God rest ye merry, bibliophiles, let nothing you dismay.

The very unmerry economic upheavals of the past few months might have left you with a disposition like Scrooge's and a paycheck like Bob Cratchit's, but in the glittering realm of holiday gift-book publishing, every reader has not only a $100 book under the tree, but a leather-lined library in which to enjoy it. (When you run a finger over that linen binding, or check out that coffee table-busting size, you'll feel as if you do, anyway.)

There's a lot to choose from this year, from the sumptuous to the profound, the useful to the absolutely frivolous. So whether you're buying or only browsing, here's a selection of the season's best and brightest to thumb through:

Fine art One wonderful thing about the paintings of Frans Hals is their personality. Other great 17th century portraitists may have turned out iconic images whose subjects all looked alike, but not Hals; his prosperous Dutch burghers may have superficial resemblances in their white lace collars and little goatees (for the men) and demure white caps and ruffs (for the ladies), but each sitter has a character that still communicates 3 1/2 centuries later. (Women will swear that his famous laughing cavalier is undressing them with his eyes.) Another wonderful thing about Hals' portraits is their loose, vibrant brushwork, a precursor of impressionism. In Frans Hals: The Complete Work (Claus Grimm, Abrams, 296 pages, $95), Claus Grimm examines these wonders, then goes beyond, for a thorough analysis of the paintings' histories as well as their expressive qualities. Mr. Grimm has spent 25 years studying Hals' work, ferreting out alterations made to the originals and identifying copycat work and outright forgeries. His book is a definitive work not only on Hals, but on the work of the "art detective."

In his introduction to American Painting (Donald Goddard, Levin Associates/MacMillan, 320 pages, $85), art historian Robert Rosenbloom ponders the question "What is American about American art?" In the heydays of such early painters as Copley and West this was as pressing a question as in these days of McDonald's in Moscow and Disneyland in Japan. There are no definitive answers -- American and European art have always shared influences and themes -- but art lovers are welcome to find their own answers in this collection. This handsome oversized book spans the history of American painting from the "naive" portraitists of the 16th century to the scary street art of Jean Michael Basquiat (1960-1987), grouping the artists by theme, subject or style. It's an interesting stew, and demonstrates just how difficult it is to pigeonhole American art.

Most of us know impressionism as a French movement, exemplified by artists such as Monet and Renoir. But their contemporaries in other countries were also experimenting with revolutionary colors and brushstrokes, and attempting to capture the qualities of light. Some even influenced the French! World Impressionism (edited by Norma Broude, Abrams, 424 pages, $75) deals with the "Impressionist impulse and influence" as it was expressed in more than 20 countries (including Japan and China!) between 1860 and 1920. In 12 essays, Ms. Broude (an American University professor) and other art historians examine

aspects of an international movement whose breadth and vitality will surprise most readers. And in doing so, they turn a spotlight on the careers of dozens of superb but lesser-known artists, whose work has failed to garner the lasting fame -- not to mention the multimillion price tags -- of impressionism's most lionized French avatars.

Is it any wonder that art nouveau posters are so highly collectible these days? I'd bet good money that most of those prosperous middle-aged collectors of authentic 19th century posters had a reproduction of one of Mucha's Job rolling-paper posters on his wall back in the hippie era. Posters of the Belle Epoque (Jack Rennert, Rizzoli, 256 pages, $75) is a splendid showcase for more than 200 works from the poster's golden age, all from the collection of The Wine Spectator magazine. (And yes, many of them did advertise spirits in their time.) If this book did nothing more than show us a lot of gorgeous posters it would have earned its keep (the reproductions are superb), but this book is ++ also a good read. Mr. Rennert, an international poster dealer who has written widely on the subject, provides plenty of information on the artists, and discusses each work's design elements and symbolic subtext. Readers will be amused at how urbane and naughty many of these posters are; no Victorian prudery oppresses these Parisian poster girls, who flirt with us over brimming glasses of champagne and curls of cigarette smoke.

Modern art Although not as handsomely designed as some of its competition, Picasso Cubism 1907-1917 (Josep Palau i Fabre, Rizzoli, 530 pages, $250) ranks as one of this year's most impressive offerings, thanks to its sheer size, price (!) and the fact that it is aimed squarely at the connoisseur; this is no mere picture book, but a comprehensive catalog of everything our most important 20th century artist was doing, seeing, painting and being influenced by during his most productive period. The text interweaves biography with artistic analysis -- if you are interested in how drug use might have influenced the creation of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," it's all here -- but the very exhaustiveness of the effort lets us know this is a book for scholars, not dilettantes. The layout, too, says "art history text," not "coffee table book," as it traces the development of major works by showing us pages and pages of guitars or newspapers or harlequins. Picasso mavens will have to have this, but the rest of us will think twice before buying -- and not only because it costs $250.

Even if you don't know the name William Wegman, you probably know his dog. The pewter-colored Weimaraner with the spooky yellow eyes and the game disposition -- her photographer-owner has posed her in any number of undignified ways, including dressing her up in evening gowns, wrapping her in tinfoil and putting roller skates on her unfortunate paws -- has become such an art-world celebrity that she has appeared with the artist in Gap T-shirt ads. William Wegman (edited by Martin Kunz, Abrams, 224 pages, $39.95) demonstrates that the artist has more strings to his bow than canine surrealism, though. Man Ray, Fay Ray, and other Wegman dog stars are joined here by humorous non-doggy photography, avant-garde videos, landscape paintings that recall Blake and Turner and childish drawings that take minimalism to new levels of dopiness. (From the evidence, it looks as if the Holly Solomon Gallery would be pleased to buy this artist's telephone-pad doodles.)

Every year at least one book is published that is destined for ridicule. What holiday book reviewer will ever forget that wonderful opus celebrating the golden age of the plastic purse? My nomination for this year's most risible volume is Christo: The Pont-Neuf Wrapped (photography by Wolfgang Volz, commentary by David Bourdon, essay by Bernard Montgolfier, Abrams, 588 pages, $85). Christo is an incredibly famous artist who has won his celebrity through his "temporary art": Most of us wrap sandwiches, Christo wraps the Grand Canyon. In the project commemorated by this book, the artist wrapped Paris's oldest bridge in shiny synthetic material. The more prudent among us will find the whole idea pretty stupid -- if not an outright sacrilege -- but anyone might doubt that this project deserves such an expensive, gloriously tasteful slipcovered tribute. This weighty book includes handsome color photography illustrating every step of the project, a work diary, memos (in French, of course), sketches and plans, a fabric sample and snapshots of the Woody Allenesque artist conferring with various dignitaries. Much ado . . . But I will concede Christo one point: He funds all his projects himself.

The life of Romare Bearden paralleled the progress of African-American art in the 20th century, just as the artist's work chronicled and celebrated it. Born in Mecklenburg County, N.C., he was, despite his fair hair and blue eyes, the great-grandchild of slaves. He grew up in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance; family friends included Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. The versatile artist worked as a welfare caseworker, a cartoonist, a songwriter and, most importantly, a painter and collagist, whose work pulsed with the spirit of jazz and of black America. (Baltimoreans may be familiar with the ceramic mural of jazz musicians he did for the subway station in Upton, Billie Holiday's old neighborhood.) This colorful life gets an insightful treatment in Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (Myron Schwartzman, Abrams, 320 pages, $60), in which biography is mingled with reminiscences by the late artist, his family and contemporaries. Of special interest is the foreword by August Wilson, the Tony-winning playwright who credits Bearden with inspiring several of his own works.

Design I wouldn't dare speculate what the Amish themselves might make of the fact that a book dealing with their "plain" artifacts -- specifically, quilts by Lancaster County farm women -- should sport a linen slipcover, slick pages, a text by a distinguished critic and a $100 price tag. But no one who sees Amish: The Art of the Quilt (Robert Hughes, Knopf/Callaway, 207 pages, $100) will doubt that the quilts are worth such packaging. Featured are 82 quilts collected by the Esprit fashion corporation, and their beauty is astonishing. Made of unpatterned fabric, in colors that manage to be both somber and startling, the geometric quilts of the Amish are both statements of pure design and fabric "documents" of a rare American philosophy. In his brief, thoughtful text, Mr. Hughes takes on the condescending myth of the "humble, anonymous folk artist" to demonstrate how an intensely conservative philosophy can bring forth the most personal sort of artistic expression.

I thought I knew what Masterpieces of Glass (Robert J. Charleston, Abrams, 256 pages, $75) would be about: etched, carved crystal bibelots a la Steuben, the most sublime of dust-catchers. But Mr. Charleston, former Keeper of Glass and Ceramics at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, doesn't just show us beautiful glass, he shows us important glass, and tells us why even those pieces we might find less than beautiful are significant in the development of this expressive medium. Each piece -- all are from the Corning Museum of Glass collection -- was chosen for its historical value, representative nature or sheer masterpiece-value, and each is given a full-page photograph with facing-page commentary. A quick flip-through shows a stunning variety of effects; in one modern sculpture the glass takes on the gritty machine-made look of cinder-block, while on the next page a paperweight, made in the same year, encloses a stunningly realistic Indian pipe wildflower and tiny, exquisite human figures.

Some style books are consumer-directed, providing inspiration and ideas for homeowners intent on revamping their digs in decor reminiscent of the French provinces or the American Southwest. Russian Imperial Style (Laura Cerwinske, Prentice-Hall, 224 pages, $45) is not one of those, believe me. First of all, anyone who had Russian imperial style met a bad end in 1917. And anyone who aspires to Russian imperial style has a lot more money than you and me. This opulent volume covers the arts and artifacts of the czarist court from the coronation of Catherine the Great to the revolution. Here's what you'll find: jeweled snuffboxes, tiaras, diamond brooches, canopy beds with rich brocade hangings, hand-painted silk wall-coverings, silver-gilt place settings and, of course, Faberge Easter eggs. (The items are from private collections in the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union.) The author provides plenty of anecdotes from the lives of the rich and titled, too. This book will either bring out your Bolshevik instincts, or will serve as a welcome relief from the austerity of the penny-pinching, anything-but-gay '90s.

Photography Anyone who has flown cross-country has realized that the cities that seem so huge and dominant to urban folk are really just bumps on the landscape. This is still a rural country, and understood all too imperfectly by wingless creatures. For Amber Waves of Grain: America's Farmlands From Above (Harper/Weldon/Owen, 256 pages, $50), Swiss-born aerial photographer Georg Gerster took to the skies for a look at the "artistry" of the rural landscape, and of those farmers who shape it. Among hundreds of awesome images: a color-field painting that is actually a Florida disposal dump for imperfect tomatoes and squash; a quilt whose patches are rectangular fields of blooming flowers, grown for their seed; an abstract red and black painting that a horticulturist might recognize as a crop failure in a poppy field. In addition to offering an unusual perspective on the country's farmlands, this book is an impassioned tribute to the beleaguered farmer. Joyce Diamanti provides essays on the challenges, natural and un-natural, faced by these artists of the soil, and Garrison Keillor contributes an evocative (and characteristically lovable) foreword about his, and our, ties with the land.

The Story of Kodak (Douglas Collins, Abrams, 392 pages, $49.50) might be seen by some as a glossy 400-page commercial glorifying a single business. We'll forgive it, though, as Kodak's story (now over 100 years old) is not only the story of American photography, but encompasses much of our history, as well: Many of our most significant moments, as individuals and as a nation, have been recorded on Kodak film. While George Eastman did not invent the camera -- in fact, the book includes a tintype taken of Eastman at age 3 -- he invented a portable camera and film processing techniques that made photographers of us all. As his business grew from a one-horse job in Rochester to a mammoth multinational, it pioneered movies and color photography, too. This is a serious history, not just a picture book, but because of the nature of the subject, the pictures are arresting; included is everything from pictures from photography's infancy to early movie stills (the beginning of the "star system"), indelible historical images to works of photographic art by the likes of Weston and Ansel Adams.

All too often, nature only has the power to take our breath way when it is frozen on the printed page. Many of us never get to

experience nature in its full glory at first hand. And the others may not pay close enough attention to the wonder and mystery " inherent in such commonplace things as rocks, trees and sky. The photographs in Natural Light (Joseph Holmes, Nature Company, 144 pages, $100), which Mr. Holmes calls "a collection of moments distilled from the ancient interplay of sunlight upon remnants of wild creation," are actually a collaborative effort; the artist chooses the most dramatic among the "many wonderful patterns, liberally seasoned with chaos" offered by the American landscape, composes them superbly, and offers them to us to marvel at -- and perhaps to really see for the first time. As Barry Lopez points out in his foreword, such exquisite images might be seen as "untruthful" in a time of ecological peril, but as both he and the pictures themselves make clear, they are actually a call to arms. No one who is moved by Mr. Holmes' photography can possibly be indifferent to the future of our endangered wild places.

For over 100 years we've experienced the world's greatest events through a camera lens. The world's greatest people, too; their deeds may have made them famous, but their photographers made them icons. Camera Portraits (edited by Malcolm Rogers, Oxford, 320 pages, $60) is a collection of images from the National Portrait Gallery in London, and their subjects are notables in a variety of fields. This blending of artistry and celebrity makes them all the more fascinating; the best of them are so revealing that they deepen our knowledge of the people being depicted. And the portraits of people Americans might not know -- peers, English poets and the like -- are often so intimate we feel we have been introduced. Particularly memorable: Samuel Beckett scowling in front of a dumpster, Francis Bacon looking as scary as one of his paintings, soon-to-be-martyred poet Rupert Brooke meeting and holding our gaze, and the cover image, of an exquisite young Virginia Woolf.

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. . . . And in On Broadway: A Journey Uptown Through Time (photos and text by David W. Dunlap, Rizzoli, 327 pages, $65), Mr. Dunlap takes us on a tour that, while short on theatrical glitter, is jampacked with the mythos of New York. Broadway is Manhattan's Main Street, winding from the financial district to the Bronx and points north, and hitting plenty of the city's hot spots along the way: SoHo, the theater district, the Upper West Side, Harlem. And this book is like a glossy, hard-bound version of a walking tour. We get a block-by-block survey of the history and architectural significance of each important building, illustrated both with Mr. Dunlap's photos and with etchings, vintage photographs and other archival material. For non-New Yorkers there are a couple of surprises here. One, that some things truly old still exist in present-day Manhattan, including 17th century tombstones. And two, that there's still so much beauty in the gritty old city. Pictured in elegant black and white, its buildings have a grandeur that you might miss in person.

Lively arts A book dealing with silver screen depictions of history is a camp natural. Who among us doesn't have our favorite historical howlers? (I'm partial to the Genghis Khan of John Wayne -- "I know this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says 'Take her!' ") And indeed, the subject was covered with high irreverence several years ago by George McDonald Fraser. Baird Searles, the film historian responsible for Epic! History on the Big Screen (Abrams, 240 pages, $49.50), acknowledges the silly side of his topic -- he gives that away up front, with that campy exclamation point -- but reminds us that all those goofball epics starring Virginia Mayo or Victor Mature were amply balanced by the likes of "Spartacus," "Henry V" and Abel Gance's "Napoleon." In his chronologically organized text, which contrasts historical fact with its cinematic counterpart, Mr. Searles takes the subject seriously but not humorlessly; no one without a sense of humor could do justice to something as delicious as the costume film. There are plenty of wonderful pictures, of course; wait until you get a look at a very young Paul Newman in skimpy tunic (for "The Silver Chalice"), or Theda Bara vamping as Salome in her flapper version of seven veils!

Proof positive that the baby boomers are now the ruling class? The plethora of expensive, oversized books about the generation's childhood preoccupations. Past seasons have given us definitive looks at Barbie and Warner cartoons, and this year we have Snoopy (dressed by the great couturiers!) and Tom and Jerry. Each and every cartoon about the warring cat and mouse team is explicated and illustrated in Tom and Jerry (Patrick Brion, Harmony, 211 pages, $40), with credits, plot synopses and notes on the musical scores. It sounds like a humorless approach to a lightweight subject, but Mr. Brion's text is surprisingly interesting, as when he speculates on Jerry the Mouse's gender, or traces certain social changes as reflected in the cartoon. (The pair's nemesis, Mammy Two-Shoes, a stereotyped black maid, turned Irish in the '50s.) Readers who haven't seen these cartoons in a while might be surprised by the extent, and inventiveness, of the violence -- these animals pull stunts Bart Simpson would never dream of.

Shortly after the Ballet Suedois debuted in 1920, a French critic asked "What ballet company has ever put on such a display, bringing together at one time the most famous musicians and the cream of contemporary French artists?" The answer, evidently, was "none," and this troupe of young Swedes, who performed at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, continued to make avant-garde history for five years. As innovative dance troupes go, the Ballet Suedois has not achieved the lasting reputation of the earlier Ballets Russes, but it was immensely influential in the early '20s, when it brought together such talents as Cocteau, Satie, de Chirico, Leger, and Rene Clair to create a "total art" for the 20th century. The Swedish Ballet (Bengt Hager, Abrams, 304 pages, $95) is the definitive history of the company, written by its official archivist, who worked with founder Rolf Marie in the '40s. In addition to providing historical material, Mr. Hager brings together set and costume illustrations (by stellar artists of the period), production photographs, posters, analyses of each ballet, biographies of the company's leading lights and contemporary critical commentary. It's an interesting look at an era that beats out even our own for artistic controversy.

Animals Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife (James Balog, Abrams, 160 pages, $49.50) has a serious-sounding title, and deals with a serious topic. Mr. Balog's photographic subjects are among the last members of their species, for reasons that largely have to do with human greed. The photographer himself provides the commentary, which is often angry -- when he discusses the animals' declining numbers and the often stupid reasons why -- but can be touching, too. (He tells us, for example, that his cheetah model purred when its belly was scratched.) The most surprising thing about this book, though, is the photography. The animals are not photographed in the wild, or anything resembling a natural habitat, but (to show their alienation in a man-made world, perhaps?) are shot in highly artificial studio settings. A sitting panda poses against white fabric in the formal atmosphere of a Chinese theater. A gray wolf howls in a half-built cinder-block garage. An Asian elephant is swathed in gauze like a fashion model, and a zebra's stripes make an abstract pattern when seen through slashed plastic. The results are striking and often surreal, but do not rob these magnificent "survivors" of their dignity.

Common sense tells us that we don't really need another cat book. Everything that could possibly have been written about cat care, cat behavior and the cat in history and literature has been written. Often. Common sense be damned -- what cat-lover, no matter how crowded his or her bookshelf, could resist another cat book illustrated with plenty of incredibly cute pictures? The Illustrated Cat's Life (Warren Eckstein and Fay Eckstein, Fawcett Columbine, 128 pages, $19.95) is the latest entry in this admittedly crowded field, and is a worthy one; the Ecksteins' text, which touches on many facets of cat life and lore, is affectionate without being soppy, and knowledgeable without getting into a lot of technical detail. (Warren Eckstein is a well-known animal behaviorist, as well as a human psychologist, but this is a book for the layman.) The photos, from a variety of sources, will make cat-fanciers purr. Even Paulina Porizkova must take a bad picture now and then. But cats? Never!

Bears have always suffered from a split personality, as far as their public image is concerned. As Candace Savage tells us in Grizzly Bears (foreword by Andy Russell, Sierra Club, 164 pages, $35), these immense beasts can smash the spine of a moose with one swat of a paw, and have a reputation for ferocity that has caused them to be hunted to extinction in some areas. But they are awfully cute, too, and their look of cuddliness and approachability (bred into us thanks to teddy bear-filled childhoods, no doubt) has occasionally had tragic consequences for unwary humans. Ms. Savage's book is, yes, filled with often-adorable photos, some so intimate you can't imagine how she managed to get so up-close-and-personal. But her prose shows her respect for the intelligent creatures who have, in their time, been treated both as gods and as subjects for bloody sport. Many animal books these days are concerned with the survival of the species, and this is no exception. By losing these rapidly dwindling bears, the author says, "we risk losing our connections with the forces that sustain and renew life on our planet."

Potpourri Not all coffee-table books are for a general audience. (Last year's Pictorial History of American Conservatism" comes to mind.) One of these is The Power to Heal (Rick Smolan, Phillip Moffitt and Matthew Naythons, M.D., Prentice-Hall, 224 pages, $40). Not everyone will be receptive to a book subtitled "Ancient Arts and NTC Modern Medicine," and filled with pictures of everything from gamma-ray brain surgery to Brazilian faith-healers to a senior citizen pom-pom squad. Here in Baltimore, M.D., though, lots of people are sure to have at least one doctor on their gift list who will admire this handsome tribute to the healing arts around the ++ world. The photographs are by photojournalist Rick Smolan, creator of those "Day in the Life of . . ." books, and include some powerful (if sometimes grisly for us laymen) images; some notable writers contribute essays on topics of concern to them -- among them Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on mourning rituals, Norman Cousins on "the healer within."

Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places (text by Philip Wilkinson, illustrations by Robert Ingpen, Viking Studio, 256 pages, $29.95) might be classified as a travel book, but it's for people who do their traveling in their imaginations. The 41 places Mr. Wilkinson examines are (or were) real, but their reality has been obscured by either time or legend; he looks at each site freshly, sifting through the historic and archeological evidence to provide (admittedly speculative) information about daily life in Troy or Easter Island or Ur. It's an easy book to get lost in, especially if you are fascinated with ancient civilizations and their modern discoverers. Mr. Ingpen's color illustrations are believably detailed, but have a sense of mystery, too. Some of the re-creations of now-ruined sites are spookily reminiscent of what modern architects are up to, though: the Palace of Minos could be the creation of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Temple of Amun in Karnak might be a convention center in Las Vegas. And were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon inspirational to the architects of Scarlett Place?

You don't have to be a Baltimorean to feel proud of the Pride. The stirring beauty of the latter-day clipper ships that have borne that name is shown to terrific advantage in Sailing with Pride (Photographs by Greg Pease, text by Thomas C. Gillmer and Barbara Bozzuto, C. A. Baumgartner, unnumbered pages, $49.95), a chronicle of the voyages of the first Pride, and of the building and launching of the second. We see Baltimore's "goodwill ambassador" at home in the Inner Harbor, on the open sea and with backgrounds of Irish castles, Spanish mountain peaks and San Francisco skyscrapers; we watch her energetic young crew laboring on the deck and grinning from the rigging. And we follow the adventure through excerpts from 10 years worth of ship's logs. This book is, however, as heart-breaking as it is heart-lifting. The 1986 squall that sank the Pride and killed the captain and three crew members was a tragedy as shattering to Baltimoreans as the Challenger disaster, and you won't be able to keep it out of your mind, even as you look at the most joyful of the photographs. And who could read Captain Armin Elsaesser's log entries unmoved? Especially when he writes, just a few days before his death, "What lies ahead is unknown -- a source of mystery and apprehension . . . always moving, always changing, always wondering what the next passage will be like and what we will discover at the other end. This time our destination is home. . . ."

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