Here's some math for the holidays: Multiply the weight of a coffee table book by its cover price. Then divide by the number of hours you have left for gift shopping. You arrive at a figure that's getting higher even as we speak, so this is no time to take chances. Safe but show-stopping choices look better and better as the festivities grow near.
Who do you know who wouldn't like pictures of baby penguins? Strike that person from your gift list immediately, and give someone else a copy of "Untamed," a collection of gorgeous, dynamic wildlife photos. These pictures capture not only good looks but also behavior, and they are hugely expressive. You can see the look on one bear's face as another bear catches a fish. Bear #1 is about to find out if Bear #2 is a true, fish-sharing friend.
"The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker" is exactly what it sounds like. And if you wonder how any volume can capture that many cartoons, some of them appear on discs that come with the book. It's a treat to browse, less for the jokes (though many are priceless) than for the changing social climate they reveal. There's an especially changeable view of The New Yorker's favorite patrician types. Incidentally, they make up the ideal readership for "Bordeaux Chateaux," a lavish look at the castles and barrels associated with France's most renowned wines. At $60, the book costs less than the big-name bottles do.
"The Most Beautiful Gardens in the World" is an imaginative, globe-trotting guide to creative greenery. And it's a fine illustration of why beautiful isn't the same thing as pretty. Some are lush with flowers, some are marvels of austerity and precision. And the most famous gardens pictured are by no means the most interesting, in a book that offers a true voyage of discovery.
Art, history, celebrity, biography, beauty and travel are staples of the gift book genre -- and they all come together in "Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings" It's a visual history of Churchill experience, as filtered through his aesthetic eye. And for the uninitiated, he was a much better painter than you can ever imagine.
The best way to obtain one of these books is to hope someone gives it to you. People don't often buy outsized, big-ticket volumes for themselves. Truth be told, they're much more inclined to curl up with a good story and forget the holiday rush entirely. And anyhow, a novel like Michael Crichton's "State of Fear" works much better that way than it does as a gift. Give it to the wrong person and you're liable to have it thrown right back at you.
Thomas Hardy once said that a novel was an impression, not an argument. So Thomas Hardy had no idea of what Michael Crichton could do. This book is a lightning rod, full of controversial opinions about science and politics: The short version of its 600-page adventure story is that it gives environmentalists a sock in the chops. And it's more than fair game for critics who question the author's consistency. For someone who brings on the killer crocs and the cannibals, he can be awfully high-minded about the philosophy of science.
But the dirty little secret about this thriller is that it's tough to put down. The same can be said for Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons," the story of a small-town honor student who loses her honor at a large university. No, 74-year-old Tom Wolfe probably can't second-guess the thoughts of college freshman. And there's something spooky about his having studied the mating habits of fraternity boys. But he remains a wicked social satirist, and his book works as a sharp comedy of manners. If the heroine's undoing sounds like a quaint idea, there's something classic about it too.
Mystery fans can have a fine time deciphering the nuances of "Case Histories," Kate Atkinson's literate and tricky tale of long-hidden crime coming to light. Fans of a different breed will enjoy the inside baseball of "Faithful," Stewart O'Nan's and Stephen King's tribute to the Red Sox and to hope everlasting. And finally, music fans are liable to be surprised by the Bobby Darin mania sparked by Kevin Spacey's sunny new film biography. For the slightly darker look at Darin, hole up for the holidays with "Roman Candle," the latest book about Darin's rollercoaster life. You can give this as a gift, too. But you'd better include a recording of "Mack the Knife."
Happy holiday reading.
THE CHOICES AT A GLANCE:
"Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and His Paintings" (Running Press)
"Bordeaux Chateaux" (Flammarion)
"The Most Beautiful Gardens in the World" (Abrams)
"The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker" (Black Dog and Leventhal)
"I am Charlotte Simmons" by Tom Wolfe (FSG)
"Case Histories" by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)
"Faithful" by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King (Scribner)
"Roman Candle" (Rodale)
"State of Fear" by Michael Crichton