This time of year, you can't walk into a bookstore without tripping over displays of big "gift books," otherwise known as "coffee table books." This year's sour economy seems to have produced a smaller crop of gift books than the glut we saw in 2007. Luckily, that means the usual "pretty doorstops" — think kittens, roses, Tuscany and Provence — are fewer and farther between.
As the angel in the Christmas story said, fear not, for we are here to help you in your gift book shopping. Here, then, is a selection of books we found particularly creative or interesting, most of them new this year. While choosing, we kept one particular criterion in mind: The books couldn't just be beautiful dust collectors -- they had to be actually worth reading.
• India by Abraham Eraly & Yasmin Khan (DK Publishing, 376 pages, $40). An appropriately lush, intelligent look at one of the world's most richly diverse, complex countries. India's gorgeous, revelatory photography dazzles the eye and captures the intense visual banquet of the Asian subcontinent's emerging world power. The book's concise, smartly narrated text offers a winning overview of the culture and history of this amazing nation, home to over a billion people.
• With Strings Attached: The Art and Beauty of Vintage Guitars by Jonathan Kellerman (Ballantine Books, 368 pages, $75). A beautiful book of loving photographs and insightful mini-essays about that most ubiquitous of modern instruments, the guitar. Kellerman, a famous mystery writer, gives readers an intimate tour through his personal collection of over 120 vintage guitars, complete with great stories of the artisans who made them and the musicians who made them sing.
• The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008 (Black Dog & Leventhal, 456 pages, w/ 3 DVDs, $60). All the front pages from America's newspaper of record are at your fingertips in this cutting-edge package. Over 300 significant NYT front pages are reproduced, with 10 foldouts displaying 20 critical front pages at full size. Three DVDs include all the 54,000-plus front pages from the paper's past 157 years, all searchable and very user-friendly, with links to all the front pages' stories. In addition, various NYT writers provide 17 essays on pivotal moments in American history. For the serious news hound or history junkie on your list, you can't do better than this.
• Wine by Andre Domine (Ullmann, 928 pages, $49.95). Winos, unite! Buy this book, and your giftee will be the most savvy person on his or her block when it comes to the fruit of the vine. This is a terrific, generously illustrated intro to the full world of wine: histories, regions and countries' specialties, growing the stuff, producing it, choosing, serving, tasting, and storing it, you name it. If you've looked for an encyclopedic tome on wine but didn't want to pay an exorbitant price, you can't go wrong here.
• Marvel Chronicle by Brevoort, DeFalco, Sanderson & Manning (DK Adult, 352 pages, $50). Marvel Comics, the folks who yanked comic books out of the dull, comics code-sapped 1950s, are lionized in this massive work. Every hero, every villain -- they're all here, chronologically arranged, in a visually explosive celebration of Marvel's 70-year history. Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America -- everything you could possibly want to know about them, as well as literally hundreds of others. A comics fan's dream.
• LANA: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies by Cheryl Crane & Cindy De La Hoz (Running Press, 400 pages, $35). There was only one Lana Turner: Famously discovered in a soda shop, she became a sensual 1940s Hollywood box office queen, married seven times, and had an affair with mobster Johnny Stompanato that ended when Turner's daughter, protecting Mom from Johnny's violence, stabbed the hoodlum to death. Needless to say, the resulting murder trial was a sensation. Turner's daughter, by the way, was Cheryl Crane, the co-author of this book, which ranks as one of the most gorgeous, and splendidly organized, books on a Hollywood personality we've seen.
• Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell, Jay Mazzocchi (The University of North Carolina Press, 1,328 pages, $65). From barbecue and the Biltmore House, through Cheerwine and clogging, to mining, scuppernongs and beyond, this is the one book to buy for anyone who's dying to know everything there is to know about our state. Powell, professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill, took 15 years to compile the more than 2,000 signed entries by over 600 contributors, and provides the best browsing about our area since the 1989 publication of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
• Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas edited by Ann Wicker (Novello Festival Press, 260 pages, $22.95). Not a coffee table book per se, but still a gorgeous, well-presented book that any music fiend would love to get. Edited by Ann Wicker, a former Creative Loafing Associate Editor, Making Notes includes articles, stories, essays, and memoirs about music and musicians who've come from -- or simply influenced people in -- the Carolinas. (Full disclosure: An essay by yours truly appears in this book.)