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Coffee-table books replete with images, imagination

Holiday gift books are ordinarily those things called coffee-table books, hefty tomes whose images - paintings and photos of birds, beasts, and flowers - take precedence over the words.

Holiday gift books are ordinarily those things called coffee-table books, hefty tomes whose images - paintings and photos of birds, beasts, and flowers - take precedence over the words.

This year's batch measures up in terms of what is usual, but surprises with here and there a touch of the unexpected and unusual.

The nearest thing to a catalogue raisonné among this year's holiday books gathers into one massive volume all the giant photos taken by a most unfortunate photographer.

There is also a comprehensive look at the work of a painter who has transfigured landscape through techniques derived from abstract expressionism. And, speaking of abstract expressionism, there is also a appreciative overview of work by one of that style's masters - Willem de Kooning.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is a volume in which a photographer best known for portraits turns to still lifes and interiors, demonstrating that portraits are portraits, whether of things or people.

Another intriguing book offers a detailed visualization of human history's polyphony, allowing you to see what was going on while the things you know were going on were happening.

There are books featuring animals both actual and imaginary - the latter casting a satirical glance at the doings of us humans - and others featuring machines (autos and trains) that lift the heart. A venerable local church gets honored on an anniversary, and flowers usually seen in greenhouses are shown in all their glory in the wild.

There's even a volume that will give you insight into how to turn your home into a castle - unfortunately, it's not easy.

Here, then, is a sampling of the season's gift books. As always, prices cited are list, but never forget that discounts are usually available.

Wolf Kahn (Abrams, $55). This is the second edition of what purports to be the definitive volume on the life and work of Wolf Kahn. Born in Germany in 1927, Kahn has combined an appreciation of nature with a mastery of color field abstraction. The combination has resulted in some of the most winning and evocative landscapes produced by any artist in recent decades. The new edition boasts a generous sample of works painted over the last 15 years, which art critic Karen Wilkins aptly describes as "bold, surprising pictures." That they certainly are, doing what all great art does: leading the viewer to see the world anew.

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage (Random House, $50). On Page 176 of this volume is a photo of the bedroom in the Orchard House in Concord, Mass., where Philadelphia-born Louisa May Alcott (yes, she was born at 5425 Germantown Ave.) wrote her classic novel Little Women. The photo is as classically composed as an interior by Vilhelm Hammershøi. The pictures here reveal a deeply poetic side of Annie Leibovitz. They are of places where people she admires have lived, starting with Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Mass., but ranging pretty far and wide, from Ansel Adams' darkroom in Carmel, Calif., to Georgia O'Keefe's box of pastels, to one of Elvis' bullet-shattered TVs.

Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Getty Publications, $195). The life of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) was a sad one. Poor at business and chronically unlucky financially, he and his family were at one point reduced to living in an abandoned boxcar, and Watkins himself ended his days in an insane asylum. Nevertheless, between 1858 and 1891, he produced 1,300 prints from "mammoth" (18 inches by 22 inches) glass-plate negatives. These included views of Yosemite, San Francisco Bay, various California mining settlements, railroad building sites, and much more. Most of the reproductions in this volume are small, but there are still many full-page prints that give a true sense of the works' grandeur.

Between Sense and De Kooning (Reaktion Books, $49). Willem de Kooning is probably best known for his fierce and almost garish "Woman" paintings. What this volume makes evident is that there is a good deal of variety to de Kooning's work - and to his portrayal of women (see 1971's "Woman in a Garden"). The real revelation here, though, is the late work, somewhat playful, but with a simplicity that can only be arrived at after years of mastery. Richard Schiff's text is at times a bit arch, but also admirably enlightening.

Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt (Putnam, $50). It's only fair that Dirk Pitt share billing with Clive Cussler on the cover of this book. True, Pitt is just a product of Cussler's imagination, but that imagination has also made sure Pitt drives the cars of Cussler's dreams. And the novels chronicling Pitt's adventures have in turn provided Cussler with the not inconsiderable cash necessary to buy the vintage cars showcased in this book. A gathering of vehicles most of us can only dream of. A book with pictures that will make you envious, with a text you will want to read.

The Monkeys of Christophe Huet: Singeries in French Decorative Arts (Getty Publications, $50). Everybody has seen those paintings of dogs playing cards or poker. But long before canines were portrayed as making humans of themselves, monkeys were. The French even have a word for it - singerie, meaning "monkey trick," which refers to a genre of 18th-century decorative painting in which monkeys dressed as Homo sapiens ride horses, smoke pipes, raise toasts, and, yes, play cards. Foremost among the practitioners of the style was Christophe Huet, whose "Grande Singeries" and "Petite Singeries" at the Chateau de Chantilly are probably the greatest examples of the style. The book and the works depicted are both amusing and exquisite.

Deceptive Beauties: The World of Wild Orchids (The University of Chicago Press, $45). For most of us, knowledge of orchids is limited to those we see as corsages and in flower shows. But the Orchidaceae, with 25,000 species and more than 100,000 hybrids, constitute the world's most diverse floral phylum. In these pages, you can see them in all their natural splendor in forests and meadows and dangling from trees. Christian Ziegler's photos are uniformly stunning, and the close-up shot of a hummingbird pollinating an Eleanthus orchid about three pages in is alone worth the price of the book.

St. Peter's Church (Temple University Press, $35). He slept elsewhere, but while he was president and Philadelphia was the nation's capital, George Washington often worshiped at St. Peter's, the Episcopal church at Third and Pine Streets that was built in 1761. Anyone who has visited St. Peter's knows that its interior is somewhat unusual. That's because it was "a new American style based largely on the Quaker vernacular," as Elizabeth S. Browne puts it, citing architectural historian George E. Thomas. This is a charming and informative book, complete with great shots of Society Hill in its less tony days.

The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance (Princeton University Press, $49.50). It's easy enough these days to find out what's going on practically anywhere in the world. But have you any idea of what was going on in, say, the 11th century? Well, in Europe the Cistercian monastic movement got started, while in America, not to be outdone by the Cistercians, the Mound Builders completed the construction in what is now Cahokia, Ill., of Monks Mound, the largest pre-Columbian structure in North America. Oh, and the First Crusade hit a high (or maybe low) note with the capture of Jerusalem. A lot of other things have happened throughout history, of course, and, thanks to John Heywood, you can trace just about all of them in this fascinating compendium of timelines.

Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine (University of Chicago Press, $45). Everybody knows that when you look up at the sky at night, you are in many cases looking at the distant past, the light of certain heavenly bodies having been traveling for eons. But the past is also all around you right here on earth. "Living fossils" (now generally called relicts) abound even nearby. Those ginkgo trees on Waverly Street have a pedigree dating back some 270 million years, and the humble horseshoe crab has been crawling along beaches for more than 440 million years. Piotr Naskrecki's photographs of some of the strangest creatures on Earth are both beautiful and utterly fascinating.

Castles: A History of Fortified Structures (St. Martin's Griffin, $29.99). The subtitle says it all: This book is not about castles as romantic settings for balls and banquets. Right from the start, we're reminded that a castle is first and foremost a fortification, and that fortification is "the military art, or science, dependent upon how one views it, of strengthening positions against attack." So, in addition to such well-known structures as Windsor Castle (the largest inhabited castle in the world and Europe's longest-occupied palace), the book also examines Chinese Walls, Russian kremlins (all Russian castles are kremlins), and American colonial fortresses. Fascinatingly detailed.

Steam: An Enduring Legacy (Norton, $50). Certain modes of transport seem inherently more aesthetic than others. Sailing vessels and steam locomotives appeal to the imagination in ways that steamships and airplanes never have. By 1960, steam locomotives had pretty much disappeared from commercial railroading, but they survive in surprising numbers across the land in museums and on excursion runs. Joel Jensen's often evocative photos (see the engine chugging away among trees and snow on Page 135, or the one nearly enveloped in a blizzard on Page 121) remind us of a time when huge machines could still stir the heart.

Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning (Fulcrum, $35). The name derives from siringutu, a word in the language of Maa meaning "extended" or "endless" and, at 5,700 square miles, Africa's Serengeti plains do, in fact, encompass an area larger than Connecticut. Boyd Norton's photos capture the vastness to be sure, but much of the charm of this book comes from the close-ups of the fauna: a male and female lion who appear to be having a domestic squabble, smooching elephants, and the rock hyrax, which looks like an oversize shrew but is the elephant's nearest living relative.