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From Grace Kelly to the humble spoon, coffee-table books cry out to be gifted

Coffee-table books don't have to be big. Among our gift suggestions this year are modest-sized books and grand books. They include a slender volume on the poetry of bridges, a sweeping look at the African American experience in America, a reminder of Grace Kelly's classic beauty, a survey of the fine art in illustration, and proof that the humble spoon should not be taken for granted.

"Grace Kelly" by Jay Jorgensen and Manoah Bowman. Book cover.
"Grace Kelly" by Jay Jorgensen and Manoah Bowman. Book cover.Read moreDey Street Books

Gift books don't have to be big. A few of this year's holiday coffee-table selections are of modest dimensions, including one that takes you deep inside some of modern art's masterworks. Others, though — a large, slender look at the poetry of bridges; a comprehensive look at the African American experience in America — are appropriately grand. Among the rest, there's a reminder of Grace Kelly's classic beauty, a survey of the fine art in illustration, and proof that a humble table utensil should not be taken for granted.

Bridges: A History of the World’s Most Spectacular Spans, by Judith Dupré, $29.99.

"The unassuming poetry of bridges reveals itself to those who would see it," Judith Dupré observes in the foreword to this splendid volume, which amply demonstrates her point. The arrangement is chronological, starting with the Pont du Gard in Nimes, France, which dates to 18 B.C.E., and concluding with two — the Chenab Bridge in India and the Danjiang Bridge in Taiwan — expected to be completed in 2020. The Ben Franklin doesn't make the cut, but the Delaware Aqueduct between Lackawaxen, Pa., and Minisink Ford, N.Y., does. Built between 1848 and 1850 by John A. Roebling, who also built the Brooklyn Bridge, it is "the oldest wire cable suspension bridge still standing that retains most of its original structure."

Black Dog & Leventhal,

Howard Pyle, His Students & the Golden Age of American Illustration, by Judy Goffman Cutler and Laurence S. Cutler, et al., $35

Howard Pyle, justly renowned as the father of American illustration, began his teaching career at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry (now Drexel University). His students included Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley, and N. C. Wyeth. This book is the catalog of an exhibition put together by Drexel's Pennoni Honors College and the National Museum of American Illustration. It provides page upon page of wonder and delight. Take a look at Why Don't You End It? on Page 35, and you'll see what Pennoni's Dean Paula Marantz Cohen means when she notes that "there is a direct line of descent from [Pyle's] illustrations to Johnny Depp … in Pirates of the Caribbean."

National Museum of American

 Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl,  by Jay Jorgenson and Manoah Bowman, $45

Cary Grant called her "the most memorable and honest actress I've ever worked with." Philadelphia's Grace Kelly made only 11 films, winning an Academy Award for best actress opposite Bing Crosby in The Country Girl. She retired from acting at 26 to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. Twenty-six years later, she died in an auto accident. Her extraordinary beauty is manifest on just about every page of this very engaging book. She really was a star.

Dey Street,

Dream a World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America, $40

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year, stands appropriately adjacent to the Washington Monument and the White House. This profusely illustrated book addresses "the complicated narrative of the African American experience." Plenty of familiar scenes and faces here, but plenty of surprises, too. How many people remember jockey Isaac Murphy, who won three Kentucky Derbies in the late 1800s? There's also a shot of Sammy Davis Jr. making his film debut at age 7 in the title role of Rufus Jones for President. Definitely a keeper.


East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, photographs by David Freese, text by Simon Winchester and Jenna Butler, $65

It starts with a shot of the spartan landscape surrounding the town of Uummannaq in Greenland and ends with one of the Atlantic Ocean, Biscayne Bay, and North Miami Beach. In between are scores of black-and-white photos as fine as any you will ever see, including some of Philadelphia, the Delaware River, and the Schuylkill. As Simon Winchester notes, this is "a 5,000-mile display of venerable geologic pedigree … landscape that is stubborn and settled and vulnerable."

George F. Thompson Publishing,

Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, by Terry Newman, $29.99

Any book about authors and their apparel would have to include Oscar Wilde, and, sure enough, Oscar not only is included in this volume, but he also makes perhaps the definitive observation: "Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear." All these writers dressed to please themselves. All look comfortable. Some are striking. Wilde himself, of course, if your taste runs to flamboyant. But also Donna Tartt, alluring in her black suit, white blouse, and severe coiffure. Yes, Tom Wolfe does make an appearance in his trademark white suit. Anyone up for Dress Like a Writer Day?

Harper Design,

Modern Art in Detail, by Susie Hodge, $39.95

Here's an art book with a difference. Each of these 75 works gets a fresh look, focusing on key details. Hodge's close look at Giorgio de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of a Street reveals how exaggerated perspective and distorted light combine with long shadows to produce a sinister effect. And who knew there are actual footprints in Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles?

Thames & Hudson,

Spoon: A Guide to Spoon Carving and the New Wood Culture, by Barn the Spoon, $25

The author of this volume, a.k.a. Barnaby Carder, is obviously wedded to his work, which is carving spoons out of green wood — wood that is freshly cut and still 50 percent water, not dry and seasoned. Spoons date back to prehistory, but even then their utility was supplemented by artistry. As Spoon the author says, "the sculptural possibilities within a craft such as spoon making are really limitless." The many illustrations certainly back him up. The book includes instructions — also illustrated — on carving techniques. So you can learn how to arrive at your very own little dipper.


Night Vision: Magical Photos of Life after Dark, by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, $40

"Magical" is no exaggeration. From a shot of Mont-Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy to a mist-shrouded Taj Mahal under the light of the full moon, this book serves to remind us of how transfigured the world can seem after nightfall. National Geographic,

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at