Coffee-table cornucopia

With the aid of our last-minute holiday gift book guide, fill your loved ones' stockings with Gary Larson, exotic scents, mosque architecture, the moons of Jupiter and the jolliest Santa of them all -- North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il!

By Laura Miller - Kerry Lauerman
Published December 20, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Some nuts are harder to crack than the unshelled Brazils in that mix your mom puts out each December. If you're still frantically searching for the right gift for a certain picky, elusive or simply uncovetous friend or relation, your local bookstore is your best bet. And if you pick something with great pictures, you'll never have to worry about whether or not they'll read it. Here's our list of suggestions for some of the trickiest cases out there.

The Christmas Purist

You know the type: Tried to talk Mom into roasting a greasy goose for Christmas dinner despite a family-wide preference for white meat, and eyes with unwholesome interest the packaged plum-pudding displays in the "gourmet foods" section of Cost Plus Imports. Divert his attention from British cuisine with the exhaustive "The Annotated Christmas Carol," introduced and edited by Michael Patrick Hearn (W.W. Norton, $29.95). It will regale him with countless factoids, such as the revelation that Christmas traditions were fading away in the early 19th century before writers like Dickens revived them. Hearn's copious footnotes elaborate on Dickens' veiled digs at Victorian economists like Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith. (He puts their ideas in Scrooge's mouth.) The little holiday ghost story was an enormous hit, but it cost so much to produce it didn't relieve its author of his crushing debts. Still, the book persuaded the starchy Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle to run out and buy a turkey and invite friends over for dinner, and the owner of the Franklin Scale Co. in St. Johnsburg, Vt., was inspired to close his factory on Christmas Day (not a universal custom at the time) and to hand out turkeys to his staff. Turkeys, not geese.

The Competitive Giver

If you belong to the kind of family that vies to bring the most hovered-over present to the living room floor, ponder your coup de grâce no longer. Spring for "The Complete Far Side" by Gary Larson (Andrews McMeel, $135). Yes, the investment is considerable, but you can be sure that this gift will suck up everyone's attention like a black hole. The two-volume hardcover set contains every single "Far Side" cartoon ever syndicated, and weighs as much as the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that comes with a little magnifying glass. The lushness of the production here -- there's a gorgeous full-color slipcase depicting flying cows and bespectacled dweebs -- seems a bit ironic for a comic who attained immortality via crumpled newsprint clippings and Xeroxes tacked to cubicle walls. The collection includes a foreword by Steve Martin and introductions to each year's worth of cartoons by Larson himself. As a delicious garnish, sprinkled throughout are letters of protest from readers exercised about his deplorable depictions of cats, babies and scientists, and a few curiosities from those with sharper wits. (Where else will you learn that Mace doesn't work on dogs?)

The Compleat Aesthete

Visionaire, the high-end fashion and art publication, has devoted its 42nd issue to Scent, pairing fashionistas like Karl Lagerfeld and Mario Testino with the world's top parfumiers in an attempt to create a luxury, sensory experience. Encased in pillowy white leather, one side of the "book" contains a numbered collection of photographs, the other holds corresponding vials of perfume, along with handy sampling tabs. Mario Sorrenti's photograph of a glittering iceberg and its paired scent, for example, are meant to evoke "Cold." I thought it evoked "vanilla latte." But to capture "Drunk," Gus Van Sant's photo of a young man in a black wife-beater with a wily gleam in his eye is matched with a pungent, acidy citrus. Our small Salon focus group found the combination perfect. A more demanding reader (that is, a reader) may enjoy Chandler Burr's excellent "The Emperor of Scent," about scientist Luca Turin, and then use Visionaire's Scent to contemplate Turin's controversial "vibrational" theory of how we smell. Or, you could throw your own Scent party, and see if anyone agrees with the olfactory depiction of "Broken Glass" or "Hunger." Just keep a window open.

The Postmodern Propaganda Buff

Few Westerners have managed to visit Kim Jong Il's Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and they all return with the same spooky reports. "The Last Paradise," by Nicolas Righetti (Umbrage Editions, $35), represents the photographer's effort to re-create this experience, and the frustration, after four trips, of his own desire to see the "real" North Korea. Here are the luridly joyous socialist realist murals, the robotic guides, the Vegas-goes-East interior décor, the snazzily uniformed young women directing nonexistent traffic, the ubiquitous glowing portraits of "our dear, beloved leaders" Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung. Ultimately, writes Righetti, he decided to artistically embrace the "artificial happiness" of the place. A weird, post-apocalyptic emptiness pervades these images -- except for a few lone, government-approved figures, Koreans can be seen only from a distance as they perform in elaborate patriotic pageants. A delirious dispatch from the last, best outpost of Big Brother, Stalin-style, "The Last Paradise" is designed in candy-acid greens and oranges, a perfect match for the tightly controlled hysteria that inspired it, and a trendy ornament for a minimalist coffee table.

The Former Future Astronaut of America

Those mourning the fading away of the U.S. space program -- and who aren't rich enough to fund a private version, as Jeff Bezos is doing -- will find solace in "The Moons of Jupiter" by Kristin Leutwyler (W.W. Norton, $39.95). The images, compiled from the Voyager, Cassini and Galileo missions, as well as the Hubble Telescope, have an austere, awesome beauty that meets the original definition of the sublime: a mixture of terror and rapture. There's a close-up of Jupiter's famous Red Spot, actually a storm on the surface of the all-gas planet, a chrysanthemum-like mass of pink clouds twice as big as the earth. Jupiter and its moons (eight regular ones and 60 "irregulars") make up two-thirds of the mass of all the solar system's planets, and the moon Io sports fountains of blazing lava five times the height of the Eiffel Tower. Each of the moons depicted here has a very different face, from the pitted-bronze sheen of Io to the silvery craters of Callisto to the opalescent marbled patterns of Ganymede. The rice-paper-like web of ice covering mysterious Europa is thought to hide a vast sea, the likeliest place in the solar system to contain extraterrestrial life.

The Do-It-Yourselfer With Big Dreams

The kind of person who can't encounter a legendary work of architecture without thinking "How did they do that?" will thrill to the latest from the award-bedizened David Macaulay, "Mosque" (Houghton Mifflin, $18). It's a mini-tutorial on ingenious artisanal methods for erecting massive domes, stained-glass windows, courtyard fountains and elegant minarets, plus a concise lesson on the role mosques play in traditional Muslim society. The story of a fictional 16th century structure in the Ottoman Empire, the book describes the building not just of a place of worship, but of its attendant facilities, which provided food and education to the local poor. Islam's doctrine of charity and Ottoman restrictions on inheritance made the creation of such foundations a common practice for wealthy men, like the fictional admiral who funds Macaulay's example. The architect, however, is a real historical figure, Sinan, the Christopher Wren of the Ottoman Empire.

The Frazzled Nature Lover

The natural world may provide a tranquil, meditative retreat from the modern world, but most nature writing these days is anxiety-inducing, filled with dire, if valid, warnings that all this bucolic splendor is doomed. Not exactly a recipe for holiday cheer, especially for a recipient already running herself ragged. Easier on the mood is Thomas Pakenham's "Remarkable Trees of the World" (W.W. Norton, $27.95). It's a photo album of plants so big, old and idiosyncratic that some of them have their own names -- from General Sherman, a sequoia that's the world's largest tree, to the Raven Oak in Scotland, once a shrine to the Norse god Wotan. Some of these specimens have had a long and interesting relationship with humanity, such as hollow baobabs that have been used as bars and prison cells, and a wide spreading lime in Bavaria that once supported musicians in its lower limbs while dancers frolicked below. Although California sports both the largest and the oldest trees (the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, clocking in at 4,000 years), the most fantastic are surely the baobabs of Madagascar, with their stout, smooth trunks and smallish topknots of branches. The photographs are stunning, and as long as no one thinks about what they're printed on, almost as soothing as the real thing.

Assorted Hardcore Tolkien Geeks

The Tolkien-related titles just keep on coming, tailored to every microdemographic of fandom. While the intellectual type may savor the all-text "Tolkien and the Great War," by John Garth (Houghton Mifflin, $26), if you want something more visual, there are plenty of alternatives. Thirteen-year-old boys, for example, seem the ideal readership for "The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare," by Chris Smith (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95), an in-depth examination of the military aspects of both Tolkien's books and Peter Jackson's films. It has close-up photos of everyone's armor and weapons (painstakingly designed and manufactured by the film crew's craft divisions) and is generally presented as if it were all entirely real -- history, fighting techniques and the details of famous battles. For the less martially inclined, there's "The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-Earth," (Houghton Mifflin, $29.95) by John Howe (an illustrator whose work strongly influenced Jackson's vision for the films) and Brian Sibley, who contributes the text, including a helpful elucidation of Beleriand, a landmass that fell into the sea centuries before the action of "The Lord of the Rings" begins. (I told you this was hardcore.) The four full-color maps are pretty and suitable for tacking to a dorm room wall, if you don't want to be held responsible for the chilling effect on the resident's sex life.

He Who Already Has Enough Ties (aka Dad)

Studies show that interest in the Civil War occurs in as many as 80 percent of gentlemen of a certain age. Well ... maybe not studies, but personal observation, sure. If your father (or grandpa, or uncle) is only mildly interested in the War Between the States, he'll probably still find the most celebrated one-volume history of the conflict an appealing prospect. And even if he's already read it, the new "Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson (Oxford, $65), has been jazzed up with over 700 illustrations, each captioned by McPherson, one of our greatest living historians. "Battle Cry" became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for good reason. It's a dramatic, epic look at a pivotal period in American history that takes in not just generals and politicians but figures like Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown. The new illustrations include battle diagrams, cartoons, propaganda, handbills and sentimental genre paintings as well as photographs. More depth than the Ken Burns documentary and no harmonica music, either.

The Political Pessimist

You can confirm this loved one's impression that we're currently suffering a decline in the quality of presidential oratory and offer a dollop of inspiration at the same time. "My Fellow Americans," by former White House speechwriter Michael Waldman (SourceBooks, $45), collects the texts of notable speeches by 18 U.S. presidents and comes with two audio CDs. (Actors read the speeches that were delivered before audio recording, and there are clips of every president's voice ever recorded, since Benjamin Harrison in 1889.) Along with the rousing classics -- Lincoln's Inaugural and Gettysburg Addresses, Kennedy's Inaugural, FDR's "rendezvous with destiny" speech -- there are some less sparkling but important examples from the likes of Washington, Eisenhower and Wilson. You can't help noticing, though, that the most thrilling among them were delivered decades or more ago. The best presidential speechmakers -- Lincoln, Kennedy, the Roosevelts and even LBJ -- used their words to pull Americans up a notch, to encourage us to do great things. After Watergate, presidential speeches became a form of head-patting, a reassurance that we're pretty darn great just as we are, if the commies and the government would only stop cramping our style. At least the old-school barn-burners can still stir a pulse.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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