Pleasing The Eye As Well As The Brain

A book, the saying goes, is a present that can be opened again and again--but will be only if it's well-chosen. The best coffee-table books go beyond being beautiful. They entertain and engage, too. National Geographic: The Photographs (National Geographic, $50) certainly does. It goes on assignment with award-winning photographers to the salt flats of Djibouti, the snows of Siberia, the mosques of Mecca. It shows how popcorn pops, how Santas get to work (on New York's subway), how whales are butchered. These arresting images are photography at its best.

The carefully crafted portraits, staged photo ops, and devastating candids of American Politicians (Museum of Modern Art, $39.95) are equally captivating. Exploring the changing image of American pols, this book shows Lincoln on the battlefield at Antietam; Coolidge opening the 1924 baseball season; Martin Luther King Jr. under arrest for loitering in Montgomery, Ala.; and Lyndon Johnson showing off the scar from his gall-bladder operation. All in all, it's a perfect gift in this year of political upheaval.

Few events in recent U.S. history have been as traumatic as Vietnam. For seven days last spring, nearly two decades after the war there ended, 70 photographers traversed this 4,000-year-old Southeast Asian land. Passage to Vietnam (Against All Odds Productions/Melcher Media, $50) is the highly appealing result. It ventures inside a Buddhist monastery and to a nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City; it witnesses a clinic for victims of Agent Orange and the slaughtering of a water buffalo; and it goes to territory once off-limits to foreigners. This is a long-overdue look at the land that so affected so many Americans.

Enigmatic Russia preoccupies many, too--and they will be fascinated with The Russian Century (Random House, $45), a blockbuster on life from the last days of the tsars through today. Chockablock with photographs never before seen in the West, this book throws open a window on life among royalty, Communist Party leaders, Gulag prisoners, factory workers, farmers, and artists. Featuring such notables as Shostakovich, Nabokov, and Rasputin, a romp through these photos and the accompanying commentary provides an easy refresher course in Russian history.

Mittel Europa (Clarkson Potter, $50) visits places along the Danube--Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and their surroundings. Charming and visually impressive, it's a very stylish picture book. Taking the opposite approach is London (Abrams, $45)--an in-depth and intimate examination of the city's history, environs, institutions, and--especially--its people. The lively, erudite writing coupled with a rich gallery of paintings, drawings, and photographs, beautifully limn the city's character.

For couch potatoes with a baseball bent, a couple of offerings will assuage cravings caused by the strike. First up: Baseball (Knopf, $60), published to accompany the widely watched Ken Burns documentary, chronicles the evolution of the national pastime, capturing its historical highlights and showcasing its legendary players. Better yet, The Baseball Anthology (Abrams, $39.95) swings hard to fulfill the promise of its subtitle--"125 Years of Stories, Poems, Articles, Photographs, Drawings, Interviews, Cartoons, and Other Memorabilia"--and it's a hit. This book offers the usual (player profiles and game analyses) as well as the unusual (private scouting reports and letters). As a compendium of short items, organized chronologically, this anthology is designed for a five-minute look or five-hour perusal.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS. Golfers can savor similar fare: The big, sumptuous book Golf--The Greatest Game (HarperCollins, $50) complements a TV documentary. It boasts reflections by Arnold Palmer, and it touches on the business, the mental game, and the clubhouse. There's the finely focused Golf Courses of the PGA Tour (Abrams, $45), an overview of the pro circuit with maps, tournament records, and descriptions of such courses as Pebble Beach, Firestone, and Augusta. Golf: Nostalgia/Tips & Care (Rizzoli, $35) is a slip-cased, two-volume set. Especially good for beginning golfers, one book explores the finer points of the game's etiquette, equipment, and play; the other records its history and memorable moments.

For fans of another ilk, American Cinema (Rizzoli, $50) rates two thumbs up. Previewing a 10-part series that begins airing on public TV in January, the book surveys Hollywood from its rural roots through silents, talkies, the Golden Age, and into the present. It features America's best movies in every genre. Many of its 300 pictures--starring the young Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, and Erroll Flynn, for example--tweak the memory, even as its breezy commentary takes readers behind the scenes.

Classical Music (Readers Digest, $35) also merits loud applause. Covering 800 years and a sweep of forms from chant to opera, this accessible book demystifies classical music and makes it more enjoyable for listeners of any sophistication. The basics-- introductions to instruments, musical terminology, and composer bios--are here. So, too, are analyses of musical eras in the context of social, political, and cultural developments of the time. Illustrated with paintings, posters, and photos, this book recommends specific recordings of many musical masterpieces. A bravura performance.

The big art book of the season is Origins of Impressionism (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $75), a blockbuster catalog for the monumental exhibition now in New York. Focusing on the 1860s, the book explores the interactions between Manet and Degas, Monet and Renoir, Cezanne and Pissarro, and their fellow avant-garde French painters. Dividing some 200 works into nine themes--realist landscape, still life, modern life, and the like--the book weaves together commentary from the period and today. Readers get an understanding of the foundations and significance of this viscerally seductive artistic movement.

EDIFICE COMPLEX. Less weighty but perhaps more fun is The Impressionists' Table (Rizzoli, $27.50). Using famous paintings of cafes, restaurants, and picnics by the likes of Van Gogh and Cassatt as inspiration, the book proposes menus--including wines--for each occasion. A little carrot soup and Chicken Marengo for lunch in the garden at Monet's home in Argenteuil, perhaps? All recipes, culled from 19th century France, including some by the artists, are adapted for today's kitchens. Art buffs, Francophiles, gastronomes, even weekend cooks will be charmed by this original.

Another cookbook with a twist, The World's Finest Foods (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $45), journeys to Spain, Russia, Italy, and nine other countries for distinctive recipes that seem easy enough for amateur cooks to prepare. There's couscous with lamb and quinces from Morocco and Easter bread from Greece. Chapters in this lavish culinary atlas begin with scene-setting photos and a cuisine overview, then give recipes and brief sidebars on wines, spices, and key ingredients.

On the home front, four books stand out. Great American Houses (Abbeville, $60) opens the door on 25 landmark houses that date from the colonial era to mid-20th century, dissecting their architectural and decorating styles. Most of the buildings are open to the public, and information on visiting them is provided. An opulent world is presented in Newport Remembered (Abrams, $60). It offers an intriguing pictorial and verbal essay on America's wealthy during the Gilded Age. Villas of Tuscany (Vendome, $85) depicts 54 grand country homes and palaces. The massive structures, frescoed interiors, and formal gardens reveal much about the history, art, and civilization of northern Italy, and the book's essays sketch the lifestyle these estates and retreats supported. Likewise, Great Houses of England and Wales (Rizzoli, $75) goes upstairs and downstairs in 32 of the finest houses on the sceptered isle. Its stories are as grand--or eccentric--as the edifices.

For those with even bigger building-envy, The Oral History of Modern Architecture (Abrams, $67.50) outlines the discipline's development using interviews conducted over 40 years with more than 60 of the most acclaimed architects--Le Corbusier, Pei, Wright, Saarinen among them. An accompanying compact disk lets you hear 16 of these masters tell the stories of some of their most prominent works.

If such grandeur has a parallel in things natural, Witness (Chronicle, $50) tries to show it. Its simple portraits of the delicate swallowtail butterfly, the elegant ocelot, the royal-plumed Florida scrub jay, and nearly a hundred other endangered plants and animals in North America aim to make the case for the Endangered Species Act, which is up for renewal in 1995. The book does stir emotion. Its capsule descriptions also tell where to find these species and what danger threatens them.

On the other hand, there's no danger in selecting a gift from among these handsome books: Any one is sure to please.

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