Better to give
Ten books that will set you apart come gift-giving time

The gift book is an odd beast. No one is supposed to go into a bookstore and buy a $75 book for themselves. No. Books like that are created to be the safe bet when buying someone a present. "I need to get him a gift. Hey, here's a big book on Monet. I know he likes Monet. Great. Who's next on the list?" Books like that have a touch of thoughtfulness with an air of sophistication. They also live a very cyclical life: from coffee table to shelf, to basement, to yard sale; repeat as necessary (or until the spine falls off).

These are not those books.

The books on the next two pages are for the rest of us. These are books we would actually buy for ourselves, and our loved ones, be they geek or hipster, intellectual or meathead.

The Acme Novelty Library
Chris Ware
(Pantheon, $17.50) Is he man or machine? Chris Ware, who by now has made an ironclad case for himself as the best cartoonist of his generation, deals in both enormity and intricacy. His sprawling but infinitesimally detailed pages seem too precise to be rendered by a mere mortal. But their flashy panache, and the subtle pathos that suffuses many of their panels, could only come from a sentient and feeling being. Ware is a master craftsman, with mind-boggling ingenuity. Marvel at his pitch-perfect parody of those old, colorful, comic-book mail-order ads, but look closer at those tiny words to find a mordant sense of humor. His creatively composed narratives, flowing line work, and dreamy atmospherics even hearken back to turn-of-the-century titans like Winsor McKay. Ware's recurring characters are all here: Midwestern man-child Rusty Brown and his pal Chalky White, boorish Quimby the Mouse, potbellied Super-Man (never to be confused with the Man of Steel). Lesser ones pop in too, like Rocket Sam and Big Tex and Frank Phosphate. And that imagination! The cutout assembly project pages. The Special Saturday Afternoon Rainy Day Activity Section. The verbose glossaries and astronomical maps. The mock history of Acme Novelty Co., complete with archival photographs. You don't read Ware's books. You enter into them. And you don't want to leave.

Absolute Batman: Hush
Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, Scott Williams
(DC Comics, $49.95)
Jeph Loeb's Batman is like Morrissey - tragically unlovable, blowing it at all the wrong times, wears black on the outside, 'cause black is how he feels, on the inside. The complete 12 issues of the tragic Batman/Catwoman love tale concocted by one of today's best comic writers is presented here in a hefty book for a hefty 50 bucks, but if ever there was a tale worth both the weight and the price tag, it's this one. The Bat fights virtually all his foes (as well as some friends), gets some cat tail and plays his usual moral tug-of-war. Loeb's dialogue keeps the camp out, and Lee pencils some of the most intriguing versions of Poison Ivy and Joker ever. The slipcovered book contains oversize, gorgeous art on glossy stock, and extras include annotations by Jim Lee (note the company-crossing "Here Lies Gwen Sta..." in the cemetery scene in issue #618), various Lee sketches and a ridiculous Q&A with the creators. A great read (probably would take you about three hours to finish), but even better to gaze at. Too many characters to make it as a movie, but the main story thread (sans the anticlimactic ending) would look fantastic on the big screen.

Star Wars Poster Book
Stephen J. Sansweet, Peter Vilmur
(Chronicle, $50)
It's perhaps the most iconic movie poster of all time. Sure, the Hildebrandt brothers (who were used to painting Hobbits) utilized the faces of stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher - but the bodies were all beefcake and cheesecake. The style "A" theatrical one-sheet Star Wars poster - Luke's tunic flowing out to reveal a six pack, Leah's gown showing more than enough leg while Vader watches it all - not only launched the biggest franchise in film history, but was the precursor to more than 2000 other posters that sold the public on the tale of the Skywalkers. Stephen Sansweet, former LA bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, holds the ultimate geek's job of content manager of all things Lucas, compiles posters from around the world - from the minimalist Japanese advance poster featuring only the nighttime sky to the creepy avant-garde Russian posters, which were created in 1990, when the movie finally was released after the Cold War. The text jumps back and forth nicely between art-school backgrounds (Lucas wanted the Star Wars logo to look "very fascist," according to the art director who designed the iconic letters in Helvetica Black) to fan-boy anecdotes (Billy Dee Williams's agent was more than a little pissed he wasn't on the original Empire poster). Merchandising posters for cookies, sneakers, Dixie cups and Australia's Return of the Jedi ice pops, touting a secret ingredient referred to as "Jedi Jelly," flesh out the rest of the 320-page book.

Shag: The Art of Josh Agle
Josh Agle
(Chronicle, $40)
Shag. The word brings to mind the rug in a sexy '60s ski chalet, or the lusty lingo of swinging London. In fact, Josh Agle's nom d'art is a contraction of the last two letters of his first name and the first two letters of his last. But it's also exquisitely evocative of his colorful paintings of turtleneck-wearing men clutching brandy snifters, and pert party girls in headbands and hoop earrings. You've seen his stuff before - on barware, on Zippo lighters - but this is the first book collection of his groovy oeuvre. Shag's supersaturated colors, exacting composition, and clean, angular lines are instantly recognizable. His is a world of tiki totems, red fezzes, space-age go-go dancers, jet-setting continentals on zooming mopeds, and retro-futurist A-frame bachelor pads equipped with state-of-the-art hi-fi stereos. And booze. Lots of booze. (All the better to seduce those buxom, bouffanted bombshells.) In a word: fabulous. When you learn that Agle came from a Mormon family who didn't drink, didn't smoke, and didn't listen to records, his colorful fantasy world is all the more remarkable. "Once an outsider gazing in the windows of Lowbrow," Colin Berry writes in his introduction, "he has become one of its landlords, a one-man cottage industry grown into a mansion. (Three guesses how it's decorated.)"

100 Naked Girls
Petter Hegre
(Amphoto books, $40)
Petter Hegre, the self-proclaimed master of the New Nude, described on the book's jacket as a "unique and instantly recognizable style based firmly in reality; in real people captured in real situations," offers 172 pages of uninterrupted flesh. The "real people" are mostly white. The "real situations" are mostly standing against a wall or laying in bed. But Hegre, a former assistant to Richard Avedon, delivers his subjects with a certain understated sexiness that ranges from girl-next-door window-gazing to Brazilian beach photo shoot. Girls is the answer to every male student who wondered what other women could catch his eye after the intimate 2003 compilation Luba, which focused on Hegre's Ukrainian-born wife (who this time around makes an appearance in Soviet cap and strategically placed buttons), but would rather not have a book called Wild Shaven Angel on his coffee table. While it does not have the history of Playboy: Fifty Years: The Photographs, the artistry of Stefan May's Women or the celebrity of Bruno Bisang's Exposure, 100 Naked Girls does lay claim to that titillating middle space between snapshot and portrait, SuicideGirl and pinup girl.

The Onion Presents Embedded in America: Complete News Archive Volume 16
Carol Kolb, editor
(Three Rivers Press, $18.95)
Headlines like "Kerry: Stem Cell Research May Hold Cure To Ailing Campaign" clearly disprove the notion that The Onion is the paper equivalent to the Daily Show. The staff just doesn't have the smarts. They get closer with media quips: "Katie Couric Winces At Word 'Vagina,' " and music: "MTV Executive Grounds Son For Recommending Good Charlotte." But the paper shines when it is speaking to the common schlub stuck in the horror that is post-graduation office life. It's true that the headlines are often so good they leave the reader disappointed by the story. Thumbing through this collection, which captures the best of The Onion from 2003-'05, heds and pull quotes, including "Putting Up With Dave's Shit Not In Job Description," "Coworkers Dying To Tell Man He's Going To Be Fired," and "Day Job Officially Becomes Job," in which a 29-year-old aspiring cartoonist realizes that "After four years of washing dishes to support drawing projects, I've made the transition to washing dishes to support myself," are worth the price of admission.

Sneaker Freaker: The Book
Simon Wood
(Riverhead Freestyle Trade Paperback Original, $20)
In 2002, Aussie "sneaker head" Simon Wood conceived a ploy to get free shoes: self-publish an international magazine devoted to his footwear obsession. Three years later, Wood's biannual publication Sneaker Freaker is the Playboy of sneaker culture, with limited-edition releases fetishized like svelte pinups and old copies accruing worth like vintage coins. Sneaker Freaker: The Book is a compendium of highlights from the journal's first six issues: the anthology peeks into a world where shoe designers, corporate product managers, and sneaker-boutique owners are the exalted heroes, and where Nike is curiously lionized like a mystical guru. Pieces explore how rare shoes are hunted and then preserved like exotic species: there's a diary of one shoe fanatic's two-day encampment on a Hong Kong sidewalk waiting for the limited-edition release of the White Raygun Dunk SB and a short interview with hardcore NYC Air Force One collector DJ Clark Kent (who actually stores 1000s of brand-new pairs on ice). There are even cameos of products on the periphery: graffiti-writer-commissioned foot beds, shoeboxes, urban toys. But like any unrepentant objectifiers, the gushing contributors don't fret over the moral underpinnings of their compulsions: "sweatshop" isn't in the Sneaker Freaker lexicon. That said, the kicks arranged among the pages do look pretty sweet, especially transposed against Wood's sleekly kinetic design.

Crap Cars
Richard Porter
(Bloomsbury, $14.95)
Phoenix staffer Adam Reilly was a bit nervous when he picked up Crap Cars (which has been the literary darling of the men's magazine circuit this fall) because the subject matter hits close to home. For most of his adolescence, Adam's parents picked him up and dropped him off at his fancy private school in two vehicles - a shit-brown Ford Maverick with a hole in the driver's-side floor and an aged, puke-green Chevy Impala - that made him feel even more awkward than he did already.

Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time (and his parents' belated upgrade to a decent-looking Toyota Camry) there was no issue at all. Instead, he was able to laugh at the crap cars in Crap Cars with the same snotty derision that his former classmates probably directed at him. There are 50 different automobiles here, and they're a surprisingly varied lot. Some are unexpectedly fancy, like the Porsche 924, which gets included for its embarrassing lack of power. Others are just flat-out stupid, like the Chevrolet Citation, AMC Gremlin (obviously), and the Pontiac Aztec. Each model gets two pages; one of these features a nice environmental portrait of the car in question, and the other explicates the car's crappiness and provides a snappy "If this car was . . ." quip. (Example, for the Yugo GV: "If this car was . . . all you could afford, have you considered prostitution?") It's a coffee-table book, really, and a pretty amusing one. Reilly's only gripe: "where's the Maverick?"

A Fine Romance
Darcie Denkert
(Watson-Guptill Publications, $45)
Between Broadway and Hollywood, cannibalism has been a two-way street. It's one that entertainment lawyer and president of MGM On Stage Darcie Denkert traverses in her big fat new coffee-table book A Fine Romance, which traces the traffic between stage and film musicals, from The Jazz Singer and Showboat to The Producers and Hairspray. The book is filled with great glossy photos, pages and pages of industry-insider quotes, so there's a lot to peruse without actually reading the book. Which is good, because the thing is so huge that it's hard to hold up and actually attack the chapters that, following an introduction tracing the incestuous trajectory of musical material between coasts, treat individual shows. Stories of Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve (which became Applause), My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gypsy, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Chicago (which was a couple of films before it was a Broadway flop before it was a Broadway hit before it was an Oscar-winning movie), Hello Dolly!, Mame, The Producers, and Hairspray all expose the reasons some Broadway hits (Dolly) made lackluster films while others (The Sound of Music) were more successful than they had been in the theater. And Denkert chronicles the trend that has seen everything from Disney cartoons to John Waters retooled for Broadway. There are some candid and illuminating stories - and reading them in this format has got to be a form of weightlifting.

Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections
Stephen Wong
(Collins, $30)
Watching this past World Series played in one soulless corporate stadium (Chicago's US Cellular Field) and one with quaint but manufactured quirks (Houston's Minute Maid Park) could only make a fan long for the sepia-toned salad days of the game's golden age. This book, which showcases the lovingly photographed treasures of 21 of the best private baseball-memorabilia collections, is a reminder of the rich and resonant history of America's game. Six New York Knickerbockers stare from a daguerreotype (ca. 1846) in beards and straw hats. Ty Cobb's handcrafted bat seems to still ring with the thwack of a homer on an August afternoon. Warren Spahn's game-worn Boston Braves jersey has his name stitched assiduously in the back. A cardboard packet of Sweet Caporal smokes, flakes of tobacco spilling from the cigarettes, comes with the 1910 baseball card for Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers. A souvenir scorecard for the first World Series in 1903 features photos not just of the Red Sox' player/manager Jimmy Collins, but Michael "Nuff Ced" McGreevey, diehard rooter and proprietor of the Third Base Saloon (any fan's last stop on his way home). Baseball is a sport for obsessives. For stat-heads, for longing lyric poets, for people who collect and cherish its relics with a childlike glee. That is why we love it.