Forget a trip to Paris on the Concorde, a string of South Pacific pearls, or tickets to the Super Bowl. The perfect present is a book. You look smart giving one. The person you're giving it to assumes you think he or she's smart, too. And there's little chance you'll make an error, unless you think that the Babes of Southern California calendar counts and give it to your grandmother.
You might not want to give Patrick Demarchelier Photographs to your grandmother, either, in case she's put off by the cover photograph of a naked woman dangling from a tree. But it would be her loss: This is the most beautiful book of the season, from the impossibly gorgeous subjects to Demarchelier's sense of composition and style.
The images range from Edward Weston-inspired nudes to fashion photos. If Demarchelier has a signature, it's that he borrows (with a wink) from familiar images, and then delicately colors them with his wit. Unlike other fashion photographers, Demarchelier's works are filled with the movements of real life. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, arms outstretched toward their daughter, Kathlyn, grin like proud parents everywhere. Are these stars really so happy? Demarchelier would have us believe so, if only for a moment.
Winslow Homer Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. and Franklin Kelly Here's what you do: Buy this collection of the American artist's work for your favorite friend. Then, come to terms with the fact that it's too heavy to lug to his or her house. Guess you'll just have to keep it. Lucky you.
Love, Loss, and What I Wore Written and illustrated by Ilene Beckerman Wondering what to do for that woman in your life who has everything? Introduce her to her soul mate. This surprisingly poetic autobiography by Beckerman, an advertising executive, is punctuated by illustrations of the outfits she wore for the most memorable occasions in her life.
The Sports Photography of Robert Riger Foreword by David Halberstam Riger, a longtime producer-director at ABC's Wide World of Sports, captures the gritty romance of the games he covers: Mud-spattered football players look as though they are returning from the trenches of war; Olympic swimmers compete with the synchronicity of water ballet.
The Art of the New Yorker 1925-1995 Yes, we know you read The New Yorker for the fiction and criticism. And you don't have time to do more than glance at the cartoons. But somewhere in the depths of your literary heart, you'll agree that this book is a bit like a box of bonbons with all but your favorite chocolates removed.
Lincoln David Herbert Donald This definitive biography may well earn the author his third Pulitzer Prize; it will certainly win him and Lincoln a new legion of fans.
Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Essays and analysis by Alan Rich Perfect for weaning a loved one off the Smashing Pumpkins, these slender primers on the composers each include a CD of selected works.
P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt A disturbing and provocative look at the man who defined 19th-century entertainment, Barnum interweaves the familiar photographs of circus ''freaks'' with an insightful biography.
Costumes by Karinska Toni Bentley A reminder of why every little girl wants to be a ballerina. Russian costume designer Barbara Karinska outfitted the ballets of Balanchine for decades. Some of the work is familiar, like The Nutcracker (Look! There's Macaulay Culkin as the Prince!), and some is more obscure, but it's all glorious.
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels John Updike Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest are gathered in this elegant volume perfect for surfing through 30 years of this beloved character's life.
The Secret Language of Birthdays: Personology Profiles for Each Day of the Year Gary Goldschneider and Joost Elffers This party-perfect volume tells you about the state of health, planets, and general well-being associated with your day of birth.
Chronicle of the Cinema: 100 Years of the Movies Foreword by Gene Siskel This lavish encyclopedia crammed with movie posters and stills will do more than save you from those excruciating ''what was it called?'' moments: It will also provide you with a fun read.
Paintings in the Uffizi & Pitti Galleries Mina Gregori Because of a 1993 bomb blast, many of the galleries in the Uffizi were closed for renovation. If these treasures were off-limits on your last trip to Florence, buy this book. It's an intimate 600-plus-page tour inside two of the world's greatest museums.
Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype Merry A. Foresta and John Wood This collection of American photographs, taken between 1839 and 1860, has the silvery tinge of the supernatural, especially when the antique camera records the image of a dead child and even when the subject is as ordinary as a barnyard animal.
High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never Barbara Kingsolver The acclaimed novelist's extraordinary powers of observation and understanding of character serve her beautifully in this collection of essays.
Seven Great Inventions Celia King Add this pop-up book to the seven things we wouldn't want to live without, along with the radio and the microchip. Each gadget's description is followed by a 3-D illustrated rendering in this zippy stocking stuffer.
Landscapes of the Civil War: Newly Discovered Photographs from the Medford Historical Society Edited by Constance Sullivan Even the most avid Civil War buffs won't have seen the images displayed in this collection. More than 95 photos are shown here for the first time.
The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms Christopher Finch This updated version of the 22-year-old classic includes new details about recent films and theme-park developments.
The Most Beautiful Villages in Tuscany James Bentley and Hugh Palmer The quintessential coffee-table gift book, it's a no-brainer for anyone who's ever dreamed of the warmth of Italy on a dark winter night. Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Flatbreads & Flavors Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid Former hitchhikers and closet anthropologists will totally dig this bohemian globe-trot in search of 6,000-year-old loaf recipes.
One Pot Cakes Andrew Schloss, with Ken Bookman Give this to the cake-mix king or queen on your list. They'll get yummy recipes for made-from-scratch cakes that can be whipped up without dirtying a single mixing bowl.
How to Bake Nick Malgieri The author lays all his flour out on the kitchen table, writing the most accessible book yet on this subject. The recipes and techniques build in difficulty the same as in real life. Kerri Conan
The Comic Strip Century Bill Blackbeard and Dale Crain Jumping the centennial just a bit (R.F. Outcault's seminal The Yellow Kid didn't appear until 1896), this two-volume boxed set is still a marvelous wallow in the profound (Krazy Kat), the breathtaking (Tarzan), and the just plain strange (Mr. Twee Deedle). Skip the stuffy intro, and ignore the fact that the collection skimps on the last 20 years. Just give this to your favorite Calvin and Hobbes fans and watch them gorge on history.
Betty Boop's Sunday Best Edited by Bill Blackbeard Betty Boop was nothing if not animated, and this complete collection of Sunday comics (1934-36) lacks the jazz-baby surreality of the cartoon shorts that boop-ooop-a-dooped Betty to fame. Still, this is mighty engaging as tie-ins go, following our heroine as she negotiates the film industry with an aplomb Sharon Stone might envy. Ty Burr
Richard North Patterson
While there seem to be far more law school alumni than graduates of the nation's creative-writing programs churning out novels these days, rare indeed is the fiction-writing attorney who improves with experience. Almost any fan of courtroom thrillers can name several authors whose first novels are far and away their best. Why? Perhaps it's because good fiction ultimately depends on intriguing characters more than ingenious plotting. In any event, Richard North Patterson, whose seventh novel, The Final Judgment, is due in December, is a happy exception to the rule. Not that his tales lack suspense. If anything, the twists and turns in Patterson's last book, Eyes of a Child, tended to be a bit dizzying. But what elevates the former trial lawyer's novels above the pack is his vividly nuanced characters. Judgment sends Caroline Masters, the patrician judge who has played a role in Patterson's last two novels, home to New England to confront both a politically charged murder case and a long-buried family secret. Quite a trip. Gene Lyons