. . . is a Welshman who sings, Willie's guitar with gut strings, and a cheery bluesman named King. Plus books about trucks, teapots and tile to celebrate the season with style
GEE, IT'S NOT SHAPING UP TO BE MUCH OF a Christmas here at NEWSWEEK. The election follies are over, Newt's profile is so low we may get letters asking "Newt who?" and the stock market still hasn't crashed. So by way of consolation, we went out and bought stuff--all the books and CDs we've wanted all year--the excuse being that it's time to do gift ideas again. It's not that these things aren't great (though Sun Ra's Disney tribute may not be the thing for Uncle Harry). But what we'd give for a good donnybrook, even a flap--or news that, say, hair loss could be reversed by surfing the Net. So Noel, have a good one, and hang on. We'll get through this season. Always have.
There's no sense tiptoeing around this: we've found the ideal gift for the art lover on your list, and you can't afford it. It's the Grove Dictionary of Art (32,600 pages. $8,800). It's got 34 stately dark green, mostly readable volumes, written by 6,700 art historians. It's got pictures. And guess what. The closest you're realistically going to get to it is in a very well endowed library. So get over it.
Back in the real world, Colin Eisler's Masterworks in Berlin: A City's Paintings Reunited (Bullfinch. $125) reminds us of the treasures that can now easily be seen on a trip to the reunited German capital. Berlin has no 800-pound gorilla of a museum like Paris's Louvre, but it has a bunch of first-rate second-tier institutions, many hidden behind the Iron Curtain for half a century. And we've got a pocket-size stocking-stuffer: Books of Hours (Phaidon. $8.95). In the Middle Ages, "hours" were flexible amounts of time bracketed by prayer, and small, illuminated "books of hours" guided devotions; this eclectic sampling reproduces lovely pages in almost the original sizes.
Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (Phaidon. $59.95) isn't the only such book you'll find out there--just the best. Sabin is thorough and likes all the right people (George Herriman, Harvey Kurtzman). When someone like R. Crumb dominates an era, Sabin gives him a lot more space than some mindlessly "evenhanded" survey would. Production values? A-plus.
To you, magazine-cover artists may be no higher than cartoonists on the food chain. Not to us. In 1962, Esquire magazine hired adman George Lois to design covers that would be the visual equivalent of the writers' irreverent "new journalism." Covering the '60s: George Lois--The Esquire Era (Monacelli. $35) has the classics: Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell's tomato soup, Sonny Liston in a Santa hat. These images remind us that in weird times, being a smartass may be healthier than keeping a stiff upper lip. On the other hand, the ravishing, red-boxed The Best of Flair (HarperCollins. $250) is enough to depress the hell out of us. This fashion magazine debuted in 1950 and died after 12 lavish issues, festooned with expensive die-cuts and pullouts and featuring essays by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and George Bernard Shaw. There's a message here about the realities of the magazine business that we are just not up for hearing during the holiday season. But you go ahead and enjoy.
One Time, One Place. Photographs by Eudora Welty (University Press of Mississippi. $27.50). While working for the WPA in the '30s, the then not-so-famous writer photographed, in black and white, fellow Mississippians butchering hogs, making molasses, lugging ice from the icehouse. Her sense of detail--the way white dresses at a Holiness church seem to glow from within, say--educates the eye to what's around us when we close the book. Welty's people couldn't have afforded the funkiest clunker in Pickups: Classic American Trucks (Random House. $39.95). And most of these vehicles--a 1913 International MW with a load of hay, a tailfinned, electric blue 1960 El Camino--have been lovingly, expensively restored. West Virginia barber Ron Jones's '33 Chevy truck is shot parked in front of a church sign reading PUT YOUR WILL IN NEUTRAL SO GOD CAN SHIFT YOU.
Erwin Blumenfeld's '50s photo of a gussied-up model resting her enigmatic face on the hood of a Caddy is a universe away, but the Cars "R" Us subtext is the same. Blumenfeld, who shot for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, was once a Dada collagist; Blumenfeld Photographs: A Passion for Beauty (Abrams. $60) shows that in photographing "the eternal feminine," he kept a smidgen of ironic distance.
We might've known there'd be a resurgence of tilemaking: there's everything else. Tile (Artisan. $35), by Jill Herbers and Roy Wright, and Tiles (Potter. $40), by Olivia Bell Buehl and Lisl Dennis, both look great. And these folks sure know tile. But if you buy only one tile book this year, make it Mosaics of Roman Africa (George Braziller. $90), displaying the elegant floor tiling the Romans did in Tunisia from the 2d to the 4th century. We used to think tiles were just to put teapots on. Have we learned! And we've learned about teapots, too. Garth Clark's The Eccentric Teapot (Abbeville. $29.95) should put to rest that "short and stout" canard. He's got teepees, fire hydrants, vampires, Brooke Shields and one topped with a nuclear mushroom cloud.
A couple of these would've dressed up Richard Weston's Modernism (Phaidon. $75), but otherwise we can't kick. This handsome history looks at modernist design in all its international complexity, from constructivist posters to bentwood Aalto chairs to the elegantly spare architecture of Tadeo Ando. Modern American Houses (Abrams. $49.50) has dream domiciles featured in Architectural Record magazine over the past 40 years. Earlier ones sit like stately sculptures in wooded isolation, but in the '80s, postmodernism came in the door and rules went out the window.
Yet this architectural war zone was a playpen compared with turn-of-the-century Istanbul. Diana Barillari and Ezio Godoli's Istanbul 1900 (Rizzoli. $75) chronicles (and, better still, illustrates) the war between art nouveau Westernizers and the Islamic backlash. And the winner? Anybody who ever saw these buildings: idiosyncratic byproducts of cultures in conflict. In Japan, the analogous Momoyama period (1573-1615) saw the introduction of firearms and an opening to foreign trade. Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama (Yale. $40) has the once hot skinny on all this--and some of the most beautiful art in history.
James Thurber's writings and drawings were sweet and wacky, vinegary and bleak, and always alive to the comic possibilities of life and the beauty of American prose. The best are now in a single bulging volume, James Thurber, Writings and Drawings (Library of America. $35), edited by Garrison Keillor. Thurber's baseball-playing midget, Pearl du Monville (in the story "You Could Look It Up), was only a slight exaggeration of characters who used to inhabit the major leagues. Songwriter Seth Swirsky began corresponding with ballplayers a couple of years ago, and his Baseball Letters (Kodansha. $24), to and from the likes of Ted Williams and Cal Ripken Jr., include an old-time pitcher's memories of the improbable Babe Ruth. Swirsky asked Bobby Doerr (if you have to ask . . .) if he'd ever had a moment on the field when he felt " rush of happiness that you were where you were at that moment in your life?" Doerr wrote back: "Yes."
Did the world need one more translation of The Odyssey (Viking. $35)? Yes. In Robert Fagles's lucid, muscular verse, these ancient measures stalk across the page in march time, from the first sight of "young Dawn with her rose-red fingers" to the moment when the last suitor has been slaughtered and Odysseus takes his Penelope to bed. And Ian McKellen has recorded a pungent reading (12 tapes. $45.95). Most audiobooks are a guilty pleasure, but this one is unabridged--and besides, Homer's first readers were actually listeners. Julie Christie's reading of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Audiobooks. $23.95) is not unabridged, but somebody did a decent job of cutting, and Christie revels in creating voices for characters from the vulgar Mrs. Jennings to the majestically clueless Mr. John Dashwood. And Penguin's 12-tape, six-volume anthology of English Verse ($16.95 each) is read by a first-class crew of British actors; Judi Dench has the sexiest voice you'll ever hear reading Isaac Watts's "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ."
If you've got a major film buff on your gift list, the book-length journal Projections ($16.95 per issue) is . . . well, "a must" is putting it mildly. For hundreds of pages, directors, editors and production designers discuss their work for an audience of their peers. No French theory. Projections comes out once or twice a year; you can find it in bookstores.
B. B. King knows he's considered an oxymoron: a happy bluesman. "It angers me," he writes in his autobiography, Blues All Around Me (Avon. $23), "how scholars associate the blues strictly with tragedy." King remembers his hardscrabble upbringing in Mississippi as years of mystery and sensuality. He lost his virginity when he was 6 or 7, and never did bother to look for it: he fathered 15 kids by 15 women. All he frets about is people thinking he should be miserable. Now it's white "alternative" rockers who are supposed to be wretched to keep their credibility. But photographer Michael Lavine's Noise From the Underground (Simon & Schuster. $25), which documents the grunge revolution, suggests that even these folks weren't all gloom and doom. Mudhoney clowning in faux-iconic poses? Kurt and Courtney in a blush of love? How dare they?
If these books testify obliquely on the side of joy and pleasure, Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food (Knopf. $35) actually gives you 800 recipes for attaining it. Calcutta Hilbeh, a hot green relish she calls "strange and extraordinary." Chicken with noodles, a dish her father's family made in Egypt. Russian fruit ravioli. Roden, who wrote the definitive books on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, traveled and cooked for 15 years to produce this compendium of earthly delights.
We thought Joy of Cooking Christmas Cookies (Scribner. $16.95) was going to be our grand finale, but now we're not so sure. Low-fat recipes are probably obligatory in the '90s, but Christmas cookies with canola oil instead of butter? You know, we tried driving 55, too. Still, the stuff that's not good for us has that old come-hither look, and there's a gingerbread house that looks less complicated--slightly--than the no-tools-required-for-assembly toys we'll be tussling with on Christmas Eve. And it could have been "Joy of Fruitcake," there's that to be said for it. "Joy of Cheese and Sausage." Hey, we're easy.
In an old New Yorker cartoon, a man lying in bed says to his wife, "OK, I know the doctor says I'm going to make it, but will you still play side eight of "Rosenkavalier' again?" The last half hour of Richard Strauss's opera is as close to heaven as music gets, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's 1957 Der Rosenkavalier with Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 3 CDs) remains an operatic Everest. Now that it's digitally remastered we've got some 1s and 0s worthy of beaming into space to tell folks a zillion light-years away what we were all about.
Another great soprano, Leontyne Price, once described her voice as "juicy lyric"--and even then she sold herself short. Juicy, sure, but also packed with power and emotion. The Essential Leontyne Price (BMG, 11 CDs) has arias from her famous Verdi, Puccini and Mozart roles, lieder, spirituals and song cycles, including a matchless version of Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915." Sure, our flesh creeps, too, when we see "opera singer" and "Broadway musical" in the same sentence. But give Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel's Something Wonderful (Deutsche Grammophon) a chance before taking it to the lake to see if it'll skip as many times as Jessye Norman's "Lucky to Be Me." Terfel is the Maserati of singers, going from whisper to full throttle in an instant; he sings Rodgers and Hammerstein with perfect enunciation and, praise the Lord, in American.
Though he's performed, pianist Byron Janis didn't record for 30 years because of arthritic hands. But the new Byron Janis Plays Chopin (EMI) shows he hasn't lost the poetic precision that complements this bittersweet music. In reimagining the terminally familiar waltz in G-flat major, he makes the brisk opening strain a springy folk dance; the tender second strain winds down like a music box and just about breaks your heart.
Bernard Herrmann is the one film composer whose music is instantly recognizable. The Film Scores (Sony), by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, adds his music for such films as "Taxi Driver" to his classic scores for Alfred Hitchcock. But Music From the Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers (London) has the basics, with the composer himself conducting the London Philharmonic in 1969. That woodwind-rich music from "The Trouble With Harry" is one of the drollest tone poems ever written.
The visionary bandleader Sun Ra was a one-man history--and future--of jazz. Sun Ra: The Singles (Evidence, 2 CDs) gives a taste of his eclecticism. In the '50s, he was doing Gershwin, doo-wop and some kind of stuff that sounds like rap. Later came the strange sci-fi songs, the chanting--and good straight-ahead jazz. Beginners may want the Leo import Second Star to the Right (Salute to Walt Disney) (315-287-2852), which is just what the subtitle says; his "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is so bent it doubles back into affectionate. Of course Louis Armstrong's Disney Songs the Satchmo Way (Walt Disney Records) starts out affectionate and warms up from there. Our favorite new jazz release? Joe Henderson Big Band (Verve), the first time since the tenor player's 1990 rediscovery that he's recorded his own wonderful tunes.
The years between 1958 and 1963--post-Elvis, pre-Beatles--are the lamest in rock history. That's why they're interesting. This was the time of Connie Francis: she of the red lips, the prom gowns and the dreamy voice aching with sexual repression. Connie Francis Souvenirs (Polydor, 4 CDs) shows she didn't just sing blush-inducing "rock numbers" like "Stupid Cupid" but also Italian evergreens, "German Favorites" (an actual album title) and an alarming "Exodus/Havah Negilah." But the perky little pepperpot bared her soul in "Where the Boys Are." Feminists, beware: when she wraps that silken voice around the notion that getting a man is secular salvation, you'll believe it.
And can we say a word about Mr. Neil Diamond? Brill Building drudge, brooding folkie, sequined arena hero, slightly irregular middle-aged sex symbol. The hits and misses on In My Lifetime (Columbia, 3 CDs) seldom catch him in mopey confessional mode; he does characters ("Sweet Caroline") and situations ("Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon") with clarity and economy. And who else links the Monkees to UB40 to Barbra Streisand to "Pulp Fiction"?
Willie Nelson is hardly a neglected figure, but if you've been neglecting him, check out Spirit (Island). This spare masterpiece stakes out a space next door to folk, around the bend from country, miles from the nearest market niche. We played it five times before it hit us that there were no bass and drums: just Johnny Gimble's Texas fiddle, sister Bobbie Nelson's piano, Willie's gut-string guitar (as distinctive a voice as his voice) and Jody Payne playing rhythm. But even Willie sounds slick next to the singers, fiddlers and banjo-players on Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian/Folkways, 2 CDs). Most were already getting up in years when folklorist John Cohen recorded them back in 1959--and even then their music sounded archaic and archetypal. There's an "Amazing Grace" here sung by a Baptist congregation that sounds like Gregorian chant.
And finally, why not some Christmas music? Esquivel: Merry Christmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (Bar/None) is a swinging swankfest from the Mexican master of musical whatever. It's all sci-fi modernism and game-show gaiety, with psychotically jovial mixes of xylophone, glockenspiel, harp and bassoon. Recorded mostly in 1959-62, the album has new intros and outros from neo-loungeheads Combustible Edison and warm holiday greetings from Esquivel himself, now in his 70s. Listening to his surreal "White Christmas," we got to thinking. To reach a ripe old age and have young folks think you're cool, if a little crazed--that's not such a bad holiday wish in a time of diminished expectations. Good, we thought. We'll wish that.