Curtains to die for, the work of art our planet looks like from outer space, and actual works of art that make today's world seem maybe a tad old-fashioned — are just some of what is featured in this season's crop of gift books. Some are even practical, such as the one showing you how to garden like Monet, and the one in praise of life as enjoyed in an Airstream trailer. None are terribly expensive, and discounts can usually be found.

American Modernism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Jessica Todd Smith, $35

When we speak of modern art, what comes to mind tends to be the modernist art of the first half of the 20th century. As Jessica Todd Smith explains, faced with "unprecedented social, technological, and cultural upheaval … artists pushed their work in new directions, embracing abstraction, while retaining connections to artistic traditions." The result was works that look as fresh today as they did when the paint was still drying. Check out Frances Simpson Stevens' vibrant — yes, vibrant — charcoal and oil Dynamic Velocity of Interborough Rapid Transit Power Station on Page 44. On the facing page, Stuart Davis' Something on the Eight Ball looks downright contemporary. Here is art that really does let you see the world afresh.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Spectacle: Rare and Astonishing Photographs, $40

Where to begin? Just about every photo in this splendid volume — from the king cobra bursting from a stream in Borneo to methane bubbling from a muddy lake bed in Alaska to dewdrops on a dandelion head in Indonesia — supports its title. The four chapters deliver what their titles promise: chaos, surprise, beauty, and awe.

National Geographic

Living the Airstream Life,  by Karen Flett, $35

Wally Byam, the man who founded Airstream in 1931, liked to say of his company that "we don't sell trailers; we sell a way of life." This little book tells you plenty about the vehicles' history and design — silver and aerodynamic or, as Bynam put it, "handcrafted, not handmade" — and plenty about caravan living. It is sure to stir up some wanderlust in even the most resolute stick-in-the-mud.

Harper Design

Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon, selected by Fiona Waters, $40

Here indeed is perhaps the quintessential coffee-table book, lying there to start each day with a reminder that no day is without its poetry. Consider Kit Wright's "Acorn Haiku," chosen for Sept. 20: "Just a green olive / In its own little egg-cup: / It can feed the sky." The stylized illustrations are exactly right as well.

Nosy Crow

The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years, by Jane Kim with Thayer Walker, $45

Jane Kim's The Wall of Birds is a 2,500-square-foot mural at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology. It depicts all the families of modern birds, from the littlest hummingbirds to birds' gigantic ancestors. This is Kim's mural in book form. Her depictions of our fine feathered friends are not only colorful, but also striking in their presence and personality.

Harper Design

Infinite Wonder: An Astronaut's Photographs from a Year in Space, by Scott Kelly, $40

Scott Kelly spent an entire year up there, longer than any American astronaut ever, on the International Space Station. This book is a photographic record of that mission. His pictures of  Peruvian volcanoes, the rift lakes of Mongolia, and salt pans in the Willard Bay of the Great Salt Lake are really like nothing you can imagine. Nature's abstractions prove breathtaking.


Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne, by Robert McCracken Peck, photographs by Rosamund Purcell, $39.95

Peter A. Browne (1782-1860) believed hair was the key to the mystery of human evolution. He gathered samples from countless wild and domestic animals, and amassed the largest known collection of human hair, including locks from 13 of the first 14 U.S. presidents. He bequeathed his collection to the Academy of Natural Sciences, and this little book gives you a peek at his curious achievement.

Blast Books

Tony Bennett: Onstage and in the Studio, by Tony Bennett with Dick Golden, $29.95

He had his first hit in 1951, when "Because of You" stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 10 weeks. At 92, he's still at it, giving concerts and cutting records. It really has been quite a career, as this book — nicely punctuated with Bennett's own sketches — amply demonstrates.


The Well-Dressed Window: Curtains at Winterthur, by Sandy Brown, $50

"I feel very strongly that the curtains will make all the difference in the house," declared Henry Francis Du Pont, the man responsible for turning his family home into the leading museum of American decorative arts. This book lets you see how right he was, proving, page after page, that the choice of fabrics and their relationship to the architecture and other decorative elements create an effect of extraordinary beauty. No mere window-dressing on display here.

The Monacelli Press

Everyday Monet: A Giverny-Inspired Gardening and Lifestyle Guide to Living Your Best Impressionist Life, by Aileen Boardman, $26.99

So maybe you don't have the time or the space to have your very own Monet garden. But you could arrange the flowers you grow in yours pretty much as he might have. And you can certainly take inspiration from him in planting your beds. And when they bloom, this book includes recipes for a plein air luncheon to enjoy in their company.

Dey St.

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