If you’re stuck for a gift idea, there’s one reliable idea for almost everyone on your list: A big, glossy, decorative special book. In other words, consider a coffee-table book. Here are some of the best of 2013.
PICK OF THE CROP
“The Great War: A Photographic Narrative,” by Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts (Knopf, 504 pages, $100), provides an astonishingly complete visual guide to World War I, “the war to end all wars,” which instead gave direct rise to the horrors of World War II, Communism, the troubles in the Middle East which persist today, and wars too numerous to mention. The black-and-white images, chosen by Roberts from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, show the sufferings of all sides in this act of collective suicide, a good-guy-free conflagration that raged from Africa to Russia and throughout Europe. They’re aided by notes, including timelines and sickening statistics, as the jaunty kepis give way to steel helmets, and cheery boys on the march turn into haggard veterans. A century on, the photographs have not lost their punch; color images of uniform jackets, some showing the marks of horrific wounds to their wearers, divide the sections and subtly show the progress of the war. This is more than a trifle to skim; it’s an important document of a conflict that should never have been.
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Opera combines all the arts, from vocal and instrumental music to drama to the visual arts, and the great opera houses are designed to provide a worthy home for them. “The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World,” with photography by Guillaume de Laubier and text by Antoine Pecquer (Abrams, 240 pages, $60), showcases more than two dozen of them, mostly in Europe. Two are in the United States: Chicago’s amazing Art Deco Civic Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera. The Met, with its strange gilded sculpture (leftover construction materials painted gold?) above the proscenium, is on the cover, but the others are all worth a look.
Lucky train buffs: There always seems to be a great new book for them. This year, it’s “A Steam Odyssey: The Railroad Photographs of Victor Hand” (Norton, 228 pages, $75). Hand trained as a lawyer in the mid-1960s but took off on a worldwide pursuit of steam engines as soon as he passed the bar. In 162 black-and-white photos, Hand shows us locomotives in Mexico, the Soviet Union, Britain, the United States and every other place where they could be found.
The emphasis in “Music: The Definitive Visual History” (Smithsonian, 480 pages, $50) is definitely on the “visual”; a sampler CD would have been a useful accoutrement. It’s impressive within its boundaries and aims to be all-encompassing on the subject, from 60,000 B.C. to the present day.
“Art That Changed the World” (DK, 400 pages, $40) is a good one-stop resource for anyone with an interest in art and art history, with timelines, explanations of what makes a movement a movement, and in-depth looks at a few particularly significant works.
“Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945,” by Karen K. Butler (assistant curator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University) in collaboration with Renee Maurer (DelMonico Books, 240 pages, $49.95), is a scholarly and well-illustrated (with 120 illustrations) examination of the work of a father of Cubism.
Lynn Goldsmith is a child of the ’60s whose photographs chronicled the pop-rock music scene: Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson. Now she’s put the photos of rock legends, has-beens and never-weres with her stories about their making in “Rock and Roll Stories” (Abrams, 400 pages, $60), in chapters with titles like “Better Than Sex” and “Photo Nightmares.”
“Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection” (Smithsonian, 368 pages, $40) is a handsome look at a war whose effects still echo 150 later. It’s one to browse, with pages of photographs of uniforms, equipment and the people involved, along with one-page looks at a particular aspect of the conflict: Zouaves, treating the wounded, flags and the “Miscegenation Ball,” among others.
“The New York Times Complete World War II: The Coverage From the Battlefields and the Home Front” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 612 pages plus DVD, $40) amounts to a gigantic clipping file, heavy on the news stories and light on images. This is journalism of an earlier day, without the skepticism seen in the conflicts that have arisen post-Vietnam, but it provides a vivid picture of how the war was viewed. Included is a DVD with more than 98,000 articles, for an exhaustive source of information.
“This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains,” with photographs by Nancy Warner and text by David Stark (Columbia University Press, 128 page, $39.95), is a melancholy, touching look at a vanishing way of life — the rural culture of the Nebraska plains. Photos of ruined buildings are matched with tantalizing excerpts from the lives of the people who lived in them.
“St. Louis Walk of Fame: 140 Great St. Louisans” (St. Louis Walk of Fame, 175 pages, $25) isn’t a pretty book, but it does contain a lot about the people behind those stars on the sidewalk in the Delmar Loop. Founder Joe Edwards wrote the foreword, and you’ll find everything from a list of honorees to a map with locations.
“New Regionalism: The Art of Bryan Haynes,” by Bryan Dawes Haynes; edited by Karen Glines (Missouri Life Media; 208 pages ; $49.99) showcases the artistic world of “New Regionalist” Bryan Haynes and the rural Missouri he loves. Filled with scenic landscapes and figures including Osage Indians, pioneers and farmers, Haynes makes effective use of light and form in everything from advertisements to murals.
Missouri has some beautiful landscapes; nowhere is the state more beautiful than along its namesake river. “Missouri River Country: 100 Miles of Stories and Scenery from Hermann to the Confluence,” edited by Daniel A. Burkhardt and Connie Burkhardt (Missouri Life, 192 pages, $39.95), looks at the eastern part of the state, from Hermann to the Confluence, illustrated with scores of beautiful paintings and photos, with essays by a host of authors, including William Least Heat-Moon, artist Billyo O’Donnell, Peter Wyse Jackson and Peter H. Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden and former Post-Dispatch writers Joe Bonwich and Robert W. Duffy.
Who better to produce a travel-related coffee-table book than National Geographic? In “Four Seasons of Travel” (National Geographic, 320 pages, $40) we see again that they’ve got the budget to go anywhere and the photographers to capture arresting images, from Japanese cherry blossoms to Provencal lavender and sunflowers, from New York state fall foliage to a Quebecois winter carnival. In between, there’s a horse race in the heart of Sienna, a New Mexican balloon fiesta, the Top 10 Harvest Festivals and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The writing is informative, but it mostly serves to provide a spacer between the almost uniformly striking photography.
“City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts,” by Catie Marron, with photographs by Oberto Gili (Harper, 304 pages, $50), is heavy on the celebrity essays (by the likes of Bill Clinton, Candice Bergen, Jonathan Alter and Pico Iyer) and relatively light on the photos. With looks at 18 parks, including the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy; Kyoto’s Maruyama Koen; New York’s High Line; and the Maidan in Calcutta, it’s a natural for the armchair traveler.
Vanity Fair has long “mixed high ideas with low gossip,” as the jacket copy reads for “Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age,” edited by Graydon Carter (Abrams, 456 pages, $65), and this hefty tome chronicles the magazine’s coverage of trends and celebrities dating to well before trends and celebrities were recognized by those names. There are essays and commentaries, with acres of arresting photographs by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, covering politics, the arts and lots and lots of movie stars.
“Lookie-Lous,” as they’re known in the trade, are a fact of life at open houses. “Inside the White House: Stories From the World’s Most Famous Residence” (National Geographic, 352 pages, $40) lets anyone look in on the people and history of the White House, from planning stages to the present, with information on residents, their pets, visiting dignitaries and the coming of electricity and water closets.
You’ll be hard put to find a shelf to hold “Skyscrapers,” by Judith Dupre (Black Dog & Leventhal, 176 pages, $29.95), a new edition of her 1996 classic: It’s a long and skinny book, a fitting size for its subject matter. It’s full of photos and fun facts about tall famous buildings old and new, from proto-skyscrapers like the Pyramids to still-under-construction projects in Asia and the Middle East.
Football fans appreciate the variety in the venues devoted to their sport, and “Football Stadiums: A Guide to Professional and Top College Stadiums,” by Lew Freeman (Firefly, 320 pages, $35), looks at more than 130 of them, including the home of every NFL team, in photos that strive to differentiate between them in the best possible ways. Mizzou fans, however, won’t find much here to love: Memorial Stadium is not among the elect, and the Tigers’ only mention comes in the pages dedicated to the University of Kansas Jayhawks.