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A Coffee Table Assortment
By David Pitt

A battalion of elves dropped off this assortment of odds and ends, coffee-table sized: A Century of Triumph: The History of Aviation (The Free Press, hardcover), written by Christopher Chant and with illustrations by John Batchelor. The book is what its subtitle says it is: a history of powered flight, from early (failed) attempts to ride home-made contraptions into the air, to the Wright Brothers' famous trials at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and right up to today's high-tech wonders. In between you'll read about Zeppelins and Sopwith Camels and Fokkers and weird little experimental craft that never quite caught on; you'll read about triumph and tragedy, of victory and defeat, of men and women who simply would not stop until they could call the sky their home.

Diana Vreeland (Morrow, hardcover), by Eleanor Dwight, is the copiously-illustrated biography of the magazine editor who, for more than thirty years at two magazines (Harper's Bazaar and Vogue), told America, and most of the rest of the world, what was what in the world of fashion. Vreeland led a rather splendiferous life, rubbing shoulders with the hoi-polloi travelling around the world, influencing the fashion industry, and the magazine industry, with her unique vision. Dwight's biography is detailed, high-spirited, and lots of fun.

Speaking of fashion, here's Fashion-a la Mode: The Pop-Up History of Costumes and Dresses (Universe, hardcover), by Isabelle de Borchgrave. This rather odd, and oddly appealing, history begins in Egypt, where, according to a pull-out insert, 'everyone wore clothing made of linen, from coarse loincloths for works to kilts for soldiers and courtiers.' Turn the page and we're at the court of Elizabeth I; you ll find pertinent information hidden behind what looks to be a large throw-pillow. Flip through the book, and elaborately-costumed ladies leap out at you; you'll find nifty little things you can play with, like an accordion fan (at the court of Marie Antoinette) and a kimono. There's not much text, but the design of the book is exceedingly clever, and it should provide hours of fun, providing you handle with care.

In a similar vein, we have Everest: Triumph and Tragedy of the World's Highest Peak (HarperCollins, hardcover), by Matt Dickinson. It s a history of Mount Everest, told in words and pictures, with -- and I find this most creative -- documents and maps and things you can take out and look at. Here, for example, is a reproduction of the map used in a 1921 Everest expedition, tucked inside a little brown envelope affixed to the page. Here, hidden behind a photo of a Nepal marketplace, is a folded ten-rupee banknote. Here, behind a photo of Everest taken from a monastery, is a prayer flag, made out of fabric. And there s more. A wonderful, imaginative book that ll make an ideal gift for the mountaineer -- or armchair traveller -- on your list.

Business: The Ultimate Resource (Perseus, hardcover) pretty much speaks for itself. This reference book runs to nearly 2200 pages, and offers essays by recognized business experts, people like Tom Brown, Peter Bernstein, Al and Laura Reis, and dozens more. (The list of contributors itself is fourteen pages long.) In addition to the essays, the book contains a variety of management checklists, an extensive and enlightening how-to section (i.e., how to collect consumer data on the Internet, how to assess your value in the marketplace), a 'management library' that discusses useful business books, a dictionary, and a lengthy almanac. For anyone from the CEO of a multinational right on down to the fast-food employee who dreams of bigger things, it's a must-have.

Also a must-have, at least for graphic designers, is Typography (Black Dog & Leventhal, hardcover), a beautifully-illustrated, multilingual history of type design and techniques compiled by Freidrich Friedl, Nicoloaus Ott and Bernard Stein. The text is in three languages -- French, German, English and the illustrations are glorious, full-color reproductions of typefaces, writing, and hieroglyphs dating as far back as 3000 B.C. The book opens with a concise history of typology -- its form, function, design -- but its bulk is taken up with an alphabetical listing of artists, architects, designers, teachers, writers, publishers, and others who influenced the history and evolution of typography. Admittedly of limited interest, the book is nevertheless a lovely creation, and would be the perfect gift for the artists and designers on your list.

And now, something for the kiddies: the HarperCollins Treasury of Picture Book Classics (HarperCollins, hardcover), a collection of children's stories with their original illustrations. Here's Tomi Ungerer's Crictor; Russell Hoban's A Baby Sister for Francis (with Lillian Hoban's adorable drawings of the skunk family); Pete's a Pizza, by William Steig; and other equally charming tales. This is one of those gather-the-family books, a delightful collection that parents and children will share.

Archie Belaney, born in England in 1888, came to Canada when he was seventeen, changed his name to Grey Owl, and lived among the aboriginal peoples as one of them. Six decades after his death, Gary and Joanie McGuffin, noted nature photographers and explorers, embarked on a three-month adventure that recreated Grey Owl's travels on some of Canada's most beautiful rivers. In the Footsteps of Grey Owl (McClelland & Stewart, hardcover) is the photographic record of the journey, a simply gorgeous book filled with breathtaking images that you'll wish you could cut out, enlarge, and hang on your wall. There's also an introductory essay in which the authors describe their expedition.

For figure-skating fans, here's Champions on Ice: Twenty-Five Years of the World's Finest Figure Skaters (McClelland & Stewart, hardcover), by Christine Brennan. Champions on Ice, the touring skating company founded by Tom Collins, has seen its share of famous names: Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano (who provides the book's Foreword), Brian Orser, Elvis Stojko, Sarah Hughes, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (before their ... unpleasantness). The book takes you behind the scenes, shows you some of the great moments of a quarter-century of performances, profiles some of the troupe s members (like Michelle Kwan, and Dorothy Hamill), and -- best of all -- provides a day-in-the-life chronicle of a single performance. A real treat.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on coffee table books as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
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