As the economy stumbles into recession, stagflation or just plain bad times, paperbacks become increasingly attractive gift choices: They're cheaper, easier to wrap and ship and less likely to turn up on the discount tables the day after New Year's.
Photographers rushed to document the monumental events in Eastern Europe that marked the end of the Cold War era, and collections of their work rank among the year's most dramatic gift offerings.
The western face of the Berlin Wall apparently served as the world's largest graffiti gallery, eclipsing even the New York subway system. Two new books record those vanished markings, The Writing on the Wall: Peace At the Berlin Wall by Terry Tillman (22/7 Publishing: $19.95) and The Berlin Wall by Hermann Waldenburg (Abbeville: $19.95).
Tillman, a former singer with the New Christie Minstrels, wears his heart on his page, juxtaposing the graffiti (which range from words to cartoon characters to stylized images of the Statue of Liberty) with quotations from John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Carl Sandberg, Bob Dylan et al . The presence of so much "inspirational" material in so small a space quickly cloys, and the book sinks beneath the weight of the author's good intentions. Waldenburg keeps the focus on the graffiti itself, which makes his book the more effective. Neither author bothers to translate the German inscriptions.
Breakthrough, edited by P. Christin & A.C. Knigge (Catalan: $13.95), presents the reactions of an international group of cartoonists to the destruction of the Wall. Milo Manara (Italy) borrows imagery from Chagall to suggest the intoxication of East Germany's new freedom, while Andre Juillard (France) muses on the obstacles that still obstruct human communication in a series of stark, pale drawings.
Most affecting of all is Moments of Revolution: Eastern Europe, photographs by David & Peter Turnley, text by Mort Rosenblum (Stewart, Tabori, Chang: $19.95), which shows the reader human faces rather than slabs of concrete. An elderly woman prays in the Vilnius cathedral; Bulgarians in Sofia march by candlelight in one exquisite photograph, while their compatriots in Bucharest mourn the revolutionaries who died overthrowing the brutal Nicolae Ceausescu. Perhaps the most depressing picture for American readers is the introspective portrait of Czech president Vaclav Havel: Who can imagine George Bush--or anyone else in the U.S. government--choosing to go to jail rather than compromise his principles?
Equally handsome and only slightly less dramatic are two exceptional nature books, which rank among the season's most desirable gifts:
If there's a scale for measuring cuteness, giant pandas probably score even higher than koalas, puppies and bunnies. The Secret World of Pandas, edited by Byron Preiss and Gao Xueyu (Abrams: $24.95), ranks as the most endearing paperback of the holiday season. Pandas can't seem to help being appealing, whether rolling in bamboo groves, playing in the snow or caring for their cubs. Even the most hardened curmudgeon, looking at these splendid photographs, will want to hug these distant cousins to bears. The text, a series of brief essays by various authors, is far less cheering. Only about 1,000 pandas remain in the mountains of central China, and the efforts to breed them in zoos have met with very limited success. Part of the proceeds from "Secret World" will go to the Chinese campaign to save the panda from extinction.
Few animals arouse a more primal response from humans than wolves; people tend to see them as either savage hunters or noble symbols of the untamed wilderness. Wolves by Candace Savage (Sierra Club Books: $19.95) weighs myth against scientific evidence to present a realistic picture of the lives of these splendid creatures--hunting, communicating, socializing, parenting. Despite centuries of human hunting and trapping, wolves are doing much better than pandas.
It's about 60 million years too late to do a photo book on dinosaurs, but Flying Dinosaurs by Michael Johnson (Contemporary Books: $14.95) is sure to please any armchair paleontologist. The brightly colored, die-cut images of eight pterosaurs (flying dinosaurs) can be made into models that really fly. The printed patterns are handsome, but they look like an awful lot of work to assemble. Anyone who'd go to the bother of cutting out individual teeth with an Exacto knife isn't likely to risk flying his handiwork: A crash would be too painful.
Much prettier--and even more difficult-looking--are the patterns in Chinese Artistic Kites by Ha Kuiming and Ha Yiqi, two members of Beijing's most celebrated family of kite-makers (China Books: $16.95). These exquisite constructions will come as a revelation to people who think of kites as clumsy, dime-store toys of tissue paper and balsa wood. Directions are included for opulently beautiful kites that resemble clusters of birds, butterflies, goldfish and dragons, but only a highly trained artist could possibly make them.
The recipes in Lora Brody's Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet (Stephen Greene Press/Pelham: $10.95) are a lot easier to follow. Brody's ostensibly comic memoirs are pretty dumb, but some of the desserts sound terrific--the Chocolate Cherry Torte, for example, or the Marquise Glacee au Chocolate (literally, "the chocolate-covered marquise"). However, Brody can't even serve cornflakes without tossing in extra-large egg yolks, heavy cream and unsalted butter, so it's probably best to give this book to someone who doesn't care about waistlines or cholesterol counts (the cast of "Babes," perhaps).
Less ambitious (or more calorie-conscious) readers might prefer to spend their time with American Championship Crosswords, edited by Will Shortz (Fawcett Columbine: $7.95). These puzzles are supposed to be exceptionally tough, but most of them aren't all that difficult.
The silliest make-it-yourself book of the season is A Coloring Book: Drawings by Andy Warhol (Simon & Schuster: $24.95), which consists of 13 black-and-white reproductions of early Warhol drawings, waiting to be colored in by some upscale child whose parents are dim enough to blow $25 on a coloring book. At 15x20 inches, the book is so large that it would be tricky to carry a copy down the street during a Santa Ana.
The 1980s have passed and no one seems eager to have them return, but Albrecht Bangert and Karl Michael Armer offer a paean to the Reagan era's curious tastes in furnishings in 80s Style: Designs of the Decade (Abbeville: $29.95). Most of the furniture they extol in the often tongue-in-cheek text is opulent, eclectic (if not downright bizarre-looking) and wildly impractical. Shiro Kuramata's "How High the Moon" chair of metal mesh, Stefan Zwicky's cast-concrete chair and the cut and folded sheet-steel chair by Ron Arad look about as comfortable as an iron maiden.
The images of flyblown coffee shops, motels and gas stations in Route 66: The Highway and Its People, a photographic essay by Quinta Scott, text by Susan Croce Kelly (University of Oklahoma Press: $17.95), evoke a different time in America. The 2,200-mile road, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, crossed the heartland of the continent before travelers deserted it. The prose and black-and-white photographs form a portrait of the '40s and '50s that feels both simpler and stultifying.
Native American Portraits 1862-1918 by Nancy Hathaway (Chronicle Books: $16.95) offers a more sobering look at America's past. These photographs, taken between the Civil War and World War I, capture the beauty and tragedy of the Amerindian people. Harriet Smith Pullen's 1906 portrait of Ano-Ylosk, head chief of the Taku tribe, reveals an opulent prince in all his majesty, while George W. Scott's study of Sitting Bull conveys the monumental sorrow of a Greek tragedy.
Two handsome volumes in "The Making of the Past" series have recently been issued in paperback: The Egyptian Kingdoms by A. Rosalie David and The Greek World by Roger Ling (Peter Bedrick: $16.95 each). "Kingdoms" is far more interesting, especially the discussion of how the pyramids and other gargantuan monuments served as vast public-works projects rather than sops to royal vanity. "The Greek World" presents such a stuffy, sanitized account of classical culture that even the splendid reproductions of Greek statuary can't redeem it.
Cartoon books always are popular gifts, and in these times, Americans need their sense of humor.
The most delightful cartoon book of the season is On Holiday by Jean Jacques Sempe (Prestel/te Neues: $24.95), whose captionless studies of little people lost in summer landscapes are familiar to readers of the New Yorker. Instead of drawing types--suburban housewives, gawky teen-agers, businessmen--Sempe populates his drawings with individuals, characters who happen to be housewives and teen-agers and businessmen but who also have lives that extend beyond the moment in the cartoon. This unusual depth imbues his simple drawings in pen, pencil and watercolor with an irresistible charm.
In addition to creating the comic-macabre characters of "The Addams Family" fame, the late Charles Addams pioneered black humor in cartooning, preparing audiences for the work of Gary Larson, Gahan Wilson and B. Kliban. My Crowd (Fireside: $10.95) includes some classic examples of Addams' off-the-wall humor, including Morticia, Gomez and Lurch preparing to pour boiling oil onto a group of holiday carolers, and an ordinary little man who turns into a werewolf during a planetarium show about the moon.
A unique combination of imagination, childhood memories and fine drawing makes Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" the best comic strip in the newspapers today. The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes (Andrews and McMeel: $12.95) is that rare treasure, the perfect gift, sure to please a close friend or the distant relative who agrees to put you up during a holiday skiing trip. John Caldwell's Fax This Book (Workman: $9.95), a collection of comic cover sheets designed to attract people's attention to messages sent via fax machine, is certainly the oddest cartoon book of the year. Whether the idea will work is anybody's guess, but Caldwell deserves a better outlet for his considerable talent.
Chuck Jones, who created Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Pepe LePew and some of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons, offers his recollections of life at the Warner Brothers cartoon studio and some general thoughts on animation in Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (Avon: $12.95). Jones writes the way he talks, and reading "Chuck Amuck" is like spending an afternoon with one America's foremost cartoon directors.
Moving from animation to live-action, MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" remains one of the most perfect fantasies ever created in Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History by John Fricke, Jay Scarfone and William Stillman (Warner: $16.95) probably would please anyone who loves the movie--which includes just about everyone. An even more detailed look at the way the Hollywood studio system functioned during its final years can be found in Ronald Haver's A Star Is Born (Harper & Row: $12.95). Haver also recounts his experiences in restoring the 1954 musical for its 1983 re-release, and shows readers just how carelessly films were treated in the not-so-good old days.
Marilyn: March 1955, photographs by Ed Feingersh, text by Bob Labrasca (Delta: $12.95), documents a week the actress spent in New York City, culminating in her appearance atop a pink elephant at a benefit performance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden. "Marilyn" undoubtedly will delight nostalgia buffs and devotees of supermarket tabloids, but more balanced readers may wonder if the poor woman will ever be left in peace.
Liberals looking for a coffee-table book (or anyone wondering what the recent brouhaha in Cincinatti was all about) might like a copy of Robert Mapplethorpe by Richard Marshall (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown: $29.95), the program from the exhibit that provoked the firestorm of controversy over freedom of expression versus obscenity. However, readers in search of salacious thrills probably will be disappointed: Although often cooly beautiful, Mapplethrope's imagery seems so remote and so imbued with a fashion-photography sensibility that the shots of people doing awful things look like glossy magazine ads for De Sade Interiors.
Readers curious to know what really went on in the park with Georges should consider Seurat by Richard Thomson (Phaidon/Universe: $29.95), a scholarly yet approachable study of the artist's work and influences. Watercolors by Jean Leymarie (Rizzoli: $25.00) surveys the medium from Leonardo to Picasso, Cezanne and Balthus. Handsomely printed reproductions capture the nuances of the delicate paintings, including Durer's astonishingly realistic study of a clump of marsh grasses.
And as Santa Claus remarked as he emerged from the bookstore (pausing by the remainder table to kick over a stack of Nancy Reagan's "My Turn"), "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good read!"