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Jeff Simon: 10 Rare and Wonderful Books for Holiday Giving

The art of giving is giving people things they’d never buy for themselves but might secretly want anyway. Things too expensive, maybe, or too esoteric or things they secretly covet – or would, if they only knew about them.

Books like these perhaps:

Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modeling Years By Astrid Franse and Michelle Morgan, St. Martin’s Press, 237 pages, $35.

You look at these 200 photographs and sometimes you can’t help wondering to yourself “My God, was she ever that young? Could Marilyn Monroe possibly have been more lovely at that age?” It is a widely accepted duality now that Marilyn Monroe the actress and Marilyn Monroe the photographer’s model were entirely different. The former was a tragedy constantly hampered by the profoundly disrespectful way she was always – ALWAYS – used. Here, before she was ever Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jeane worked for Hollywood’s Blue Book Modeling Agency and the images of innocence and loveliness among these 200 photographs can break your heart if you’ve got one. It is no wonder Hollywood wanted to turn her into something special. It’s tragic that it couldn’t ever figure out a way that she herself could live with.

Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life By Alyce Clarerbaut and David Schlesinger Bolden/Agate, 196 pages, $35.

OK, so the big centennial years belonged to Frank Sinatra (see the next entry) and Billie Holiday in 2015. To many of us, this is the most celebratory centennial book of them all – a lavishly illustrated life of Billy Strayhorn, composer of “Lush Life” and “Take the A-Train,” Duke Ellington’s proclaimed alter ego, amanuensis and musical enabler, the man of whom Don Shirley said this: “Many composers in jazz are very good at thinking vertically and horizontally about music. But Billy could write diagonals, curves and circles.” This is a superbly presented life about which there will never be quite enough tribute. The reminiscences told to Strayhorn’s classic biographer David Hajdu among others are as irresistible as the photos. “My right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head,” Duke called him. “My brainwaves in his head and his head in mine.”

The Cinematic Legacy of Frank Sinatra By David Wills, St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $35.

It’s widely known that when he took his movies seriously, Frank Sinatra was a hell of a movie actor. This is a deluxe but affordable coffee-table book full of Sinatra photos, and stills and commentary. You’ll learn that Nancy Sinatra’s favorite Sinatra films are “Von Ryan’s Success,” “The Tender Trap,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “From Here to Eternity” and “A Hole in the Head.” And that Sophia Loren actually reported to friends that Sinatra was “a regular gasser” and she “dug him.” A nice late arrival for the Sinatra centennial that hit this week.

Make ’Em Laugh: Short Term Memories and Long Term Friends By Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannawy, Morrow, 268 pages, $25.99.

While avid consumers of low-level movie star dish will doubtless prefer Burt Reynolds’ PG-13 “But Enough About Me” (Putnam, 320 pages, $27.95), those who prefer classic Hollywood almost completely without dish, will be drawn to this book. It would, of course, have been infinitely better to imagine her daughter Carrie Fisher – who talked up the imminent “Star Wars” on “Good Morning, America” by admitting “I think with my mouth” – annotating the final book. So, for instance, when Debbie tells us that when she was an MGM teen, she was able to go to her high school prom while her fellow MGM “Thalian” Liz Taylor went to her prom with a date that was arranged for her. “Still she went, hoping to have a good time. She got all dressed up, gown and everything and wound up signing autographs all night. It wasn’t any fun. I doubt that she got one dance.” Wait for the time when Fisher is able to write HER memoir with no fear whatsoever of offending Mama or her family friends. If you want Mom’s PG version, here it is.

Traveling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998 By Michael Palin, St. Martin’s Press, 563 pages, $35

“The Python Years” and “Halfway to Hollywood” are still the best way to explore Michael Palin’s diaries. This still isn’t bad. Where else will you read this about going to Groucho Marx’s house: “Never feel altogether comfortable in Groucho’s. To do the place properly you have to act a bit. You have to decide what role you’re going to play before you go in (generally quite ordinary people but occasionally someone larger than life looms up and you feel you should grasp their hand, then you remember this is Groucho’s and it wouldn’t be cool. Then you overcompensate and cut people dead.)” Short of “cutting people dead,” you’ll feel that way about Palin’s “generally ordinary” diary.

Collected Lyrics 1970-2015 By Patti Smith, Ecco, 303 pages, $29.99.

The lyrics to 35 Patti Smith songs have been added to the new edition of this which was originally published in 1998. So for the first time you’ll read the lyrics for a song she wrote for Janis Joplin in 1970: “How I love to laugh / When the crowd laughs / while love slips through / a theater that is full / but oooh baby / when the crowd goes home /and I turn in / and I realize I’m alone / I can’t believe I had to / I was working real hard / to show the world / what I could do / oh I guess / I never dreamed / I’d have to / I had to / sacrifice you.”

Rebirth of the Cool: Discovering the Art of Robert James Campbell By Jessica Ferber, powerHouse books, 143 pages, $40.

The problem with New York in 1960, says Marc Mayers here, was “an over-supply of genius.” Photographer Robert James Campbell functioned there when “the pay was often bad and the work was hard and thankless” and all too often anonymous. He later built sets anonymously in Hollywood, went back to New Hampshire, had a stroke there and died at 65 in Burlington, Vt., almost forgotten and his photographic career far behind him. There are, nevertheless, great photographs here, of jazz and blues musicians (especially Mississippi John Hurt) as well as Dick Gregory, Myrlie Evers, Richie Havens, a world of Manhattan life where Campbell was in the right place at the right time with the right set of eyes to preserve what was in front of him.

Murder on the Orient Express By Agatha Christie, Morrow, 254 pages, $19.99

An exact facsimile edition of, yes, the First British printing of the Agatha Christie classic original, typeset, cover and all. The dustflap demurely tells us that she is the most widely published author of all-time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. “Her books have sold more than a billion copies in a hundred foreign languages.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland By Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Salvador Dali, Princeton University Press, 103 pages, $24.95.

Under any circumstances at all, Salvador Dali was the most literary of painters. It stands to reason in his life he would take many opportunities to illustrate the great literary classics of the West. And so he did. Few measure up to his edition of “Don Quixote” for the Modern Library in the ’50s. Certainly this late-life “Alice in Wonderland” doesn’t. But if Dali’s “Mad Tea Party” isn’t nearly as mad as its literary source, there’s a nice Dali megalomania in its simulation of a human face in which one of his limp watches is a mouth, the eyes are a tree branch and a butterfly and a skeleton key is an earring.

War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict By David Shields, powerHouse books, 113 pages, $39.95.

There is no more interesting writer in America at the moment than David Shields. This is an amazing “art book” whose point is to prove the aestheticization of photos of war in the New York Times and, by implication, the complicity of the press with violence, oppression and horror. Shields’ “attraction” to the Times war photos “evolved into a mixture of rapture, bafflement and repulsion.” What’s here of the Times photos begins in 2001 and ends at this moment. War is glamorized, he says, along with “the sacrifices made in the service of war.” A unique and startling book, which is commonplace for Shields.


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