Coffee-table books explore far-flung, close to home

A tough economy has had a way of turning even seasoned globetrotters into armchair travelers. Fortunately, the new crop of coffee-table books for holiday gift giving offers many titles for those with a taste for the exotic. Plus, we detail a few books that explore other topics in depth.

“The World’s Must-See Places” (DK Publishing, $25) is a tour of more than 100 essential sites, from the renowned Sydney Opera House and the Great Pyramid at Giza to lesser-known destinations such as the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia or the mountaintop fortress of Masada in Israel. DK’s signature 3-D cutaway illustrations reveal highlights of each structure’s interior, and photo spreads and detail shots help put you there.

“Secret Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Best Hidden Travel Gems” (National Geographic, $40) explores some less traveled corners, including the Pang Mapha Coffin Caves in northern Thailand. In these serpentine caves where an ancient unidentified people deposited their dead in ornately sculpted coffins carved from giant teak logs, you can climb and belly crawl into “dark, dusty caverns littered in rotting wood, human teeth and bones.” At least no one will nod off during your vacation slide show.

“The New 1,000 Places to See Before You Die” (Workman, $19.95) is in truth more of a guidebook than a coffee-table tome, an updated softcover volume that includes 200 new destinations and covers 28 new countries. It guides readers to a sunrise balloon safari over Masai Mara in Kenya, a round on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, and a tour of the moody moonscapes and stone castles of coastal County Clare, Ireland. The 600 color photographs are small, leaving more room for info on places to stay and shop and the best times to go. Because you are going before you die, right?

“Pilgrimage” (Random House, $50): Annie Leibovitz is one of the most celebrated celebrity portraitists of our time, but this project shows her interests in matters a little less fleeting, mainly historic places linked to genius or greatness. She began this series by shooting Emily Dickinson’s house, then Niagara Falls. And then, realizing she was maybe onto something, she started making out the equivalent of a bucket list of subjects she longed to shoot, such as Julia Margaret Cameron’s Isle of Wight, and the trails above Ansel Adams’ Yosemite Valley. From Elvis to Annie Oakley, her passions are eccentric, but her eye for detail is sharp, capturing everything from the pattern of the cane bed frame upon which Thoreau slept in his Walden Pond cabin to the sulfuric fury of an Old Faithful eruption.

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“Ocean Soul” (National Geographic, $31.50): As a contract photojournalist for National Geographic since 1998 covering marine wildlife and underwater environments, Brian Skerry has frequently journeyed to the Earth’s far reaches. And even there, he’s found the damaging footprint of industrialized man. Skerry shoots and writes with the eye of an environmentalist, and “Ocean Soul” makes you care about the protect-our-oceans cause. In the central Pacific — “where islands and atolls dot the sea like jewels tossed upon a blanket of blue velvet,” Skerry evocatively writes — he shares a positive discovery. The coral of the remote Phoenix Islands (five days by boat from Fiji), damaged by El Niño’s thermal heating, are growing anew in gorgeous green and cinnamon hues.

“Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty“ (Artisan, $45): In 2010, shortly after becoming the first living recipient of the United States’ highest military decoration since the Vietnam War, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta said, “Every single soldier I’ve been with in two combat tours deserves to wear this just as much as I do.” Giunta’s humility aside, the 144 men profiled by Peter Collier and photographed by Nick Del Calzo in this third edition earned their honors at, as the book aptly describes it, “the intersection of happenstance and hell.” Giunta’s show of courage came in Afghanistan’s “Valley of Death” when, caught in a moonlight ambush by Taliban fighters, he saved several fellow Americans. Fewer than 85 Medal of Honor heroes survived at the time of publishing, but this update helps ensure that their inspiring stories are available to new generations.

“Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas” (Antique Collectors Club, $49.95): Having chronicled “American Ruins” in 2007, Arthur Drooker returns with a photographic exploration of mystery-filled ancient sites in Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The renowned ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru and Mexico’s Chichén Itzá are among the 30 that the photographer visited during this three-year project, but so are more obscure sites in Barbados, St. Kitts and Martinique. Drooker shoots it all with a specially adapted infrared camera that plays up the otherworldly atmosphere of the ruins, attempting to capture what he calls their “melancholy beauty.” Even photographic purists who would prefer to drink in the sites without the sharp infrared contrast would consider Drooker’s mission accomplished.

“The Louvre: All the Paintings” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $75): This makes the High Museum of Art’s three-year, seven-exhibit “Louvre Atlanta” partnership that brought nearly 500 art objects from the great Paris museum here seem like a mere appetizer. At nearly 800 pages and weighing more than 10 pounds, this slipcased volume presents all 3,022 paintings currently on display in the Louvre’s permanent collection. The book is divided into the museum’s four main painting collections — the Italian, Northern, Spanish and French schools — presenting the paintings chronologically by each artist’s date of birth. Four hundred of the most iconic works are highlighted by 300-word essays by art historians Anja Grebe and Vincent Pomarède. The included DVD-ROM allows readers a gallery-by-gallery tour.

“Damn Good Dogs!: The Real Story of Uga, the University of Georgia’s Bulldog Mascots” (University of Georgia Press, $34.95): Here is owner Sonny Seiler’s explanation behind Uga V’s famed 1996 lunge toward Auburn receiver Robert Baker, who was celebrating a scoring catch a mite too exuberantly. “He viewed him as a trespasser — and seeing him in our end zone scoring the game’s first touchdown, he was right.” For Bulldog fans, Uga can do no wrong, and this detailed history of English bulldogs Ugas I through VIII (and temporary mascots, including the current Russ) should fit just right under the tree of any disciple of the red and black. Seiler, of course, is a noted Savannah attorney, and his book co-written with former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer Kent Hannon is chock-full of evidence of Uga’s eminence, including more than 500 photos, newspaper clippings and ads.

“The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War” (National Geographic, $40): As its 150th anniversary is marked, are there still untold tales from perhaps the most documented conflict in American history? Acclaimed Civil War historian James Robertson (“Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend”) answers yes with 132 true personal stories of soldiers and civilians. Among the book’s cast, you’ll meet characters including Elizabeth “Crazy Betsy” Van Lew, a Richmond woman who became one of the war’s most successful spies by affecting eccentric behavior that made Confederates who knew she sympathized with the Union think she was “misguided but harmless,” Robertson writes. Harmless, she wasn’t. Ulysses S. Grant later praised her for providing “the most valuable information received from Richmond during the War.”

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