I wish I had a bigger coffee table! This year's crop of coffee table books is full of color and information I wish was already in my brain. Impress a friend or relative or add one to your own wish list.
(Too nice for the) children's books
600 Black Spots by David A. Carter (Little Simon, $19.99, 20 pages). Carter, author of "One Red Dot" and "Blue 2," has created eye-popping sculpture and combined it with a scavenger hunt (how many dots can you count?). You can leave this book open on your table to wow people (only if you don't have small children or dogs). Rewarding from many angles.
How Many: Spectacular Paper Sculptures by Ron Van Der Meer (Robin Corey Books, $24.99, 12 pages). Suitable for attended or older children -- nice challenges in counting the number of shapes in each pop-up sculpture.
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Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy by Matthew Reinhart (Orchard Books, $32.99, 6 pages) A fie on those who would let the grubby-handed masses handle Matthew Reinhart's 3-D love letter to the Star Wars universe. The lovingly crafted book is an encapsulated look at the Lucas epic with more nods toward the classic series than the regrettable prequels. A full page spread of the "Millieum Falcon," and Mos Eisley cantina are stunning. The price of admission is worth it for the final Darth Vader page. Kids, lookie no touchie.
The Annotated Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Norton, $35, 384 pages). This heavily annotated book is best given to a grown-up who loved the book as a child. Each page has notes, some equivalent in length to the actual text, which would seem to be a distraction for a first read of the story. It's lovely, but best as a collectible.
The Kite Runner, Illustrated Edition by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Books, $29.95, 352 pages). Photos of Afghan people, in color and black and white illuminate a handsome hardcover text.
Life of Pi, Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel, illustrated by Tomislav Torjanac (Harcourt, $29.95, 315 pages). Illustrated by Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanic, selected from an international competition. A fine gift for anyone who hasn't read this winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize -- or for someone who read and loved it.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsy (Knopf, $37, 1,125 pages plus epilogue, appendix, notes and historical index). In case you never did get around to finishing "War and Peace," you can begin anew with a translation that has been called "brilliant, engaging and eminently readable."
America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the '60s by Laban Carrick Hill (Little Brown, $19.99, 165 pages). This is pitched as a young adult book (12 and up), a history book chronicling the decade from Wonder bread to wonder drudges. No Wonder Bra, but plenty of burned bras, as it covers women's rights and civil rights, as well as meanies and merry pranksters. It's vivid, radical and punchy and will leave you to explain "tubal ligation."
Jimi Hendrix: An Illustrated Experience by Janie L. Hendrix and John McDermott (Atria, $45, 64 pages). A nice companion to the above book, this slipcased interactive text -- with envelopes of reproduction postcards and photos -- would be groovy to look at while listening to the 70-minute audio CD.
The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf, $50, 480 pages). A companion to the PBS series, this book unfolds history through images and words, creating a compelling narrative that crosses oceans, meticulously creating a portrait of war with pixels of individual lives.
Time America: An Illustrated History (Time Books, $39.95, 266 pages). An overview of American History with photos, drawings, post cards and a bit of writing. Squishing all of America's history into so few pages teases the reader. World War II, for instance, is covered in eight pages.
1776: The Illustrated Edition by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, $65, 256 pages) This handsome slipcased version includes an excerpt from the original as well as numerous drawings and illustrations. The text is interleaved with envelopes containing reproductions of handwritten letters and documents.
100 Days in Photographs: Pivotal Events that Changed the World by Nick Yapp (National Geographic, $35, 320 pages). This collection is a testament to the power of photography to evoke a single, pivotal moment in history. With notes on each event itself and how the image was captured.
Doo Wop: The Music, the Times, the Era by "Cousin Brucie" Morrow (Sterling, $24.95, 352 pages). Put the Drifters on the turntable and heat up a TV dinner, then tuck into this retro romp through the land of finned cars and Beach Blanket Bingo.
Science & Nature
Cool Stuff 2.0 and How It Works (DK, $24.99, 256 pages). For antsy guests cooling their heels in your parlor comes a book full of quick-hit summaries of how stuff -- high-tech toilet, floating bed, HDTV -- works. As a bonus, it provides cocktail chatter for later. Those with truly short attention spans can just pick up the book and flip the 3D cover back and forth.
The New Encyclopedia of Snakes by Chris Mattison (Princeton University Press, $35, 272 pages). Not for the ophiophobic, this text -- with its incredible close-ups of iridescent scales and vertical-slit eyes and gaping pink-lined jaws -- details the where, why and how of snakes' lives.
Barn Building by Jon Radojkovic (Firefly, $35, 192 pages). A thorough study of the barns of North America, arranged by style, with photographs of whole barns and details as well as illustrations of construction techniques.
Body: The Complete Human (National Geographic, $40, 416 pages). A thorough analysis of the workings of the human body, from initial cell division and development through aging, with chapters on each of the body's major systems. Tastefully illustrated with photographs and graphics, it is suitable for the whole family, even those given to the vapors at the mere mention of bodily fluids.
The Knowledge Book: Everything You Need to Know to Get By in the 21st Century (National Geographic, $35, 512 pages). A little bit about a lot of things, arranged in categories: The Blue Planet, Discoveries and Inventions, Social Life, Mind and Soul, The Arts and Modern Life. Somebody's bound to learn something from it.
Bird: The Definitive Guide by Audubon (DK, $50, 512 pages). The birder on your list will be thrilled with the exhaustive consideration of birds, including notes on the best bird-watching sites. Includes a audio CD of bird songs.
Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Trips (National Geographic, $40, 400 pages). With its gorgeous photos -- which run a bit smaller than in the magazine -- this is tidier than having a pile of travel brochures and provides an easier way to navigate dream spots than the Web -- but with 500 journeys covered in these pages, you'll want to go to the Internet for details.
The Great Wall: From Beginning to End by Michael Yamashita and William Lindesay (Sterling, $29.95, 176 pages). This stunning book, the product of a yearlong exploration, is something of a journal in words and gorgeous pictures by National Geographic photographer Yamashita, detailing the wall itself as well as the landscape and the people who live near the wall.
China: People, Place, Culture, History (DK, $40. 360 pages). Sheathed in silk, this gorgeous book draws on fine details and broad strokes. For instance, eight pages are devoted to the life of Xiao Chen, a schoolchild being raised by grandparents in the village of Shaanxi. A medley of art, thoughtfully laid out, helps shape the information.
Inside China (National Geographic, $50, 272 pages). Filled with 193 images of China taken over a century. The pictures are big and glossy, the text minimal.
America the Beautiful (Life, $29.95, 144 pages). Gorgeous images of America's national parks, from sea to shining sea.
The Silver Screen
Marilyn Monroe: Platinum Fox by Cindy De La Hoz (Running Press, $29.95, 264 pages). Pictures, pictures, pictures and some words trace Marilyn's relationship with 20th Century Fox.
Lucy at the Movies by Cindy De La Hoz (Running Press, $29.95, 368 pages). Lucille Ball's life on television is well-documented -- her life in movies not so much, until now. Stuffed with glamor-girl poses, this book covers her performances from 1933 to 1985, arranged as The Chorus Line and Small Roles, RKO's Queens of the B's and MGM and Beyond
James Bond Encyclopedia by John Cork and Collin Stutz (DK, $40, 320 pages). An exhaustive look at Agent 007's world, from entries on all the actors who played him, to villains, Bond women, weapons, vehicles and details on the movies themselves.
Reef by ScubaZoo (DK, $40, 360 pages). This gorgeous, hefty book, compiled by a diving group based in Malaysia, has full-color images of fish, coral and other reef life. A fine gift, too, for artists seeking inspirations for color and design -- the purple and brown mushroom coral on pages 78-79 divines images of a brilliant quilt. And if the gorgeous full-color pages aren't enough, there's a DVD with additional images.
American Waters by Alex Kirkbride (David & Charles, $30, 192 pages). This collection of underwater pictures from across America include dolphins and coral as well as abandoned tires and the new life that teems around old wreckages. North Carolina shots were taken around wrecks of the Proteus and Shurz offshore.
H2O by Howard Schatz (Bulfinch Press, $60, 176 pages). A sensuous collection of images of the human form -- mostly women, mostly nude -- underwater. Water allows for a graceful fluidity not mastered even by the most graceful ballerina. Although it includes an alphabet-ary, it's for a kid-free living room -- the letters are shaped by two nudes.