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Great Graphics! Actual Content! 

Eye-catching, smart and fun gift books

This time of year, bookstores overflow with "gift books," most of them oversized doorstops filled with beautiful, expensive fluff. You know the type: the joy of poodles; repetitive scenes of Tuscany; opulent home interiors; the magic of azaleas; whatever -- books you aimlessly flip through while waiting for something interesting to happen. But as the Bible says, Fear not, for unto you is given this day gift books that won't bore the BeJesus out of you. Let me recommend some good-looking books that your holiday giftees may find enticing -- and take time to, like, actually read. These books probably won't wind up collecting dust on your friends' coffee tables.

I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris (Warner Books, 304 pages, $27.99)

Sedaris, star of the cult comedy hit show Strangers With Candy, is one of the funniest people alive, and is known in New York for her great parties and her cooking. This guide to throwing parties is deadpan hilarious, filled with Sedaris' patented wacked-out humor as well as real tips that range from decorating ideas to recipes to a how-to guide to putting on pantyhose. She even gives valuable advice, such as hints on avoiding etiquette mistakes. (Never introduce someone this way: "This is Barbara, she can't have children".) Illustrated lavishly with photos and kitschy artwork.

Rainforest by Thomas Marent (DK Adult, 360 pages, $40)

Marent, a self-taught photographer, has spent 16 years traveling to rainforests around the world. Now he's produced one of those "scenes of ... " books, but it's a fascinating one that will wind up well-thumbed and ooh-ed and ahh-ed over. Rainforest is a breathtaking collection of Marent's life work. Stunning panoramas are matched by impossibly intimate shots of birds, monkeys and other animals, as well as extraordinary plants, most of which you've probably never seen before. A mesmerizing and invaluable book, it should convince even environmental skeptics that the planet's rainforests have to be saved.

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker by Matthew Diffee and Robert Mankoff (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $22.95)

It's smaller and thinner than most gift books, but The Rejection Collection is a must-have for anyone who is a fan of The New Yorker's cartoons. These are works that were considered "too risqué, silly, or weird" by the magazine's editors, granting a look at the stranger, and often darker, side of some of the venerable publication's regular cartoonists. It can be startling to see these politically incorrect and just plain rude cartoons, drawn in The New Yorker's familiar styles, but that's half the fun. The cover illustration -- an alcoholic ventriloquist chugging whiskey while his dummy throws up -- says it all.

The Oxford Companion To Wine by Jancis Robinson (Oxford University Press, 840 pages, $65)

At 840 pages, this gift book might be a genuine doorstop, but it's as informative as it is thick. If you want to know anything about wine, it's here. Grape varieties, specific wines, wine production, countries and regions, historical anecdotes, how to serve wine, matching wines to food -- you name it and this book has it. Even better, it's written in a pretty lively style and contains hundreds of full-color photos and illustrations. If your friend is a wine connoisseur or would like to be, and deserves 65 bucks' worth of good will, this is the one.

The Pop-Up Book of Celebrity Meltdowns by Mick Coulas, Heather Havrilesky & Bruce Foster (DK Adult, 22 pages, $29.95)

Satirists gone wild! The most ingenious pop-up book yet, this is an eye-popping and hysterical work showcasing 10 legendary public crack-ups. See Michael Jackson dangle his kid over a balcony. Pull a tab and watch Tom Cruise jump up and down on Oprah's couch. Open the book and watch Janet Jackson' breast pop out during the Super Bowl, right in your face. See Paris Hilton making her, um, film debut. The fantastic caricatures and artwork make this one a keeper, even though Mel Gibson didn't get raving drunk soon enough to be included.

The Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics by Milton Glaser et al. (Rockport Publishers, 240 pages, $30)

Here's the perfect book for the political leftie on your list who's also a graphics freak. OK, that's seriously narrow market targeting, but The Design of Dissent is still an attention-grabbing, if rather disorganized, book. A collection of posters, buttons and other contemporary protest graphics, it's visually captivating and gives readers a look at how widespread dissatisfaction over the war, globalization and environmental destruction really is.

U2 by U2 by U2 (duh) & Neil McCormick (HarperEntertainment, 352 pages, $39.95)

They're a rock band! They're a social phenomenon! They're walking gods! They're washed-up retreads! Wherever your friends fall in the U2 opinion spectrum, they'll probably go nuts over this in-depth, first-hand, generously illustrated history of the band. On second thought, the "washed-up retreads" folks may not be interested, but this is still the most thorough, detailed look yet produced of one of the world's biggest bands.

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