The rich, the weak and the overbrewed

Even though coffee-table books were around long before Cosmo Kramer introduced his compendium (a coffee-table book about coffee tables) on Seinfeld, it was Kramer’s venture into the world of oversized gift volumes that pointed out the eccentricity — and occasional lunacy — of these special-interest treatises. So even though current fashion dictates the leatherette ottoman is the new coffee table, booksellers are still busily stocking large-scale, photo-packed folios for the Christmas rush. Xpress makes a reading list and checks it twice.

The hits

Here’s what to get for the person on your gift list who already has everything. Classic themes, rich ideas and stunning images assure these books will be well-thumbed. Albums of this caliber are why coffee tables were invented (well, that and coffee).

From Woman in the Mirror: 1945-2004
From Richard Avedon’s Woman in the Mirror: 1945-2004

Woman in the Mirror: 1945-2004, photos by Richard Avedon — Even with its $65 price tag, this hefty retrospective is worth it. The late photographer Avedon is among the most famous contemporary artists, his five decades of work shaping our view of fashion and celebrity in stark black and white. But, as this book shows, the photographer also turned his lens on such marginalized subjects as street performers, capturing their lives in flawless portraits.

Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: The Complete Plates in Colour, 1734-1763, by Albertus Seba — Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba wasn’t unique in collecting specimens for his research, but his gathering of plants, animals and insects from around the globe went beyond the the normal parameters of work, verging on obsession. In 1731 he commissioned illustrations of his specimens, publishing a four-volume catalogue. This book is reproduced from a hand-colored original by authors Irmgard Muesch, Rainer Willmann and Jes Rust.

Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life, by Sarah Susanka — Under 2,000 square feet is the new vogue in houses, a trend Asheville’s many small-bungalow-dwellers can appreciate. Here, the author joins forces with an architectural-design writer to bring to light the details that make cozy spaces feel both livable and unique. Built-in shelves, pocket doors and window seats are a few of the ideas this book touches on in chapters like “Serenity on a Budget” and “A Jewel Box of Texture and Detail.”

The misses

Bigger isn’t always better. Even presented in oversized formats, these subjects aren’t likely to catch many eyes. Of course, to each his own (especially when it comes to reading material) — but these cliched, overdone or lukewarm books just don’t stack up.

Anne Geddes: Cherished Thoughts with Love, (Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2005) — The first of this photographer’s books was cute. Babies dressed as fruit or flowers: unique; adorable. But after years of Geddes’ calendars, journals and inspirational albums, the child-as-cauliflower theme is pretty much played out. This year’s offering — more newborn pics with quotes by famous and not-so-famous folks — is pretty much business as usual, but at least less cheesy than last year’s unbearably saccharine Miracle: A Celebration of New Life, a joint undertaking with crooner Celine Dion.

Fairyopolis: A Flower Fairies Journal, by Cicely Mary Barker — Not to be confused with the classic faeries in Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s eponymous book, Barker’s sweetly rendered creatures share none of the dark, spooky fascination of her predecessors’ drawings. Undoubtedly this picture book (it’s hardly a journal — there’s no room for the reader’s input, so laden are the pages with Barker’s cute drawings, musings and ephemera) will go over well with little girls who like unicorns and purple, which happens to be the color of this book’s weirdly squishy cover. But for older fairy fans, stick with Froud and Lee’s original, or check out the deliciously naughty Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book.

David: Five Hundred Years, by Antonio Paolucci — While most of us can agree that Michelangelo’s mammoth marble statue David is among the most important works of art from antiquity, is it enough to warrant an entire book of its own? Weighing in at under 100 pages, 35 of which are dedicated to close-ups of the sculpture’s various parts, this book seems more of a dissertation than a display piece. But, as art books go, the $24.95 price is nice.

For that strange (er, special) someone

Curse of Lono
Gonzo writ large: Hunter S. Thompson’s Curse of Lono is a must for diehards.

Coffee-table books are known for being overspecialized; it’s that larger-than-life close-up view that makes them so sought after. But that doesn’t mean every hot title will be a match for every living room. Here are some special-interest options.

A Week in the Life of NASCAR: A View from Within, by the publishers of NASCAR Scene — Here it is, every minute detail of race week at Talladega and Darlington. Even, according to reviews, “top secret, post-race inspections.” This is a book only for the diehard fan, but luckily for the race industry, there are plenty of fans — fanatics, even (pieces of scrap metal culled from NASCAR crash sites retail for hundred of dollars) — so surely there are readers raring for behind-the-scenes glimpses.

XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders — Here’s an interesting concept: Take the top performers in the contemporary porn industry and present them in stylized, high-end photograph pairings (one clothed, one as Hustler intended). Not that porn stars aren’t people, too, but what’s the likelihood that fans of these models (reviews claim a cross-section of male and female, gay and straight, celebrities and newcomers) are big on high art?

Jerry Garcia: The Collected Artwork — Ten years after the passing of the Grateful Dead’s iconic front man, here’s a little something for the fans: his visual art. Drawings, watercolors, acrylics and digital dabblings are displayed on these pages, along with commentary by Garcia contemporaries Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Carlos Santana. So, it’s like a ’60s-’70s who’s who, and probably a must-have for any serious Dead fan, but admit it — don’t you really just wish Jerry would release another CD from beyond the grave?

The Curse of Lono, by Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman — “Lono is to Hawaii what Fear and Loathing was to Las Vegas,” explains a review. And while late writer Thompson’s inventive journalism and dark revelations aren’t to everyone’s taste, this illustrated and re-released volume (long out of print and considered an oddity) is a must-have for fans.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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