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Fun Stuff: Movies, TV, and Other Diversions
By David Pitt

One of the great things about the holidays -- well, if you're a booklover, anyway -- is those wonderful, oversized hardcovers and softcovers we call coffee table books.

A book that's been spending a lot of time on my coffee table is A Peanuts Christmas (Ballantine, hardcover), a collection of Yuletide-themed episodes from Charles Schulz's magnificent, charming, timeless comic strip. What more needs to be said, really? Peanuts is the best strip there ever was -- sorry, Calvin and Hobbes; sorry, Opus and all you other Bloom County residents; sorry, Roger Fox and family -- and it is a pure-D delight to sit back and leaf through five decades of Peanuts Christmas tales, to see the evolution of Charlie Brown and Lucy and Linus, and that adorable Snoopy, to remember just how special, just how touching the strip could be. If you cried when Schulz died, you just might cry all over again. But that's a good thing.

Also sure to be well-thumbed are the three volumes of The Ultimate Simpsons in a Big Ol' Box (HarperCollins, paperback), a boxed set of episode guides to the popular animated series. Each full-color volume contains plot synopses, snippets of dialogue, supporting- character bios, and 'stuff you may have missed,' little bits of trivia about the episodes. Volume one (seasons one through eight) also offers synopses of the forty-eight short bits done between 1987 and '89 for The Tracy Ullman Show, and an Itchy and Scratchy filmography; volume two (seasons nine and ten) has a two-page tribute to Troy McClure, the B-movie actor voiced by the late Phil Hartman, and lyrics to some of the songs performed in the series; volume three (seasons eleven and twelve) has character designs, production art, and more song lyrics. The books also feature couch gags, breakdowns of which performer does what voice, and, oh, just a pile of wonderful stuff. For a Simpsons addict, this is must-have stuff.

If you know anyone who's a fan of Inspector Morse, the British policeman created by novelist Colin Dexter (the character also appeared in a popular television series), you'll want to give them Inspector Morse Country (Headline, hardcover), by Cliff Goodwin. Subtitled 'An illustrated guide to the world of Oxford's famous detective,' it's a tour of the real-life settings of the Morse stories. Here are the pubs where he drank, the flat where he lived, the streets he walked, the people he lived among. When you do one of these things right, it can be a magnificent experience, and this one is done very right indeed. Chief Inspector Morse died in 1998; it was a fitting end to the character, Dexter believed. John Thaw, the actor who played him so marvellously, died in 2002. Somehow, the book manages to be a celebration of both of them.

Fans of the rock group Kiss will want to pore through KISS: The Early Years (Three Rivers Press, paperback), with photographs by Waring Abbott and text commentary by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. Abbot photographed the rockers for eight years, beginning the day in 1974 when he showed up with an assignment to take pictures of a band called Argent and wound up snapping shots of their opening act, an oddly-costumed quartet who called themselves Kiss. Nobody knew quite what to make of the guys then, but Abbott's photographs captured their essence, their raw power, their nobody-ever-saw- anything-like- us-before performance style that turned them from unknowns to superstars. The pictures -- backstage, on stage, and off stage, posed and candid, black-and-white and color -- are like a trip back through time; Simmons and Stanley offer us their memories of the moments, filling us in on what was going on while Abbott was snappin' away.

Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors: This is Ours (Atria, hardcover), by the popular country music singer, is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of McGraw's new album: the writing of the songs, the recording of the tracks, the overall production of the album. With more than a hundred photos (candid and posed), and text commentary by McGraw and the members of his band, it's a must-have for fans, and for anyone interested in how, exactly, music is made.

Budding moviemakers on your list will be delighted with Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (Vintage, paperback). Ondaatje, the noted Canadian novelist, met Murch during the filming of The English Patient, the big-screen adaptation of Ondaatje's novel. Murch was the film editor on the project, a Hollywood veteran who'd cut such classic movies as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now; he'd started in the business as a sound editor, and was the sound designer of THX 1138 and The Godfather, among others. Over the course of a year, Ondaatje and Murch met several times, and their conversations are presented here, in this fascinating exploration of an editor's art. Illustrated with scenes from some of the films Murch worked on, The Conversations is probably the best book on sound and film editing you're likely to find.

Star Wars devotees will positively salivate over Mythmaking: Behind the Scenes of Attack of the Clones (Ballantine, hardcover), written by Jody Duncan, the editor of the best special-effects magazine on the stands, Cinefex. This splendid book has just everything you could possibly need: production sketches; set, costume, and character designs; on-set photos; detailed descriptions (with accompanying photos) of how the effects were done; interviews with the talented people who made the film; and, for the six people who haven t yet seen the movie, scenes from the finished product scattered throughout. It s like a Star Wars collage, a beautifully produced book that captures some of the wonder and magic of the film itself.

Speaking of collages, here's Glenn Gould: A Life in Pictures (Doubleday, hardcover), with photographs drawn from the archives of the CBC, the National Library of Canada, and Sony. The book also contains, and this is what makes it so special, family photos from the Glenn Gould Estate. The book is entirely in black-and-white, but so what? The photos capture moments from a prodigy's life; they show us a man who could make beautiful music, a man full of brilliance and eccentricity. The introductory essay, by Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page, puts the photos in context; it's a brief, informative biography. Gould, who was a legend while he was still alive, quit playing publicly nearly two decades before his death in 1982. But he continued to record, and to write, and his music will live on for generations. For those who love his music, the book is a loving homage.

One more collage: Jerry Weist's Bradbury: An Illustrated Life (Morrow, hardcover), a life in pictures that is, I venture to say, entirely unique. There is very little text in this biography of Ray Bradbury, apart from occasional bits of commentary; some letters to and from the American author; stories about the man from people like comic-book editor Al Feldstein (who adapted several of Bradbury s short stories in EC Comics) and Francois Truffault (who directed the film version of Bradbury s brilliant novel Fahrenheit 451); and the first publication of a snippet of the script of the stage adaptation of the same novel. Mostly, the book is a collection of visuals: photographs of the books and magazines and actors that fed Bradbury s fertile imagination; illustrations that accompanied his fiction in the pulp magazines; covers of some of his more famous books; scenes from film adaptations of his stories and novels; and, of course, plenty of pictures of the man himself. At once a chronicle of Bradbury s life, and a tribute lovingly crafted by someone who's clearly a big fan, the book is a one-of-a-kind.

If you like one-of-a-kinds, you must take a look at The Complete War of the Worlds: Mars' Invasion of Earth from H.G. Wells to Orson Welles (Sourcebooks, hardcover), edited by Brian Holmsten and Alex Lubertozzi. Not only does the book contain the complete H.G. Wells novel (1898); not only does it contain the Howard Koch's script for the 1938 Orson Welles radio play that created terror from one end of the country to the other; not only does it contain profiles of Wells and Welles and other key creative players; not only does it a beautifully-illustrated article describing other offshoots of Wells's novel (a movie, a television series, a rock opera) -- not only does it contain all this, but it comes with an audio CD with the complete radio production and some other nifty tidbits. This is just a magnificent package, a glorious tribute to two creative geniuses and their wonderful creations.

Also a loving tribute to a creative genius is Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (Little, Brown, hardcover), a collection of more than 200 wonderful photographs selected by the director's widow, Christiane, who also provides the text commentary. This is Kubrick the way you've never seen him, the talented young Look photographer (some of his magazine work is here), the novice filmmaker, the established groundbreaker. Here's Kubrick at home, on the set, behind the camera. The commentary is insightful and revealing: the man who made such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove was 'famously uninterested in clothes,' was -- according to a brief profile published in Look when he was but nineteen -- absent-minded to the point where he might 'forget his keys, glasses, overshoes, and other miscellaneous trivia.' Despite public perception, Kubrick was not, Christiane assures us, 'some sort of isolationist misanthrope,' and this 'family album of photographs' certainly makes that clear. He was, or seems to have been, brilliantly talented, but also outgoing, personable, and even a little impish. This photo album's a real treasure.

What movie lover wouldn't want The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar (Black Dog and Leventhal, hardcover), by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza? Simply organized, the book devotes two or three pages to each year's Awards, with short bios of key players and a complete list of nominees and winners. There's also heaps of trivia (Laurence Olivier was nominated, two years apart, for playing a Nazi war criminal and then a man who hunted Nazi war criminals; cleanliness nut William Holden is reported to have showered four times a day), notable films and performances not nominated for Oscars, and plenty of photographs. The book is huge -- it measures eleven inches by thirteen -- but there's not an inch of wasted space. It's like a leisurely stroll through Hollywood history.

Similarly, for small-screen addicts, here's TV Guide: Fifty Years of Television (Crown, hardcover), a rather nifty history of the magazine told in pictures and (relatively few) words. The book reproduces dozens of TV Guide covers, and illustrations from the inside pages; each photograph is accompanied by a paragraph or so of text, reminding us what series the photo represented, and what TV Guide thought of the show. I found the book's organization particularly clever: similarly-themed, but often radically different, programs are described on facing pages. Here, on the left, is a blurb about Bewitched; on the right, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here's The Rockford Files and Sanford and Son (two father-son programs, a detective series and a sitcom); The Flintstones and Everybody Loves Raymond (very different family comedies); Peyton Place and Twin Peaks (offbeat small-town dramas); and, perhaps the weirdest pairing, The Odd Couple and Beavis and Butt-Head ('nuff said?). This study-in-contrasts, check-out-the-evolution-of-the-genre approach makes this potentially dull book something interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking. Well done, guys.

Michael Palin, the British writer-actor, numbers among his many achievements Monty Python s Flying Circus, the comedy series that was cutting edge when it first aired, in the late sixties and early seventies, and has, astoundingly, not aged a single day since then. Palin s also starred in a number of excellent films (A Fish Called Wanda being perhaps the best known), a handful of television documentary series (Around the World in Eighty Days is most people's favorite), and has written several books for children and adults. Life of Michael (Headline, paperback), written by Jeremy Novick, bills itself as the first biography for which Palin granted interviews, and it is simply a wonderful book. There's nothing groundbreaking here, no tidbits of information that ll blow the lid off the Palin myth, because Palin is, apparently, exactly what he has always appeared to be: a decent, talented man who loves his family and loves to entertain. If you're looking for dirt, or scandal, by all means look elsewhere; you won't find it here, and for that I am immensely thrilled.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on coffee table books as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
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