Open Me

Finding beautiful boys, bordello interiors, and worldwide Jews in the season's most intriguing coffee-table books

Pity the poor coffee-table book. For most of the year, it sits plaintively on a bookstore shelf, waiting for the holiday season. Passersby flick gently through its silken pages, leaving behind invisible fingerprints before returning it to its resting place. It seems like too much of an indulgence to justify buying for oneself: a beautiful object that does nothing. It's literally gratuitous—which makes it the perfect gift.

A handsome thing full of gorgeous creatures, Germaine Greer's The Beautiful Boy (Rizzoli, 256 pp., $45) reverses the male gaze and treats boys' bodies as a source of visual rapture. A notorious intellectual provocateur, Greer dismisses our society's hang-ups about pedophilia and urges us to celebrate the fleeting beauty of young men. She argues that before the 19th century, artists focused on the male nude rather than the female. Rummaging through the annals of art history, she presents us with 200 luscious images to prove her point, from Van Dyck's painting of a languorous Saint Sebastian to Annie Leibovitz's hunky nude photo of David Cassidy as a young heartthrob.

Curve: The Female Nude Now (Universe, 208 pp., $39.95 paper) provides the perfect counterbalance to The Beautiful Boy, though it restricts itself to contemporary art. In an opening essay, Jane Harris suggests that these female nudes act as our "collective mirror," reflecting society's constantly changing preoccupations. Curvedoesn't attempt to be comprehensive, but succeeds as a quirky, easy-to-digest survey. Several artists update the classic nude, while others experiment with pornographic imagery. Ghada Amer weaves thread into patterns that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be sexual poses, and David Levinthal's XXX photographs star naked dolls performing erotic acts that blur the line between the real and artificial. Most disturbing are Makoto Aida's graceful cartoons that portray girls as sushi: wrapped on a bed of rice, having gleaming salmon roe squeezed from her vagina, and laid out on the cutting board to be sliced.

Grande Dame: Burlesque Hall of Fame proprietor Dixie Evans, 71, gets ready backstage (from Aging in America).
photo: Ed Kashi/Powerhouse books
Grande Dame: Burlesque Hall of Fame proprietor Dixie Evans, 71, gets ready backstage (from Aging in America).

Worship young, chewy flesh while you can: As Julie Winokur points out in Aging in America: The Years Ahead (powerHouse, 256 pp., $45), the number of Americans over 65 is expected to double in the next 30 years. Ed Kashi's black-and-white photos document this demographic with a mixture of gravity and kindness. There are some agonizing glimpses of bewilderment and deterioration, but Kashi also hits triumphant notes in the lives of elderly athletes, newlyweds, and sassy strippers—as in the luminous portrait of Dixie Evans, 71-year-old owner of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, who glows like a silver goddess in her gown and jewels as two younger women gaze at her.

Despite the titillating title Brothels of Nevada: Candid Views of America's Legal Sex Industry (Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pp., $24.95 paper), you'll find no nudity in this book of photos by Timothy Hursley. An architectural photographer, he homes in on the mundane, often dilapidated landscapes and buildings rather than their inhabitants. Yet looking at the wood-paneled walls or plush red carpets, the cabinets full of tacky high-heeled shoes or the backyards dotted with rusty trailers, you get a haunting sense of the people who inhabit these all-American tableaux.

Judging by Outer Spaces (DK, 256 pp., $30), über-garden designer Diarmuid Gavin could probably transform those brothel backyards into psychedelic wonderlands. His fantasy approach to outdoor living spaces appeals to me, even though I have no outdoor space whatsoever. Many of the 28 backyards look like they've been concocted by an eccentric outsider artist—albeit one with a lot of cash hidden inside his mattress. Gavin's "Slinky" garden is childish and perverse, with clumps of colorful disks popping out of the ground like errant mushrooms, and a giant metal Slinky-tunnel that leads to an enclosed pavilion with a purple-spotted dome. And with "Lawn," partly inspired by the kiddie show Teletubbies, he transformed a normal, suburban patch of grass into a surreal maze of grassy slopes, one of which hides a cozy room under the ground.

As the subtitle hints, The Way We Live: An Ultimate Treasury for Global Design Inspiration (Clarkson Potter, 480 pp., $75) pillages cool designs from across the world under the guise of something highbrow and ethnographic. Even so, those addicted to shelter mags and home-makeover shows will feel they've hit the mother lode: This is a massive archive of home decoration (heavily weighted toward rich Western abodes, of course). Because good taste is international, it's often hard to distinguish between a kitchen in Chile or Paris. But the delightful montages of doorways, staircases, beds, windows, and rooftops spanning from Salzburg to Luxor, Florida to Kenya, capture remaining traces of cultural difference. In an almost diametrically opposed project, Yann Arthus-Bertrand photographs how people live, but he's more interested in an overview than frilly details. His updated version of Earth From Above: 366 Days (Abrams, 792 pp., $29.95) features hundreds of new aerial landscapes that resemble striking abstract paintings; their beauty is diluted only slightly by Arthus-Bertrand's use of didactic captions that express his concerns about biodiversity and natural resources.

Frederic Brenner has been wandering the planet with a camera for 25 years—driven, he writes in the introduction to Diaspora (HarperCollins, two-volume slipcased set, $100), "by a sense of imminent loss," compelled to search out "the permutations of survival in exile before they disappeared." By photographing contemporary Jews wherever he could find them (South Africa, Hong Kong, Yemen, Germany), Brenner plunged himself into a colossal, unsolvable puzzle, with each of his subjects representing a single piece. There are the Brazilian Marranos, who have practiced a covert version of Judaism since the Inquisition; Ethiopian Jews adrift in Israel; and Jewish mothers in Argentina mourning their disappeared children. The first volume silently offers hundreds of images, while the second calls on mensches like Jacques Derrida and George Steiner to contemplate and speculate. Prompted by a picture of Jewish men drinking in an Azerbaijani teahouse, André Aciman wonders, "Why should I, in looking at their strange faces that belong thousands of miles ago and have not a speck of me in them, think: something between them and me?"

Joyce Kozloff's limited-edition Boys' Art (D.A.P., 60 pp., $125) is one of this season's most eccentric coffee-table books—a tantalizing collision of cartography, aggression, and fantasy. An ardent pacifist, Kozloff sketched intricate maps of historical battles, then peopled them with primitive warriors cut out from her son's childhood drawings and from other surprising sources like Leonardo da Vinci and Henry Darger. Look closely at the colorful street grid of Nagasaki and you'll notice swarms of armed Tintin characters shooting recklessly all over the city; her meticulous drawing of the Citadel of Hue, meanwhile, is bordered by caped superheroes and ninjas, products of a boy's teeming daydreams. Kozloff tussles with history, imagination, and war inside these fetching scenarios, making Boys' Art a pretty book about ugly fantasies.

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