It's a difficult task to guess your friends' and relatives' taste in books. You can hedge your bets by giving a book with pictures; that's why the "coffee table book" has long been a staple of holiday presents. Still, a book without much text can become the victim of a quick flip-through, never to be revisited.
These books straddle the divide between the lavish display of a coffee table book and the meat of straight nonfiction: Plenty of material to dig into, good visuals.
Purebred and Homegrown: America's County Fairs
By Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz
Purebred and Homegrown achieves that often elusive balance in a gift book. It's not all photos, so it doesn't quite qualify as a coffee table book. But the photos it does have are vibrant, colorful evocations of summer at that most iconic of Midwestern events - the county fair. The text records important local histories, but never bows to the stiltedness of academic prose. The result is exhilarating and absorbing.
The fairs, throwbacks to a time when rural America's culture was not marginalized as it is today, can seem like a step back into the past. But the book makes clear how vital these countywide get-togethers remain. The wholesomeness, in other words, is not played for kitsch. And that's refreshing.
Authors Hokanson and Kratz, who are from La Crosse, have traveled everywhere from Alaska - no kidding - to New York, eating everything from elephant ears to fried cheese curds, but, more important, talking to people: food vendors, kids, competition judges, veteran carnies and the few remaining sideshow acts.
Mostly, the book makes you feel like you're at a county fair - a few really good ones, in fact. Step right up.
- Linda Falkenstein
The Story of the University Avenue Holiday Lights
By Jack Kammer
I'm ambivalent about Christmas and worried about the energy crisis, but I nevertheless find holiday lights charming. In these coldest of times, they warm me.
But although frenzied displays have their pleasures, for sheer graceful simplicity you can't beat the long row of arborvitae trees along University Avenue that, over the winter, glow with colored lights. For 15 years dentist Jack Kammer has worked - and spent no small amount of money - to illuminate the trees, and now Kammer describes the project in his book, prosaically titled The Story of the University Avenue Holiday Lights: Madison, Wisconsin USA.
This eccentric and endearing book, a slender 49 pages, is a series of reflections by Kammer, now retired from his Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. Kammer's writing is interspersed with many photographs of the trees, of volunteer workers, of Kammer himself. Also included are newspaper accounts, as well as letters of praise from fans of the lights; a reproduction of a thank-you card signed by nurses at UW Hospital, which sits near the trees; even a child's colorful drawings, one of which is inscribed, "Thank you for the pretty trees trees."
The first chapter - called, with a nod to the Pentateuch, "In the Beginning" - tells how Kammer acquired the land occupied by the trees from the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, how he bought the trees from an Eau Claire nursery, how he planted them and "watered them profusely." Elsewhere he recounts the project's early years, when he bought incandescent lights at Menards, and he describes in some technical detail the switch to LEDs.
So what's it all about? Kammer writes that the display is a thank you to his foster mother (described movingly in a prologue), to his wife, to a childhood friend and, essentially, everyone - "every ethnic background and every religion."
That's a lovely message of generosity for this season, and for any season.
- Kenneth Burns
By Dan Green
In the Garden with Jane Austen
By Kim Wilson
Perfect stocking stuffers for the Anglophile in your life. Essentially English, an appealingly square little photo book, makes everything British seem absolutely fabulous, even the food (crispy fish and chips with malt vinegar, chunky pork pies, cream teas). Quirky island traditions like lawn bowling, Victorian pier culture and vintage pinball machines pull up images from songs by the Who and Paul McCartney. And institutions like Morris dancing and the Toby Jug look back much further into England's storied history.
In the Garden with Jane Austen will also reward the armchair traveler or Jane-ite with its look at English gardens that are as Austen herself - or Emma or Elizabeth Bennet or Fanny Price - might have known them. These range from cottage gardens, like Chawton Cottage (a.k.a. Jane Austen's House Museum), to large estate gardens that may have been models for Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's pad. Gardeners can also get the lowdown on typical species.
- Linda Falkenstein
By Steven D. Hoelscher
(University of Wisconsin Press)
You think you know the Dells? Not unless you've read Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett's Wisconsin, a detailed, sometimes academic look at the intersection between nature, Native Americans and early photography. H.H. Bennett's black-and-white views of the Dells are well known as the spark that set off the tourist industry there, but Hoelscher uncovers more about Bennett's pioneering portraits of the area's native Ho-Chunk - plus faked photos of the same.
Even as the United States was pushing Native Americans off their lands, contemporary photographs idealized and romanticized the Indian. Bennett's photos "depicted two very different realities: a playful frontier illustrating the pleasures of vacationing Victorians amid a fairy story landscape; and Ho-Chunk people pictured at the moment before their assumed cultural demise," Hoelscher writes.
Hoelscher provides much to digest about cultural imperialism and commerce, but even in the wake of that, his photographic record makes available Dells history that might otherwise have been lost. And the historic photographs reproduced throughout are gorgeous; many are modern prints made from original glass negatives owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Most interesting is his discussion of Bennett's depictions of the Ho-Chunk, from inaccurate "postcard Indian" shots to cardboard "Indian warrior" silhouettes inserted into landscapes or even whites dressed as Indians. Hoelscher contrasts Bennett's work with more naturalistic portraits made by a prolific Black River Falls photographer named Charles Van Schaick.
Finally, Picturing Indians concludes with the current work of UW-Madison professor and Ho-Chunk photographer Tom Jones, whose work reexamines and rights stereotypical images of the Native American with "irony and humor."
- Linda Falkenstein
By Nathan Troi Anderson and J.K. Putnam
Dead things make excellent subjects for fine art photography. In any light, they don't move. There's a strange beauty in the seedy, blighted subjects on display in Decay, a morbidly fascinating mix of the organic and the fabricated. Deadheaded flowers, dusty bark and riverbed mud blend with peeling paint, rusty cars and ramshackle buildings.
This is intriguing perhaps for the same reason vampires are: There is life in death. Rust grows. Mold lives. Decay tempts, sucks us in, and leaves us hungry for more.
There are few words in the book, and no captions. Anderson's statement is poetic and brief; Putnam's is more expository. The book closes with a sad essay on the modern essence of decrepitude, contributed by an Iraqi teacher named Majeed: "Find me a mortal who won't shake hands with decay...."
So much is left unanswered, the imagination is sparked. Who drives a truck into the woods and just leaves it there? Did that squirrel commit suicide? I was drawn to Anderson's multiple studies of the same wall, dispersed through the book, where bright red rust, the ghost of an iron bedframe, dances across faded green and blue gardenia wallpaper.
In keeping with the design niche for which Mark Batty Publishers is known, the authors include a bonus disk of 50 royalty-free images, "suitable for graphic design applications." Add some vivid rot to your next project.
- Ellen J. Meany