As Emily Dickinson almost said, there is no present like a book. But it should be something slightly unexpected, unusual or expensive, and not a current bestseller. Here’s a seasonal dozen — and a few more — that I would love to receive or give.
Winsor McCay: The Complete Little Nemo (Taschen, $200), edited with an accompanying monograph by Alexander Braun. It weighs a ton and costs a fortune, but this is the winter’s greatest art book. Reproducing all the surreal “Little Nemo in Slumberland” comic pages from early in the last century, this tome — the size of a newspaper broadsheet and as thick as an unabridged dictionary — shows again why Winsor McCay was one of this country’s most innovative and influential artists. The “Little Nemo” panels are quite literally the stuff that dreams are made of, and they stand in the same foundational relationship to later comics and graphic novels as Sherlock Holmes’s adventures do to subsequent detective stories.
The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure (Pegasus, , $24.95), selected and edited by Lawrence Ellsworth. Captain Blood, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Brigadier Gerard, Robin Hood; stories with titles such as “Pirate’s Gold” and “The Queen’s Rose”— this is just the gift for, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s words, “the boy who’s half a man, OR the man who’s half a boy.”
The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2015 (World Almanac, paperback, $13.99; hardcover, $34.95). The geek’s bible: tables, graphs, lists, maps, illustrations and data of every kind about nearly everything. Opening at random, I found a listing of “Notable Active Volcanoes”; on another page, the addresses and contact information for scores of American companies; on still another, the unbelievable fact that something called “Despicable Me 2” was the bestselling DVD of 2013.
Masters of the Weird Tale: Fred Chappell (Centipede, $225), edited by S.T. Joshi; illustrations by Fritz Janschka and David Ho. Sumptuously produced, as are all the oversized volumes in Centipede’s flagship series, this celebration of the multi-talented Fred Chappell features his horror novel “Dagon,” a selection of his poems, a new essay on supernatural fiction, an interview and — most important of all — a score of amazing stories (some hard to find), including “Weird Tales” and “The Adder,” arguably the two best Lovecraftian tales since Lovecraft.
Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles, 1940-1954 (Library of America, $45), edited by Tim Page; H.L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition (Library of America, $35), edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. Classy as well as classic, these two recent LOA volumes are among the most entertaining. Thomson wrote the best and wittiest music criticism since Bernard Shaw, and Mencken’s joyful, nostalgic autobiographies —“Happy Days,” “Newspaper Days” and “Heathen Days”— are given definitive editions, supplemented with 200 pages from a never-completed fourth volume.
Alice’s Wonderland: A Visual Journey Through Lewis Carroll’s Mad, Mad World (Race Point, $35), by Catherine Nichols. This irresistible volume showcases all the ways we have imagined and re-imagined “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its characters since that nonsense classic was first published almost 150 years ago. Famous images by John Tenniel and Peter Newellshare space with illustrations from every sort of Alice-inspired work: books, movies, cartoons, plays, record album covers, games, songs and clothes. Don’t miss the two steampunk Alices toward the end.
The Seven Deadly Virtues (Templeton, $24.95), edited by Jonathan V. Last. While this is professedly a volume of comic essays by 18 conservative writers, even a hard-core lefty would enjoy Joe Queenan on thrift, Christopher Buckley on perseverance, Rita Koganzon on honesty, Mollie Hemingway on charity, James Lileks on hoarding and similar match-ups, starting with an introductory piece on the “The Seven Deadly Virtues and the New York Times” by P.J. O’Rourke.
The Collector’s Book of Virgil Finlay (American Fantasy, $125), compiled by Robert Weinberg, Doug Ellis and Robert T. Garcia. Perhaps best known for his evocative covers for “The Ship of Ishtar,” and other pulpy A. Merritt fantasy novels, Virgil Finlay specialized in pen-and-ink drawings of ethereal women, illustrations for Weird Tales, figures set against starry backgrounds (as in his much-reproduced portrait of H.P. Lovecraft in 18th-century garb), and scenes with a Midsummer Night’s Dream feel to them. In this case, exceptional reproductions do justice to the even more exceptional originals.
The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (Vintage, paperback, $25), edited by Otto Penzler.Like the earlier and equally essential “Big Books” devoted to ghost stories, adventure stories and pulp fiction, this collection delivers more than 900 pages of wonderful reading. Included are such classics of the “impossible crime” as Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man,” but also work by Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Edward D. Hoch and even Dashiell Hammett. Better still, Penzler resurrects many hard-to-come-by stories, notably Stuart Towne’s novella “Death Out of Thin Air” and one of Frederick Irving Anderson’s accounts of the Infallible Godahl. Every fan of old-time detection will want this book.
Wuthering Heights (The Folio Society, $69.95), by Emily Bronte; illustrations by Rovina Cai. Lately, the Folio Society — the London-based publisher famous for its illustrated slip-cased editions — has begun to make some of its titles available in bookstores. All the society’s offerings are certainly worth seeking out, especially if you are tired of paperbacks with small type or would like more permanent hardcovers for your home library. But in this particular case, you might also want this edition of Bronte’s brooding elemental classic if you are a Patti Smith fan: She provides a knowledgeable and passionate introduction.
The Art of Robert E. McGinnis (Titan Books, $34.95), by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott. Men of a certain age will remember the long-legged and elegant women, in tight dresses or no dresses at all, that used to adorn the paperback covers of Carter Brown mysteries. Like Winsor McCay, but in a very different way, Robert E. McGinness produced dream images: Where, in real life, were these defiantly sexy and brazen sirens? Certainly not in Ohio. This sampling of McGinnes’s seductive art features many of his lovelies but also some of his landscapes, a few paintings for romance novels and the lobby posters for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Barbarella,” “Thunderball” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem.”
And finally, a stocking full of fiction. Here are a few small-press titles I’m hoping to enjoy this winter: What Ho, Automata! , (Book View Café, paperback, $14.95), by Chris Dolley, a collection of four “Reeves and Worcester” steampunk mysteries, written in the style of P.G. Wodehouse; The Wanderer (Perfect Edge, paperback, $20.95), by Timothy J. Jarvis, in which an obscure author of strange stories vanishes and leaves behind an unsettling manuscript about a dying Earth and an immortal wanderer; The White Wolf(Valancourt, $14.99), by Franklin Gregory, a long out-of-print werewolf shocker finally reissued by this most imaginative of specialty publishers; and, not least, Get Carter (Syndicate/SoHo Crime, paperback, $14.95), by Ted Lewis, a 1970 British revenge classic, which became a cult film starring Michael Caine. If the book is as good as novelist Dennis Lehane and director Mike Hodge say it is, there are two sequels about its hard-case gangster hero available from the same publisher: Jack Carter’s Law and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon .
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.