A Cornucopia for the Coffee Table

This selection of books could speed your holiday hunt

In times like these, it's difficult to figure out what is an appropriate holiday gift. Coffee table books are an ideal choice because there's one for every mood, from serious histories and reassuring collections of timeless artwork to sports and hobby books.

One book that seems especially opportune, given the parallels being drawn between September 11 and Pearl Harbor, is Life: World War 2: History's Greatest Conflict in Pictures (Bulfinch Press, $60). This new take is quite good, with lots of previously unpublished photos, plus essays by noted historians such as John Keegan.

The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin (Knopf, $65) is also timely. Berlin is known these days for God Bless America, but he penned Alexander's Ragtime Band, White Christmas, and scores of others. The book has dozens of black-and-white photos from Berlin's long career, which extended from 1909 into the 1980s. But mainly it's a compendium of the lyrics of all his songs and background information on performances. Berlin buffs will discover all sorts of esoterica, such as that Annie Get Your Gun, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, opened in New York on May 16, 1946, and lasted for 1,147 performances.

Now that the U.S. appears to be tightening military ties with Russia and some of the ex-Soviet republics, Soviets: Pictures from the End of the U.S.S.R. (Yale University Press, $39.95) also seems in tune with current events. On assignment for the German magazine Der Spiegel, photographer Shepard Sherbell traveled all over the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, documenting everyday life. His striking and often disturbing black-and-white photos taken in schools, factories, and the streets show the harshness of life in the crumbling empire and the incredible diversity of the people.

A good gift for the businessperson in your life is In the Market: The Illustrated History of the Financial Markets (Abbeville Press, $75). It's a detailed but easy-to-read history of world financial markets from 3500 B.C. to the advent of derivatives and electronic trading. The illustrations and photos, such as a lively picture of stockbrokers chortling outside the London Stock Exchange in 1949, are especially well chosen.

On a lighter note, nothing has been more intently studied by U.S. executives than the golf swing. And who better to learn from than perhaps the greatest golfer ever? Tiger Woods: How I Play Golf (Warner Books, $34.95) is one of the best golf books in years. Woods offers practical tips on every aspect of the game, from gripping the club and positioning yourself for various shots to dressing for bad weather. None of the advice offered is revolutionary, but taken together the tips make this book an excellent blueprint for good golf. Helpful sequential photos of Woods' swing show how he does it--without, of course, guaranteeing that a duffer can come close to the master.

You'll find even more excellent art books than usual this year. Among the best is Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (Thames & Hudson, $65), published in conjunction with a show at the Art Institute of Chicago until Jan. 13. The focus here is on the tumultuous two months in 1888--from late October to late December--when van Gogh and Gauguin painted together in Arles, in southern France. During those months, the two often worked side-by-side, painting the same subject, such as Marie Ginoux, the proprietress of a local café. In portraits by both, she wears the same black dress and the same quizzical smile. The book and exhibition also include paintings before and after the two-month period, when the painters corresponded. Some of the works are among their best-known, such as van Gogh's Starry Night and Gauguin's Vision of the Sermon, painted in the summer of 1888. The reproductions show one of the most extraordinary creative outpourings in the history of art.

Another good study dealing with the same era is Impressionist Still Life (A.H. Abrams, $45). It includes many beloved works by Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and others assembled for a show at The Phillips Collection in Washington that will run until Jan. 13.

Like Impressionism, American folk art is hugely popular. American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (A.H. Abrams, $75) is an excellent survey of the genre, which includes everything from carved canes to beautiful naive portraits.

Among studies of individual artists, Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, $65) stands out as a definitive reassessment of the Philadelphia painter, who died in 1916. Eakins, who as a teacher shocked his city by having mixed-sex classes draw nude males, is best known for his rowing scenes. He was also fascinated by how photography can be put to use in the painting process. This book shows his full range of paintings, everything from society figures to nudes to cowboys.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings (A.H. Abrams, $60) is a somewhat turgid study of the famed Dutch painter, who died in 1516. What makes it a keeper are the reproductions of Bosch's surrealistic--and often horrific--paintings, which seem absolutely modern.

The most impressive photo book this holiday season may be Ansel Adams at 100 (Little Brown, $150) by John Szarkowski. The text by Szarkowski, emeritus head of the photo department at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is rich in anecdote about the great nature photographer. The crisp, beautifully detailed reproductions of Adams' black-and-white photos of the Yosemite Valley, High Sierras, and other scenes from the American West are spectacular.

Another marvelous collection of nature photos is In Response to Place: Photos from the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places (Bulfinch Press, $50), featuring well-known photographers not usually associated with such work. Celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz shoots New York's Shawangunk Mountains, for instance, producing an eerie, black-and-white photo of a foggy mountain vista. Sally Mann, best known for controversial nude studies of her daughters, offers light-drenched, almost-faded color photos of ruins and the tropical forest at the 1.8 million-acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.

Far more wrenching to page through is Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection (Phaidon Press, $69.95). Capa, best known for his war photography, was killed in 1954 at age 40 by a land mine in Vietnam. The collection also includes some great peacetime shots, such as one of film star Gary Cooper fly-fishing. A book that puts the images in these photography books in perspective is The History of Photography: As Seen Through the Spira Collection (Aperture, $75). Its explanations of photo technology make it ideal for the aspiring photographer in the family.

For young people on your gift list, several possibilities stand out. Digital Domain: The Leading Edge of Visual Effects (Billboard Books, $50) will fascinate action-movie-loving teenage boys. The book goes behind the scenes at Digital Domain, one of Hollywood's leading special-effects companies, to show how everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the antics in How the Grinch Stole Christmas was created through digital sleight of hand and scale-model special effects.

Younger children will warm to Christie's Century of Teddy Bears (Watson-Guptill, $35). It shows the evolution of Teddy bears since the era of their namesake, Teddy Roosevelt--and includes a photo of a classic owned by the son of author A.A. Milne, a lad named Christopher Robin. In this troubled period, what could be more reassuring than that?

By Thane Peterson

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