Best Books For Holiday Gifts

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New York Times book critic Janet Maslin discusses some of the best books to give as gifts this season. She touches on everything from Elvis to Ellis Island.

By the time something or someone is ready to be preserved in a gift book, three things are probably true: it's great-looking, it's haunting and it's gone. That's why it's worth immortalizing, even if immortality comes in wildly different forms. The high-end version can be found this season in "About Alice," Calvin Trillin's account of his late wife's strength, backbone and terrific flair. It's a lovely and touching tribute to her memory.

Then there's the other end of the immortality spectrum — the place where you'll find a pop-up picture book about Graceland. All the kitschy details of Elvis' life are preserved: from the Jungle Room to the pink Cadillac, from Elvis' list of unhealthy groceries to — and this is not unrelated — a pop-up facsimile of Elvis' grave.

Why a Graceland pop-up? Why not? Anything goes at this time of year, especially if it's got a brand name and a sneaky sense of humor. The world of satire has its standard immortals, and the cartoon pantheon has expanded to include Roz Chast's cranky, satirical sketches, which are collected in "Theories of Everything."

Chast's jokes are part of an old guard New Yorker tradition. But now we also have a New Old Guard of satirical humor. "Spy: The Funny Years" preserves the quaint eighties, when Spy Magazine held sway and irony was its stock in trade. But Spy's cutting edge is unwittingly dated, while today's smartest humor is deliberately old-fashioned — as "Schott's Almanac 2007" makes clear with its zany new spin on a traditional format.

The really traditional gift books are more ravishing than clever. Their ingenuity may come from finding exotic forms of beauty, but their main emphasis is on razzle-dazzle. This year's scenic showstopper is "America's Parks," which captures the color and variety of glorious natural settings. These books' panoramas are amazingly voluptuous though it actually isn't hard to make Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah look pretty. And although gorgeous flowers are another picture-book staple, the watercolors reproduced in "Florilegium Imperiale" — botanical illustrations made for Francis I of Austria — are especially stunning.

Extravagant as he may have been, Francis I couldn't hold a candle to the spendthrifts of the British Raj. "Made for Maharajahs" is a catalog of commercial wonders that were crafted by famous European firms for Indian royalty. To say that no expense was spared is to put it mildly.

Although there's great fascination to such wild excesses, humility can be every bit as memorably packaged. "House of Worship" presents wildly varied architectural views of American religion, from church to temple to tabernacle. "Ellis Island" is a poetic evocation of both deprivation and promise. Its echoes are devastating: this book's photograph of a deserted measles ward for immigrants is as indelible as pictures of the maharajahs' treasures.

A few words about books without pictures, for the thriller reader whose idea of a good time is not a book you can't lift but a book you can't put down. Carol O'Connell's "Find Me" is the ninth book in a series that's been under the radar and deserves to be discovered. The cover looks generic. The story is not.

Meanwhile, the first page-turner of 2007 is a debut novel called "The Blade Itself," by Marcus Sakey. He tells a tight, suspenseful story of friends' star-crossed destinies. Here's a new author off to a strong start. Immortality starts that way.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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