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Best Gift Books to Give 2021: Forget the shortages, there’s something on this list (Marvel, art history, Beatles lyrics, sex advice) for everyone

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/1/2021 Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune
A box set of Roald Dahl classics and a "Building Stories," puzzle by Chris Ware. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS A box set of Roald Dahl classics and a "Building Stories," puzzle by Chris Ware.

You’ve probably heard that the supply-chain crisis has been particularly hard on bookstores. These next few weeks, the most sought-after titles could be frustratingly sought after, even after you’ve stopped soughting on Christmas Eve. Santa is facing ships stuck outside ports, nonexistent warehouse space and manufacturing stoppages. Laying a finger aside of his nose, while laying another finger astride the shipping options of online merchants, Santa appears primed for an ulcer. Or as my Italian grandmother would say, “Madone!”

"The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present," "Soul R&B Funk: Photographs 1972-1982" and "The King of Gospel Music: The Life and Music of Reverend James Cleveland." © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS "The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present," "Soul R&B Funk: Photographs 1972-1982" and "The King of Gospel Music: The Life and Music of Reverend James Cleveland."

But here’s what I say:

Great gift books — great gifts! — come out of left field. Plus, most likely, the best readers on your shopping list are curious by nature. In other words, don’t sweat that supply chain this year, and forget what’s expected. Focus on what would be unexpected. What follows here are oodles of conveniently grouped ideas for book lovers, but with a twist: Very little here is obvious. Maybe one or two ideas. But the rest are helpful reminders: What everyone is desperate for is not usually what gets a smile on Christmas morning.

So take a deep breath, and ...

The child’s keepsake: One of my favorite book gifts to give has been something, anything, from the posterity-minded folks at the Folio Society in the UK. (Don’t worry, they also have a U.S. shipping point.) New this fall is a handsome box set of Roald Dahl classics ($115) with Quentin Blake illustrations: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Twits.” The cover fabric is nearly tweedy.

The big splurge: If you missed — or loved — that blockbuster Frida Kahlo exhibit at the College of DuPage earlier this year, two things: It was not a cheap ticket, and Taschen’s gargantuan, bottomlessly interesting survey, “Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings” ($200), is the keeper, that rare monograph as rich as any museum show. Reproductions are vivid and huge, the history is free of art speak, and the archival materials — diary pages, personal photos, even architectural plans for her home — feel fresh. If there’s money left: “Mexico: The Land of Charm” ($35, Dec. 7) is a fascinating compendium of roughly 50 years of travel brochures, calendars, hotel directories and auto club advertisements designed in the early 20th century to encourage Americans to vacation in Mexico. (Speaking of Kahlo, even husband Diego Rivera painted a few travel ads.)

For the Marvel fan who has everything: “The Story of Marvel Studios” ($150) is the authorized history of the franchise that ate Hollywood, which means it reads like a fraction of the probing, less-polite history someone will eventually write. (This thing is so uplifting, Robert Downey Jr.’s afterward inserts a Maya Angelou quote.) Now the fun part: “Marvel Classic Black Light Posters” ($125) is an actual Hulking portfolio, a recreation of the 12 Day-Glo posters that Marvel sold mostly though head shops in the early 1970s. A handful were created by Jack Kirby. Silver Surfer rides a rainbow, Captain America smashes the margins of the panel itself. It’s a big (20 by 30 inches) smile of a treat. Roy Lichtenstein would approve.

"Atlas of the Invisible," "Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea," "Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland" and "The Atlas of a Changing Climate." © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS "Atlas of the Invisible," "Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea," "Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland" and "The Atlas of a Changing Climate."

Forgotten no more: “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South” ($30) is the oral memoir of Winfred Rembert, who made his name evocatively recreating scenes of his youth — the harrowing, like chain gangs and near lynchings, but also juke-joint dances and summers on the water — with the most original of canvases: carved, painted leather shards. This book is an illustrated autobiography of plain-spoken pains and moments of strength, alongside vernacular art that stops you short. Rembert died at 75, just last spring; this is the memorial that he should have lived longer to enjoy.

The Roger Ebert memorial landfill: “For Promotional Use Only: A Catalog of Hollywood Movie Swag and Promo Merch from 1975-2005″ ($52) arrives via production house A24, which apparently just ran with this clever archive of total junk. Who is it for? No idea, and yet here is page after page of the sort of freebies that journalists receive in the mail, to remind them that “The Color Purple” (satin jacket) or “Kill Bill” (letter opener) is coming soon. A cataloging of “Fargo” letter shredders, “Waterworld” mini-tomato plants and “Twister” neckties.

Does not expire 12/26: My problem with Christmas-themed Christmas presents is they look tired within 24 hours. “American Christmas Stories” ($30) explodes that idea thoroughly. Compiled by Library of America, it’s got memoir, sci-fi, crime — an expansive take on how Christmas can come across; more important, it’s got variety — Ray Bradbury, Sandra Cisneros, Ben Hecht, Gene Wolfe, Nathan Englander, W.E.B. Du Bois, and many other authors not often associated with holiday classics. Same could be said for “A Vader Family Sithmas” ($15) by Chicago’s Jeffrey Brown, a new set of “Star Wars” gag comics perfect for kids. (“May the Force be with us, everyone.”) Somehow, it’s just shy of kitsch — not unlike Chicagoan Rob Elder’s original “Christmas With Elvis” ($20), a thoughtful portrait of the King as told through his Christmas recordings, the gifts he bought for himself, his Christmas cards and charitable givings.

The never-expected: First of all, this is not a book. It’s a puzzle. Except, it’s a 1,141-piece puzzle ($50) by Oak Park-based cartoonist and genius Chris Ware, adapted (if that’s the right word) from his form-shattering, ephemera-stuffed “Building Stories” graphic novel. The image is a mashup of pages from the work itself; and since this is Ware, the packaging is just as clever — it all comes in a small cardboard brownstone.

Books on books: If there’s someone in your life always reading, here you go: “Bibliophile: Diversity Spines” ($19), a one-stop snapshot of (the dedication explains) “marginalized writers and readers” and their books. It’s a recommendation party, full of Jane Mount’s Insta-ready illustrations, broken into memoir, horror, classics, coming of age, etc. “The Art of Oz: Witches, Wizards & Wonders Beyond the Yellow Brick Road” ($40) somewhat annoyingly starts with the premise that Oz is real; artist Gabriel Gale includes a Google “map” of Oz. But the heart is solid: Gale’s interpretations of the beasts that Baum (working in Chicago) dreamed into his 14 Oz books, alongside earlier illustrations. That said, “The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History” ($50) is the gem here, the must-have, a trove of what-to-read-nexts, yet drawing on history with authority. W.H. Auden reviews Tolkien (“No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy”), Pynchon reviews Marquez; Zadie Smith punctures her own acclaim (“A lot of the book is an exercise in ‘Look at me,’”). Archival photos, ancient book advertising, Q&As. A 1902 editorial knuckle-raps the “Prurient Prudes” of an Evanston library for excessive censorship. There’s even a fun batch of angry author letters. It’s newspaper history done right.

Your museum, reworked: That the bright, textural collages of “Mickalene Thomas” ($125) are still mostly enjoyed by those grounding in contemporary art is a crime. Aside from an introduction by Roxanne Gay, the art speaks for itself here, domestic spaces full of reclining Black women, somehow transcendent and matter of fact, all at once. Beautiful as this survey comes off, you have to experience firsthand the pastiche of fabrics, paints, rhinestones that mark Thomas’ work. Still, this is the place to start. “Another History of Art” ($25), however satiric, works a similar kind of magic. Canadian artist Anita Kunz (best known for her New Yorker covers) reimagines the history of art as entirely female. So we get Leona da Vinci, Paula Klee, etc. Sounds like a one-note joke, but here are classics remade for monkeys, faux jewelry, mansplaining. Pretty charming stuff. Same for the continent-spanning “African Artists: From 1882 to Now” ($70), another of Phaidon’s terrific history-in-a-book approaches to what could be an encyclopedia of options. Here we get more than 300 artists, sample work and a bit of curatorial context, like an exhibit you can tour on your own time.

"Lure," "Things are Against Us," "American Comics: A History" and "Essays Two." © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS "Lure," "Things are Against Us," "American Comics: A History" and "Essays Two."

Santa baby: This should make you feel old and dusty. Dan Savage, Chicago-born purveyor of fine sex talk, has been dispensing advice for 30 years now. Though it’s thin and brief, “Savage Love: From A to Z” ($20) has it where it counts. The format looks kind of slight, but Savage’s alphabetized essays — R is for rejection, B is for bondage and so on — allows for left turns and direct talk that rarely avoids the big picture of every permeation of relationship. J, for instance, is for Jesus, because religion often intrudes.

Tolerable Christmas morning nostalgia: “Toys: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads” ($40) is exactly that, the Sears Christmas catalog you never get now, minus the tool section. Think 500-plus pages of toys, from windup tin cars made in Freeport, Illinois, to MC Hammer dolls. There’s scant history between the ads, but that’s welcome: What’s more telling than a Depression-era billiard table ad from Brunswick, made on South Wabash Avenue? “Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon” ($75) does exactly what a good coffee table history should do, it goes deeply into every aspect of a very specific thing. I mean, there’s one page here on whether the Pac-Man ghosts are actually monsters. There’s a great dive into how Chicago-based Midway imported the game to America.

The way we were: Not to sound like a philistine, but “Cairo in Chicago: Cairo Street at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893″ ($120) could use more pictures. Because, at that price, what’s here — between pages of overwritten history — is fascinating, a breakdown of the life and authenticity of a single popular exhibit. (Who doesn’t want to know more about “The Hot-Hot-Hot Man”? Or the “Startling Torture Dance” that moved to Clark Street after the exposition closed?) “Lost Chicago” ($25) is the more accessible (and welcome reissue) option, local historian John Paulett’s decade-old tombstone of sorts to Chicago’s fallen movie theaters, amusement parks, harbors — even industries, such as meatpacking and mail-order empires never more.

Sweet soul music: It’s hard to tell if “The King of Gospel Music: The Life and Music of Revered James Cleveland” ($60) is biography or box set. Though it hardly matters. Robert Marovich, Chicago gospel historian, makes no bones that the city is the foundational heart of gospel, and Cleveland, a Bronzeville native, its genius. A glossary of album covers is a bonus — then you get a four-CD retrospective. It’s a generous charmer of a package. “Soul R&B Funk: Photographs 1972-1982″ ($70) lets the images of Bruce Talamon tell the story, and as a corrective to decades of overly-familiar classic rock doorstops, it’s the indispensable resource of a great period. “Soul Train” gets a joyful section, and the Earth, Wind & Fire costumes alone beg for their own exhibit.

Essaying the holidays: An essay collection is ideal, if paired to the right person. It suggests the recipient is busy not brainless, curious but discerning. A few ideas: “Essays Two” ($35) by Lydia Davis is focused on literary translation, but the real subject is writing, and language itself. More accessible, “These Precious Days” ($27) by Ann Patchett, who hits an essayistic sweet spot with thoughts on the ordinary (parents) and specific (her love of Snoopy), including the most perfectly titled essay ever: “The Moment Nothing Changed.” For a bit of hometown sneer: “Things are Against Us” ($25) by Lucy Ellmann, an Evanston native (and longtime Scotland resident, known for her remarkable “Ducks, Newburyport”). She’s working in a tone familiar to lovers of E.B. White and Norah Ephron — knowing, funny, exhausted. Subjects include the patriarchy, staying home and underwear (“Bras: A Life Sentence”).

A whole new world: You know you have received a good gift book when you look up and the landscape seems different. “Atlas of the Invisible” ($40) takes this literally, with design-heavy info-mapping of cellular connections in the Great Lakes, eviction rates, the ethnicity of immigrants living on South Halsted Street in 1895. A cartographer’s dream, and often revelatory. Similarly, “The Atlas of a Changing Climate” ($35) considers deforestation, thawing ice, receding wetlands, but in a snappier package of maps and graphs. A nice one-stop, straightforward explainer of how the environment works, minus the ideology. “Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland” ($30) — featuring movie-esque, concept art-ish illustrations by the Field Museum’s Marlene Hill Donnelly — reconstructs Triassic-age Greenland, when it was actually green. “Two Worlds: Above and Below the Sea” ($60) is an ingeniously simple idea. As the title explains, here is a global tour of the split-vantage images we often get in an aquarium — surface, waterline, submerged — translated to real oceans and rivers. For instance, an abandoned seal pup (above), and the icy expanse (below).The reefs beneath coastal Indonesia. A large crocodile gliding just beneath the waterline off Cuba.

"The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History," "The Art of Oz: Witches, Wizards& Wonders Beyond the Yellow Brick Road" and "Bibliophile: Diverse Spines." © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS "The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History," "The Art of Oz: Witches, Wizards& Wonders Beyond the Yellow Brick Road" and "Bibliophile: Diverse Spines."

Everything in its right place: Once at the dawn of civilization, you turned to an encyclopedia if you needed to know the layers of Earth’s crust or find a bio of Henry Ford. Princeton University Press’ Pedia series ($17 each) — five volumes so far, including “Treepedia,” “Dinopedia” and “Birdpedia” — is a charming reminder of the analog joy of looking it up.

Architectural digesting: “Progression” ($75), by Chicago-based architecture firm FGP Atelier — led by Francisco Gonzalez Pulido, Mexico-born design partner of the late Helmut Jahn — feels at times like a tribute to Jahn, full of airy, glass-encased swirls. It’s classic gift-book: elegant, opaque, dense with images spanning the globe, full of explainers of Pulido’s best-known works, including a Mexico stadium with serious wingspan. Even more classic: “Atlas of Interior Design” ($87), a survey of 400 great rooms, designed since the 1940s, on every continent. Envy is the proper response, followed by, could I afford this? Maybe not the sculpted Zeus-like mask fireplace in Tuscany, but maybe the Spartan casual of Brazil. Ideal armchair fantasy house hunting.

Sir Paul, pen pusher: I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from another coffee table book of rock lyrics. (Both Dylan’s and Springsteen’s were undercooked.) I certainly didn’t expect more of “The Lyrics” ($100) by Paul McCartney. Though at 79, he seems to recognize these songs are the same as autobiography. He writes personal history, then, for each of the 154 songs in this two-volume set, an essay, a reminiscence, or a clarification. Filled out with candids and Beatles ephemera, it’s all pretty absorbing: He still isn’t sure about the opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night,” and when Michael Jackson called to work on “Say Say Say,” his first thought was: How did this girl get my number?

"The Baseball 100," " Savage Love: From A to Z" and "Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’ s Memoir of the Jim Crow South." © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS "The Baseball 100," " Savage Love: From A to Z" and "Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’ s Memoir of the Jim Crow South."

Funny pages: OK, “American Comics: A History” ($35) could use a few images. Or any images. But the ambition — a sorta-complete history of an entire medium — is contagious, and Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber keeps it fleet-footed, traditional and opinionated, leaving room for Sunday comics, memoir, Batman. As for the future: “Lure” ($30), by Chicago’s Lane Milburn is the smartest kind of sci-fi, rooted in now, anticipating change. In an alternate Chicago, art students work on a corporate project for an off-world luxury colony; they soon realize the rich plan to move there permanently, expecting an environmental collapse on Earth.

Fantasy baseball camp: Longtime sports writer Joe Posnanski must not like peace and quiet because no sensible person would assemble 800 pages arguing for the 100 greatest baseball players without wanting a fight. That said, I love “The Baseball 100″ ($40) so much, to be frank, I haven’t finished it yet; I keep throwing it across the room — Derek Jeter, better than Carlton Fisk!? — only to return a day or two later. He doesn’t compare players so much as write lively pocket profiles of each, making ample room for the Negro Leagues and Japanese players, honoring and expanding our thoughts about the game. (Never heard of Oscar Charleston? He was better than Ted Williams.)

Indie darlings: There’s simplicity to “Spike” ($50) worth emulating, a reliance on images of films, and well-chosen production photos, selected and arranged by Spike Lee himself. The book is (physically) long and (fittingly) uneven, but also a shadow history of Lee and Black film itself since the early ‘80s, with nicely selected treats (Lee’s handwritten Oscar speech). “Gus Van Sant: The Art of Making Movies” ($25) casts a similar glow: Flipping through, you forget how good this guy has been. “An Editor’s Burial: Inspirations for ‘The French Dispatch’” ($17) is more fun than “French Dispatch” itself. Taking a cue from his new movie about the Paris bureau of a newspaper, Wes Anderson compiled 14 (mostly) New Yorker pieces by Joseph Mitchell, James Baldwin, Lillian Ross and others, works that informed the film’s plot and characters.

"A Vader Family Sithmas," "American Christmas Stories" and "Christmas With Elvis." © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS "A Vader Family Sithmas," "American Christmas Stories" and "Christmas With Elvis."

Tried and true: I never want to give poetry for Christmas but I would reconsider for “The FSG Poetry Anthology” ($40), a fun new collection of the famous and soon to be, all published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux during its 75-year history. Sounds specific but the variety of thoughts and tones is remarkable. You get Chicago’s Stuart Dybek, Pablo Neruda, Louise Gluck and Robert Pinsky. Thankfully, “Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.” ($50) includes no poetry by either Bruce Springsteen or Barack Obama, but it does include ... Springsteen: “Are you a shower singer?” Obama: “Absolutely.” Plus 280 more pages of conversation, revealingly mundane, sometimes profound. But if you need something less, oh, potentially divisive, you can’t go wrong with Taschen’s new compendium of “Greek Myths” ($40). Includes all the hits! Hercules! Circe! Plus 45 more! Each paired with vintage illustrations. But order now. Supply chain and all.


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