Books That Speak Volumes

By Gift Books
Sunday, December 3, 2006


Like Dickens, but With Spinach

In his introduction to Popeye: "I Yam What I Yam" (Fantagraphics, $29.95), Bill Blackbeard compares E.C. Segar -- the creator of the one-eyed, spinach-chomping sailor with the bowling-pin forearms -- to Charles Dickens. Another example of pop-culture hyperinflation? Not necessarily. Just as Dickens took advantage of the serial publication of his early novels to introduce new characters and change directions, so also did Segar add, subtract and tinker until he had his comic strip working at its peak -- and a brilliant, witty peak it was.

Then, too, some of Segar's characters are Dickensian by virtue of their id-indulging idiosyncracies and memorable turns of phrase -- especially that rotund, hamburger-craving knave, J. Wellington Wimpy ("I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today"). Elsewhere, Blackbeard -- perhaps our best historian of the comic strip -- has compared Wimpy to the persona of W.C. Fields, and it turns out that Fields played Mr. Micawber in the movie version of David Copperfield. Five more volumes are projected in this series, which will give us The Compleat Segar Popeye.

-- Dennis Drabelle

Grape Expectations

The eagerly anticipated third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford Univ., $65) has something most other wine tomes lack: a bit of attitude. The editor, Jancis Robinson, knows her stuff: She's the wine columnist for the Financial Times and "the first person outside the wine trade to have passed the notoriously tough Master of Wine exams." That erudition gleams throughout this gorgeous, massive volume, which adorns its almost 4,000 entries with charts of drinking goblets, maps of world wine regions and handsome photographs, such as a melancholy shot of the frozen Ontario grapes that will make a delicious icewine. But unlike some more pompous wine guides, this encyclopedic volume is laced with welcome sass: Portugal's Bastardo grapes are "serviceable but unexciting"; in Britain, "wine by the glass" often means "the dregs from a badly kept bottle of very ordinary wine served in a pub"; and to some oenophiles, ABC stands for "Anything But Chardonnay." You'll sprain your wrists lifting it, but this is a stunning book.

-- Warren Bass

Taking His Shots

Double falls at dawn, Glacier National Park, Mont. 1997.
Double falls at dawn, Glacier National Park, Mont. 1997.( - Galen Rowell: A Retrospective)
We tend to think of photojournalists as intrepid folk who cover wars, coups, hostage-taking and related upheavals. But Nature can be as restless as any army, and a photographer in the backcountry must be ready to capture its light changes and animal entries as alertly as anyone wearing a flak jacket. Galen Rowell, who climbed mountains and traveled to remote habitats all over the world for art's sake, was a photojournalist with a keen sense of the moment, and Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (Sierra Club, $50) chronicles his life's work.

His "Sunset Over Machu Picchu, Peru, 1995" catches a roiling, fire-lit cloud bank that appears to be resting on peaks above and behind the famous high-altitude ruins. As for "Lynx in Alpine Flowers," an anecdote on the facing page tells how Rowell's daughter Nicole overcame a rare case of her dad's inertia. Traveling with her parents in Alaska in 1974, she claimed to have seen a lynx along the highway. Her father scoffed. But when she said she saw another one, he stopped the car and went immediately into action, "reaching with his camera all the way across my mom's lap and out the passenger side window [to capture] this amazing image."

-- Dennis Drabelle

Artistry of the Americas

San Felipe de Jesus, 17th century, Mexico City
San Felipe de Jesus, 17th century, Mexico City( - The Arts in Latin America)
An exquisite ballot box of lacquered wood from Mexico. A skeletal archer sculpted for a Peruvian monastery. A silver reliquary bust holding the bones of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary in a Colombian cathedral. These are just a few of the treasures featured in The Arts in Latin America: 1492-1820 (Yale Univ., $75), the catalogue of an exhibition currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The many peoples thrown together by the Spanish conquest created vibrant art, rich in religious imagery and indigenous influences, but for a long time, writes curator Joseph J. Rishel in his introduction, "dominant opinions based on northern American and European values won out against the perceived excesses and brilliance of the images themselves." That brilliant excess is on dazzling display in this book, which covers everything from furniture to textiles to painting, including essays on the colonial city and the Asian influence on Latin American art.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

The World of Work

A coal miner takes a break, Pul-i-Kumri, Afghanistan, 2002.
A coal miner takes a break, Pul-i-Kumri, Afghanistan, 2002.(Steve McCurry)
To various degrees, work is something we all do, a human experience of infinite variety. The images gathered in Work: The World in Photographs (National Geographic, $35) help tell "work's global story," according to Ferdinand Protzman, who wrote the text accompanying the work of more than 80 photographers focused on human effort around the world and through more than 150 years. In eye-arresting fashion, among those pictured earning their keep are stilt-fishermen in Sri Lanka, a Paris street musician, South African women picking apples, a Syrian broom-seller, a West Virginia coal miner and a Cuban barber. The photos confirm Helen Keller's notion that "The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker."

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