Every year at this time, in the name of compiling this gift guide, I put family and friends around an imaginary table and match them up with books. Boeing engineer? Check. Bird lover? Double check. Bibliophile, book collector, Civil War history nut? Check, check and check again. Nephew who wants to move to Portland? Jackpot!
This year I sorted them by price. I didn’t include the more expensive books unless I thought they were really worth it – I have my late mother’s eye for a bargain. Hope you can find something for yourself, a loved one or a friend.
$25 and under
“The Power of Trees,” by Gretchen C. Daily & Charles Katz Jr. (Trinity University Press, $10.95). This compact book has a powerful message – just how integral trees are to the world’s biological systems. The understated black and white photographs by Charles Katz Jr. were taken on a walk along the Skagit River. Gretchen C. Daily is a professor of environmental science at Stanford.
“Portlandia: A Guide for Visitors,” by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein(Grand Central Publishing, $16.99). A guffaw-inducing spin-off the hilarious television series, the perfect gift for anyone from Portland, living in Portland or thinking about moving to Portland. Think again!
“My Ideal Bookshelf,” art by Jane Mount, edited by Thessaly La Force (Little, Brown, $24.99). A delightful collection of essays by all kinds of writers – Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Stephenie Meyer, Patti Smith – about the most cherished and influential books on their shelves, each accompanied by a whimsical drawing by Mount. It’s like popping into your favorite author’s library and perusing the shelves.
$50 and under
“A Washington Irving Treasury: Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Old Christmas,” by Washington Irving(Universe, $34.95). For the book collector: A slipcased set of three beautiful facsimile reproductions of stories by Irving, one of America’s earliest popular writers. The illustrations (by Arthur Rackham for “Rip Van Winkle,” N.C. Wyeth for “Sleepy Hollow” and R. Caldicott for “Old Christmas”) are charming ... and scary.
“Custer,” by Larry McMurtry(Simon & Schuster, $35). This lavishly illustrated volume is the “Lonesome Dove” author’s testament to a lifelong preoccupation – George Armstrong Custer. McMurtry’s narrative is spare; the images largely tell the story, from the posters Anheuser-Busch once hung in every saloon, glorifying the slaughter at the Battle of Little Big Horn, to the fine-lined drawings Indian artists made commemorating their own versions of the event. The bizarre aftermath of the battle – Buffalo Bill Cody’s re-enactment of the slaughter in his Wild West show, complete with Indians playing themselves – is not neglected.
“Engineers: From the Great Pyramids to the Pioneers of Space Travel,” edited by Adam Hart-Davis (DK Publishing, $40). There are a lot of engineers in the world, but how many groundbreaking engineers can you name? How about Joseph Bazalgette, the pioneering creator of the modern sewage network, the man who helped clean up the Thames? You laugh, but imagine life without him. This book, a handsomely designed reference tome that chronicles the history of engineering, famous engineers and their creations, will serve as a fine gift for a current, aspiring or retired practitioner of the profession.
“America’s Other Audubon,” by Joy M. Kiser (Princeton Architectural Press, $45). This beautiful volume tells a tragic story – of Genevieve Jones, an amateur Ohio naturalist determined to create a reference work by creating images (through lithography and painting) of the nests and eggs that John James Audubon often left out of his paintings. After completing five, she died suddenly in 1879 of typhoid fever, but her family pressed on and published the work – only 90 copies. Author Joy M. Kiser, now a federal librarian, resurrected Jones’ story through this book. The paintings – mostly of nests and eggs, not birds – are delicate and exquisite.
“Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library,” edited by Tom Baione (Sterling, $50). A treasure trove. This boxed set includes a book of 40 essays by experts in the natural-history field, each about a rare illustrated tome. Richard Ellis kicks things off with an essay on the 16th century’s Historia animalium by Conrade Gessner, considered the beginning of modern zoology. Interesting stuff, but the icing on the cake is the 40 high-quality, frameable prints that reproduce some of the best art; you could decorate your entire house with them, then switch them all out in six months.
“The Scottish Country House,” by James Knox, photographs by James Fennell (Vendome, $50). If you like magnificent old houses, this is the book for you. Beautifully weathered interiors and exteriors of noble piles that have been sheltering Scottish lairds and their descendants for centuries. With names like Balcaskie, Drumlanrig and Dumfries House, the rain-drenched sky vaulting above the turrets, the current owners’ descendants scowling down from the portrait gallery ... I had the weirdest urge to down a wee dram of whiskey while admiring this book.
“Civil War Sketch Book: Drawings from the Battlefront,” by Harry L. Katz and Vincent Virga, preface by Alan Brinkley (Norton, $50). The reporter-artists who drew illustrations for the Civil War era’s newspapers are some of the unsung heroes of the conflict. This book ably showcases the work of these journalists, who kept going during under horrifying conditions. They produced unforgettable images of war, death and camp life, though their newspaper editors sometimes sanitized the images, deeming them too graphic for their readership.
$75 and under
“The Civil War and American Art,” by Eleanor Jones Harvey (Yale University Press/Smithsonian American Art Museum $60). A handsome volume, based on a current exhibit at the Smithsonian and an upcoming one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Text and images show how the war worked its way into the art of the time – in a generalized fear of its onset, visible in many prewar landscapes; to stark photographs of battlefield carnage; to propagandistic images designed to move the viewer to the artist’s side in the conflict.
“More Than Human,” by Tim Flach (Abrams, $65). Flach is the photographer who produced the beautiful photos in “Equus” and “Dogs.” Now he takes the entire animal kingdom as his subjects – from sea horses to pandas, from the parent-child love of chimpanzees to the grotesquerie of a rooster bred to be featherless, these photos will delight, disturb and make you reconsider your relationship with animals.
“American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s,” edited by Gary K. Wolfe (Library of America, $70). This two-book set is slipcased and produced in trademark Library of America style (high-quality paper, a ribbon to keep your place). It features nine “outsider” novels in American science fiction’s coming of age period of the 1950s. Works by Richard Matheson (“The Shrinking Man”), Robert A. Heinlein (“Double Star”) and Fritz Lieber (“The Big Time”), among others – the otherworldly jacket art beautifully recalls an era when these authors kept busy blowing our minds.
$185 and under
“Monumental Venice,” by Jacques Boulay (Vendome, $150). This eye-popping, back-straining creation is the latest work of photographer Boulay (“Monumental Paris”), whose panoramic, crystal-clear photos showcase Venice in its beauty and in its decay. A foot and a half long by a foot wide, with numerous single and double gatefolds, the word “monumental” is no overstatement. Since the city is slowly sinking into the sea, this book may someday serve as documentary preservation.
“A Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts,” by Christian Heck and Remy Cordonnier ($185/$135 through Dec. 31, 2012). Every year I try to reserve the adjective “stunning” for one book. This is it. This 620-page, slipcased volume (587 illustrations) features medieval illuminated manuscripts and illustrations devoted to 100 different animals — many real, some not. One thinks of the time spent laboring over these one-of-a kind creations and feels something like awe at their creator’s persistence and inventiveness.