Between the Lines: Coffee-table books for holiday gifts

DC Comics: A Visual History
DC Comics: A Visual History

Given the price of furniture, it’s probable that a cup of coffee is the last thing a homeowner wants sitting on top of the living-room coffee table. It’s more likely that big books – coffee-table books – will be displayed there, usually as conversation pieces.

Typically, they’re filled with eye-grabbing photos and/or illustrations, and educational and informative text. They can take readers on trips into the world’s most remote corners, whisk them back in time or drop them into cool resorts and foreign capitals they’ll never visit on their own. The bonus is the oversized books make perfect gifts. This sampling will get you started.

One of the most spectacular world’s fairs was thrown in San Francisco’s Marina District in 1915. Ostensibly, the driving reason for the 3-mile-long Pan-Pacific International Exposition was the completion of the Panama Canal. Though it was billed as a “Shop Window of Civilization,” it was really a showcase for San Francisco’s resurrection from the 1906 earthquake, and a celebration of American innovation and the arts. It was attended by millions of people from around the globe.

A pair of new books celebrate the expo’s upcoming 100th anniversary. “Panorama” is by Lee Bruno, the great-grandson of one of the fair’s main planners, with an intro by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (Cameron + Company, $30, 192 pages). The dramatic vintage photos complement text blocks on the “celebrities” of the day who helped shape the expo. For instance, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were there, along with Charlie Chaplin.

“San Francisco’s Jewel City” by Laura A. Ackley is more text-heavy (in a very good way) and includes color photos along with black-and-white vintage ones, and fascinating sidebars (Heyday, 352 pages, $40). Its direction is less on personalities and more on the mechanics, logistics and exhibits of the fair, the showcased arts (from sculpture to music) and the sociological impact it had on the young city.

National Geographic’s books are renowned for their splendid photography and great page layout, as shown once again in “World’s Best Cities” by its staff and correspondents ($40, 336 pages). In it, we tour 220 “great destinations” around the world, from Mumbai to New York, Sydney to Miami, Venice to Chicago. San Francisco is there, of course, “blessed with a breathtaking bay, towering woods and atmospheric fog.”

Another global tour visits less touristy and far more eerie sites. “Mysteries of the Unknown” by Time-Life staff (Time-Life, $18, 272 pages) investigates and documents supernatural and paranormal cases involving zombies, vampires, ghosts, alien abductions, psychics and more scary things from the past to the present.

Adventurer-photographer Allan Karl hopped on his motorcycle and toured through 35 countries for three years, making new friends and tasting new dishes. He has great tales to tell and photos to share in “Forks,” as well as exotic recipes (WorldRider, $39, 280 pages).

“Bruce Springsteen has made music that’s very useful, and that’s part of why he has such a passionate following.” So says Ryan White, whose “Springsteen: Album by Album” is a portrait of the artist as drawn from his body of work (Sterling, $28, 288 pages). In the biography, White analyzes lyrics, their reference points and how the Boss’ 18 albums fit into American culture. The tour starts with the 1973 debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.”, and rocks through this year’s “High Hopes.”

Superman and Supergirl, Batman and Batgirl, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern, and many more superheroes, antiheroes and their ilk are ready for action in “DC Comics: A Visual History” (DK, $50, 376 pages). The remarkable presentation traces the comic-book company’s history and publishing landmarks from 1934 to present in a month-by-month, year-by-year time line, with enough art to satisfy the most avid fan.

Let’s not overlook “Marvel Comics: 75 Years of Cover Art” (DK, $50, 320 pages), starring Spider-Man, Captain America, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Hulk and others. The editors dug deep into the archives to find their most interesting covers (and concept sketches), beginning in 1939 when two covers included a true villain – Hitler.

Library’s Virtual Branch

As patrons become more digitally savvy, the Sacramento Public Library system’s Virtual Branch continues to grow. It loans more titles each year than any brick-and-mortar branch, with e-book and e-audiobook checkouts growing each year.

To browse the electronic catalog of e-books and e-audiobooks, go to

If you need a tutorial on how to use the digital devices that play the virtual books, the library can help. A schedule of classes and demonstrations is at

ereaderclasses. They include an e-reader “petting zoo,” offering hands-on help with tablets and such and one-on-one guidance if there are any tangles in technology.

‘Stories From the Stacks’

On the subject of libraries and digitalism, one of the funniest books of the summer was “I Work At a Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories From the Stacks,” compiled by librarian Gina Sheridan (Adams Media, $14, 160 pages), who gathered them from colleagues around the country.

Try this one: “As I was shelving some audiobooks, a woman approached me.

Woman: ‘Are those books on DVD?’

Me: ‘Sort of. They’re books on CD.’

Woman: ‘So, can you watch them?’

Me: ‘No, an audiobook is a recording of someone reading the entire book. You can listen to it on a CD player, like in your car or on a computer.’

Woman (turning away): ‘Oh, I’ll just wait till the movie comes out.’”

One more: “We were holding a Technology Petting Zoo so people could become acquainted with e-readers. A young mother with a strange expression on her face poked her head into the room.

Woman: ‘Oh, I’m really embarrassed. I thought this was a real petting zoo! Uh-oh, here comes my daughter, she’ll be really upset.’

Daughter: ‘(A girl of about 3 walked into the room and looked around). Where are all the ponies? (Then began to weep).’”

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.


If you have information on author appearances or other book-related special events, email it to at least two weeks before the event. To read the online calendar, go to Questions? Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.