Touring the season’s coffee-table books

Some of the most beautiful books in publishing are released this time of year, and they’re easy to overlook. Coffee-table books are those oversized works of art brimming with dramatic photos and informational text, taking readers on journeys to places they will never visit to witness unique sights they will never see first-hand. Bonus: They’re ideal holiday gifts that become conversation-starters when displayed on ... well, coffee tables.

Here’s a seasonal sampling:

“A Sense of Yosemite” by Nancy Robbins and David Mas Masumoto (Yosemite Conservancy, $35, 144 pages): Photographer Robbins and organic farmer-memoirist Masumoto converged on 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park to meld their respective arts. The result is gorgeous and poetic. Masumoto is a regular contributor to The Bee’s Forum section.

“Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History” by Molly Schiot (Simon & Schuster, $25, 320 pages): This homage to the “forgotten female athletes of the 20th century” introduces them and their remarkable feats to a new audience. Take Emma Gatewood, for instance, the 67-year-old grandmother who hiked the 2,000-mile-long Appalachian Trail. Or Marilyn Neufville, the first and only Jamaican woman to shatter records in the indoor 400-meter race.

“Icons By Oscar” (Lannoo, $70, 248 pages): Oscar Abolafia was the superstar photographer of the superstar celebrities of the 1960s and 1970s. This curated selection is from his personal collection of 300,000 photos of the famous caught in telling moments: Elton John ogling Ann-Margret in 1975. Janis Joplin sweating on stage, holding a margarita. Diana Ross roller-skating in New York City traffic. Muhammad Ali embracing Harry Belafonte. Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger in full-length fur coats. Tony Bennett sharing a poignant moment with Judy Garland. Robert Shaw in a bathtub. And many more.

Moving from spontaneous photo opportunities to posed shots of stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age is “Hollywood Icons” by Robert Dance, a dramatic sampling by Hollywood’s top photographers of the day (Antique Collectors Club, $65, 224 pages). In theatrical posturing are the likes of Anna May Wong, Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Carmen Miranda, Paul Newman, Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper and 200 others.

The book jacket blurb is spot-on: “At a time of absolute glamour, no one embodied 1950s Hollywood quite like Audrey Hepburn.” Photographic preservationist David Wills proves the point in “Audrey: The 1950s,” a collection of rare studio and candid shots of the actress as she evolved through her eight-title filmography in the 1950s, beginning with “Roman Holiday” and ending with “The Nun’s Story” (Dey Street, $45, 256 pages). The book is full of quotes from Hepburn and those who worked with her, such as legendary fashion designer Edith Head, who remarked, “She deliberately looked different from other women and dramatized her own slenderness into her chief asset.”

“The Gilded Age in New York: 1870-1910” by Esther Crain is a marvelous presentation of vintage photos, artwork and political cartoons, with text that explores the “rapid evolution” of an ordinary city into an “Imperial City” of modernity and progress fueled by incredible wealth. The author points out that “half of the millionaires in the entire country lined Fifth Avenue with their opulent mansions” (Black Dog & Leventhal, $35, 304 pages).

Yes, comic Jay Leno has a renowned car collection and a new TV show, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” but New York Times best-selling thriller writer Clive Cussler is also a motor-head with 80 autos of his own. He shows them off in “Built To Thrill,” taking readers on virtual rides in a supercharged 1951 Kaiser Golden Dragon, 1952 hemi Meteor Roadster, 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible and a 1965 Corvette Sting Ray sitting on a “425 horsepower big-block monster” (Putnam, $60, 208 pages).

Perhaps composer-pianist George Gershwin said it best: “Life is a lot like jazz – it’s best when you improvise.” Keep that in mind for “Jazz,” a portfolio of gritty, black-and-white images by the late photographer Ted Williams, who specialized in capturing the essences of jazz greats in performance (Antique Collectors Club, $75, 352 pages). The lineup is a who’s who: Art Blakey, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lester Young, Stan Getz, George Shearing, Barbara Dane, Buddy Rich, Wynton Marsalis, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and many more.

“Atlas Obscura” by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton explores “the world’s hidden wonders” in startling photos, maps and concise text (Workman, $35, 480 pages). Lost cities, mysterious lakes and caves, dinosaur parks, ancient statues, bizarre markets, strange exhibits (a voodoo museum selling dolls and potions) and weird collections (including one of human brains) are some of the attractions.

A weird little book that’s physically smaller than the ones named here will still rouse readers to comment. During “urban explorer” Henk van Rensbergen’s world travels as an airline pilot, he sought subjects to photograph for “Abandoned Places” (Lannoo, $25, 144 pages). Eerie images abound: a deserted castle in Belgium, a warship cemetery in France, an empty mall in Alabama, the Six Flags-New Orleans theme park left behind in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Jingle sells

On the topic of holiday gift-giving, this Christmas-centric trio tops the tree:

“My True Love Gave To Me” collects a dozen YA-oriented “romantic” short stories by top authors including Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan and Matt de la Peña. Settings go beyond Christmas to include Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve and the winter solstice (St. Martin’s, $11, 336 pages).

During her glory years, grande dame of mystery P.D. James was contracted by magazines and newspapers to write short stories for their Christmas Eve editions. Four of those tales starring her signature character, Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh, are collected in “The Mistletoe Murder” (Knopf, $24, 176 pages).

Not only is Willie Nelson a popular country singer-songwriter, he’s also the author of seven books. His latest is “Pretty Paper,” a Christmas tale in which Willie reimagines his brief friendship with a legless man in the 1960s (Blue Rider, $23, 304 pages). What would have happened if Willie had had the chance to give the stranger “one last shot at redemption and a chance to embody the holiday spirit.” It’s based on Nelson’s 1963 song “Pretty Paper,” made famous by singer Roy Orbison.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe