Every week in December, Book World will list our favorite gift books for the holidays, reviewed by the editors on our staff. This is the first of those listings.
Sometimes words just can't say enough, even in a letter. So it would seem from Liza Kirwin's More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95). Kirwin has gathered more than 90 letters from artists including Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol. The letters reveal much about the senders, writes Kirwin: "In life as in art, Thomas Eakins was formal and exacting, quick to give instruction; modernist Arthur Dove was friendly but cryptic; the highly emotive Frida Kahlo was passionate in her prose, sealing one letter with red lipstick kisses." Alexander Calder illustrates an invitation to a friend with a map to his home recalling one of his own mobiles. Caricaturist Alfred Frueh uses bits of his fiancee's letters to convey how he thinks of her while he bathes, eats and (unsuccessfully) crosses the street. Antoine de Saint-Exupery sketches the Little Prince in a note asking a friend to dinner. So yes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
-- Rachel Hartigan Shea
"I can't believe the news today," the Irish rock star Bono howled during U2's October concert at the MCI Center. "Oh I can't close my eyes and make it go away." Those lyrics were originally written for 1983's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," a furious broadside against the Troubles; one of the reasons that U2 remains the world's greatest rock band is the way the group now uses the same song to shed angry light on the post-9/11 landscape. It's almost de rigueur for rock critics to sneer at the band these days, especially given Bono's ardent and shrewdly effective activism on behalf of debt relief in Africa, human rights and HIV/AIDS, which somehow seems to irritate many music writers far more than most stars' dreary narcissism. But the band's soaring last two albums ("All That You Can't Leave Behind" and "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb") make almost every other recent release out there sound pallid, largely because U2 puts its guitar-driven quest for musical transcendence to the service of a soulful and immensely appealing worldview: faith, tolerance, community, deep political engagement and the redemptive power of love.
In U2 & I: The Photographs 1982-2004 (Schirmer/Mosel, $120), Anton Corbijn, the band's longtime photographer, documents its travels across places where the streets have no name, including the iconic Death Valley portrait that adorns their masterpiece, "The Joshua Tree." In U2 Show: The Art of Touring (Riverhead, $35), photojournalist Diana Scrimgeour shows how much effort goes into the band's epic concerts; on the current tour, they left an arena of jaded Washingtonians swaying as they sang U2's version of the 40th psalm -- in these parts, a rare moment of elevation.
-- Warren Bass
The 13-member Namgay family of Shingkhey Village in Bhutan consumes more than three pounds of mandarin oranges in one week, the Sobczynscys of Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, more than four pounds of sauerkraut and the Celiks of Istanbul at least three pounds of black olives. So Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel discovered when they "worked [their] way around the world and looked at the everyday food of everyday people everywhere." D'Aluisio, a writer, and Menzel, a photojournalist, visited 30 families in 24 countries, recording how each shops, cooks and eats, and profiling them all in Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (Material World, $40). Each family is pictured in the kitchen surrounded by a week's worth of food, and globalization's spread is apparent nearly everywhere: Mars bars on a Sarajevo kitchen table, Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing and Sprite in Cairo. So are the vast differences in how, and how much, people eat, from the packaged foods of North Carolina to the enticing fresh fish in Japan to the paltry supply of grains rationed in a Chad refugee camp.
-- Rachel Hartigan Shea
It's the English, not the French, who have maintained the most intense love affair with Homer outside of Greece itself, writes George Steiner in his introduction to The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, by Emmanuel Schwartz (Dahesh Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum and Yale Univ.; $65). The impassioned involvement with the sea, "the cult of the male friend," "the solidarity of sports and politics" -- these are among the correspondences between ancient Greek and modern English cultures. Early on, the French drew more inspiration from Virgil than Homer, but eventually the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey made his mark on French creativity, especially in the music of Berlioz (his opera "The Trojans") and Offenbach (his operetta "La Belle Helene") and the art found in the Ecole Nationale Superieure.
Some of the paintings reproduced here partake of the qualities that made "academic" a byword for artistic predictability: groups of nude or seminude figures -- mostly males who, when not slaying gorgons or cleaning Augean stables, have obviously been working out at the gymnasium -- acting out incidents from mythology against backdrops of fluted columns and olive trees. But some canvases depart from the routine to convey strong emotions. In David's "Andromache Mourning Hector," the dead hero's striking beauty of face and form only reinforces the loss registered on the staring face of his widow, as their young son touches her in a gesture that seems to combine bewilderment with childish sympathy.
-- Dennis Drabelle
Think you're not interested in Safavid art? Think again. In the thuddingly titled Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat (Flammarion, $95), the Princeton art historian Michael Barry makes the life and work of a revered old master of Persian miniatures fascinating -- mostly by getting out of the way and showing off some magnificent pieces. Working out of Herat, the western Afghan city closest to the current border with Iran, Kamaluddin Bihzad (1465-1535) produced "eye-filling, mind-seizing" masterworks that sprinkle together "figures, textiles, facades, tiles, calligraphy, still life, and intricate arabesques." His lyrical, finely detailed pieces combine loving clarity with luscious color and acute observation. This book's gorgeous reproductions remind us that there's far more to Afghanistan's artistic heritage than the Taliban, those crabbed and spiteful puritans, would ever dare admit.
-- Warren Bass
Uroplatus phantasticus, the "fantastic leaf-tailed gecko," certainly lives up to its name. Its tail does indeed taper like a leaf -- a dingy one that's been trod upon since the autumn before last. As for the fantastic part, with its liver-ish color, cranberry-colored eyes and abundant prongs and prickles, the creature looks like a harvested organ waiting to be transplanted. But wait, there's more: Because it has no eyelids, this one, like all geckos, has developed the charming habit of cleaning its eyes with its "large, muscular tongue," and to foil predators, it can "reject" its tail. Native to Madagascar, home of so many not-to-be-believed animals, the gecko is among a myriad of diminutive gargoyles featured in photographer Piotr Naskrecki's The Smaller Majority (Belknap/ Harvard Univ., $35). Another creep is Cholus cinctus, a Costa Rican weevil that looks like what H. G. Wells's Dr. Moreau would have produced if he'd sutured together a hummingbird, a beetle and a potato. In presenting these creatures, Naskrecki, who studies invertebrates at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, notes his affection for them and chides the rest of us for our tendency to recoil. "With small things we lack either the patience or the ability to make observations, and end up drawing false, often ridiculous conclusions. And because we do not understand small creatures, we fear them."
-- Dennis Drabelle