Chances are, if your favorite aunt doesn't have a copy of Middlemarch, it's not because she hopes to find a gift-wrapped edition under the tree. The holidays are the quintessential time for giving guilty pleasures books so luxe that only the most hedonistic of us would buy them for ourselves. Still, many of our favorites are well worth the price: Consider the comfort they'd offer on a snowy winter's day.
AFRICA Herb Ritts (Bulfinch Press, $75) Is it Africa, or a series of Benetton ads? The brutal photos of this land's stark images are so compelling you'll forget the question after the first picture.
THE ART BOOK (Phaidon, $35) This luscious primer largely dispenses with the text and concentrates on the work. Each of the 500 artists from Michelangelo to Mondrian is given a full page on which an example from his oeuvre is sharply reprinted; the few descriptive paragraphs do nothing to distract from the art itself.
BETWEEN THE SEXES Elliot Erwitt (W.W. Norton, $29.95) Erwitt's black-and-white photographs of people young and old, clothed and in all their natural glory, are among the most tender of testaments that men and women do indeed make strange bedfellows.
BLUE DOG George Rodrigue and Lawrence S. Freundlich (Viking Studio, $45) Re-creating the image of his beloved dog as a blue mutt in odd settings, artist Rodrigue makes his grief at his pet's passing both poignant and celebratory.
THE BODY: PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE HUMAN FORM Edited by William A. Ewing (Chronicle, $29.95) A paean to human physiques, this collection of photographs runs from the reverent (Mapplethorpe, Horst, and Weston) to the revolting (images of crucifixion, starvation, and elephantiasis). What all the images have in common is their riveting power.
BRAHAUS Samuele Mazza (Chronicle, $16.95) The only obscene thing about the 200 bras pictured here is the lust you will feel to own one (even if you're not a woman or a cross-dresser). These pieces of apparel have nothing to do with wearability and everything to do with sculpture.
DAN FRIEDMAN: RADICAL MODERNISM (Yale University Press, $65) For your too- cool, on-the-cutting-edge friends, a gift of striking works (posters, collages, etc.) that is so obtuse it will take even them a few hours to figure out (it's worth the time).
TONI FRISELL: PHOTOGRAPHS 1933-1967 Introduction by George Plimpton, foreword by Sidney Frissell Stafford (Doubleday, $50)Photographers from Bruce Weber to Annie Leibovitz owe much to this artist. The first to work with fashion models outside the studio, Frissell also captured images of privileged socialites and victims of World War II with an acuity that is nothing less than haunting.
MEDITERRANIAN: THE BEAUTIFUL COOKBOOK Joyce Goldstein (Collins, $45) It's hard to imagine the chef who would (heaven forbid) risk dropping food on this jewel of a book. Yes, yes, the recipes are wonderful, but the photographs of Mediterranean scenery make this just as appetizing for the armchair traveler as for the intrepid gourmet.