Nov 1, 2010

Judging A Book By Its Cover/Book Review: DK’s New Bond Set

The holidays are just around the corner (if you can believe it), and while we may not have a new James Bond movie to look forward to this year, that still means some new merchandising from DK. The publisher has made the most of its Bond license, publishing not only specific movie tie-ins like Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace (review here) and Bond On Set: Filming Casino Royale, but also staggering those with a new James Bond Encyclopedia (review here), which has already been revised once, and frequent updates of their trusty warhorse James Bond: The Secret World of 007 (review here), which is certainly the best first book on 007 for young Bond fans today. (It also appeals to those of us older fans who never matured much beyond 11 and still get a kick out of cutaway drawings of gadget-stocked vehicles). Their latest offering is physically (if not content-wise) the most ambitious yet: a set of four matching hardcover volumes, each exploring a different aspect of 007's mystique: Bond Cars and Vehicles, Bond Girls, Bond Villains and The Book of Bond, the latter (not to be confused with Kingsley Amis’ must-have tome of the same name) focusing on the famous secret agent himself. Bond Girls and Bond Villains both hit bookstores last week.

Those familiar with the DK brand are probably aware that the publisher’s hallmark is presentation, and their books focus a lot more on visuals than on content. They can sometimes be frustratingly sparse on information (excepting the aforementioned Encyclopedia, at least) but generally stunning in design. This new quartet is true to form, yet somehow more so in both respects. The content is thinner than ever, yet the presentation yields by far the nicest looking Bond volumes in some time. Being, admittedly, somewhat superficial myself–and a very tactile bibliophile–I’ve been known from time to time to flout the storied axiom and judge books by their covers. To me, not only what it looks like, but how a book feels and even smells often provides as much pleasure as actually reading it. (Clearly, I will never abandon my tangible library even as literature at large becomes reduced to ephemeral bytes on a Kindle or iPad.) Yet I do generally keep these physical book reviews separate from the ones in which I evaluate books' contents. With DK that’s almost impossible. The presentation is the point. How the page looks is at least as important and (clearly in this case) often even more important than the words that are printed on it. Therefore, I will combine my traditional book review with my “Judging A Book By Its Cover” review, and address both aspects at once.

Starting, appropriately, on the outside, these are certainly eye-catching books. They’ll look good faced out together on endcaps at bookstores this season (wherever brick and mortar bookstores still survive, that is) and they’ll look great with their spines lined up next to each other on your shelf. The spines (perfectly flat, not subtly curved) are especially well thought out, with each volume sporting a different suit from a deck of cards at the bottom: Cars gets a club, Girls a heart (naturally), Villains a spade (equally naturally) and The Book of Bond a diamond. The title treatments are uniform, with the word “Bond” standing out in large white caps on each spine. Besides the “Bond” and the heart or club, these spines will stand out because they’re shiny. Not shiny like a grade school library book, like your regular DK hardcover when stripped of its dust jacket, but shiny in a very unique way. The books are cloth-bound, like all the best hardcovers, but the cloth is silky. If you run your hand over the cover, you’ll feel the fine grain of the threads coating the boards. If you rub the books together while pulling one from the shelf, you’ll hear it. (There’s a new sense for my physical book reviews to address!) Since they’re all silver or gold colored to begin with (with black spines), the effect is nothing short of shimmery. It’s very cool. (Enlarge the photo of the spines above for a better idea of the texture I'm describing.) The squarebound corners are hard edges, and the boards themselves are thick. It gives the book weight (which I always like in a hardcover) and makes it feel durable. It also adds overall thickness, which benefits volumes this slight. (Each one clocks in at around 130-150 pages, but it’s not so much the pages as what’s on them that qualifies as slight.)

Opening the very attractive cover and turning past the equally attractive solid colored endpapers (red for Cars, tan for Girls, purple for Villans and blue for Bond) to said pages inside, I’m sorry to report that the seasoned Bond fan will learn nothing new from any of these books. I suppose I shouldn’t have been expecting that, but my hopes were particularly high for Bond Cars and Vehicles since, surprisingly, there has never before been a book devoted specifically to that potentially rich subject. Dave Worrall managed to devote an entire, fantastic volume to just one particularly famous Bond car (and another to all of them, but only in miniature form!), but no one has yet written about all the marvelous Bond cars together. I was hoping this would be it. Sadly, it’s not. You will learn nothing new about your favorite Aston Martin or Lotus, and in fact you won’t even see them all covered. (GoldenEye’s BMW Z3 is a shocking omission in a book called Bond Cars and Vehicles!) You won’t even get any of DK’s famous cross-sections. (I had imagined the book would be mostly comprised of those!) Instead, you get lots of photographs, accompanied by rudimentary text (“A slap with his machine pistol–and boom!–one dead henchman and another Bond car totaled. Would Q regret fitting that burglar protection system in Bond’s Lotus?”). They are, however, very pretty photos, and I must admit I’ve bought other books and magazines before simply for pretty photographs of Aston Martins. And while most of them looked familiar, a few pictures were even new to me. Where else can you see a lovely two-page spread of Mr. Big’s pimped-out ‘71 Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special by Dunham, parked in front of Harlem’s Fillet of Soul restaurant? (Of course, the car frustratingly isn’t identified, but it’s still a very nice picture. Once again: presentation without information.) The all-photo format keeps this volume of a piece with its companions, but I sincerely hope that DK will one day revisit this subject with more of the childlike glee usually on display in their books, focusing on cool cutaways and schematics–and the makes and models of every vehicle pictured.

I’m afraid The Book of Bond is even less essential on its own. The text (credited to Alistair Dougall) is kind of odd: it’s written like a children’s book (“A shock was waiting for Bond before he left for Nassau to investigate Strangways’ fate. M announced that instead of the Beretta Bond had used for ten years, he would be taking another gun, a Walther PPK.”), like one of those old Bond annuals from the Sixties, or the A View To A Kill storybook, but it’s not a narrative. From a narrative standpoint, it glosses over crucial turning points, like the murder of Tracy. The chapter on OHMSS concludes its recap with, “M, Q and Miss Moneypenny wished the happy couple good luck and Mr. and Mrs. James Bond truly believed that they had all the time in the world.” Accompanying that Disney ending is a full-page picture of the smiling bride and groom. There’s no mention of what happens next, just vague foreshadowing. Yet the omission isn’t to spare younger readers the shock. No, that comes bluntly on the next page with, “Bond avenges Tracy’s murder by drowning Blofeld in a pool of mud in a Cairo clinic.” What murder? If you don’t know, you’ll be confused, and if you do then there’s really no reason for you to read this recap. The loose narrative depends on the reader having a knowledge of what happens in the movies. It’s kind of like the narrative you get on the back of trading cards. This sort of narrative might have had a place back in the Sixties and Seventies before home video, but now every kid who likes the movies enough to own this sort of book probably has them all on DVD and can watch for himself.

However, as with the first title, it’s rather unfair to judge this sort of book by its text. These aren’t text-oriented books; they’re lavish, glossy picture books with brief (and apparently unnecessary) text accompaniment. The reliable DK layout (credited to Dan Bunyan on the first two volumes) outshines the lack of any substantial prose. This superficial format works alright on The Book of Bond (showcasing all six official Bond actors in multiple two-page spreads), but is best served in the final two volumes of the quartet, Bond Girls and Bond Villains.

As with Bond Cars and Vehicles, there has never before (to my recollection, anyway) been a book focusing exclusively on 007's adversaries, which is kind of weird. While I might enjoy a more thorough dossier on these bad guys and the actors who played them than “The confrontation with SPECTRE’s mastermind proves to be the most volcanic of Bond’s career,” I wasn’t expecting it after reading the first two books in the series. Therefore, I was prepared for what we get, and what we get isn’t half bad. It’s pretty cool to flip through a nicely laid-out scrapbook of Bond’s myriad foes–masterminds and henchmen, men and women alike–from over the years. And it’s equally enjoyable to encounter a familiar shot of Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld stroking his cat or Largo giving orders to his frogmen (this one gets a nice double page spread) or a more unexpected full-page portrait of Necros dressed as a milkman and pointing his pistol. Bond Villains is, like its companions, a picture book, but it’s a picture book on a subject for which we haven’t had one before.

The same can’t be said of Bond Girls, as 007's women have already been the subject of The James Bond Girls by Graham Rye (mostly pictures, like this one), The Bond Women: 007 Style by Tim Greaves (all text, and very informative text at that, making up for what it lacks in its picture-free presentation) and Bond Girls Are Forever by Maryam D’Abo and John Cork, which offered the best of both worlds, combining the pretty pictures of the former book with informative text of the latter in a beautiful oversize volume. But DK’s book on the subject still manages to bring its own spin to the material. Of all the aspects of the James Bond movies, the Bond Girls are probably the most suited to this sort of photo book. The layout is once more superb, and serves these beautiful actresses to their fullest advantage. Four whole pages are devoted to Ursula Andress in her bikini, and why shouldn’t they be? They’re all fantastic images. And just check out that title spread of Daniella Bianchi:

Every page of this book is as gorgeous as the women on it. Despite traveling in some well-tread tracks, DK’s Bond Girls holds its own. It’s got a wider range of pictures than Rye’s original book on the subject, which stuck mostly with the most publicized stills from each film. (Which was appropriate for its time.) It lacks any information about the actresses themselves, but in that respect makes a nice companion volume to Greaves’ book, which lacks images. It couldn’t begin to compete with Bond Girls Are Forever, which remains the definitive book on the subject, but what this one’s got that that one doesn’t is portability. I know Bond fans who lug around Cork and D’Abo’s book to conventions collecting actresses’ signatures in it, which I thought was a great idea. But this new book is better for that purpose. (Bond Villains would be great for the same thing.) All of these books are like miniature coffee table books, and sometimes a more manageable size is preferable. It’s nice to have a bunch of photos of Bond cars or Bond Girls all bound together in such a pretty package.

No seasoned Bond fan can expect to learn anything new from this quartet of books. But that doesn’t mean they won’t derive pleasure from them. For presentation alone (which is, I think it’s fair to say, their primary raison d’etre), most fans will feel the need to own these books. And nearing the holiday season, they’ll make ideal gifts for Bond fans of any stripe. The casual fan and the die-hard alike can appreciate sumptuous picture books in lavish binding. (Not to mention a great autograph book to carry around easily to conventions and premieres!)

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