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The Coffee Table 

Dames, dice and dope: holiday gift books revisited

Thursday, Dec 18 2003

“I think there’s something extremely peaceful about picture books,” says John Flansburgh, one half of the band They Might Be Giants. “They’re very elegant and leisurely, like few other things in the world.” Clearly, Flansburgh is enthusiastic about his latest project, Bed Bed Bed (Simon and Schuster, 48 pages, $16.95), which he co-authored with partner John Linnell. And that enthusiasm is not misplaced: Bed Bed Bed is a charming, compact book with an equally charming compact disc tucked into a little rear pouch. The CD’s four original tracks add a characteristically whimsical score to the book’s text and illustrations, which themselves make a damned fine children’s book that’s of just as much interest to adults. Twinkling with an endless cast of fanciful creatures drawn by the prodigious and gifted Canadian artist Marcel Dzama, each page of Bed Bed Bed could be a print worth hanging on the wall. The loose narrative begins with “Impossible,” a tale of creative opportunity that, after some fun, lands on a soft pillow three ditties later with the titular song. As a girl snuggles under the covers with her dog, and a boy’s orangish-root-beer-colored octopus sleeps beside him on the floor, the closing tune makes a somnambulant march alongside a pumping tuba: “I’ve had my fun. I’ve stretched and yawned, and all is said and done. I’m going to bed! Bed, bed, bed, bed, bed.”

Another multimedia entry from a smarty-pants musician is David Byrne’s attempt to redeem us all — the “pod person” businessman, the “boho” artist and even the Microsoft programmer — with Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (Steidl, 96 pages, $56), an intriguing embrace of PowerPoint as an artistic medium. EEEI is a compilation of projects Byrne has put together over the past few years, in an attempt to see if PowerPoint can be led out of its darkened boardroom purgatory and into a realm of some actual meaning. Slightly oversize and handsomely put together, EEEI is first off a tactile experience: The book slides out of its case with a satisfying swoosh and reveals a series of illustrations ranging from striking to peculiar, some augmented with transparency overlays and all accompanied by a DVD embedded in the book’s cover. The six sections in the book and the corresponding DVD are different investigative shades of the weird creative frisson arising out of applying a lifeless business tool to art. Byrne, who’s worked in visual arts while also fronting Talking Heads, gives movement to the inherent silliness of PowerPoint’s symbology and logic: Who knew, for example, what a graphic resource those AutoShapes could be? The book itself is nice enough in your lap, but the deal-maker is the DVD, where you can watch brief ballets of curved arrows floating into patterns to the sound of Verdi’s “Un Di Felice.” In my favorite section, “Self-Exemplification,” Byrne inverts PowerPoint’s usual arid pragmatism by having words like satisfied, terrified, petrified and purified appear slowly around a compass point — a hint at direction, but still satisfyingly hazy.

Since his photos of Brasilia and Havana started appearing in The New Yorker a few years ago, Robert Polidori has helped popularize the notion that architectural photography can be exquisite imagery that is also motivated by ideas. Now, Polidori has turned his viewfinder to yet another politically — and this time radioactively — charged landscape in Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl (Steidl, 111 pages, $50). It was early in the morning of April 26, 1986, when a test at the Unit 4 reactor at Chernobyl went awry and led to a meltdown that, among many effects, created an explosion that blew off the reactor’s thousand-ton sealing cap, sent a radioactive plume across Europe and caused the forced evacuation of 350,000 people. What remains is compellingly documented in Zones, which opens with a somber exterior of the “sarcophagus,” an ad hoc concrete structure that the Soviet authorities built to cover up the radioactive disaster. The book’s full-page reproductions give a good sense of the sweep of Polidori’s large-format prints, and it is Polidori’s terrific eye and technique that lend a sympathetic beauty to even the most inhospitable environment, like a kindergarten littered with desks, dolls and radioactive dust, and a school cafeteria whose floor is covered with hundreds of abandoned gas masks. Equally intriguing is the final snapshot of Polidori himself — setting up his tripod and camera in hazmat gear and a respirator around his neck — with a short commentary reminding us that the half-lives of radioactive isotopes are not nearly as short as collective memory.

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Who knows how many actual surfers would regularly turn to a desk reference for their craft; but, as in any folkloric human endeavor, there comes a time when a scholar begins jotting all that knowledge down. The Linnaean toiler behind The Encyclopedia of Surfing (Harcourt, 774 pages, $40) is Matt Warshaw, himself a former pro and editor of Surfer magazine. And his effort lives up to the title: The book’s many hundreds of entries give solid background, from early surfing accounts in Captain Cook’s logs to the moment when today’s tow-in surfing was invented in the eerily perfect North Carolina surf of 1991’s Halloween Storm (which, we learn, was also Sebastian Junger’s infamous Perfect Storm). Want to know the precise characteristics of a point break? Turn to Page 467. And when was that fabled six-week consecutive run of flawless waves at Kirra? Page 324. Probably due to space considerations, the book is short on illustrations, but that is made up for by Warshaw’s well-written, captivating and, at times, funny prose. If it weren’t for the desire to cross-reference, one could sit and read this thing cover to cover. Aside from a few curious blanks — nothing on Venice or Dogtown — the Encyclopedia will satisfy initiates, dilettantes and casual observers, and probably remain the definitive volume for many years.

  • Dames, dice and dope: holiday gift books revisited

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