Books

Between the Lines: Holiday gifts? Try these colorful coffee-table books

“Wildlife of the World” with Dr. Don E. Wilson, editorian consultant for the Smithsonian Institution.
“Wildlife of the World” with Dr. Don E. Wilson, editorian consultant for the Smithsonian Institution. Scanned cover

Given the price of furniture, nobody actually sets cups of coffee on top of their coffee tables. More likely, oversize books of photos and text – coffee-table books – are displayed there.

Typically, coffee-table books are filled with dramatic photos and informational text, taking readers on journeys to places around the world to witness rare sights. As a bonus, they make ideal holiday gifts.

(In a related aside, Penguin Random House has opened through Monday, Dec. 21, its second annual Penguin Hotline at www.penguin.com/penguinhotline. Submit a request at the site, giving a mini-profile of someone you wish to give any kind of book, and you’ll get a reply with personalized recommendations. The giant publisher is quick to note: “Suggestions on titles will not be limited to just Penguin books. … Books will be recommended from all publishing houses in support of anyone interested in giving a book for the holiday season.”)

Now, back to the coffee-table tomes. Here’s a sampling of some of the titles being promoted this season. (Next week, look for Christmas-related books.)

“The Old West” by Stephen G. Hyslop (National Geographic, $40, 320 pages): Hit the trail to the 19th century and explore the Gold Rush, cattle drives, life in wagon trains, the Indian wars, the Comstock Lode and the Oklahoma Land Rush. Along the way, meet war chief Black Hawk, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Kit Carson and others.

“Wildlife of the World” is a collaboration among DK publishers, the Smithsonian Institution and seven internationally renown zoologists ($50, 480 pages). Readers come face-to-face with the most important species on the planet, arranged by continental habitat. Illustrations, maps and graphics complement the incredible photographs. If there’s a must-have coffee-table book, this is it.

Creating the Illusion” by Jay Jorgensen and Donald Scoggins (foreword by Ali MacGraw; (Running Press, $65, 416 pages): This spectacular history of fashion in movies includes most of the great designers – Edith Head, Sandy Powell and Cecil Beaton among them. They dressed the stars of a long-gone era in amazing costumes – Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and many more.

Get some laughs from “Guinness World Records 2016,” the “global authority on record-breaking achievements” (Guinness World Records, $29, 256 pages). Check out the longest underwater live radio broadcast (nearly four hours and 45 minutes), the highest postmortem earners (Michael Jackson at $140 million) and the biggest scoop of ice cream (3,010 pounds).

The sea change in the relationship between the United States and Cuba makes a pair of titles even more relevant. “Havana Revisited” by Cathryn Griffith is a tour of the city’s vintage architecture, as found in the Malecón (waterfront esplanade), Morro Castle, Paseo del Prado (a boulevard designed in 1772), churches, cemeteries and other landmarks (W.W. Norton, $50, 240 pages). In revealing photos, “Embracing Cuba” by Byron Motley offers a portrait of the Cuban people and their daily lives (University Press of Florida, $35, 224 pages).

For the seriously military-minded is “The West Point History of World War II” by the U.S. Military Academy (Simon & Schuster, $55, 352 pages). With its maps, charts, vintage photos, historic posters and authoritative voice, you could almost be in a classroom. Particularly interesting are the chapters “Blitzkrieg Tactics” and “Naval Warfare.”

Joshua Slocum was the first person to circumnavigate the world in a sloop, the Spray, and published his memoir of the historic journey in 1900. It has been refreshed with photos, maps and illustrations by Geoffrey Wolff, professor emeritus of English at UC Irvine, and now appears as “Sailing Alone Around the World: The Illustrated Edition” (Zenith, $35, 256 pages). Slocum called his feat “my own small achievement,” made possible by “studying with diligence Neptune’s laws.”

Through gorgeous photography and concise text blocks, Kim Heacox celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in “The National Parks” (National Geographic, $50, 384 pages). The nation’s 59 national parks include 18,000 miles of trails, 78 national monuments, 25 battlefields and 10 seashores, with nearly 300 million visitors a year.

French impressionist Claude Monet once remarked, “I must have flowers, always and always.” In that spirit comes “The Romance of Flowers” by Clinton Smith (Hearst, $60, 288 pages), a lush aggregation of flower photography from the pages of the lifestyle magazine Veranda. The portraits are so vivid you could cut out the pages, put them in a vase and no one would be the wiser.

A flash from the past is “Flash Gordon: The Storm Queen of Valkir,” the fourth compilation of Sunday comic strips starring the “king of the cliff-hanger,” this one from the years 1944-48 (Titan Comics, $50, 224 pages). Let’s recall that a TV serial and several movies were based on the series, which debuted in 1934 and became one of the most popular newspaper comic strips of all time. Trivia: Director George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie in the 1970s, but couldn’t negotiate the film rights with director Dino De Laurentiis. Frustrated, he turned to another project: “Star Wars.”

Three car-loving buddies took a two-week, 2,700-mile expedition to hunt down as many “lost collector cars” as they could find. By the end, they’d discovered 1,000 neglected and mostly rusted autos – Chevys, Dodges, Fords, Mercuries and even a 1932 panel delivery truck. Tom Cotter and photographer Michael Alan Ross tell their adventure in “Barn Find Road Trip” (Motorbooks, $35, 192 pages).

Stately color paintings and vintage black-and-white photos abound in the illustrated atlas “The British World” by Tim Jepson (National Geographic, $40, 352 pages). He starts at 1 million B.C. and works through the history of the British Isles up to present day, but Jepson keeps it entertaining, informative and, above all, fast-paced.

You needn’t travel to Florence to tour the masterpieces created by some of the world’s greatest artists. “Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes: 1250 to 1743” by Ross King and Anja Grebe brings more than 2,000 images of them to you, along with a comprehensive guide (Black Dog & Leventhal, $75, 708 pages).

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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