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10 Eye-Catching Reads For The Book Lover On Your List

Nishant Choksi

Some books paint pictures with words; others use pictures to render us speechless. No matter the method, you'll lose yourself in the best possible way leafing through the volumes in this year's list of recommended gift books. If pages were like musical notes, these titles would produce a pretty great mashup. Envision one of photographer Cindy Sherman's crones in the forest of a Brothers Grimm tale. Set one of graphic novelist Chris Ware's "building stories" inside, say, the curvaceous contours of an architectural masterwork by Frank Gehry. And perhaps only a soul-deep poet like Louise Gluck could find words to describe the jolt of recognition you'll experience in photographer Tim Flach's stunning wildlife studies.

Imagination propels each of these exceptional books; use it when you set out with your shopping list to make the season bright.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gift Books

Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm

by Philip Pullman

"The fairy tale is not a text. ... [It] is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration," Philip Pullman states flatly in the introduction to the surprising Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Pullman isn't being self-justifying. In gently reworking the 50 vivid tales included here, the celebrated writer of The Golden Compass is merely continuing a storytelling tradition embraced by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm 200 years ago, when they took existing folk stories and spun them with their own degree of fancy into the first volume of Kinder- und Hausmarchen (Children's and Household Tales — better known in English as Grimms' Fairy Tales).

By streamlining and updating the Grimms' language for this 200th-anniversary celebration, Pullman's intent was to take the most enduring of the stories and render them in versions "as clear as water." The changes are subtle but refreshingly fluid. His "Snow White" begins not with the standard "Once upon a time" and "snowflakes the size of feathers," but this way: "One winter's day, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers, a queen sat sewing at her window." Reflected in Pullman's effort is, of course, a love and respect for the Grimm classics — and a desire to make them sing well into the 21st century. (Read Pullman's interpretation of the classic frog-prince story, which includes some elements that may surprise you.)

More Than Human

by Tim Flach and Lewis Blackwell

Tim Flach's studio must be a mess. For his 2008 monograph Equus, the British photographer trotted 40 horse breeds in front of the exacting lens of his large-format camera. Dogs (2010), which featured nearly 100 types of canine, was a sumptuous and wildly entertaining Best of Show. We Bought a Zoo would be a legitimate alternative title for More Than Human, Flach's latest gem. As genres go, "animal photography" sounds pandering and pedestrian, but with Flach as our viewfinder it's a revelatory walk through the wonders of the animal world.

His technique is impeccable; this is one of the most gorgeous photography books of the year. But what makes it more than a coffee-table trifle is the way Flach's images connect us — with near-tactile sensation and soulfulness — to the creatures on display. The book's title hints at the eerie similitude between man and beast at the heart of Flach's approach. Still, you'll be startled to see yourself mirrored in the soft blue eyes of a white tiger; in the playful affection between an adult and child chimpanzee; even in the ecstatic gyrations of the species Gallus gallus domesticus, because who among us hasn't done the chicken dance?


by Andrew Zuckerman

Where Flach uses black to offset most of his striking subjects, Andrew Zuckerman — another sharpshooter who has taken us inside the lion's den (2007's Creature) — uses white to set into vibrant relief the astonishing variety of botanical beauties in Flower. Some of our greatest photographers — Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston — have explored the erotic leanings and mysterious folds of the bloom. Zuckerman's crystalline vision is strictly G-rated, a celebration of color, dizzying form and natural wonder.

In other words, you won't have to worry about showing it to the kids. In fact, you should dip into Flower with them. To contemplate the 150 species gorgeously pictured here — to get lost in their bewildering delicacy, radiance and extravagant weirdness — is to tap into the essence of individuality.

Poems 1962-2012

by Louise Gluck

A pal of mine has a particularly hectic life. He's a father of two with a house in the suburbs, a long commute and a high-stress media job. Probably without his knowing it, his hair — at times rising off his head like a fright wig — has gotten wilder with each passing year. And yet, via email, he sends his friends a poem every day. "One must strive to be civilized," he says.

It's a good time for poetry. That's to say, in the past decade it has returned to prevalence in the wider culture — and we need it in these digitized and desensitized times. Arguably the poetry event of recent years is the publication of Poems 1962-2012, the collected works of former U.S. poet laureate Louise Gluck. Sunshine and songbirds are decidedly not the preoccupation of the 69-year-old Gluck. The nearly 400 poems gathered here take aim at the human experience straight on. But, as the cover image of Saturn and this verse from Gluck's poem "Lullaby" suggest, we aren't necessarily earthbound:

"The soul's like all matter:
why would it stay intact, stay faithful to its one form,
when it could be free?"

Blown Covers

by Francoise Mouly

For a publication so associated with long-form journalism, The New Yorker has always delivered its first blast of pleasure with a visual. As the magazine's art editor for nearly two decades, Francoise Mouly has coaxed from her accomplished stable of artists and illustrators some of the most memorable covers in the New Yorker's esteemed history. One of them is so renowned (or notorious) it need only be referred to as "the fist bump."

Of course, these works of genius are the result of careful collaboration and constant revision, and near misses abound. In Blown Covers, Mouly pulls the curtain back on the creative process, revealing, in sketch after sketch, just how fine the line is between an image that provokes and one that fizzles. Michael Jackson playing Santa with a child on his lap? Too uncomfortable. Lady Liberty hoisting a cone of "freedom fries"? Too trivial. In the wake of Dick Cheney's 2006 quail-hunting incident, Mark Ulriksen nailed the cover with an image of the shotgun-wielding veep and George Bush posed as the lovers from Brokeback Mountain. Among the sketches you didn't see until now? Cheney dropping an anchor on someone drowning and using a TV remote to accidentally blow up his wife. Yes, Blown Covers sometimes offends — and that's the audacious joy of it.

Building Stories

by Chris Ware

Think of the voyeuristic indulgence of Hitchcock's Rear Window. Move the action from a tenement in '50s-era Greenwich Village to a cluster of apartments in contemporary Chicago. Populate those apartments — seen in cross section, so floor upon floor of interior rooms are exposed — with emotionally naked lovers and loners. And render their messy lives in a painstakingly detailed line that, by any measure, qualifies as fine art.

In mood and existential weight, Chris Ware's unflinching graphic novel Building Stories is challenging. But lift the top off this spectacularly beautiful boxed set and you'll experience the giddy equivalent of unpacking Russian nesting dolls. So many disparate elements make up Building Stories — pamphlets, broadsheets, comics, a flipbook, magazines — that its publisher couldn't come up with a page count. That's fitting, since the universe Ware masterfully creates — a decade in the making, circuitous in its storytelling and teeming with hard truths — refuses to be neatly ordered.

Abstract City

by Christoph Niemann

If Ware sees cities as incubators of despair, German-born artist Christoph Niemann has turned his love affair with urban life into a source of bottomless fun. Abstract City is, in part, a thrillingly imaginative mash note to Niemann's adopted home of New York, where he lived for more than a decade while making his name as a graphic designer and illustrator. Compiled from the visual blog he authors for the New York Times, the book captures Niemann using everything from Lego blocks and autumn leaves to dust balls and cookie dough as material for his affectionate and quirky essays on city life.

Just as important to Niemann is the creative life, and few books have more probingly and humorously gotten inside the mind and day-to-day experience of an artist. "When you're young, you see a special work of art that touches something inside you," he writes in a caption accompanying a drawing of himself standing on a cliff, reaching for an elusive butterfly. "Next up is the painful realization that your heartfelt desire to make something special does not equal your actual ability to do so." And with that he plunges off the cliff — right into the pages of this uncommonly special book.

Cindy Sherman

by Cindy Sherman, Eva Respini, Johanna Burton and John Waters

Each year, the nation's museums put on a show for us. Many shows, in fact, and with each exhibition of important work comes a resplendent monograph. For the art-book lover, 2012 tantalized with excellent overviews on, among others, Roy Lichtenstein, Lucian Freud and Vincent van Gogh. It's possible that any of those books — bearing in mind even the sagging naked forms of Lucian Freud — would serve as a more pleasantly pictorial gift than Cindy Sherman. But the Sherman might be the most essential of the bunch.

Drawn from the Museum of Modern Art's superb, early-2012 retrospective, the book uses nearly 180 photographs to survey the postmodern master's 35-years-and-counting career. Sherman's singular artistry, exemplified by her heavily propped and often unsettling fictionalized self-portraits, explodes centuries of female stereotypes, dismantles the male gaze and challenges the frame of photography itself. A fine essay by the show's curator fleshes out Sherman's biography. And a chat between Sherman and filmmaker John Waters gets to the bottom of, debatably, the photographer's most outrageous series of images and her ambivalence about fame. Waters: "Did you do the gory disaster pictures when you were tired of everybody liking your work?" Sherman, laughing: "Yes, for sure. I said, 'Hang this vomit above your couch.' "

20th-Century World Architecture

by Phaidon Press

The folks at Phaidon Press seem to be going backward. Four years ago, they published a stunner of a book called The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture. The thing was the approximate size and weight of the Sears Tower. Last month, they circled back and forklifted into bookstores a similarly remarkable companion, 20th Century World Architecture. In a year when Ayn Rand unexpectedly reappeared on the culture map, who's to argue with a book about architecture or, for that matter, Phaidon's crazy ambition?

Every shopping guide needs its aspirational luxury gift — a present so physically formidable or expensive you'll think, "Can I? Should I?" This one, like its predecessor, is weighty enough to come with its own carrying case. But unpack the book and you'll float into a perspective-altering history of 750 era-defining buildings, precisely detailed with maps, drawings and more than 5,000 photographs. All the iconic landmarks are here — Fallingwater, Centre Pompidou, the Flatiron Building, the Sydney Opera House — along with the many breathtaking inventions of Frank Gehry, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano. And so are hundreds of inspiring global surprises. Is a budding Howard Roark on your shopping list? This one's for him.

The Best American Series

by Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor

Each year, dozens of the publishing industry's most dazzling art and photography titles pile up in my home; almost all of them are worthy candidates for this list and welcome additions to any bookshelf. And yet, the year-end package I most look forward to receiving holds only a handful of paperbacks — books I, paradoxically, never thought to suggest for giving until now.

Published annually by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt since 1915, the Best American series packs so much greatness into each of its smartly edited compilations that it's well worth rising above the mild discomfort of gifting a $14.95 paperback. The Best American Short Stories 2012 was edited by whip-smart novelist Tom Perrotta and includes a feast of fiction from, among others, Nathan Englander, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders and Alice Munro. In compiling The Best American Essays 2012, pundit David Brooks mined the sharp minds and work of Jonathan Franzen, Francine Prose and Sandra Tsing Loh. Once again, Dave Eggers has made fantastically oddball choices for his pet project, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. And Francoise Mouly carved out time from her New Yorker gig to tickle our funny bone and tweak our conscience with The Best American Comics 2012. There are also collections of travel writing and science and nature writing.

In 2000, John Updike selected a Raymond Carver masterpiece for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, which Updike edited. The story's title perfectly sums up each gem in this exemplary and indispensable series: "A Small, Good Thing."

John McAlley
John McAlley is the editor of NPR.org'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 NPR.org'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.