojournalism" -- although that label barely hints at the beauty of his images.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, the like-titled monograph drawn from the MoMA show, expertly summarizes a peripatetic career, with photographs both well known and rarely seen. Whether canvassing the streets of his native Paris or documenting monumental world events in Germany, Shanghai and India, Cartier-Bresson's unerring eye always found the place where life and art intersected. Countless photography books this year aspire to that greatness. This one has it on every page.

Then there's ...

Simply Beautiful Photographs, by Annie Griffiths, hardcover, 504 pages, Focal Point, list price: $35

Cartier-Bresson shot exclusively in black and white. If sumptuous color images are your thing and you can stomach its pandering title, Simply Beautiful Photographs is well worth picking up. Its hundreds of electrifying images -- culled from National Geographic's bottomless archives -- are organized by aesthetic criteria: Composition, Light, Time, Palette, Moment and Wonder. This riveting photo book can also serve as a rich primer for young shooters.



Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, by Marilyn Monroe, hardcover, 256 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, list price: $30

It's not difficult to reconcile the ditz that Marilyn Monroe often played on screen with the part of arm candy she played in real life with Joe DiMaggio. Always more perplexing was her relationship with Arthur Miller, whose self-seriousness and intellect had the weight of a Rodin. The revelatory Fragments once again opens the book on Marilyn's legend by bringing to light dozens of her personal notes and poems.

One rumination from 1943, when the 17-year-old Norma Jeane Mortenson was a year into her first marriage, hints at the naivety and emotional complexity that would make her catnip to both the uneducated Yankee Clipper and the brooding playwright. "[I]n the beginning I would never have stayed with him," she writes, with many punctuation, spelling and typing errors, about her young husband James Dougherty, "but for his love of classical music his intellect which made a pretense at being more than it was and his desire to bring out any maturer qualities evolving personality or secual relations with me. It was a period in which I ran up against many doubts as to whether this young man of 21 was in unreality my suppressed edea of a dream man." Glimpses of the real Marilyn -- in the book's many candid photographs and even more revealing poems -- continue through the end of her life, in 1962. Unreality. By 1955, the lost and luminous Norma Jeane was spelling it "unrealality."

Then there's ...

Photobooth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait, by Raynal Pellicer, hardcover, 288 pages, Abrams, list price: $35

A different brand of snapshot fills the pages of this surprising gem. Elvis is here, and Warhol and John Lennon -- each of them captured in a dime-store photo strip. But the book is much more than a kitschy collectible. It tells the oddball history of the ferociously competitive pursuit of photobooth technology, and gives a substantial number of pages over to the decades of artists who've turned the boxy contraption into a playground for weird and wonderful image-making.


I Lego N.Y.

I Lego N.Y., by Christoph Niemann, board book, 32 pages, Abrams Image, list price: $14.95

Not all art requires a big canvas or high technology. When the images that make up the kid-friendly I Lego N.Y. first appeared in Christoph Niemann's New York Times blog Abstract City, their ingenious simplicity was a revelation. Working from Berlin, Niemann, a tremendously gifted German illustrator, built a monument to his fondness for NYC out of children's Lego blocks.

The elemental joining, into an L shape, of a few small yellow Lego pieces miraculously and ridiculously evoke memories of Donald Trump's hair. From three strategically aligned blocks Niemann renders the Gowanus Canal. Persuasive likenesses of a Nathan's hot dog and the Holland Tunnel take only the inspired jumbling of a fistful of penny plastic. Abrams has gathered these images into a "board book," the kind of small, industrial-strength flip book made to withstand the hammering and goopy fingers of kindergarteners. As a coffee-table trifle, it will leave your adult friends awestruck. But I Lego N.Y. really belongs in the playroom, as a spur to the imaginations of little Niemanns.

Then there's ...

The Exquisite Book: 100 Artists Play a Collaborative Game, by Julia Rothman, Jenny Volvovski, and Matt Lamothe, hardcover, 144 pages, Chronicle, list price: $29.95

Game playing among artists isn't new. A diversion of the surrealists was something called Exquisite Corpse, which has been adapted into The Exquisite Book. The concept is simple: 10 artists of divergent styles make a panel narrative from their 10 individual drawings. The one rule: Before putting pen to paper, each artist is only allowed to see the panel that precedes his or her own. The result: A fantastically quirky little art book whose ideas and pages literally just keep unfolding and unfolding.


I Found This Funny

I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All, by Judd Apatow, hardcover, 224 pages, McSweeney's, list price: $25

This holiday season, the last gift we'd have expected from the guy who conceived the chest-waxing scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin is a deeply thoughtful compendium of literary pieces called I Found This Funny. It's not that writer-director Judd Apatow's films -- which also include Knocked Up and Funny People -- lack smarts. You just don't figure that the mind that came up with "You look like Babe Ruth's gay brother ... Gabe Ruth" is spending a lot of time with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Carson McCullers.

Leave it to the folks at McSweeney's to tap Apatow's Updike-ian erudition. It speaks remarkably well of him that he esteems the delicate humor of such intricately crafted pieces as Raymond Carver's "Elephant" and Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." It speaks even better of him that the profits from his book -- which mixes these subtle humor pieces with more flat-out funny stuff from Philip Roth, David Sedaris, Steve Martin, Nora Ephron and Jonathan Ames, among many others -- go to 826 National, the organization committed to promoting creative writing among students age 6 to 18.

Then there's ...

Star Trek: The Original Series 365, by Paula M. Block, hardcover, 744 pages, Abrams, list price: $29.95

The freaks and geeks of Apatow's fan base probably already own this -- in triplicate. But, for the one or two of you who were picking up new light sabers on the day it came out, the book (the latest in Abrams' terrific "365" series of compact pop-cultural guides) is an absurdly rich trove of Trek arcana and photographs. Beam it up for those who refuse to heed Spock's words from season three: "We simply must accept the fact that Captain Kirk is no longer alive."


The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Fifth Edition), by David Thomson, hardcover, 1,088 pages, Knopf, list price: $40

Had the rapier-witted film critic David Thomson known of Judd Apatow's good works (see above), he might not have come down so hard on the bad stuff. Here's Thomson on Apatow's Funny People, from one of the new passages in the expanded edition of the Brit's indispensible New Biographical Dictionary of Film: "Like so much of Apatow's work it risks compromising a true adult sensibility with monotonous raunchy dialogue and penis jokes… . It has a lazy self-indulgent air that includes walk-ons for whatever celebrity Apatow met at dinner the night before shooting." And Thomson likes this film.

His magnum opus, first published in 1975, has always had its quirks -- peculiar omissions, mystifying defenses of things genuinely awful. The head scratching resumes in this update: there's a new entry on Scarlett Johansson but nothing on Ben Stiller, Steve Carell or Will Ferrell. Jake Gyllenhaal gains admittance but Heath Ledger, his better half in Brokeback Mountain, earns not even a nod in death. These, of course, are exactly the kinds of outrages that give the book its teeming life. If you're a film buff and don't already own it, well, "I drink your milkshake!" (cit. There Will Be Blood).

Then there's ...

Cahiers du Cinema's Masters of Cinema, paperback, 104 pages, Phaidon, list price: $9.95

Sixty years after its launch, the pioneering French film magazine has finally begun gathering its landmark criticism into books for English-speaking buffs. Each of its first 10 (nicely priced) offerings is devoted to a single cinema great -- including Hitchcock, Spielberg, Almodovar and Eastwood. In any language, a writer who dumps on Scorsese's New York, New York (as someone does here) is a critique idiot in my book.


Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger, by Barbara Kruger, hardcover, 307 pages, Rizzoli, list price: $65

Consider this recommendation an experiment in post-postmodernism. Barbara Kruger is, after all, the social critic and conceptual artist behind the defining cultural slogan of the past quarter-century: "I shop therefore I am." Would she even want you to buy this book? Let's hope so. It thrums with big ideas and tons of thrilling art. It's not a typical picture book, per se. There's no flipping through it. Each page -- each work -- dares you to stop and digest its blaring messages and dense philosophies about consumerism, feminism, power, autonomy, desire.

Contemplate just the 10 images that open the book, the most comprehensive volume ever devoted to Kruger's work: Superimposed over identical, tightly cropped enlargements of Marilyn Monroe's face are the massively scaled words "GOOD," "PRAY," "HATE," "HELP," "ENVY," "FATE," "FEAR," "EVIL," "LUST" and "LOVE." That's all before the table of contents. Since the bulk of Kruger's art takes the form of immense installations -- in public spaces, galleries, museums -- the book is largely made up of photographs of these chaotic splashes of expression. It's not quite like being there, but it doesn't make the work less of a heady trip. Strap yourself in and take the ride.

Then there's ...

Dogs, by Tim Flach, hardcover, 216 pages, Abrams, list price: $50

It doesn't take much thinking at all to get the messages that dogs are sending out: "FOOD," "WALK," "LOVE" -- in about that order. Tim Flach's gorgeous photographic love letter to man's best friend is, obviously, completely unrelated to Kruger's consciousness-tweaking tour de force. But as warm and fuzzy gifts go, it's a no-brainer alternative to every excellent book on this list.

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John McAlley
John McAlley is the editor of's Books We Like series. A longtime top editor at Harper's Bazaar, InStyle, Us and Entertainment Weekly, McAlley has written for GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Spin and's Monkey See blog. He has worked as a photo editor at Rolling Stone and been a contributor to Aperture. He lives in Dallas, Texas.