Gift Books That Please the Eye

I'm not sure at what point in the history of publishing that art and photography books began to be called "gift books," which to me seems a derisive term (think easy all-purpose present for that hard-to-please whomever). That's a shame because the best books in this category are so much more. For me, the most rewarding and pleasurable of the lot educate as well as dazzle. Among the thousands of books that flood into Book World each year are these art/photo tomes, which begin arriving in rapid-fire succession starting in mid-September. I have the privilege (and giddy joy) of helping to select Book World's "best gift books of the year," coverage that will appear in an online gallery that accompanies our Dec. 2 holiday issue. Until then, here's a purely idiosyncratic list of my top five favorites (in no particular order).

1. Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power, By Martin Gray (Sterling, $35)
Gray was inspired to pursue photography and travel the globe by National Geographic magazine at the tender age of 8 (NG would eventually employ him, too), a passion further stoked by a sojourn in India with his family at age 12. But it was a lifelong series of spiritual visions that compelled him to seek out the sacred and extraordinary in 80 countries, becoming a modern-day pilgrim, albeit one toting professional lenses. This book is a culmination of his 15-year journey: breathtaking photographs, coupled with his erudite text, of 1,000 holy sites the world over. Gray hopes to raise awareness of the fragile state of these holy sites. This is a book easy to get lost in, all the while wishing you had enough travel miles to reach Machu Picchu.

2. Houses of the Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made Amercia and the Way They Lived, By Hugh Howard; photographs by Robert Straus III (Artisan, $50)
Living in Washington, we're surrounded by history. It beckons from roadside markers you zip past on highways and byways throughout Maryland and Virginia, and from graceful edifices lining the Dictrict's grand avenues. That makes it difficult to impress us with alluring photos of famous houses and stories of their illustrious tenants, but this book snagged me. It's a timely (and sumptuously illustrated) glimpse into the domestic arrangements of the men who shaped history. The Founding Fathers of the title encompass not only many of the Signers, but a host of other politicians (Edmund Randolph), tradesmen (Benjamin Henry Latrobe) and military men (Nathanael Greene), to name just a few. Terrific features include a "cast of characters" to help sort out who's who, and a glossary of architectural terms in case you can't recall what a lath or a quoin is.

3. A French Alphabet Book of 1814: For Alfred Bourdier de Bearegard Created by His Uncle Arnaud at the Chateau de Beaumont de Beauregard, By Charles Plante (Rizzoli, $24.95)
A distinguished fine arts dealer based in London, Plante offers a beautiful reproduction of a rare 19th-century abecedarium created by a French aristocrat for the education of his 2-year-old nephew. These winsome watercolors depict household objects, modes of dress, buildings and instructions on manners and morals - everything a young nobleman should recognize and appreciate. Many of the illustrations also bear amusing puns (all the rage in the decorative arts of the period). The reproductions are wonderful, the endpapers lovely. Nothing short of a treasure rescued from the dusty attic of history.

4. The Society Portrait: From David to Warhol, By Gabriel Badea-Paun (Vendome, $75)
The society portrait has always dwelled in an elusive, almost ethereal plane in the painting pantheon, the province of the wealthy, the powerful, the well-bred. I associate it with Gilded Age extravagances, ever since being struck by John Singer Sargent's enormous painting The Family of the Duke of Marlborough, in the National Gallery's blockbuster exhibit "Treasure Houses of Britain" more than 20 years ago. It's easy to romanticize the period when confronted with such glorious, emotive brushstrokes, even if daily life in the Victorian era was grim for most. This book, a masterful examination of society portraits, is studded with amazing reproductions from the early 1800s to the 20th-century's nouveau riche. It's captivating and insightful, a catalogue of the various periods' aspirations and societal mores. Does anyone have portraits made anymore? Even before photography began to supplant the art after World War I, it was an expensive (and laborious) proposition. Gazing at these pages, though, one can be forgiven for wishing the genre Godspeed, even if you haven't any hope of actually appearing in one yourself.

5. The History of Venice in Painting, Edited by Georges Duby & Guy Lobrichon (Abbeville, $235)
Here's a book that packs a visual wallop. At 171/2 inches tall and almost 111/2 inches wide, leafing through its pages is best done on a large table. The authors concede that their subject matter is "exhaustively documented elsewhere," but they go on to explain the primary purpose of the book is to chart the rise of an artistic aesthetic unique to the city-state. They have recorded Venice's evolution as it reinvented itself to weather the changing winds of politics and commerce. The once influential maritime republic's latest incarnation is that of tourist mecca and repoistory of an amazing collection of art and architecture. The "Venetian Style" is something artists and well-heeled travelers on the Grand Tour have flocked to digest in the city's churches and palazzos for centuries. This book is magnificent. The color plates, many unfolding across two pages (four can be unfurled in splendid foldouts), trace the arc of Venetian history and represents generations of masters: Paolo Veneziano, Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio, Veronese, Tintoretto, Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner, John Ruskin, Whistler and Manet to name just a few. And it comes encased in a silken slipcase, de rigueur for art book aficionados.

-- Christopher Schoppa

By Christian Pelusi |  November 22, 2007; 7:03 AM ET Christopher Schoppa
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Love your description of Sacred Earth. That's the one I hope someone gets me for Christmas!

Posted by: ghostdancer | November 26, 2007 8:37 PM

Mr. Schoppa,
These books are so expensive to produce. And presumably so expensive to buy. Why do there continue to be so many? What is the financial logic to it?
I frankly am amazed that these books get produced at all.
Do they sell?
And to whom?

Posted by: marcy | November 27, 2007 12:12 AM

Dear Mr. Schoppa,

Here's a new book you may consider including in one of your book review programs. The cover is indeed pleasing if not mysterious to the naked eye.

I'm the author of "Storm Over Morocco" which is about a desperate escape from an Islamic sect which accused me of sabotage and imprisoned me. I recently participated in author events in New York City, notably at the Mid-Manhattan Library and other cities.

This is a true story about me, the author; I was wrongly accused of being a Zionist spy in 1978 and tried for sabotage, a capital crime, by an extremist Islamic group in Morocco.

While searching for a universal religion in Casablanca, I was invited to study Islam in a mosque; it turned out to be controlled by a militant Moslem group which promptly imprisoned me.

My questions as to the treatment of women served as a catalyst for one of the Islamic gurus to unjustly charge me with being a Zionist spy and sabotage of the "back to Islam" movement. I was eventually acquitted by an internal inquisitorial tribunal, but remained a prisoner behind the towering walls of the mosque located in the outskirts of Casablanca.

This harrowing ordeal was followed by excruciating suspense built up during attempts to escape the 10-foot high compound.

The book is an autobiographical narrative about my spiritual path and about fundamentalist religions and brainwashing techniques. It also discusses the status of women in orthodox/fundamentalist Islamic communities.

I was able to withstand total conversion to an extreme version of Islam due to profound knowledge of different religions and the desire to focus and meditate on the common denominators among them.

"Storm Over Morocco", however, does not criticize Islam and often portrays me as a student who learned a great deal from that religion.

This experience has inspired me to organize and participate in interfaith events including but not limited to fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians in Israel and Palestine

I am a tenured professor at the University of Paris, adjunct professor at Golden Gate University (San Francisco) and member of the California and Marseille Bars.

After a two world author tours (signing and reading events), commencing in February, 2007, and ending in October, in the United States, France, England, Israel and Palestine, covering 35 cities and 12 (US) states, I have returned to Paris.

During that time I was invited to speak before members of the Ashland Unitarian Church in February. In July, I spoke at a conference at Cardiff University at a conference entitled "Theory, Faith, Culture" on the following topic: "Confrontation between Fundamentalists and Universalists in the New Age of Religious Freedom".

I later was interviewed by a New York radio station which is to be broadcasted at the end of October and was a participant during a panel discussion concerning spiritual issues broadcasted live by a Houston Time Warner television station. Finally, I gave a power point presentation about my book and interfaith activities at the Mid-Manhattan Library in New York City in October.

Two reviews have already been published and can be found at my web site at: and my publisher's web site at on my New York publisher's website at

Would you consider writing and publishing a review of the book? In the alternative, would you consider writing a feature story about my experiences in Morocco?

I can send you a pdf copy of the book or a hard copy. For more information about the book, including a copy of the prologue and my bio you could access my web site at You can also find the book at and at the publisher's site noted above.

You can contact me at any time by calling my cell number or sending an email. The following is my contact information: Cell: 011 33 6 7827 9607, Email:


Frank Romano

Posted by: Frank Romano | December 11, 2007 2:30 AM

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