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Gift books shine like jewels

A contemporary master painter and one of the greatest painters of all time, jewelry made in accordance with an ancient tradition and jewelry made millennia ago by a people nearly forgotten, the records of life set in stone-these are just some of what is featured in this season's selection of books designed for both reading and display. They're all worth their price tags.

“Self Portrait While Painting” by Francisco Goya, from the catalog of the show “Goya: Order & Disorder” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid
“Self Portrait While Painting” by Francisco Goya, from the catalog of the show “Goya: Order & Disorder” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, MadridRead more

A contemporary master painter and one of the greatest painters of all time, jewelry made in accordance with an ancient tradition and jewelry made millennia ago by a people nearly forgotten, the records of life set in stone-these are just some of what is featured in this season's selection of books designed for both reading and display. They're all worth their price tags.

Jamie Wyeth by Elliot Bostwick Davis and David Houston (MFA Publications, $50). It's time Jamie Wyeth's work was looked at on its own terms, not in terms of family resemblances. The grandson of N.C. and son of Andrew is very much his own man, as this catalog of Jamie Wyeth's first retrospective since 1980 makes plain (the show continues at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through Dec. 28).

Take, for instance, Sea Watchers, painted just five years ago, featuring four figures on a rocky coast above a restless, stormy sea. The figures are Andy Warhol, Winslow Homer, N.C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth. The rocks are rendered quite realistically, but the sea brings to mind the wild brushstrokes of an abstract expressionist. Check out, too, on facing pages, Warhol's and Wyeth's portraits of each other. Plenty to discover in these pages.

Goya: Order & Disorder by Stephanie Stepanek, Frederick Ilchman and Janis Tomlinson (MFA Publications, $65). The Boston Museum of Fine Arts scores again with the catalog of the largest and most important gathering of Francisco Goya's work in North America in a quarter-century. (The exhibition continues to Jan. 19.)

We all know, of course, that Goya was one of the great artists. But it takes something as comprehensive as this to remind us of just how great in so many ways. You could easily spend an afternoon skipping over the paintings and just savoring the sketches and drawings. His self-portraits rival Rembrandt's and bring his person - and personality - uncannily close to us. Wondrous.

SS United States by John Maxtone-Graham (Norton, $75). She languishes now in disrepair at Pier 82 off Columbus Boulevard, but turn to page 192 of this splendid volume for the four-page foldout of a full-length cutaway view of the world's fastest ocean liner in all her glory. In 1952, the SS United States became the first American vessel to win the North Atlantic's Blue Riband, knocking 10 hours off the Queen Mary's best crossing time, its 35-knot service speed likely unbeatable forever.

John Maxtone-Graham's thorough and lively text and the pictures that go with it render this book definitive.

City Abandoned by by Vincent D. Feldman (Paul Dry Books, $29.95). The SS United States makes an appearance in these pages, too, since the city referred to in the title is our very own Philadelphia. There is grandeur in ruins - and the former glory of the abandoned and neglected buildings herein often shines through their current decrepitude. Some - such as the Victory Building on Chestnut Street and the Ridgway Library on South Broad - have been restored.

Though largely a chronicle of civic neglect, this book is strangely compelling.

Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family by Lois Sherr Dubin and Manuelito Wheeler (Smithsonian Books, $50). The bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and rings featured in this book constitute jewelry raised to the nth power.

To describe the Yazzie family, as the dust jacket does, as "a family of exceptionally gifted jewelers" is an understatement, indeed. Taking materials that are themselves beautiful - lapis lazuli, turquoise, silver, opal - the Yazzies create objects that dazzle the eye and thrill the heart, wondrous embodiments of what the Navajo call hózhó, best understood perhaps as the marriage of beauty and prayer.

The Italian Americans by Maria Laurino (Norton, $35). This companion volume to the PBS series is not all amore, as the photo of two Italians lynched in Tampa, Fla., around the turn of the last century grimly demonstrates.

Back then, an editorial in the yet-to-be-liberal New York Times referred to Sicilians as "a pest without mitigation." Happily, things got better and better, and people named La Guardia, Sinatra, Capra, and many, many more would soon be ranked among America's most famous and beloved figures. It's all here in words and pictures.

A History of Life in 100 Fossils by Paul D. Taylor and Aaron O'Dea (Smithsonian Books, $34.95). Fossils are the remains of animals, plants, and other living creatures preserved in rocks. There are two main types: body fossils - preserved shells, bones, teeth, etc. - and trace fossils - footprints, burrows, even excrement.

Together they tell quite a tale, one stretching back more than three billion years and filled with incident, notably the Cambrian Explosion about 540 million years ago, when most animal phyla appeared, and the Permian extinction a quarter-billion years ago, when 95 percent of marine species and 57 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species died out.

Plenty of weird creatures existed back then, including amphibians more than six feet long and the eyeball-sucking sea louse.

The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson (Princeton Architectural Press, $35). If you think all public libraries look pretty much the same, well, you need to take a look at this book. Oh, sure, there are plenty of grand ones, such as Philadelphia's own Central Library on the Parkway. But we also have the Fishtown Community Branch, featured in this volume, which used to be a firehouse and, before that, a stable. There's also the log cabin library in Cable, Wis. And many, many more, both grand and humble.

The Thing The Book by Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan (Chronicle Books, $40). The Thing Quarterly is a magazine whose every issue consists of a different physical object. The Thing The Book takes the form of that familiar physical object known as a book. Authors John Herschend and Will Rogan want to make the point that books are not only an information-delivery device, but also one of the best such devices ever, able to do things other such vehicles can't, such as prop open a door.

This book comes complete with ribbon book markers, a place to insert your thumb, an erratum, even a bookplate. Handy to have around.

Jewels of Ancient Nubia by Yvonne Markowitz and Denise Doxey (MFA Publications, $45). Nubia was a region located in what is now southernmost Egypt and northern Sudan. Thousands of years ago, it was a great empire, at one point extending from where the Blue and White Niles meet all the way to the Mediterranean. Several pharaohs are thought to have been of Nubian descent.

It was a land rich in gold and precious stones and renowned for its jewelry. This is the catalog of an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that will run until May 2017. One of the beauties of the work is how often the craftsmen let the stone, as it were, speak for itself, accenting its idiosyncrasies rather than polishing them away.

Ireland: Luminous Beauty by Peter Harbison and Leslie Conron Carola (Thomas Dunne Books, $35). Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can judge this one by its title: Page after page demonstrates the truth of it - meadow and sky, cliffs and waves, the uncanny light. Thanks to Yeats, everyone knows of Ben Bulben, but check out Errigal, at 2,466 feet County Donegal's highest mountain, "which takes on a new life with snow, giving it the appearance of an aging human face attempting to break out of its snowy mask." A faithful rendering of a magical isle.

Molecules by Theodore Gray (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $29.95). Everything's got 'em - molecules that is. In fact, we wouldn't be here without them. We just can't see them with the naked eye. Molecules are composed of elements - atoms. But atoms connect in all kinds of different ways. So there are countless thousands of molecules. Here's a chance to savor their variety. Bet you didn't know that metal burns. Even iron. As you can see in these pages, very fine steel wool can be set aflame with a cigarette lighter. You'll also learn that molecules are why plastic bags can sometimes be very hard to tear apart.

Dogs in Cars by Lara Jo Regan (The Countryman Press, $19.95). Paging through this volume, it is hard not to wonder if dogs did not evolve in order to be chauffeured by humans. They sure look as if they were made to occupy a motor car, whether asleep in the driver's seat like Bob, the English bulldog, or hanging out the window, like Mystic, the Great Pyranees-Alaskan Malmute mix. One honest canine face after another, nearly every one looking like it's having the time of its life.

Complete Birds of North America edited by by Jonathan Alderfer (National Geographic, $40). This revised and updated second edition really does include every known bird species in North America. It's a hefty desk reference, designed to complement National Geographic's field guide. The perfect gift for the birder in your life.

Houses of Civil War America by Hugh Howard (Little, Brown, $40). Here's a Civil War volume that spares you the carnage. Life went on off the battlefield and here are pictures of where the era's worthies took up residence. Robert E. Lee's Arlington House looks more like a Greek temple than a domicile for humans, while Stonewall Jackson's townhouse in Lexington, Va., seems a perfect space for offices. Frederick Douglass occupied elegant digs in Washington, while President Lincoln's Cottage, on the third-highest summit in the nation's capital (62 feet above sea level), was hardly a modest dwelling, what with 34 rooms, several spacious hallways, and nearly a dozen chimneys.

The Jewels of Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin by Yvonne Markowitz and Nonie Gadsden (MFA Publications, $19.95). The name might not mean anything to you, but you're likely to have seen this jewelry produced from the mid-1930s through the 1940s by the American firm Trabert & Hoeffer in collaboration with the French firm Mauboussin. You would have seen it in a movie theater or on TV adorning such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, and Garbo. There's the ruby suite worn by Colbert in 1935's The Gilded Lily, and Dietrich's own emerald bracelet, which she wore for her role as a jewel thief in 1936's Desire. A gratifying display of consumption most conspicuous.

Maine to Greenland: Exploring the Maritime Far Northeast by Wilfred E. Richard and William Fitzhugh (Smithsonian Books, $40). There is a photo in this volume of a storm pounding the Gaspé Peninsula in 2006. The waves are shown casting fish into the air for awaiting gulls to feast upon. It is an image emblematic of the grand, if often harsh, beauty to be found in the northeasternmost region of our continent. Native costumes and artifacts, spare seaside villages, polar bears, seals, and sailing vessels - they're all here to be comfortably admired in the warmth of your living room.

Frank Wilson is a former Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue."