It is fair to say, I think, that glossy, large-format, photograph-laden gift books about exotic locations are a debased form of publishing. They are not books at all, really: Rather, they are vaguely impersonal tokens of regard purchased not for ourselves but for others, usually the hard-to-buy-for or the ambivalently regarded. They tend to be sentimental and, for all their high-tech sheen, faintly musty, relics of literacy, pre-owned before purchase.
They probably are not read even by their recipients; some of them appear not to have been read by their writers. They are merely stored; the only evidence of their existence is their appearance, in abstract form, on credit-card statements several months later.
You may think this view is overly cynical, but you have not been examining the evidence. Happily, there is one shining exception, plus three or four solid examples of quality and a few interesting failures. The uninteresting failures have not been reviewed.
I have included several important benchmarks for the consumer. One is the Fantasy Factor rating, based on the notion that photographic books about exotic locations should stir us to raid the savings account and journey to the territory in question. The scale is 1 to 10, with 10 being an irresistible impulse to board an airplane within two calendar days.
The other benchmark is the Bloat Quotient (including the OHWP--the Obligatory Historical Woodcut Penalty), a rough reckoning of how much of the book is disposable even in the book's own terms. Again the scale is 1 to 10, with 10 being several hundred pounds of padding surrounding a few book-like fragments.
In rough order of quality, starting from the top:
African Ark by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher (Abrams: $65) is a passionate and careful book, rich with love and melancholy, a celebration of the endangered and vanishing peoples of Ethiopia and Somalia. The photographs have narrative impact as well as formal beauty: The entire book has real movement and pace, at once cinematic and choral. Important by any measure.
Strengths: Vivid, dense photographs. Utterly exotic subject matter. Also a well-made book, carefully edited, beautifully printed. The paper is almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Weaknesses: Text sometimes fails to match the other elements.
Fun fact: At Rosh Hashanah, Ethiopian Jews eat sour pancakes with a spicy goat-meat stew.
Fantasy Factor, 7; Bloat Quotient: 1.
Madagascar: A World Out of Time by Frans Lanting (Aperture Press: $39.95) is essentially a political document, a plea for preserving the odd natural habitat of Madagascar. As propaganda, it is entirely successful; as art, only slightly less so. Makes Madagascar seem like the last miraculous island on earth. If you give this book as a gift, it would be thoughtful to include two airplane tickets to Anganarivo.
Strengths: Delicate, compelling photographs, particularly the wildlife photography. Lemurs and lizards and ring-tailed mongooses, all endangered, all captured with great intensity.
Weaknesses: Three quest essayists (Gerald Durell, Alison Joly and John Mack) somewhat blur the focus. Occasionally preachy.
Fun fact: Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo.
Fantasy Factor: 10; Bloat Quotient: 3.
Sacred Mountains of the World by Edwin Bernbaum (Sierra Club Books: $50) is ambitious and intelligent. It aims to examine the role of mountains--Mount Sinai, Mount Fuji, Mount Kailas--in the spiritual life of people who live near them. The subject, finally, is awe; the approach is scholarly.
Strengths: Powerful photographs powerfully presented. Information arranged in a meticulous and pleasing fashion. Extremely effective use of religious art.
Weaknesses: Text sometimes seems designed to induce the trance state thought to be necessary for spiritual growth. Inane, pointless captions. Too few photographs: The book is more a textbook with great illustrations than an art book.
Fun fact: The name Annaburne means in Sanskrit "She Who Is Filled With Food".
Fantasy Factor, 9; Bloat Quotient, 4.
Australia by Reg and Maggie Morrison (Facts On File: $45) is apparently aimed at the bright teen-ager with an interest in the earth sciences. It traces the history of Australia from the Big Bang to 1788, when the first Europeans entered Botany Bay. Explicative rather than descriptive; earnest rather than poetic.
Strengths: Strong conceptual line; contagious enthusiasm for the subject matter and genuine vigor throughout. Plenty of well-thought-out maps and charts.
Weaknesses: Photographic reproduction muddy and inconsistent; layout unlovely. Many good ideas spoiled by hasty execution.
Fun fact: The females of two species of Australian frogs swallow their eggs soon after hatching. The eggs grow into froglets in the mother's stomach. When they are ready, she regurgitates them.
Fantasy Factor, 7; Bloat Quotient, 4.
Capital of Heaven by Marc Riboud (Doubleday: $60) is a series of exquisite (and exquisitely reproduced) photographs of Huang Shan, a sacred, fog-shrouded mountain 310 miles west of Shanghai. Moody, introspective, suggestive; a dreamy, ethereal book.
Strengths: Precise, atmospheric photographs of a little-known, little-seen subject. Strong, unobtrusive layout. Many unities observed and preserved.
Weaknesses: Pictures of a fog-shrouded mountain, no matter how lovely, tend to look like each other--seen a dozen; seen 'em all. Images lose their power through repetition. The translation of the text is laughably bad.
Fun fact: Dedication reads, "I would like to thank Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was the first to believe that those misty snapshots could make a book."
Fantasy Factor, 9; Bloat Quotient, 8.
Italian Splendor by Jack Basehart (Rizzoli: $95) is a gigantic (420 pages; 400 photographs) celebration of the various (although remarkably similar) palaces and mansions of the Italian aristocracy. The book seems to be about excess, although it pretends to be about art.
Strengths: Some rare looks at some truly amazing houses, including the Palladian Vila Barbero in Maser, the lush and loony Palazzo Gorsini al Teatro di Marcello in Rome, and the surpassingly weird Palazzo Panza di Biumo in Varese. Authentic splendor presented without apology.
Weaknesses: Sterile, unpeopled photographs. So many down-the-driveway photos of various country estates that the volume sometimes seems to be about the varieties of gravel favored by the landed. The book is ultimately enervating, like eating too much pastry; the rooms blend together. Book is also too heavy to read comfortably; servants are required.
Fun fact: At the Castello di Sabionarra in Avio, the lord observed the custom of Jus Prime Noctis , the lord's privilege of initiating his female subjects to carnal love before the wedding night. The room set aside for the purpose is at the top of a lovely tower, and commands a sweeping view of hills.
Fantasy Factor, 7; Bloat Quotient, 7.
Mexico: A Higher Vision by Michael Calderwood (Alti, $49.95) is a collection of striking aerial photographs of Mexico, many of them surprising. Aerial photography is like stuffed sea slug in black bean sauce; you like it or you don't; the reasons are probably genetic.
Strengths: Avoids many of the cliches of the form;displays the diversity of the nation.
Weaknesses: Uninformative captions, superficial text. The introduction, by Carlos Fuentes, was apparently written while the great novelist was undergoing an emergency appendectomy.
Fun fact: In 1800, Mexico accounted for two thirds of the world's silver production.
Fantasy Factor, 6: Bloat Quotient, 4.
Iceland by David Roberts and Jon Krakauer (Harry Abrams: $39.95) is a collection of landscape photographs tied to the incidents in the Icelandic sagas, together with a detailed look at life in the year 1000, during the great flowering of Icelandic culture.
Strengths: The pictures and text work well together, each amplifying and explaining the other. Text has bite and authority, and a real passion for its subject. The countryside portrayed is stunning.
Weaknesses: Dreadful photographic reproduction; many apparently lovely photos blurred and darkened. A sadly wasted effort; a good book gone wrong.
Fun fact: The Icelandic word for "godsend," hvalreki , translates literally as "stranded whale".
Fantasy Factor, 8; Bloat Quotient, 3.
France by Michael Ruetz (Bulfinch Press/Little Brown: $60) is a meticulous, dispassionate, tedious series of landscape photographs, including sight double-foldout panoramic views of the cities and farmlands of France.
Strengths: Lots of very nice, very wide, very well-printed photographs of France.
Weaknesses: You are in a maze of gigantic photographs, all the same. The captions are collected elsewhere; you don't know where you are or how you got there. You experience an odd foreboding; too much Christmas pudding?
Fun fact: Sometimes it drizzles in Brittany, but that's OK.
Fantasy Factor, 5; Bloat Quotient, 6.
Living in Mauritius by Christian Vaisse (Thames and Hudson: $40) sets for itself a daunting task--to persuade the world that the old colonial homes of Mauritius are worth preserving, and that pressure should be brought on the government of that island to pass the appropriate legislation. See their splendor; don't let them disappear.
Strengths: Passionate, convincing text about a little-visited place in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Obviously a labor of love. Nifty photographs and architectural renderings. So many hearts in the right places it makes you almost weep.
Weaknesses: While it is evident that the current homes of Mauritius are infinitely superior to whatever concrete-and-fiberboard Revenge of The Bauhaus structures might be erected in their place, the buildings themselves, even viewed with charity and love, do not quite match the mission.
Fun fact: President Senghor of Mauritius used to declaim, upon public occasions, "the Future and the Center of the Universe are here!"
Fantasy Factor, 6; Bloat Quotient, 6.
At Home in France by Christopher Patkanas (Rizzoli: $40) contains photographs of the mock-rustic getaway homes of the French Yuppies and their idols, together with menus and recipes favored by the residents.
Strengths: Nice food, nice kitchens, colorful elderly retainers.
Weaknesses: A book so thick with snobbery that one feels like a sycophant merely holding it in one's hands. The prose oozes on the page; it slimes the subject and reader alike. This book is morally toxic and should probably be illegal.
Fun fact: Before cooking the fish for Clafouti d'Haddock , it is necessary to soak the haddock in milk overnight.
Fantasy Factor, 1; Bloat Quotient, 5.