It wouldn't be Christmas without presents -- especially those special presents one secretly hopes to find beneath the tree. From among the dozens of books published for the holiday season Book World has chosen six that have that extra bit of gift-giving magic. Whether your tastes run to art or the world we live in or the novels of Dickens, here are a half-dozen Christmas stars to brighten your holiday.
PAINTINGS IN THE LOUVRE
By Lawrence Gowing
(Stewart, Tabori and Chang. $75)
Look at it this way: Everyone should see the paintings in the Louvre, quite probably the greatest museum in the world. But a round-trip ticket to Paris will set you back roughly $600, and two nights at a cheap Parisian hotel at least another $100. And then there are meals, say another $100, assuming you resist the blandishments of Maxim's or the Tour d'Argent, in which case you'd be spending a lot more. Add in fees for the concierge, taxis, the cost of post cards to the folks back home, souvenirs, an evening at the Crazy Horse and you will obviously save close to a grand by plunking down $75 for this sumptuous album, the Louis XIV of the season's art books. Just turning the pages is an education: Over the centuries the French have painted and looted with a connoisseur's discrimination. Here are Le Lorrain seascapes, Rembrandt self-portraits, Poussin allegories, Vermeer interiors, Chardin still-lifes, Dutch landscapes of the four seasons, Watteau's sad clowns, David's historical paintings, Delacroix's luscious oriental tableaux. Think of the world's most famous paintings -- the Mona Lisa, the Raft of the Medusa -- and you'll find a fair number of them here. The nude studies alone -- by Rubens, Ingres, Delacroix, Gerard, Girodet, Fragonard, Boucher, and a dozen others -- dazzle with fleshly splendor.
Besides the color reproductions of 800 works, Paintings in the Louvre also provides some 115 brief essays by art historian Sir Lawrence Gowing. For the most part, these blend the authority of scholarship with the easy-going commentary of an expert tour guide. In the entry on Velazquez, for example, Gowing tells us that his painting of the Infanta Maria hung in the cabinet des bains -- e.g. the bath rooms -- during much of the 17th century. From this anecdote, he goes on to trace the influence of Velazquez on later painters, especially Manet. It is a typical Gowing performance, at once elegant a` la Kenneth Clark yet informative, casual, and down to earth.
THE OXFORD ILLUSTRATED DICKENS
The Complete Works
Of Charles Dickens in 21 volumes
(Oxford University Press. $160, individual volumes $8.95)
There is nothing especially elaborate about these square sturdy volumes with their slightly antiquated type face, packed in an equally sturdy cardboard box. But they are seductive in their completeness. To own at one swoop virtually everything written by one of the most prolific geniuses of the 19th-century novel is a reader's fantasy. To compare a Herme`s silk scarf or a Gucci wallet with the worlds of people and human experience captured inside these 21 volumes is to realize the incredible bargain of the printed word.
Meet David Copperfield musing "whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show," or Dombey and his son: "Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet," not to mention Pip and Miss Havisham, Nicholas Nickleby and of course the heroic guillotine-bound Sydney Carton: "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Many of these characters play a role in our lives and speech whether or not we are devoted readers of Dickens. Here is the perfect gift for a bookish individual or a whole family of readers with the further encouragement that the 21 volumes are $27.95 cheaper if bought as a complete set.
One Hundred Flowers
Edited by Nicholas Callaway
This stunning bouquet of a book makes only a minimal attempt at documenting Georgia O'Keeffe's life and work; a seven-page afterword, a list of plates and acknowledgments make up the only text. What there are in One Hundred Flowers are paintings of flowers, a generous selection from the more than 200 O'Keeffe produced. All are lush, vivid and somewhat overpowering. Many of her paintings are reproduced full-page in this oversized book; and while the effect is sometimes disconcerting because the viewer is almost literally forced to consider each flower, this is what O'Keeffe intended. "When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it," she said, "it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not."
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY;100 Years of Adventure and Discovery
By C.D.B. Bryan
Forty or 50 years ago in a lot of American homes, zealous parents saved back copies of the National Geographic Magazine. The habit was an incredible boon for their children in that now remote pre-video era; on rainy days smart kids could adventure through a run of, say, 20 years of the bright yellow-covered journals, discovering every kind of strange and exotic people and clime in the glorious photographs (never mind the accompanying stories). Unlucky persons who missed this formative experience may now rejoice: This year's observance of the National Geographic Society's centennial has produced this completely fascinating and absorbing book. The text relates the colorful scientific and administrative history of the Society, which has grown from a membership of 165 in 1888 to almost 11 million today.
The cement that holds this vast number together is surely the National Geographic Magazine whose abiding pleasure is sensationally good photographs, many of which are reproduced here. In image after image they record the spectacular (the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980), the historic (the discovery of the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, in 1911), the bizarre (the discovery and excavation of 11 giant buried Olmec heads in Central America in 1939 and 1940) . . . one could go on and on. There are personal stories here, too -- those of Alexander Graham Bell and three generations of the Grosvenor family, flamboyant explorers and temperamental photographers -- all of whose talents have combined to produce this outstanding saga of adventure and science.
THE HEBREW BIBLE IN MEDIEVAL ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS
By Gabrielle Sed-Rajna
Everyone knows of the glories of medieval Christian illumination -- think only of The Book of Kells and the Tre`s Riches Heures of Jean Duc de Berry. But the Jewish contribution to textual embellishment has long been neglected, in part because of the general prohibition on the use of visual arts in worship. Still, as Sed-Rajna makes clear in her introduction, this did not preclude art for "educational and aesthetic purposes." This hefty album goes far in portraying the rich and varied tradition of Jewish biblical illumination. To modern eyes the actual painting often looks somewhat naive, though often wonderfully so. For instance, one illustration shows Noah's ark in construction, and the whole boat looks to be the size of a child's playhouse. But the builders peer forth with familiar expressions, one worker with a hammer looking painfully amazed, as though he's just slammed his thumb a good one. More important, the commentary by Sed-Rajna -- director of the Hebraic department of the Institut de Recherche et de l'Histoire des Textes in Paris -- points out that Jewish illustration may have contributed invaluably to Byzantine and western book art traditions. This is in all respects a ground-breaking book, with 180 illustrations, 60 in color.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE SOVIET UNION
Photographed by 100 Of the World's Leading Journalists on One Day, May 15, 1987
At first glance these images of contemporary Soviet life depict a static society of run-down housing, rampant militarism and social regimentation. There is, in general, a frayed, down-at-the heels look about everything. Ah, but look more closely. The great strength of the Soviet Union undoubtedly lies in its people, and it is their faces shining out of these color images, through the stereotypes of tradition and politics, that disarm the viewer. Naval cadets jogging along the Neva in Leningrad; a woman scrubbing the floor at Lenin's tomb in Red Square; peasants eating a meal of cucumbers, bread, goat cheese and skewered marinated lamb; gorgeous little preschool girls dancing under a poster of an avuncular Lenin; a mountain tribesman with a goshawk; a young woman tending a smoking charcoal-burning samovar at a collective-farm picnic; eskimos hunting seal in the Bering Sea; circus performers with a dancing bear in Kiev -- it is all too achingly Slavic and reminiscent of affecting scenes in the pages of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. But pictures of cosmonauts undergoing weightlessness training and engineers at the control panels of a nuclear power plant serve to remind that this is a nation capable of the most advanced technology.
It takes maybe an hour to leaf through the gratifyingly large photographs in this book, and after such an immersion in the Russian soul, one is reminded of the famous passage in Gogol's Dead Souls: "Russia, whither flyest thou? Answer! She gives no answer. The ringing of bells melts into music; the air, torn to shreds, whirs and rushes like the wind, everything that is on earth is flying by, and the other states and nations, with looks askance, make way for her and draw aside." It took three years for the publisher to gain permission from the Soviet authorities for the project: it is a country where much picture-taking is prohibited. Evidently they liked such previous books as A Day in the Life of Canada and A Day in the Life of America. Shutterbugs will especially be captivated by the technical aspects of the book's production: 127,000 images shot in one day by 100 photographers, 50 from the West and 50 from the Soviet bloc.