Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Art & Culture

Amazing Baby by Desmond Morris (Firefly) 192 pages
After this, the joke that children don’t come with an owner’s manual might have to be put on hold. Celebrated zoologist Desmond Morris’ Amazing Baby fills that long empty hole: and so much more. This is the complete baby, a coffee table book so beautiful and perfect, in future no baby shower will ever be complete without a copy. Amazing Baby covers all the topics, handles all the questions, raises all the issues. From practical advice (nursing, weaning, waste control) to systems evaluations (the skeleton, the feet, the senses), it seems as though nothing has been overlooked. In his foreword, Morris tells us that “babies are more than just babies. They also happen to be our only certain form of immortality, in the sense that they carry on our genetic line, ensuring that our genes do not die out when we ourselves come to the end of our own lives.” With gorgeous photos, exquisite reproduction and fascinating text, the importance of babies both to our lives and to our well-being seems never to have been forgotten. -- Monica Stark

The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey & Passions by Quincy Jones (Insight Editions)
The life and times of media giant Quincy Jones isn’t new territory. For anyone interested in the man, there have been a couple of film documentaries and his autobiography, published just a few years ago. The thing is, what makes Quincy such a god in show business is also the what makes him so fascinating to read about and hear about, again and again. There’s always something new to see and hear, some new story, some fresh insight. The Complete Quincy Jones is different from other books -- even his own -- because it’s fully illustrated with photos and reproductions of items from his life. Other books have done this, and they’re always interesting. But here, something about the text and the selection of items transcends. Quickly moving through Quincy’s life, the stories sort of hop, skip, and jump through time, hitting the high notes: his childhood, his work in the music business, his barrier-breaking work scoring films and television series, and the mentoring and branching out to other media that have filled his later life. Quincy’s life is one that we imagine we can understand by listening to his music. After all, someone who’s been at it this long and this relentlessly must leave breadcrumbs of his life in his work -- but as I said, this book’s breadcrumbs, if you will, are tangible. Meaningful articles, a family photo album, a report card, handwritten notes, personal calendar pages, concert handbills, sheet music, and scores of archival photographs. All of this material brings the stories to life in a new way that’s nothing less than hypnotic. And peppered throughout are tributes from many of the people Quincy has worked with: four of the biggest guns -- Maya Angelou, Clint Eastwood, Bono and Sidney Poitier -- are all mentioned on the front cover, and they only scratch the surface. But beyond all the marquee names, the one that matters here is Quincy’s. He’s the real attraction. While biographical material about him abounds elsewhere, this beautiful book stands alone as a testament to the man’s work and life. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Fruit: Edible, Inedible, Incredible by Wolfgang Stuppy and Rob Kesseler (Firefly) 264 pages
One look is all that’s required to understand that this sterling journey is very like one that we’ve been on before. The work is arresting, distinctive, familiar, yet it covers entirely new ground. Rob Kesseler is a professor at Saint Martins College of Art and Design. And he’s also the co-author of two previous books, also published by Firefly in North America: Pollen and Seeds. Like those previous works, Fruit is little short of astonishing. If the book never gets further than your coffee table, it’s still likely to blow the stuffing out of anything else laid near it. Physically, it’s a very large book. But though size is what makes it possible to really appreciate what we’re seeing here, it isn’t everything. And what we’re seeing is, of course, fruit. But it is depicted here in such magnificent ways that almost any one of the scores of images included would do well to be hung on a gallery wall. This isn’t art, though. At least, not in the usual sense. In this context, they are illustrations for a fantastic book, one that offers up a journey quite unlike any you’ve been on before: “As this book will reveal,” we are told in the very first chapter, “fruits are part of an elaborate plot. Their true nature is revealed by what is buried in their core: their seeds. Seeds are the most complex and precious organs plants ever produce, as it is the seeds that carry the next generation.” Like a seed, this is the barest sliver of the knowledge available. Reading all of Fruit is like a fantastic mini education. Don’t feel like reading? Just look at the pictures. They’ll take you away. -- David Middleton

Notes on a Life by Eleanor Coppola (Nan A. Talese) 306 pages
An artist’s view of life. A filmmaker’s view of a life spent in film. A mother’s comment, joy and lament. Notes on a Life could easily have been just another celebrity bio but it is so, so much more. In fact, it’s never that at all. Many lives are rich and hold deep wells of experience and emotion to mine, and often it’s enough. However Eleanor Coppola’s Notes on a Life adds another layer. This is Eleanor Coppola -- yes, that Coppola -- and thus her internal mining is studded with encounters with people and faces we already know. Marlon said this. Frank said that. Wasn’t Sofia darling when she did that? All of these things add to the book. Take it to another even richer place. -- Monica Stark

The Surface of Meaning by Robert Bringhurst (Simon Fraser University) 240 pages
I feel as though I waited for The Surface of Meaning for a long time. Of course, like many designers, I knew that Bringhurst was working on another book. It was expected to be an important one, even in the course of a long and important professional history. The Surface of Meaning does not disappoint. In the acknowledgements, Bringhurst tells us that putting the book together was “in some respects more like curating an exhibition of sculpture or painting than like anything in the normal round of editing and publishing.” Considering the nature of this particular work, this isn’t surprising since, as the subtitle indicates, the book is about Books and Book Design in Canada. Bringhurst delivers the goods. The Surface of Meaning is the history, the encyclopedia and -- yes -- celebration of the book. And though the focus is on Canada, designers and typographers everywhere will want this one for their library. I’m quite certain The Surface of Meaning is one of the most important books about books published thus far in this millennium. -- David Middleton

The Water Garden by Leslie Geddes-Brown (Merrell) 192 pages
Leslie Geddes-Brown’s The Water Garden explores the use of water in the landscape in every way conceivable. In large, art coffee table book style, The Water Garden looks closely at the idea of water in the garden through a series of really great photographs as well as Geddes-Brown’s expert text. An accomplished journalist who has contributed to some of the leading magazines and newspapers in the world on the topic of houses and gardens, Geddes-Brown is the author of several books including The Walled Garden, The Floral Home and Waterside Living. The water garden in history, the Oriental water garden, the Islamic water garden, the formal water garden, the romantic water garden and many other aspects are explored through text and photos in some detail. It’s a stunning book, one meant alternately to inspire and to soothe. I would love to create a garden like any of those included in the book. However, I lack the space and -- to be perfectly honest -- I likely lack the wherewithal, as well. The Water Garden, though, is a wonderful journey for the armchair gardener as well as those who might be in a position to act on their inspiration. -- Aaron Blanton

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