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Books for the culture-lover on your holiday shopping list

Every family has an aesthete hanging around somewhere -- maybe down in the basement painting a portrait, maybe up in the attic flipping through "Art in America."

Fortunately for these TV-eschewing, non-sports-loving fringe figures we all know and love, 2017 has been a fine year for writing on culture. This is especially true at a time when culture is changing at an unprecedented pace. Here are three picks for the person on your list with a taste for art, architecture and cultural history:

"Architect: The Pritzker Prize Laureates in Their Own Words" by Ruth Peltason and Grace Ong Yan, Black Dog & Leventhal, 462 pages, $60.

Most awards, let's admit, are artificial and imperfect ways of recognizing achievement. But they provide a useful frame for understanding certain disciplines and grasping the trends and talents that move and motivate them.

So it is with this easy-to-digest compendium of comments and career highlights from many of the world's best architects. It includes entries on the 40 architects who have won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, from Buffalo's own Gordon Bunshaft (who designed the 1962 expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) to the Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas (whose firm, OMA, is designing its next expansion).

The book is both an excellent primer for architecture neophytes and a fine reference and refresher for experts. It contains hundreds of useful nuggets, plucked from the brains of some of the 20th and 21st century's architectural overachievers.

"An architect," Bunshaft says, for example, "should spend as much time in a museum looking at great art as looking at buildings."

"David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music" by Darryl W. Bullock, Overlook, 320 pages, $35.

Darryl W. Bullock's highly readable cultural history on the contributions of LGBT musicians and figures to 20th century music is remarkable in breadth.

It takes us from pianist Tony Jackson's turn-of-the-century New Orleans to the more tepid musical stylings of Sam Smith and beyond. Along the way, he details the lives and careers of musical figures both towering and obscure, from Freddie Mercury and David Bowie to the lesbian singer-songwriter Cris Williamson and the group of gay men, now long-forgotten, who dominated the British recording industry of the 1960s.

The book, as Bullock writes in his highly personal introduction, "is not intended as a fully comprehensive guide to every LGBT musician who has ever entered a recording studio, but it is my hope that, through its pages, you will discover some of the people who spent their lives fighting for us to be heard."

"Picasso and the Painting that Shocked the World" by Miles J. Unger, Simon and Schuster, 480 pages, $32.50.

It's rarely wise to imbue a single cultural object with too much importance.

An exception to this rule is Pablo Picasso's 1907 masterpiece "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," a painting of violent originality that heralded a violently original age. You can pre-order this one for the art-lover on your list, as it doesn't' come out until Feb. 13.

For Picasso obsessives and art lovers of any stripe who want to understand the great lineage of 20th century art before it split off into a million disparate post-war streams, Miles J. Unger offers up an exhaustive biography of that masterpiece -- if a biography of a painting is possible.

We learn plenty about Picasso's career up to the painting of "Les Demoiselles," from its artistic antecedents in his own work to the reactions of those who saw its earliest iterations.

Picasso's great friend Guillame Apollinaire, upon seeing what was likely a study of the painting, remarked that it contained "wonderful language that no literature can do justice to, for our words are preordained."

Picasso, with his perspective-warping, wobbly, multi-dimensional an deeply emotional painting, was inventing his own language with each brush stroke. It's a language we're still speaking today, and Unger's volume deftly explains why.


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