Gift Books to Delight, Inspire and 'Wow'

The New Novel, Winslow Homer

hide caption"The New Novel" by Winslow Homer

Take an audiovisual tour of this year's selections.
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass

Woe is me. So many hours lost pioneering my way through the stacks to find outstanding holiday gift books. And all this to save you the trouble of whiling away your own sweet time. How's for that public service!

Arguably, any book you give to someone is a "gift book." To narrow the search for this list, though, I've chosen books that I wouldn't buy for myself, opting out of reality and focussing on nostalgia, nature, kitsch and even the downright frivolous. Given the year we've had, I'd say it makes a nice change.

Before you dive in, know this: I've left the novels to braver souls, the cookbooks to connoisseurs and the children's books to the people meant to have them (children, that is). What I've put together is a baker's dozen of delicacies chosen to delight, inspire and just "wow." (You can print these titles, along with all our other year-end picks, using this master list.)

Seedheads in the Garden

Seedheads in the Garden Cover

Seedheads in the Garden

By Noel Kingsbury

Hardcover, 144 pages

Timber Press, Inc., $29.95

Seedheads

We seasoned gardeners are very suspicious of plants posed as eye candy, having bought oh-so-many featured flowers and having killed oh-so-many more. But Seedheads in the Garden isn't simply "garden porn," as we say in the trade.

As I leafed through this pleasurable hardback, past the naked remains of a wallflower (Erysimum) and the crusty corpse of a baby's breath (Gypsophila), it became clear to me that the backlit close-ups and continuous narrative in this book actually have something to say: Keep your hands off those decaying flower stalks and let the seeds fall! Beginning gardeners and the compulsively tidy have a tendency to cut, cut, cut, wanting to keep everything fresh and green. A book like this may just be the gift these folks need to simply let the garden spill, sway and gently decompose. (Learn about the different forms seedheads take in this excerpt.)

Century Girl

Century Girl

Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies

By Lauren Redniss

Hardcover, 208 pages

List price: $34.95

MARY inspired men i i

hide caption"MARY inspired men to part with sizable wads of cash..." Enlarge image to read part of this hand-written story.

MARY inspired men

"MARY inspired men to part with sizable wads of cash..." Enlarge image to read part of this hand-written story.

Now cruising toward 103 years old, Doris Eaton Travis is the last living Ziegfeld girl, whose life — as rendered in this vivacious scrapbook bio — is a study in joie de vivre. She made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1918, worked in silent and talking films, "performed for presidents and princesses, bantered with Babe Ruth, offended Henry Ford, earned a Phi Beta Kappa degree in History (at 88), raised turkeys and raced horses." (Give a listen to how she spent her 100th birthday as featured on NPR's All Things Considered.)

Lauren Redniss' celebratory book tells Ms. Travis's story on dancing, swirling pages of collage that combine period images with an entirely handwritten text. The words bump and coil around photos, drawings and memorabilia in a layout that may overwhelm anyone old enough to actually remember the Ziegfeld Follies (the deliberate absence of typeset text would make my mom nuts). But for the campy, the artistic and the romantic, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more visually delicious biography.

Mexican Calendar Girls

Horsewoman i i
Horsewoman

From Mexican Calendar Girls by Angela Villalba

Mexican Calendar Girls

By Angela Villalba

Paperback, 144 pages

List price: $19.95

Torera i i
Torera

From Mexican Calendar Girls by Angela Villalba

What's with all the gift books this year about sexy, chesty women? (You mean you missed Taschen's 396-page Big Book of Breasts?). I fear arrest by the P.C. police just having them all on my desk.

But fear no offense from anyone if you give the gift of Mexican Calendar Girls. (I checked with some NPR resident Latinas just to be sure the book is kosher.) It's a kitsch-fest of dark-haired beauties from the 1930s through the '50s, but they're not pin-up girls, hot as the female bullfighter on page 105 may be. These are painted dreams of Old Mexico rendered by artists who pulled out all the stops (and serapes, sombreros, huaraches and lariats). Mexican calendar art is a hot collectible for reasons that are abundantly clear in this bilingual cultural homage.

A Journey Through Time

Life: A Journey Through Time cover image

Life: A Journey Through Time

By Frans Lanting

Hardcover, 304 pages

List price: $49.99

On the geologic scale, time is truly just a four-letter word. How can we possibly conceive of the two-hundred-million-year interlude between the sea's first wonder — the sea jelly — and the Earth's first fern? But bring a wild imagination to this book of Frans Lanting's photographic explorations and you will witness a chronicle of evolution from molten lava and trilobite fossils to mega-mammals on the African plain.

Weighing in at somewhat less than my beagle (but only just — I checked), this numbingly gorgeous tome captures the beauty of a Brazilian anteater (until now, a creature I've irrationally feared) with the same wonder it bestows on a pollen-skirted ant. And the single raspberry-colored fern in the process of unfolding will break your heart.

Lanting's own vision for these photographs is epic in itself. The book is part of a project that includes a multimedia performance with orchestral music by Philip Glass. That’s not a bad idea, actually. Load up the CD player with spacious music (Glass, Bruckner, you name it) as you dip into this picture-book planet, and behold Lanting's enviable rapport with the world.

100 Caterpillars

100 Caterpillars

100 Caterpillars: Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica

By Jeffrey Miller, Daniel Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs

Hardcover, 320 pages

List price: $39.95

100 Caterpillars i i

hide captionAutomeris Tridens

100 Caterpillars

Automeris Tridens

I certainly was not looking for caterpillars in the bookstore. I blame it on the cover. I opened the book and fell headlong into a world of unbelievable creatures. Right now, I'm looking at Hemeroplanes triptolemis doing an uncanny impersonation of a viper, and let me tell you, it's plenty scary.

Leaf through the large-format photographs in 100 Caterpillars and you'll see all the latest in caterpillar-wear from the mountains and forests of Costa Rica. We're talking pine-needle coats, detachable red tails and fake orange eyes. That is, if you can find the caterpillars. Consider the incredibly cryptic Narope, completely indistinguishable from a papery sheath of bamboo, or Archaeoprepona meander, twin to a torn leaf.

But know this: Only the pictures invite wonder. The text has a scientific job to do and you may not be up to the assignment. "It is a cryptic noctuid," write the authors about one insect, "among an ocean of gaudy sphingids, saturniids, heperiids, notodontids, and nymphalids, and a few gaudy noctuids." What's not to love?

Animals of the Ocean

Animals of the Ocean cover

Animals of the Ocean, in Particular the Giant Squid

By Doris Haggis-on-Whey and Benny Haggis-on-Whey

Hardcover, 64 pages

List price: $18.00

Fish with Big Hair i i

hide captionFish with Big Hair (detail view)

Fish with Big Hair

Fish with Big Hair (detail view)

This is a book of lies! Deceits! Utter nonsense! Which is precisely why it's on my gift list. I'm not even going to tell you who actually wrote it, having been discouraged by the so-called Dr. Haggis-on-Whey: "As they have chosen to not pursue a life of science," she writes, "they are hardly worth discussing here."

Reading this irreverent picture book's first page ("What is in the ocean, you ask, beside water and tuna? The answer is not much."), you may notice a certain resemblance to the disarming dark humor of Lemony Snickett. I assure you, that esteemed writer at least aspired to make sense. Not so the H-o-W's, who answer questions such as "Why is it so dark in the dark part of the sea?" with a story that starts with Greg the circus ringmaster, makes a quick stop at Bed, Bath and Beyond and ends with the sea's purchase of navy-blue velvet curtains. However, they caution, "that doesn't explain the smell."

What can I say? It works. Of all the gift books I showed my renegade 60-year-old sister (she's much older), this is the one she wants. I suspect it was the guide to shark religions that did it.

The Best American Comics

Best American Comics 2006 cover

The Best American Comics 2006

Edited by Harvey Pekar

Hardcover, 320 pages

List price: $22.00

Detail from "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes" i i

hide captionDetail from "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes" by Kurt Wolfgang

Detail from "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes"

Detail from "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes" by Kurt Wolfgang

The literary works previously featured in the varied and venerable (1915) Best American series have spotlighted short stories, mysteries, sports writing, and other literary forms. This book marks the debut of comics, which should, in theory, have made me run in the other direction, since this medium and I have never gotten along. But given the overall standard of the series and the choice of editor (Harvey Pekar, the author of American Splendor comics), I gave it a try.

Conclusion? What an old fart I've been.

Included in these 30 chosen pieces are comics of great tenderness and insight, featuring artists who understand the power of "less" in a genre I've often found too visually stressful to enjoy. Whether following the hazards of bus travel with a schizophrenic stranger (Justin Hall), or reading my own thoughts in a soliloquy about self-doubt (Lynda Barry), once tuned in, I stayed tuned.

Cartoon America

Cartoon America cover

Cartoon America: Comic Art in the Library of Congress

Edited by Harry Katz

Hardcover, 324 pages

List price: $50.00

George Herriman, Krazy Kat

hide captionGeorge Herriman, Krazy Kat

Jiminy Cricket! Wait till you get a load of this historic collection of cartoons. Disney and Doonesbury, Seuss and Snoopy, Li'l Abner and Little Nemo.

The pages of Cartoon America are filled with highlights from the Library of Congress, which began collecting and preserving cartoons and caricatures not long after its founding in 1800. The book, an accompaniment to a current exhibit, features fine essays, sumptuous color reproductions and pen-and-inks that leap off the page. It ain't cheap and it needs a coffee table but it's worth both minor inconveniences just for the political cartoons.

Consider "The Patriotic Accountant," gallows humor from 1792 that shows a number cruncher placidly adding up heads during the French Revolution. Or "The Prairie Dog" from 1804 by James Akin, where a mangy dog with Jefferson’s head regurgitates piles of money. The cartoon was a criticism of the President's decision... to buy Florida!

Of course you could buy your giftee a ticket to Washington, D.C., so he or she can see the original art in the Library of Congress. But hurry! The Cartoon America exhibit closes at the end of January. As a backup, consider the book.

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's cover

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

by Steven Lee Beeber

Hardcover, 259 pages

List price: $24.95

It's 6:30 a.m. on a dark, dreary Northwest morning. No need to go to work. Nu, so why am I buzzing my way through a discourse about Jewish American women and the birth of female punk?

The answer is Steven Lee Beeber, who at first glance has taken a far-fetched and farblondjet (Yiddish for mixed-up) premise and turned it into a straight-ahead fast ride. His premise is simple: no Jewish Americans, no punk rock. Such a loss! (I jest.) But it's how he makes his argument — beginning with Lenny Bruce and ending with John Zorn — that will engage and propel even readers initially disinclined toward this raucous music.

No picture book, this. But Beeber is an original thinker with an impressive gift for sociology, psychology and gossip. I may die without knowingly hearing the Ramones, but I get their place in this secret history. (Read an excerpt describing the home life of young Lewis Allen Reed, aka "Lou.")

America by the Yard

Wilson Inauguration i i

hide captionDetail View: Wilson Inauguration, Washington D.C., 1913.

Wilson Inauguration

Wilson Inauguration, Washington D.C., March 4, 1913. Dimensions: 7 3/8 x 35 inches.

National Ski Tournament, Brattleboro, Vermont i i

hide captionDetail View: National Ski Tournament, Vermont, 1924.

National Ski Tournament, Brattleboro, Vermont

National Ski Tournament, Brattleboro, Vt., Feb. 14, 15, 1924. Original panorama dimensions: 7 5/8 x 37 5/8 inches.

America by the Yard: Cirkut Camera: Images from the Early Twentieth Century

by Robert B. MacKay

Hardcover, 232 pages

List price: $100

My mouth was hanging open as I perused this oversize book of black-and-white "yard-longs," the name for the panoramic photographs popularized by Eastman Kodak's Cirkut Camera invented in the early 1900s. This hard-to-use, rotating camera was capable of recording 360-degree views, and could capture immense crowds (would you believe 20,000 strong?) using negatives up to five feet wide.

The exquisite reproductions in this book are truly visceral: You can almost hear the carnival barker (Knoxville, Tennessee, 1914), feel the crowd's hush (Baptism at San Pedro Park, Texas, 1925) and smell the apple pie (Old Home Day, Dorchester, New Hampshire, 1929). Each photograph is a short story about early 20th century America with enough life-affirming innocence (oh, to be in the 1920 Bathing Girl Parade!) to steel you against more difficult truths (Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Drill Team and Band, Jackson, Michigan, 1924).

This is a memorable tome with a number of photos that fold open to four feet, so care must be taken opening and closing each one. In other words, not a good gift for someone who's hard on books!

Winslow Homer: An American Vision

Winslow Homer: An American Vision cover

Winslow Homer: An American Vision

By Randall C. Griffin

Hardcover, 240 pages

List price: $69.95

Cotten Pickers i i

hide captionCotten Pickers

Cotten Pickers

Cotten Pickers

"It is a gift to be able to see the beauties of nature," Winslow Homer once said. "You must not paint everything you see. You must wait, and wait patiently until the exceptional, the wonderful effect... comes."

This book is a gift as well, a chance to marvel at the moments Homer left in,whether two pink-bellied trout leaping over ribbons of color or a violent slash of sunset igniting a wave.

Such is Homer's art, though, that once you've stepped into "the exceptional," your own imagination will likely fill in the blanks. These often gorgeous reproductions of more than 200 paintings, watercolors and sketches evoke so many stories. But if it's facts you're after, descriptions of each work are almost always presented on the facing page — not something to take for granted.

The "beauties of nature" Homer captured are not for the faint of heart; I can still hear his trapped fox scream. But then I'm pacified by the memory of a single, small rowboat masterfully rendered in monochromatic tones. Which is why this book is perfect for someone on the verge of the art world, just waiting for an invitation to wade in.

A Sense of the World

A Sense of the Wrold cover

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

By Jason Roberts

Hardcover, 400 pages

List price: $26.95

It all started with a splash of color and a gift for procrastination. Otherwise, author Jason Roberts might not have been haunting the library aisles where he spotted a turquoise-spined book. Within that slim volume was the brief bio of the 19th century explorer James Holman, a man known in his day as the "Blind Traveler." Holman’s story grabbed Roberts and simply demanded to be told. Roberts responded with a gutsy work of nonfiction that now demands to be known.

It begins at sea with a strapping 12-year-old boy whose health is falling apart. By his late teens, he is bed-ridden; by his 20s, he is blind. Braille has yet to be invented and England's sightless are either pitied or reviled. Against all odds, Young Holman charts a third course, deciding to circumnavigate the globe.

From tales of a sea war with Old Ironsides to an account of a trip up a spewing Vesuvius, through crowded cities and across frozen tundra with a metal-tipped cane, James Holman's life as told in this biography reads like a dare to get out of the house and live! Except you won't be rushing anywhere once you start the first page. (Hear an interview with author Jason Roberts.)

Letters from Eden

Letters from Eden cover

Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods

By Julie Zickefoose

Hardcover, 224 pages

List price: $26.00

Big, Medium, and Tiny Fergus i i

hide caption"Big, Medium, and Tiny Fergus fresh from the farm pond"

Big, Medium, and Tiny Fergus

"Big, Medium, and Tiny Fergus fresh from the farm pond"

This one's for the bird people. And the devotees of life's simple pleasures. And the sentimental who dream of living on 80 wooded acres delicately crisscrossed by avian feet. It's a tough sell, I know.

What I didn't know — much to my embarrassment — was that author Julie Zickefoose is often heard on NPR's All Things Considered. So in choosing her bucolic bedside reader, I'm pushing nothing beyond a truly charming book — written in the same soft language she uses in her on-air pieces, and made irresistible by her drawings. Wait for page 157, where a squabbling Carolina wren writhes on its back like a kid having a tantrum, or page 53, where a spirited phoebe alights in a watercolor dream.

I'm not sure what I like better: the flow of short stories that capture the rhythms of her days; the annotated sketches (I love reading her penciled notes); or the watercolors, which are likely to elicit a few aching sighs. Envy her acreage and its jewels if you must, but hey, at least she has the good grace to share them. (Read an excerpt from the late-November meditation, "A Winter’s Tale.")

Stocking Stuffers or the Second Night of Hanukah

As long as you don't give the cat book to the gadget guy or the dog paintings to the itty-bitty kiddy folks, here's a trio of little somethings that cannot fail.

Cats and Their Slaves: An Anthology of Worship by Michelle Lovric (Hardcover, 68 pages, $11.95)

Brimming with quotes from people you've never heard of (Oswald Barron? You know, the guy who wrote about heraldry, right?) and centuries of artwork you've likely never seen (lots of Victoriana), this compilation of cat love is for the hopelessly sentimental. Safe for neighbors and in-laws.

The Artful Dog: Canines from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Hardcover, 80 pages, $9.95)

Last year, it was artful felines, but this is the Year of the Dog. Paintings featuring canines by Renoir, Eakins and Fragonard are paired with love quotes from the likes of Browning and Shaw. A classy change from all the dog drool at the gift-shop checkout counter, this booklet is good enough for even a savvy beast-besotted friend.

A Field Guide to Roadside Technology by Ed Sobey (Paperback, 176 pages, $14.95)

Judging by its cover — which features a traffic-surveillance camera, a gas meter and a cell-phone tower — I thought for sure this so-called field guide would be a joke. Surprise! It's really a rather sweet and earnest homage to everyday urban marvels that you never look at but always see. This one's so quirky, it's likely to win you friends.

Books Featured In This Story

Cartoon America
Cartoon America

Comic Art in the Library of Congress

by Harry Katz

Hardcover, 323 pages | purchase

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  • Comic Art in the Library of Congress
  • Harry Katz
The Heebie-jeebies at Cbgb's
The Heebie-jeebies at Cbgb's

A Secret History of Jewish Punk

by Steven Lee Beeber

Hardcover, 259 pages | purchase

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  • A Secret History of Jewish Punk
  • Steven Lee Beeber
Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

An American Vision

by Randall C. Griffin

Hardcover, 239 pages | purchase

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  • An American Vision
  • Randall C. Griffin
The Best American Comics 2006
The Best American Comics 2006

by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore

Hardcover, 293 pages | purchase

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  • Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore
100 Caterpillars
100 Caterpillars

Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica

by J. C. Miller, Daniel H. Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs

Hardcover, 264 pages | purchase

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  • J. C. Miller, Daniel H. Janzen, et al
Life
Life

A Journey Through Time

by Frans Lanting

Hardcover, 303 pages | purchase

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  • A Journey Through Time
  • Frans Lanting
Seedheads in the Garden
Seedheads in the Garden

by Noel Kingsbury

Hardcover, 144 pages | purchase

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  • Noel Kingsbury
Mexican Calendar Girls/ Chicas De Calendarios Mexicanos
Mexican Calendar Girls/ Chicas De Calendarios Mexicanos

Golden Age of Calendar Art: 1930-1960/ La Epoca De Oro Del Arte De Los Calendarios: 1930-1960

by Angela Villalba and Carlos Monsivais

Paperback, 144 pages | purchase

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  • Angela Villalba and Carlos Monsivais
Century Girl
Century Girl

100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies

by Lauren Redniss

Hardcover, 187 pages | purchase

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  • Century Girl
  • 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies
  • Lauren Redniss
America by the Yard
America by the Yard

Cirkut Camera: Images from the Early Twentieth Century

by Robert B. Mackay

Hardcover, 216 pages | purchase

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  • America by the Yard
  • Cirkut Camera: Images from the Early Twentieth Century
  • Robert B. Mackay
Letters from Eden
Letters from Eden

A Year at Home, in the Woods

by Julie Zickefoose

Hardcover, 224 pages | purchase

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  • Letters from Eden
  • A Year at Home, in the Woods
  • Julie Zickefoose
Animals of the Ocean, in Particular the Giant Squid
Animals of the Ocean, in Particular the Giant Squid

by Doris Haggis-On-whey and Benny Haggis-On-Whey

Hardcover, 62 pages | purchase

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  • Doris Haggis-On-whey and Benny Haggis-On-Whey
A Sense of the World
A Sense of the World

How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

by Jason Roberts

Hardcover, 382 pages | purchase

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  • How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler
  • Jason Roberts
The Artful Dog
The Artful Dog

Canines from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hardcover, 1 v. | purchase

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  • Canines from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cats And Their Slaves
Cats And Their Slaves

An Anthology of Worship

by Michelle Lovric

Hardcover, 68 pages | purchase

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  • Cats And Their Slaves
  • An Anthology of Worship
  • Michelle Lovric
A Field Guide to Roadside Technology
A Field Guide to Roadside Technology

by Edwin J. C. Sobey

Paperback, 204 pages | purchase

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  • A Field Guide to Roadside Technology
  • Edwin J. C. Sobey

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