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From mountain climbing to art masterpieces, these books are a thrill

All too often, when people give coffee-table books as holiday gifts, their thinking goes something like this: Aunt Maude knits, and we don't know what to get her, so let's give her a nice picture book on knitting. Never mind that Aunt Maude only knits to stave off boredom at family gatherings while daydreaming about trekking in Nepal.

This year, there are all sorts of fascinating coffee-table books that would even wake Aunt Maude from her knitting stupor. First off, how about something to stimulate her sense of adventure, say A History of Mountain Climbing (Flammarion, $65) by French climber Roger Frison-Roche. It's full of pictures of people who look as if they have just spent 12 days in an icebox, as well as astonishing examples of the lengths to which men and women will go to find excitement. (The earliest entry in a timeline history of climbing is 633, when a Japanese monk made the first recorded ascent of Mount Fuji.) In a similar vein is Northwest Passage (Aperture, $45), a chronicle by photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum of his 23-day journey by ship from Alaska to Greenland. The shots taken from a helicopter of Arctic land- and seascapes are awesome.

Given the tightfisted tenor of our times, I'm always surprised by the high quality of many corporate art collections. This year's revelation is American Images: The SBC Collection of Twentieth-Century American Art (Abrams, $49.50). The San Antonio Baby Bell has some marvelous works, ranging from paintings by Marsden Hartley and Guy Pne du Bois to photos by Alfred Stieglitz and Moveable Blue, a stunning 1973 painting by Helen Frankenthaler.

RED, HOT & BLUE. Museum shows produced some good books, too. Consider, for instance, Degas: Beyond Impressionism (National Gallery Publications, $50), which details the works of the artist's late years on exhibit through Jan. 5, 1997, at the Art Institute of Chicago. The numerous bathers in pastel are wonderful, but the landscapes and a couple of large portraits--notably Pagans and Degas' Father, owned by Boston money manager Scott M. Black--steal the show. Another good bet is Corot (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, $60), a collection of the works of the 19th century painter whom Monet called ''the Impressionists' only master.'' Corot was not only a master of landscape painting but a marvelous portraitist. The works in the book are on exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art until Jan. 19.

If you know anyone who's into musicals, take a look at Red, Hot & Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the American Musical (Smithsonian Institution Press, $39.95), a lovely book that contains few surprises but plenty of heart-warming nostalgia. It's out in conjunction with a show running through next July 6 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Call me a lightweight, but I'm a sucker for the illustrated popular reference books put out by DK Publishing. Chronicle of the World: The Ultimate Record of World History (DK, $59.95) is a classic of the genre: short, punchy, news-style ''articles'' about key events back in prehistory (Dateline: Europe, 120,000-80,000 B.C., ''Neanderthals are in the Ascendant''). Another cool one is The Look of the Century (DK, $39.95), a study of 20th century design. If nothing else, it reminds you that modern humanoids have truly bizarre tastes. Cases in point: architect Frank Gehry's Little Beaver laminated cardboard armchair, the 1956 Marshmallow sofa from Herman Miller Furniture, and the 1960 Citron DS sedan.

A more conventional --but no less readable--look at the past is The West: An Illustrated History (Little Brown, $60). A companion to the PBS TV series, it is an account of the nation's westward expansion with tons of marvelous period photos. What's striking is how savage this country was back then. The number of massacres, hangings, and feverish deaths by disease in this book's 430 pages is astounding. A more scholarly look at the West that also has fabulous photos is Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present (Paper, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, $29.95). Two examples are Abraham Lincoln's face being chiseled into Mount Rushmore and men dressed in suits out in a field armed with shovels and sticks repelling a ''mouse invasion.''

This also is a good year for sports nostalgia. For baseball fans, there's Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait (Abrams, $29.95), by the great Brooklyn Dodger's wife, Rachel, and journalist Lee Daniels. This is a moving, insider's account of the life of one of the game's heroes and what it was like for him to integrate baseball. Plenty is inspiring, such as the way everyone from black religious leaders to white teammate Pee Wee Reese rallied to support the Robinsons. But a lot is ugly. ''Note: We have already got rid of several like you,'' says one of the hate letters reproduced in the book.

NOBLE TIMES. Golfers will enjoy The Greatest of Them All: The Legend of Bobby Jones (The American Golfer, $60). It's distinguished by marvelous historical photographs and well-turned essays from such diverse writers as Alistair Cooke and sportswriter Dave Anderson. Like the Robinson book, it's also a reminder of an age when athletes stood for something nobler than they do today. Jones, for instance, once lost a tournament by marking a two-stroke penalty against himself. His reaction to the plaudits his honesty elicited: ''You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.'' For the more practically minded golfer, consider an advice book from the Golf Master Series, such as Bunker Play with Gary Player or Trouble-Shooting with Seve Ballesteros (Broadway Books, $27.50 each).

Looking for vacation ideas? A picture book can be a great introduction to a new destination. Here are three possibilities: Palaces of Florence (Rizzoli, $85) is a good overview of the architecture (and not incidentally the art) of that Italian city. St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars (Abbeville Press, $95) does the same for the Russian city. For an entirely different experience, try Costa Rica: The Forests of Eden (Rizzoli, $45), which reveals the lushness of the Central American rain forests.

OSTRICH FEATHERS. I'm not usually one for reading about the superrich, but High Society: The Town & Country Picture Album 1846-1996 (Abrams, $60) is worth considering just for its kitsch value. Check out Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's treasurer, cruising along in a turn-of-the-century wicker carriage with his fluffy white dog in his lap. Or Mrs. and Mr. (that's the clear emphasis in this photo) Alexander Saunderson breakfasting in the bedroom of their Santa Barbara (Calif.) manse painted in wall-and-ceiling trompe l'oeil scenes of Venice. She's abed in full makeup and ostrich feathers.

Another neat how-the-rich-are-different-from-us offering is Bulgari (Abbeville Press, $75), a history of the Italian jewelry concern. The creations Bulgari puts out are extraordinary in their own garish way. Never mind that most of us couldn't afford a bijou from Bulgari in a hundred years. And that is one of the great beauties of coffee-table books: They are able to fuel our every fantasy, but at a price that many of us can afford.

TIPS: Can't find the perfect book locally? Check online buying services such as or

By Thane Peterson


PHOTO: Cover of American Images

PHOTO: Cover of Jackie Robinson

PHOTO: Cover of The Look Of The Century

PHOTO: Cover of Degas

PHOTO: Cover of Mountain Climbing

PHOTO: Cover of The West

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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