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Between the Lines: Gift Books! Get Yer Gift Books Here!
By David Pitt (December 2004)

Got a friend with one of those really big coffee tables? I'm talking about a solid-wood showpiece the size of a small pool table. Can't figure out what to get 'em for Christmas? Well, they don't call these coffee table books for nothin'.

If your friend has seen Oliver Stone's movie Alexander, or just has an interest in this youthful conqueror, you might want to think about giving him (or her) Laura Foreman's Alexander the Conqueror (Da Capo). This abundantly illustrated biography of the man who quite literally changed the world is dramatic, insightful, and -- considering the events it documents occurred over 2000 years ago -- strangely familiar. History really does repeat itself.

Winston ChurchillWe all know -- or we oughta know, anyway -- that Winston Churchill was the United Kingdom's prime minister during World War Two. He was a masterful orator ('I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat'), a fair and decent man. In the chaos of the post-war world, he was instrumental in finding some form of order and peace. He was also a painter. As David Coombs and Minnie Churchill demonstrate in Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings (Running Press), he was not merely a gifted amateur, but an artist of great ability. Telling his life story by relating his biography to his art is a wonderful way of showing us the private side of this very public man.

Not too long after the end of World War Two, the United States found itself embroiled in a kind of civil war. The civil rights movement had been gathering momentum for quite some time, but it exploded into the public consciousness in the mid-1950s, with the murder of Emmett Till, a young African American boy. Two white men were accused of the crime, put on trial, and acquitted. (The jury was made up entirely of white men, and if you think the verdict and the jury's complexion are purely coincidental, you aren't from this planet.) Herb Boyd's We Shall Overcome (Sourcebooks) tells the story of the modern civil rights movement in pictures and words, both written and spoken: the book comes with two audio CDs narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. There have been millions upon millions of words written about this vastly important aspect of American history, but you've never seen anything quite like this book.

America DiscoveredStaying on the same continent, but skipping backwards in time, we have America Discovered (Douglas & McIntyre), by Derek Hayes. Subtitled 'A Historical Atlas of North American Exploration,' the book is an absolute must-have for the armchair cartographer on your Christmas list. As if the glorious full-colour reproductions of all those maps and charts weren't enough, the author's narrative, which tracks the gradual opening of the continent by a succession of explorers, mapmakers, and -- yes -- conquerors is majestic in its scope. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Centuries ago, around the time Christopher Columbus stumbled across the hunk of land he thought was India, the New World was an explorer's final frontier. More recently, and I'm sure you Star Trek fans saw this coming, space became the final frontier. The National Geographic Encyclopedia of Space (National Geographic Society, hardcover), by Linda K. Glover with a panel of experts, features essays about the conquest of space, the life and death of a star, the search for proof of the Big Bang, the planets of our solar system, and much more. It's a vastly informative book, one that'll make you want to put it down, climb into a space suit, and get the heck out there, among the stars.

Return to TitanicIn 1985, after a lot of people had spent a lot of time and money looking for her, R.M.S. Titanic was found at the bottom of the sea. The man who led the expedition that ended the game of hide and seek was Robert D. Ballard, who has written widely on the subject of Titanic, undersea exploration, the preservation of sunken remains, and treasure hunters. Return to Titanic (National Geographic Society), by Ballard and Michael S. Sweeny, takes us back under the waves for another look at the sunken liner. The book describes some early attempts to find Titanic (a 1953 expedition used a primitive version of sonar); Ballard's efforts to have the wreck declared an historical site; and, in vivid photographs, shows us what's left of the once-majestic vessel. It's impossible to leaf through the book's pages, to look at the pictures, without feeling a little knot in the stomach. This isn't Hollywood's interpretation of Titanic; this is the ship herself, buried under miles of water, a corpse. And yet, somehow, she is still awe-inspiring.

The Illustrated On The Shoulders of Giants (Running Press, hardcover), edited by Stephen Hawking, is like a crash course in the history of science. All the greats are here: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein. There's a brief biography of each of them, and then an excerpt from their groundbreaking work (the chapter on Isaac Newton, for instance, has a chunk of his Principia Mathematica, specifically the part that deals with his laws of motion, and it's not as impenetrable as you might think). The book's not for younger readers, not unless they've had a solid grounding in the history of physics and astronomy and the like, but it's a great book to have around if you ever get curious about how the universe works.

Rarest of the RareNow here's a picture book the younger readers will get excited about: The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HarperCollins). Nancy Pick's text and Mark Sloan's photographs combine to give you guided tour of some of the world-famous museum's most interesting exhibits. Here's a sand dollar collected in 1834 by Charles Darwin; the skeleton of a 135-million-year-old marine reptile; a meteorite; a mastodon skeleton; and a whole lot more. Kids will love the pictures of the strange and enticing things, although you'll want to be prepared for tons of questions, primarily, 'How soon can we go there?'

Kids, and certain grownups (you know who you are), will be just thrilled with Comic Book Encyclopedia (HarperCollins), compiled by comic-book historian Ron Goulart. All your favourites are here: superheroes (Superman, Spider-Man, The Flash); artists (Jack Kirby, Reed Crandall, Dave Berg); writers (Gardner Fox, Chris Claremont, Jerry Siegel); and a whole lot more. Goulart, whose knowledge of the comic-book is, well, encyclopedic, has things in here that will surprise even the most avid fans. Things like Atoman, a 'radio active' (yes, that's two words) superhero who battled for 'peace, security, and happiness for all,' for all of two issues in 1946. Or The Eye, 'one of the strangest superheroes ever to appear in comic books,' who was, um, a big eye that could hover and fly. He stared evil into submission in 1939 and '40, and then winked out of existence. Or Lady Fair Play, a beautiful schoolteacher who fought villains in her spare time for three issues spread out over six months in 1941 and '42. I'll stop now, but, you really gotta see this book.

EtiquetteIf your friend's friends keep dropping by, without warning, to behold the splendiferous coffee table, your friend might appreciate a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette (HarperCollins), revised and updated by Peggy Post. This famous book, now in its seventeenth edition, covers pretty much everything you can think of (unannounced visits are a no-no, generally speaking), and a pile of things you've never thought of ('wallets should be thin enough not to cause an obvious bulge in your back pocket'). Okay, some of this stuff feels a little, shall we say, nitpicky -- but there's a reason the book has been around since 1922, and that's because it's full of smart, sensible, entirely reasonable advise.

In Emily Post's Etiquette you'll find all sorts of tips on hosting a dinner party. However if you want tips on what food to serve, and how to prepare it, you'll need a different sort of book. Karen Barnaby's The Low-Carb Gourmet (HarperCollins) offers 250 recipes tailor-made for people on a low-card diet. Some of them don't sound too yummy (flax porridge?), but others look like they'd be downright delicious. The recipes are straightforward enough that anyone can make them.

Emeril's Potluck (William Morrow), by Emeril Lagasse, offers 'comfort food with a kicked-up attitude,' and runs the gamut from drinks to appetizers to salads to soups and right on through to dessert. The recipes look fun, affordable, and tasty. Bam!

Now here's a real treat: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (W.W. Norton), a lovely two-volume edition of all 56 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's about the world-famous sleuth. (A third volume, scheduled for 2005, will contain the four Holmes novels.) If you haven't read the Holmes canon yet, what the heck's been keeping you? If you've read it, even if you're so familiar with it you can quote whole pages at a time, you'll still be impressed with this edition, with its copious annotations running down the sides of the pages, its multitude of illustrations (including many by Sidney Paget, the original illustrator of the Holmes stories), its biographies (of Conan Doyle and his two most famous creations, Holmes and Watson), and more. Buy this one for your friend, but don't be surprised if you wind up giving it to yourself.

World Encyclopedia of ChristmasAnd what would Christmas be without a coffee table book about Christmas? The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (McClelland & Stewart), by Gerry Bowler, is pretty much what it says it is, a comprehensive survey of the history, traditions, and different ways of celebrating of Christmas. The subjects range from the scholarly ('protoevangelium of James'), to the commonplace ('pudding, Christmas'), to the just plain weird ('cross-dressing and Christmas'). You never thought there was so much to learn about such a familiar subject.
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