Time for the cranky critic with a headache to recommend some Big Ol' Picture Books, so take 'em or leave 'em. Some call them "coffee table books," others say "gift books." As usual during the holidays, bookstores are loaded with the pricey tomes, which you just know has to be a strain on store employees' backs. Not enough to work for low wages, then they break your back to boot. Anyhow, if you're a fan of what I call Fabulous Doorstops — giant books filled with photos of flowers, scenes of Provence, or cute kittens — look elsewhere, because this column's about smart, interesting and visually creative works. Something to note: Prices are usually high for gift books, but you can find a slew of excellent gift books from last year in bookstores' remainders sections — from great rock music photography or mountain climbing to coral reefs and the solar system — at bargain prices. Now the main event.
Neil Young: The Definitive History by Mike Evans (Sterling, 288 pages, $29.95).
If someone you're buying for is, unlike Mr. Headache here, a huge Neil Young fan, and he/she already has the wee-voiced one's recent autobiography, well, here you go — the perfect companion, as marketers say. No musical artist outside McCartney loves to have his career documented as much as Neil Young, so this isn't exactly the first retrospective of the Canadian rock legend's career, but it's a particularly well designed book that's intelligently written and, with its use of non-glossy paper, is priced lower than most new gift books. It's also more interesting than any of Young's recent albums, so there's that, too. Or if you're buying for a younger person who enjoys singers that double as living cartoon characters, there's Katy Perry by Noam Friedlander (Sterling, 185 pages, $24.95), which is as colorful and splashy as its subject.
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon, $50).
Chris Ware is the premiere critics' darling of the comics world these days, a multiple award-winning artist who has ostensibly revolutionized the genre. He bores me to tears, but hey, this column's for you, not me. Plus, I admit that <Building Stories> is a unique and fascinating experiment in that it isn't a "book" per se but a big box containing books, broadsheets, bits and pieces and a board (as in board game), all showing the separate layers of reality of the story's characters — a pissy married couple, a befuddled amputee and the ancient landlady. Ware specializes in showing the mind-numbing nature of everyday life, and man does he ever succeed here — and on different levels of reality, no less. Not for all tastes, but if you know a hipster comics fan, this is a must-have gift.
Monty Python's Flying Circus, Complete and Annotated compiled by Luke Dempsey (Black Dog & Leventhal, 880 pages, $50).
There's no one more serious than a true comedy geek, and Luke Dempsey is heart-attack-level serious. Personal quirks aside, Dempsey's obsession is a godsend to all fans of Monty Python's legendary TV show, which spread literate absurdity and brilliant, pure silliness around the world. This mammoth book is, as the title says, complete. All 45 MP episodes are transcribed, annotated and accompanied by photos of over 2,000 scenes. The annotations are at least half the fun here, with a mind-boggling collection of trivia, minutiae, historical references, cultural context and such making for, probably, years of entertainment. Note: If you buy Monty Python for someone who winds up not liking it, please contact me at email@example.com and maybe we can work out a deal.
Wonders of the Deep by Life Magazine Editors (LIFE, 144 pages, $29.95).
All right all right, I know it's a little cheesy to recommend a LIFE photo book, but that's too bad, because there are images in here that I swear will give you goosebumps. Granted, you have to be interested in unusual wildlife to get the same effect, but luckily most people with greater-than-room-temperature I.Q.'s <are> interested. Seriously, this has to be the greatest oceanic photography ever, filled with eerily beautiful creatures and plants — along with eerily creepy/terrifying, um, things — that at times seem to be from another dimension. If your giftee is the type to stare in wonder at fantastic images, here's a great gift. You might, however, want to find someone else to hang around with while he/she is spacing out under water.