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The Coffee Table

“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.

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.

 

Speaking of Linnaean toilers, one of the best art books of the season is Peter Sís’ illuminated biography of Charles Darwin, Tree of Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 44 pages, $18). Many know Sís, the Czech author and illustrator, from his drawings in publications like The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Book Review and the poster for the movie Amadeus. For these, as well as his previous books about knowledge seekers like Galileo (Starry Messenger), Sís was awarded a MacArthur fellowship only weeks before The Tree of Life appeared. Noting that the great naturalist himself never learned to draw, Sís spent four years telling Darwin’s story, from infancy to scientific celebrity, through rich and luminous crosshatched and pen-pricked drawings that deftly convey an incredible amount of information as well as the magic of pure discovery. This is one of those picture books that make for great casual glancing or could easily take days to read. Even the end pages are pictographic quilts further exploring the significance of Darwin’s life. And don’t forget the gatefold toward the end, which lays out the exact propositions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, with morphological series of whales and finches looking on at the edges.

In this one-company town, recommending a movie-history compendium feels like suggesting that you re-read the employee handbook in your spare time. But if there’s a recent, solid single volume that covers the bases, it would be Cinema Today (Phaidon, 512 pages, $70). Well-organized and nicely written, Cinema Today spans the years from 1970 to the present — what editor Edward Buscombe calls the “Third Age,” when the breakdown of the studio system and the coming of the blockbuster shaped the contours of today’s film industry. After an introductory chapter and some time on genres, Buscombe turns to sexual and racial politics in film for a bit and then spends the rest of the book abroad, with a chapter for each region of world cinema and enough detail to mention the 46 movies directed by and often starring Prince Sihanouk, the twice-reigning monarch of Cambodia. The breadth is a welcome departure from many similar anthologies. Cinema Today is the best kind of movie book: the kind that sparks a desire to experience film in full.

For the cinema specialist, one to look for is the new valentine to the work of Werner Herzog (Jovis, 127 pages, $35). Compiled by Swiss photographer Beat Presser, who worked for many years with Herzog and his muse/foil Klaus Kinski, the book is a collection of photos, notes and comments by colleagues like Volker Schlöndorff. The section on Herzog’s opera productions is sadly too short; only a few photos of Herzog putting together Doktor Faust in 1985 and a mention of his celebrated Lohengrin production at the Bayreuth Festival the next year hint at the passion behind his equally celebrated film Fitzcarraldo. But for anyone with Herzog fever, the book will satisfy. A hefty section on Invincible, a recent Herzog film involving the incredible and true story of Hitler’s Jewish clairvoyant, is of special interest.

Laura Wilson’s Avedon at Work in the American West (University of Texas Press, Austin, 132 pages, $40) chronicles another master at work. Wilson, a photographer herself, accompanied Richard Avedon during his years in the West in the late ’70s and early ’80s, helping arrange the portraits and taking her own shots of the project unfolding. Some of the final 123 giant prints, among the best photographic portraiture ever produced, are featured in the book, along with Wilson’s snapshots and a good amount of text, including notes from Avedon, that together give valuable background on the subjects and the places, much of which was purposely absent from the originals, whose blank white background was meant to erase the narrative prejudice of the Western landscape. Seeing Avedon learning the two-step with one of his oil-field workers in a Texas trailer belies the controversy in some circles that Avedon’s subjects fell victim to the modern problem of beautiful exploitation. Movingly, the book also reproduces some letters from the mothers of two drifters, who contacted Avedon after their sons died.

 

Also expertly treading the borderline of potential exploitation in the desert is photographer Timothy Hursley’s new collection, Brothels of Nevada: Candid Views of America’s Legal Sex Industry (Princeton Architectural Press, 191 pages, $25). Hursley’s interest is architecture, and since the 1980s he’s taken pictures of almost every legal den of sin in Nevada. From the famous Mustang Ranch to tiny outposts like Bobbie’s Buckeye Bar near Tonopah, Hursley’s photos make a stunning series without resorting to prurience. His pictures, in fact, are almost entirely people-less; the empty exteriors and rooms suggest what they’re meant for. One view of the Chicken Ranch, as a horizontal sliver of light in a big field of black, re-creates the way the brothel might appear on the nighttime horizon to an approaching visitor, looking to choose between an all-night, two-hour, one-hour, half-hour or 15-minute sex stop. Another photograph, at the defunct Janie’s Ranch, shows a carpet-walled interior with a collapsing ceiling and a hole — heart-shaped — that lets in bright sunlight through the floor. Among all the brothels, Hursley’s naturally lit bedrooms, decorated with pictures, knickknacks and other personal items, remind us that these places also function as homes for their working-girl residents.

If it’s skin you’re after, the tome to crack is Adam Parfrey’s It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps (Feral House, 287 pages, $30). Parfrey has put together an impressive collection of covers and illustrations from that long-gone stream of magazines like Adam, Mr., Swagger, For Men Only and Man’s Life that once crowded the tawdrier newsstands. In the opening pages, Parfrey assembles recollections and interviews with some of the mainstays of the pulp trade, such as Mario Puzo and editor Bruce Jay Friedman. But the real draw begins at Page 53, the start of more than 200 pages of full-color covers featuring howling Apaches, deranged Nazi sadists, monstrous wildlife, and lots of blondes in garters, preferably yoked to bamboo poles in the jungle by communist revolutionaries. The book is fun, and you could spend forever reading the teasers — “Women Who Raffle Their Love,” “Milwaukee: Dames, Dice and Dope,” and “Writhe, my lovely, in the tent of torture” — but what’s also revealed is how much these magazines were repositories of redbaiting, fear mongering about civil rights, and other reactionary

sensationalism. So, as you flip through and marvel at the illustrations, you can also be glad they’ve now passed into the realm of nostalgia.

The same goes for the magnetic but false vitality of those great Chinese Propaganda Posters (Taschen, 320 pages, $39.99). Taschen’s latest reproduces hundreds of the graphics that dominated Chinese visual and political culture from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 up until the early ’80s, when Deng Xiaoping replaced the Great Leap Forward with the new slogan of Chinese Communism: “To Get Rich Is Glorious.” Unlike our soft propaganda, China’s famous posters were required, explicit and instructional, with didactic text such as “Become an heir of the Revolution.” Picture that printed below a schoolgirl with a resolute stare and a red cravat, while scenes from Stories of Lei Feng, Red China’s Horatio Alger, dance in the background. Along with the images are illuminating text contributions. If ever there was a need to learn from the propaganda of the past, it’s now.

Other notable titles: Tree Tops Tall (Steidl, 96 pages, $45), lofty arboreal photographs; Taschen’s Favorite 1,000 Websites (Taschen, 608 pages, $39.99), a survey of Web design, with DVD, for browsing or as a resource; Ed Ruscha (Phaidon, 272 pages, $75), a new monograph on our local master; Anne Fishbein: On the Way Home (Perceval Press, 118 pages, $45), haunting photos of Russia from the Weekly photographer; Leonardo Da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings (Taschen, 696 pages, $150), 10 bountiful chapters that live up to the title; Italian Film Posters (Museum of Modern Art, 160 pages, $39.95), the best of a lost art, with an essay by Dave Kehr; Giraffes? Giraffes! (McSweeney’s, 64 pages, $24), an indescribably great piece of publishing.


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