Gift-giving is easy this year, thanks to a spate of terrific, recently published books suited to several different reading predilections. Below, four stand-outs.
Moby-Dick in Pictures
On August 5, 2009, Matt Kish set out to create a single drawing for each of the 552 pages of Herman Melville's iconic Moby Dick, one drawing per day. Little did he know that he would take on a challenge as daunting as that faced by Ahab, and that he would experience a parallel form of obsession, exhaustion and then, at the end, existential finitude. The project is captured in the hefty, stunning book Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (Tin House Books), which includes Kish's images drawn on found paper - printed pages scrounged here and there - as well as a snippet of text from the novel's pages that each drawing references. The resulting book is a visual journey, with an invitation to sit with each complex, intriguing and often beautiful image for a while in quiet reverie. You can see the drawings online, but they don't compare with the experience of holding and paging through the book with your hands
It Chooses You
Like Kish, L.A.-based artist Miranda July also started a journey in 2009 that's captured in her new book, It Chooses You (McSweeney's). July was in the midst of writing a screenplay (for her film, The Future), and in need of distraction when her interest was piqued by the PennySaver circular, and its long list of odd items for sale. She decided to go out and find some of the people listing goods, from a seller of saris to those touting everything from hairdryers to tadpoles to teddy bears. Rather than merely inquiring about the objects, however, July wanted to query her new acquaintances about their lives, their hopes and dreams. The resulting book combines her amateur ethnography with reflections on her own life, illuminating the key to all of July's work, namely the often quirky pairing of the prosaic with the sublime.
Physics on the Fringe
L.A.-based science writer and founder of the Institute for Figuring Margaret Wertheim focuses on maverick, dissident scientists in her new book, Physics on the Fringe (Walker & Company). The book begins by charting a history of alternative science theorizing from the 19th century forward, and tries to understand how and why outsider scientists were once celebrated for their insights but were then later derided as "cranks." Further, she asks what an individual attains in discerning his or her own theory of physics, of an understanding of the universe. To answer that question, she turns to focus on the life of Jim Carter, who was born in 1944 and began to develop a theory of atomic structures while living on Catalina Island in the 1970s. He created and illustrated a massive theory of "circlon synchonicity" in a book of the same title, which Wertheim characterizes as filled with "bamboozling ideas" with lots of drawings and equations. It is "an entire phantasmagoric universe: atoms, stars and galaxies; the moon, tides, spaceships, and bumblebees." Wertheim ventures into those ideas with Carter with a terrific sense of curiosity and context. Overall, though, what makes the book such a treat is Wertheim's fundamental respect for outsider theorists, her obvious affection for Carter, and her aesthetic appreciation of the often extraordinary visual renderings of the oddball theories put forward.
Colin Meloy, singer for the band the Decemberists, recently published a children's book titled Wildwood (Balzer + Bray). A sprawling fantasy traversed by 12-year-old Prue McKeel, whose little brother is kidnapped by crows and hidden in the Impassable Wilderness, the book is the first in a trilogy (and will also become an animated feature film). In addition to chronicling Prue's daring travails in the deep, dark woods populated by coyote soldiers, badgers, owls, dogs, bandits and numerous other creatures as she moves through the wilderness with a pal, the book features majestic illustrations by Meloy's wife, illustrator Carson Ellis. Like Moby-Dick in Pictures, Wildwood is a delight to behold, with its textured dust jacket, the map of The Wood printed on the inside covers, and the array of illustrations throughout. All combine to create a truly lovely book for 9-12-year-old readers.