Doom is obliquely the subject of "Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens" by Liz Goldwyn (Regan Books: 304 pp., $44.95). The photos are of women from the 1930s, '40s and '50s, in sequins and feathers, rears to the camera, backs arched and red mouths open and wet. Perhaps dead beauties are less depressing to look at, but I found these women erotic and brave. They lived on the edge of society, and many of them came to a bad end. It's not the best-written art book I've read, but the pictures, the lore and the details more than make up for that.
Beauty, stardom, sexual titillation. Frankly, it was exhausting. I can't sing or draw, I have short legs, and I will never learn to spin the tassels on my pasties. But one day, I might be a petty criminal, and if I am, I hope my mug shot ends up in another volume of "Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots" (Steidl Publishing/Steven Kasher Gallery: 306pp., $50). Mark Michaelson has edited and designed a marvelous, oddly feel-good book with page after page of "hookers, stooges, grifters and goons." It is a glance into a stratum of American life from the 1880s to the 1970s. The hairstyles change, but the expressions continue to be scared, cocky, drunk, superior or resigned. The writer Kio Stark has an essay in the book about the beauty she sees in these austere photos because the faces are both "elusive and persistent.... They churn our imaginations." The photos were chosen not as a history, Michaelson writes, but because "they contain some sort of magic, elicit some strong response. The faces
Finally, I held the future, "Face: The New Photographic Portrait" (Thames & Hudson: 240 pp., $50). William A. Ewing laid it all out for me: The portrait is dead. Or at least dying. Some of the new "portraits" in Ewing's book are strangely breathtaking; some are just creepy. They are done by artists and imagists. Some are altered by special effects; others are simple shots of faces that usually make us avert our eyes. Photography may be ready to take the next step, but I'm not prepared to send Christmas cards with manipulated photos of my kids. The text that accompanies this book is equally wonderful -- a study of the face and what it means to us, including quotes by philosophers and journalists and politicians.
When I was researching my first novel, I spoke to a woman who had been blind since adolescence. She said she missed seeing something beautiful. "What do you miss seeing the most?" I asked her. To my surprise, she answered, "My own face." As imperfect as we may be, eyes a little too close together, wrinkles too pronounced, we are still our most familiar sight. There is beauty in that.
My friend walked into Starbucks just as the perfect specimen was walking out. "Did you see her?" I asked.
My friend shrugged. "She'll get hers. Just like the rest of us."
Happy holidays. *