It is said that half of all unused Christmas gifts can be found on tie racks, the other half on bookshelves. We don't have any tie tips but herewith offer suggestions for children's literature, cookbooks and that hardy anachronism, the gift book. Today, when a coffee table is more likely to be the counter at Starbucks than a piece of home furniture, coffee-table books may seem of use only to their authors and reviewers (we get to keep 'em or give 'em away). But these handsome, weighty volumes provide testimony that far from being obsolete, they can still be a treat.
FOR THE ADVENTURE LOVER
Jungles by Frans Lanting (Taschen; $39.99)
In 120 photographs, the acclaimed Dutch naturalist turns the flora and fauna of Borneo, Madagascar and the Amazon basin into objets d'art. Not a human is in sight, though Lanting's artistry and perseverance are hard to miss in these kingdoms where he was the intruder and adversary. As he notes, "I have seen leaf-cutter ants eat my tent, fungi grow in my lenses, and larvae emerge from the flesh of my leg." This reasonably priced volume is ideal for the bright child who needs to know there's a world beyond PlayStation2--a world of drama, danger and grandeur; a realm both beautiful and imperiled. Lanting's gorgeous pictorial essay implicitly asks, Now that you've seen these creatures, why would you allow them to be annihilated by the army-ant march of "civilization"?
RUNNER-UP: Monsoon by Motoi Ichihara (Edition Stemmle; $60) This Japanese photographer limns the terrible beauty of Asia's rainy season.
FOR THE AMERICANA BUFF
Roadside America: The Automobile And the American Dream by Lucinda Lewis (Abrams; $49.50)
In their speed, size, snazz and craftsmanship, in their siren call to the restless spirit, cars sum up a lot of American virtues. They also waste natural resources, soot up the landscape and end lives. But that's for another book. Lewis has no photos of afternoon gridlock on the 405. She's here to sing the body automotive: mile-long Caddies outside a drive-in; the family car at Roy's Cafe, Motel & Gas. These elegant images of classic cars magically transport the reader to the intersection of Nostalgia Road and Dream Drive.
RUNNER-UP: Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of New York Christmas Windows by Sheryll Bellman (Rizzoli; $35) Browse through some 70 holiday tableaux in this pretty (though too small) book. The displays are artful, kitschy and to buy for.
FOR THE ENTERTAINMENT FAN
Vanity Fair's Hollywood Edited by Graydon Carter and David Friend (Viking Studio; $60)
The triumph of the first version of Vanity Fair (1914-36) was to capture America, especially Hollywood, in its early bloom of power and chic. The achievement of the magazine's current incarnation (since 1983) is to make a case that modern stars are true avatars of the grand old style. This volume's swank portraits of Cameron Diaz, Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp, smartly juxtaposed with pictures of Gable, Garbo, Crawford (some originally published elsewhere), suggest an unbroken dynasty of movie glamour. A few shock photos--like Annie Leibovitz's 1995 reunion of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon--prove that aging stars have a sense of humor. This is the ultimate Hollywood picture history, convincing us that stars had faces then and, glory be, still do. "It" lives.