Have Yourself A Coffee Table Christmas

The opulence of things past, distant and exotic locales, high-style photographs, contemporary art, and, of course, sports -- they're all on view in this year's best coffee-table books. Russia is hot, making Moscow Revealed (Abbeville, $50) timely. With sumptuous photos and pithy text, it goes inside czarist palaces, gilded churches, and grand public buildings. The exposed metropolis is surprisingly inviting. Just as appealing is The Golden Ring (Abbeville, $45), a tour of nine medieval cities near Moscow, Zagorsk and Suzdal among them. As a chronicle of a bygone era, the book will satisfy history mavens. Others will appreciate the rich photographs that capture the spirit of Old Russia. For pure opulence, it's hard to beat The Splendor of France (Rizzoli, $110), a two-inch-thick tome that presents the stately exteriors and lavish interiors of more than 40 of France's most elegant chateaus and estates. Each chapter, detailing such magnificent places as Vaux-le-Vicomte (owned by Louis XIV's finance minister), includes a brief history.

On the lighter side, Only in America (Knopf, $35) is a charming book that captures some preposterous U. S. sights. Where else would you find huge fake crayons appended to a half-colored house or an office building shaped like a bulldozer?

MARSH MELLOW. You'll be stunned by the gorgeous swamps, bogs, and marshes in Wetlands of North America (Thomasson-Grant, $39.95). The book helps show why these complex ecosystems must be preserved. And it guides readers to some of the best wetlands to visit.

Mother Nature also astonishes in Antarctica (Running Press, $19.98). It displays this vast wintry wonderland's rugged terrain and dramatically recounts how its discovery ignited a race among international exploration teams. Speaking of teams, an affectionate look at the national pastime is available in Baseball in America (Collins, $45). Roaming from Shea to sandlot, the book goes beyond sports pages to portray the many events that make up baseball. But it lacks the statistics some buffs want. That problem doesn't hurt Grand Slam Golf (Abrams, $49.50), which tours 30 prominent courses that regularly host the Masters, U. S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championships. Offering plans, descriptions, and photos of such courses as St. Andrews and Shinnecock, the book is a handy companion for TV-viewing golf fans.

Serious hunters might like The Story of the Sporting Gun (Trafalgar Square, $75), which traces in art and words the history of guns and game birds. One drawback: It focuses most heavily on the sport in Britain. Then there's The Horse (Abrams, $45), an elegant essay -- in words and pictures -- about this symbol of wildness, status, and beauty.

MOON BUGGIES. Vehicles (Macmillan, $39.95) salutes the world's most significant mechanical horses -- and more. This beautifully illustrated, well-written book provides details of the origins, design, and journeys of some 50 record-setting conveyances, from Magellan's tiny ship to Apollo's lunar rovers.

Art Since Mid-Century (Vendome, $50) contains reproductions of many contemporary masterpieces, but this is no mere picture book. It's a substantive survey that puts postwar art in perspective without making biased value judgments. As a cultural chronicle, it's a winner.

For photography, there's Passage (Knopf, $100), which contains many memorable images from Irving Penn's 50-year career: fashion shots, portraits, studies of New Guinea natives, and still lifes, all richly reproduced. Likewise, Horst: Sixty Years of Photography (Rizzoli, $85) contains his legendary Vogue fashion shots. But the book gains broader appeal by focusing also on high-style portraits of such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich, Sir Noel Coward, and Ingrid Bergman.

Last, a stocking stuffer: Garden Clippings (Andrews & McNeil, $15) matches garden scenes with quotes from the likes of Monet, Shakespeare, and Thoreau. So in the spirit of one writer: To all, a good book.

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