Brighten holidays with lavish books

This year's offerings run gamut from collection of great 1950s science fiction to a volume celebrating a half-century of James Bond

Yes, we live in digital times, but there's still nothing that can top a beautifully produced and illustrated book. Here are some that would make great presents this holiday season.

No, it's not a board game. Open the rectangular box of Chris Ware's "Building Stories" (Pantheon, $50), and you'll find an assemblage of 14 gorgeously illustrated booklets, in different shapes and sizes, all chronicling the lives of the residents of a fictional Chicago apartment building. Ware is the innovative cartoonist behind "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," and there's no correct order in which to read the various contents here. But they do add up to a magnificent, moving whole, and piecing them together is half the fun.

Adrian Tomine's cover of the post-Sandy New Yorker — a man wielding a flashlight and wading through floodwaters to his polling place — is surely one of the iconic images to come out of the superstorm. That illustration wasn't completed in time to get into "New York Drawings" (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95), a collection of the artist's work for the magazine. But what's here — covers, comics, sketches — is in the same quietly poignant vein.

I have a friend who argues that "The Godfather" is the greatest movie ever made. For Christmas she'll be getting a copy of Peter Cowie's "The God father: The Official Motion Picture Archives" (Insight Editions, $45), which includes copious film stills, on-set photos and production back story, plus memorabilia such as pages from the script, internal Paramount memos and cinema posters. My favorite: A journal article by the dentist who created prosthetic teeth for Marlon Brando and did dental work on Al Pacino for the film.

Slim Aarons was famous for his photos of celebrities and members of high society having, as the title of his most famous book put it, "A Wonderful Time." The concept gets an Italian spin in "Slim Aarons: La Dolce Vita" (Abrams, $85) by Christopher Sweet, with lavish color photos of movie stars and a host of principes and princepessas looking glamorous in Rome, Venice, Capri. There's even a cameo by Louis Armstrong, touring Rome in 1948, where he eats spaghetti, rides a Vespa and hugs actress Anna Magnani.

This one's for the sci-fi nerds in your life: "American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s" (Library of America, $70), edited by Gary K. Wolfe, brings together work by Robert A. Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Leigh Brackett and others in a two-volume box set with far-out vintage cover art.

Photographer and blogger Scott Schuman has roamed the world shooting stylish people he encounters, in the Moroccan desert or on the streets of New York, Paris, Milan and elsewhere. "The Sartorialist: Closer" (Penguin, $30) presents a vibrant cross-section of his discoveries.

Has any invention made photography more fun — or more democratic — than the Polaroid instant camera? All the rage in the 1970s, the camera is a relic today, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2001.

New York magazine editor Christopher Bonanos follows the rise and fall in his illustrated volume "Instant: The Story of Polaroid" (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95), a must for shutterbugs.

In 2010, ceramist Edmund de Waal published a remarkable memoir of his wealthy European Jewish family, who were ruined by Hitler's annexation of Vienna in 1938; all that survived of their fortunes was a collection of 264 netsuke, tiny, intricate wood and ivory carvings from Japan, which de Waal inherited from his uncle. This year brings a lovely illustrated edition of "The Hare With Amber Eyes" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40).

We've already had "Hemingway's Boat," Philip Hendrickson's book about one of the writer's great passions. So somebody had to write "To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion" (Perigee, $24), and who better than Philip Greene, one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans? The book explores the role of cocktails in Papa's life and fiction and, yes, it includes drink recipes. Daiquiris, anyone?

Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lonesome Dove," takes on one of the great legendary figures of the American West in "Custer" (Simon & Schuster, $35), a heavily illustrated consideration of the "Boy General" whose demise at Little Big Horn, he writes, "might be understood as an American Passion Play."

Between 1955 and 1960, a photographer named O. Winston Link documented the Norfolk & Western, the last American railroad to run steam engines. "O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line" (Abrams, $40) brings together more than 180 of these nostalgic black-and-white and color images (with a bonus CD of Link's railroad recordings). No train enthusiast should be without a copy.

"Bruce Davidson: Black & White" (Steidl, $345) can't help but elicit a gasp — and no, not just at the price tag. This monumental box set brings together five clothbound volumes of the photographer's classic work: "Circus" (1958), "Brooklyn Gang" (1959), "Time of Change" (1961-1965), "East 100th Street" (1966-1968) and "Central Park" (1992-1995). Davidson affords dignity to every subject, whether a circus dwarf, a Harlem tenement dweller or a Central Park idler.

The hugely successful Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute last year brought the late designer to a whole new level of public recognition. Now Judith Watt pays tribute with "Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy" (Harper Design, $35), an illustrated portrait of the bad boy of English fashion, whose wildly creative and outrageous looks — "bumster" trousers," crystal body armor — wowed the industry.

There are scores of books about James Bond, but Agent 007 turns 50 this year — reason enough for "50 Years of James Bond" (Life Books, $27.95), which trots through the history of the franchise — books, movies, spoofs, etc. — at a brisk pace, with plenty of photos, of course. Also on the scene for half a century — and still at it — are the Rolling Stones. If you can't take your favorite Stones fan to their Barclay's Center show next month, get them "The Rolling Stones 50" (Hyperion, $60), an illustrated history of the band with cheeky running commentary by Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie.


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