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Readin' Around The Christmas Tree 

Gift books for the literate

Bookstores are overflowing with "gift books" this time of year, most of them filled with beautiful and expensive fluff: the joy of golden retrievers, scenes of Provence or New York, gorgeous home interiors, the magic of tulips, you name it. But, as the New York Times recently noted, publishers also produce gift books "for people who actually read." Here are some recommendations of great gift books, also beautiful and relatively expensive, for that lucky minority.

Lennon Legend by James Henke (Chronicle Books, 64 pages, $40). Henke, VP of exhibitions at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has put together the latest of an increasingly popular genre of books: the "interactive" book (i.e., gives readers something to play with). He doesn't deliver any fresh news about Lennon, nor any photos the singer's fans won't have seen elsewhere. But the biography hits the high points of Lennon's life well enough and the photos are crisp, and the real appeal is the large number of reproductions of Lennon artifacts, all tucked into neat little pockets and envelopes. These include a ticket for the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; a business card for Lennon's proto-Beatles, The Quarry Men; Beatles bubblegum cards; and lots more, including hand-written lyric sheets. A 60-minute CD is included, consisting largely of Lennon talking about his life and work -- again, nothing revelatory but fascinating nonetheless.

Goya by Robert Hughes (Knopf, 448 pages, $40). The multi-faceted art critic was inspired by his own near-death from a car accident to plunge into a biography of the 19th century Spanish painter who created vivid, urgent images of real-life horrors -- in addition, that is, to his portraits of various royal subjects. This conflicted but ultimately committed painter, says Hughes in this energetic and gorgeous bio, is someone contemporary artists would do well to learn more about and even emulate. In this age when political and military horrors are commonplace, the arts seemingly have little to say about it. The book is printed on heavy, slick stock which makes the most of the over 200 illustrations (115 in color).

Christmas At The New Yorker (Random House, 320 pages, $35). This is one of our favorite books of the year, period. One of the renowned magazine's series of anthologies, this collection gathers some of the most talented, urbane writers of the past 80 years for widely varied takes on the holidays. Included are John Cheever, Nabokov, Updike, E.B. White, Richard Ford, Roger Angell, Calvin Trillin, Garrison Keillor, and, perhaps our favorite, the wonderful S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy," a short 1936 play set in Santa's "sweatshop," parodying Clifford Odets' earnest-to-a-fault labor drama "Waiting For Lefty." In addition, there's a plethora of vivid New Yorker yuletide covers, plus scores of great cartoons by everyone from Charles Addams to Roz Chast.

The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1250 pages, $135). Since retiring at his peak -- and much to the chagrin of his fans -- Larson, the greatest American comic strip artist of our age (there, I've said it), has stuck to his plan to never pen another Far Side cartoon. Well, this is definitely the next best thing: a massive, two-part, 18-pound collection, presented in a sturdy slipcover, containing, like the title says, everything Larson produced during his days on the comics page. There are over 4,300 cartoons here, roughly arranged in chronological order, including over 1,000 that haven't appeared in book form before. In addition, the book features letters from fans, anti-fans, and editors, plus some explanations of where some of the cartoonist's ideas came from. They're all here: the cows, the insects, the gators, the scenes from hell, the goofy scientists, and, of course, the desert island with its single palm tree. Everyone has his or her favorite. I found mine quickly: a wolf chasing a sheep, both of them in taxis. Or is it the moon people watching the Earth blow up in a nuclear explosion and saying, "Ooh! Aahh!"? If your or a friend's coffee table can stand the weight, this one's a must.

Beyond: Visions of Interplanetary Probes by Michael Benson (Harry N. Abrams, 320 pages, $55). This is the kind of book that makes reviewers indulge in hyperbole. A stunning visual feast, Beyond is the labor of love of author Michael Benson who amassed, and digitally processed, images taken by NASA's unmanned space probes throughout the solar system. Here, presented as works of art, the images' strange beauty is utterly captivating, giving us views of other worlds, as real as our own but little thought of by the people who paid for the probes' missions. From the surface of Jupiter's moons, to the vast, rust-shaded plains of Mars and the delicate, eerie rings of Saturn, the effect of being "up close" to these far-off celestial bodies is both exhilarating and humbling. The book's second part is a collection of essays that tell the stories of the probes that are behind the spectacular photographs.

The Pythons by Bob McCabe and members of Monty Python (Thomas Dunne Books, 368 pages, $60). Here's another massive tome, this one containing over 1,000 photos illustrating the lives and career arc of the irreverent and cosmically silly British comedy troupe. Even with so many photos, the real treat here is reading the oral histories of the group members -- Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, John Cleese and Terry Gilliam -- plus reminiscences of the late Graham Chapman. The "straightforward" histories pass normal biographical muster, but they're often hysterically funny at the same time -- almost as funny as the group's sketches. The revolutionary sextet got their start on David Frost's groundbreaking show in Great Britain in 1966 and within a few years found themselves revered as cult figures with their own show, Monty Python's Flying Circus. The members' details of their collaborations and conflicts during the making of the show, as well as their films The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life, are brutally honest. In fact, that kind of honesty, manifested in their no-holds-barred approach to their craft and their freedom to critique each others' ideas, were essential to their creation of what have become some of the most beloved sketches in the history of comedy.

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