Oh, The Places You'll Go: Gift Books For Every Budget

Holiday shoppers, take heart: In areas from art to Americana to nature to nostalgia, publishers are out with tempting new tomes--including delightful mixed-media offerings. And this year, many gift books are affordable, some costing less than $30.

Witty and entertaining, America: Then & Now (HarperCollins/San Francisco, $40) pairs evocative old photographs, taken over the past 130 years, with contemporary shots of the same venues. The scenes include skylines, assembly lines, women's gyms, bicycle messengers, operating rooms, sporting events, movie sets, drive-in diners, and much more. The photos depict not only the dramatic changes but also the stark continuities in American life.

Almost as much fun is The Eighties: Images of America (HarperCollins, $40). It's a romp, via 750 captioned black-and-white photographs, through the events and trends of the recent past. There's Brooke Shields in her Calvins, van Gogh on the auction block, and corporate raider Saul Steinberg in a tuxedo. There's also tragedy in El Salvador, Lockerbie, and Iran. Arranged by year, the book documents the decade, almost Life-style.

OUTSIDE EYE. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Portrait of America (Norton, $50) offers another view of the nation--by Japanese photojournalist Hiroji Kubota. This rich account of America's diversity is the product of three years, 400,000 miles of travel to all 50 states, and 3,500 rolls of film. Among its scenes: harvesting maple syrup in Vermont, cotton picking in Mississippi, and fly-fishing in Idaho.

The art book of the year is Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (Abrams, $75), the catalog for the biggest Matisse exhibit ever (now at New York's Museum of Modern Art). Boasting more than 400 works, 320 in color, and an authoritative commentary tracing the ar-tist's development, this exuberant book is essential for art lovers, especially those who can't get to the exhibit.

If Matisse could be eclipsed, though, The Art Pack (Knopf, $40) would do it. This one-of-a-kind book is a three-dimensional tour of the art world, complete with pop-ups, pull-outs, a mobile, and an audiocassette discussing 20 great paintings. But it's no mere art history. Instead, this feat of paper engineering teaches form, perspective, composition, color, light--the act of creating. Words don't do The Art Pack justice: You have to see and feel this real treat.

In Artists' Homes (Clarkson Potter, $40) gives readers a window on the worlds of 22 contemporary artists. It shows how they designed environments to be works of art in themselves, art showcases, retreats, or sources of inspiration, all in different styles. While it's no surprise that Agnes Martin's adobe home is as pared down as her minimalist paintings or that Richard Estes' belongings are as neatly arranged as his realist works, it's still fascinating to see how these artists organize their living spaces.

SPECIAL EFFECTS. George Lucas: The Creative Impulse (Abrams, $39.95) chronicles a different kind of imagination--that of the man whose name is synonymous with movie magic. More than a biography of Lucas, this book tells how he created the dazzling technological effects of such films as Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. Fans will love the stills and behind-the-scenes shots.

Just as Lucas changed Hollywood, two men decades earlier transformed American musical theater forever. Rodgers & Hammerstein (Abrams, $45) venerates that team, whose legendary career took off in 1943 when the curtain rose on Oklahoma! Filled with anecdotes and illustrated with some 200 backstage and promotional photographs, the book is a charming look at the collaboration that produced such beloved shows as The King and I, South Pacific, and Flower Drum Song.

Although it's packed with celebrities, there's no nostalgia in Notorious (Little, Brown, $75)--famous names in the art and entertainment worlds as seen through the lens of renowned photographer Herb Ritts. His sly, often wry photos portray his subjects as objects. Sometimes they obscure identity or focus on a single feature, such as the muscular legs and torso of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. His eye on Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Cruise, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Stephen Hawking, among others, is unique.

Beautiful nature photography is on view in several books. Seven Underwater Wonders of the World (Thomasson-Grant, $29.95) travels to places chosen as the ocean's most magnificent by a panel of marine specialists and normally accessible only to experienced divers. Among them: the Belize Barrier Reef and Northern Red Sea. The Colorado: A River at Risk (Westcliffe, $50) tours the 1,450-mile river--the world's most regulated, dammed, and overutilized--thanks to which much of the West is livable. Both books aim to heighten awareness of environmental threats to these treasures. One photo--of bumper-to-bumper pleasure boats on Arizona's Lake Havasu--does the trick.

Montana: The Last Best Place (Falcon, $29.50) documents the picture-postcard quality of the land, sky, weather, people, and history in a state that's luring many city dwellers as weekend residents. For sheer beauty, it's hard to beat The Sonoran Desert (Abrams, $49.50), a look at flora and fauna that flourish in daytime temperatures that soar above 120F.

INNER JOURNEYS. From Alice to Ocean (Addison-Wesley, $50) tells in text and photos how a 27-year-old woman traversed Australia's outback alone on camel. But the book's real draw is a gimmick that may herald the future of publishing: two interactive compact disks containing additional photos and data. Playable on an Apple Macintosh CD-ROM drive and a Kodak PhotoCD player, they allow the reader to dig for information on, say, Australia's geology.

Travels in Canoe Country (Little, Brown, $35) takes a shorter journey--a canoe and foot trip through Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It, too, will appeal to those who would go where machines are forbidden. Stunning photos capture the unspoiled beauty of this wilderness area--from the subdued hues of morning mists to the deep purple evening shadows--while the text reflects on the inner journey the solitude fosters.

Sports fans will love Sports (Collins, $45), which goes from diamond to ring to rink to court to links to catch the world's greatest athletes at unforgettable moments. The 150 oversize photos include Hank Aaron notching his 715th home run and Kristi Yamaguchi winning her '92 Olympic gold medal. You've got to be a baseball nut to want Baseball Memories (Sterling, $24.95), with its small type and busy presentation. But diehards will pore over this guide to baseball from 1900 to 1909, when the sport went truly national. The book is an illustrated compendium of minutiae on teams, players, officers, owners, managers, uniforms, reporters, ballpark locations, layouts, and the seasons.

The Sporting Life (Clarkson Potter, $40) details the traditions behind all varieties of fishing and hunting, documenting the look and style of each form of the chase. Readers tour the classic old camps, kennels, and clubs; they view the paintings, carvings, ornamental flies, and books. They go trout fishing in Pennsylvania, shooting in Texas, and visiting America's oldest duck club. And there's a directory of stores, museums, schools, and libraries that contain sporting necessities, appurtenances, and information.

VISIONARY VEHICLES. Car enthusiasts have two good choices. Tops is The American Automobile: A Centenary (Smithmark, $24.98), a compilation of the country's classic cars from the steam vehicle on up to the 1992 Ford Taurus. It tells the history of the car in more than 300 color photos, then takes on the subject of auto collecting in the final chapter. Dedicated car buffs should proceed to Cars Europe Never Built (Sterling, $30). These Jaguars, Alfas, Ferraris, Ghias, and others were speculations on the automobile's future. They never went beyond prototype, but many nonetheless influenced cars that were later produced.

Given all these handsome and instructive selections, it may just be that this year, the book's the thing.

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