Great Reads to Wrap and Unwrap

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THE GARDENS OF SPAIN. Photographs by Michael George, Text by Consuelo M. Correcher Harry N. Abrams, 200 pp., $60

THE SOUTH: A TREASURY OF ART AND LITERATURE Edited by Lisa Howorth, Hugh Lauter Levin Assoc./ Macmillan, 368 pp., $75

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY SPEECHES, Edited by Brian MacArthur, Viking, 488 pp., $35

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

HISTORY OF THE WORLD, By J. M. Roberts, Oxford University Press 952 pp., $45

MOZART: FROM CHILD PRODIGY TO TRAGIC HERO, By Michel Parouty

Discoveries/Harry N. Abrams, 191 pp., $12.95 paper

THE AGE OF SHAKESPEARE, By Francois Laroque, Discoveries/Harry N. Abrams, 191 pp., $12.95 paper

WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW: FROM FOX HUNTING TO WHIST - THE FACTS OF DAILY LIFE IN NINETEEnTH-CENTURY ENGLAND, By Daniel Pool, Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $25

PEMBERLEY: OR PRIDE AND PREJUDICE CONTINUED, By Emma Tennant

St. Martin's Press, 184 pp., $18.95

PRESUPTION: AN ENTERTAINMENT, By Julia Barrett, M. Evans & Co., 238 pp., $19.95

THE OXFORD SHERLOCK HOLMES, By Arthur Conan Doyle, 9 volumes, $99

LUCREZIA FLORIANI, By George Sand, Translated by Julius Eker

Academy Chicago 230 pp. $20 cloth, $11 paper

ELIZABETH GASKELL: A HABIT OF STORIES, By Jenny Uglow, Farrar Straus Giroux 690 pp., $35

AUDUBON: LIFE AND ART IN THE AMERICAN WILDERNESS, By Shirley Streshinsky, Villard, 407 pp., $25

MONTANA 1948, By Larry Watson, Milkweed Editions 175 pp., $17.95

TWENTIETH CENTURY RUSSIAN POETRY: SILVER AND STEEL, Selected by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Edited by Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 1078 pp., $40

JAPANESE NO DRAMAS, Edited and translated by Royall Tyler,

Penguin, 360 pp., $12.95 paper THE Christmas season always brings piles of gift books heaped in eye-catching displays. But not all books suitable for giving need be lavish objects of the bookmaker's art. Many categories of books, from gorgeously illustrated outsize tomes and boxed editions of the classics to well-chosen anthologies, absorbing biographies and histories, and finely written fiction, may prove perfect gifts.

Some coffee-table books are more substantive and sustaining than others. In The Gardens of Spain, landscape architect and author Consuelo Correcher describes the richly various legacies - from Greco-Roman to Islamic - that have nourished Spanish horticulture, with its patios, fountains, pools, terraces, and appetite for cultivating rare and exotic plants.

Beautiful color photographs amply illustrate the horticulture and architectural delights of the Iberian peninsula, from the magnificent palace gardens of La Alhambra to the misty vales of Galicia and the sun-drenched patios of Cordoba. Settings for spiritual mediation, botanical experimentation, private recreation, or public display, these gardens are things of beauty in themselves and may also furnish ideas to gardeners far beyond the borders of Spain.

Many born in the American South - and many who've never set foot below the Mason-Dixon line - are fascinated by the region. Whether or not one shares this fascination, one cannot fail to be impressed by the thoughtfully selected writings, painting, and photographs assembled by Lisa Howorth in The South: A Treasury of Art and Literature.

From pre-colonial explorers to present-day humorist, the voices and visions in these pages represent an astonishing range of viewpoints and experiences: Alexis de Tocqueville's horrified account of trigger-happy ``Southern justice,'' Frederick Douglass's scathing portrait of his degenerate former ``master,'' song lyrics like ``Train Whistle Blues'' and ``I'll Fly Away,'' fiction by William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright, plus memoirs, speeches, diaries, cartoons, and quilts. There's enough humor, sadness, passion, ugliness, and beauty here to interest even a Yankee.

In an age of photo-ops and sound bites, the live spoken word still has power to change minds, hearts, and history. The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches, edited by Brian MacArthur, affords a wonderful opportunity to examine the history and major issues of this century through some 150 of the orations that inspired, electrified, or bamboozled public opinion, from Churchill's stirring call to ``Blood, toil, tears, and sweat'' and John F. Kennedy's New Frontier to the rabble-rousing rhetoric of Hitler, Mussolini, and Joe McCarthy. From feminism and civil rights to the ongoing debates between socialism and capitalism, isolation and intervention, self-reliance and social concern, the issues and viewpoints collected here tell a dramatic story of our time in the first-person original voices of influential and eloquent figures, from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela.

In an age of fashionable ``micro-history,'' few historians are willing to risk the political incorrectness of aspiring to write anything as grandiose as a History of the World. But this is what Oxford historian J. M. Roberts has done in his landmark book bearing that title. Beginning with a lesson in geology and the first sighting of species Homo sapiens, this highly readable, soberly conceived book unabashedly emphasizes the annals of Western civilization, without slighting the importance of Eastern, African, and Middle Eastern civilizations. Intelligently organized, insightful, and balanced, it makes a fine addition to any library. First published in 1976, it has been fully revised and updated to encompass the major world changes of the 1980s and '90s.

Educational, if less weighty, are the attractively illustrated paperbacks of Abrams's ``Discoveries'' series, selling for $12.95 apiece, with titles like Mozart: From Child Prodigy to Tragic Hero and The Age of Shakespeare. Part history, part biography, part documentary, part critical appraisal, these books provide a surprisingly large amount of material in a handy and diverting format.

Sometimes one needs knowledge of a more frivolous sort to fully appreciate the ``big picture.'' The customs, laws and manners, household appliances, clothing, and conveyances commonplace in 19th-century England are mysteries to many of us encountering them in the novels of favorite 19th-century authors. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist - The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, by Daniel Pool, covers everything from popular card games, puddings, and sports to the written and unwritten rules that governed courtship, marriage, child-rearing, social etiquette, and finance. This guide proves to be as readable and entertaining as it is solid and reliably researched.

Inveterate Jane Austen fans might well enjoy one or both of two would-be ``sequels'' to her classic ``Pride and Prejudice.'' From British novelist Emma Tennant comes Pemberley: Or Pride and Prejudice Continued, a remarkably close approximation of the Austen style and stance that focuses on the difficulties encountered by Elizabeth and Darcy after they marry. Meanwhile, a pair of American writers under the pen name Julia Barrett offers Presumption: An Entertainment, wherein a cheerfully serene Darcy household serves as background to the romantic dilemmas of Elizabeth's nubile young sister-in-law, Georgiana. The sensibility of Tennant's novel is closer to the spirit of Austen's; the atmosphere and prose style of ``Presumption'' are - intentionally - closer to the spirit of parody and camp. Both are amusing, and, since the story ``continued'' in each contradicts the other, neither can presume to be the last word on what ``really'' happened after Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy vowed to live happily ever after.

For fans of the great Sherlock Holmes who want no sequels, substitutes, or copies, the complete and authentic adventures of the legendary detective - expertly edited and annotated by a team of Holmes scholars - are available in a handsome, boxed set of nine volumes: The Oxford Sherlock Holmes. A lovely gift for confirmed Baker Street fans, it's also an inviting way to introduce Conan Doyle's resilient hero to readers unacquainted with him.

More popular in her own time than Austen, the colorful and courageous Frenchwoman who wrote under the pen name George Sand was a prolific novelist and famed nonconformist. Her books, which once delighted, touched, and scandalized her contemporaries, have become difficult to find in English translation. Lucrezia Floriani, available in paper or cloth, affords readers a chance to immerse themselves in the engagingly garrulous, emotionally expressive style of narrative dear to 19th-century Romantics, with its story of a warm-hearted, free-spirited, self-made George Sand-like woman (the eponymous Lucrezia), who becomes involved in an affair with a moody Polish prince (clearly modeled on Sand's real-life love, the composer Frederic Chopin).

An exceptionally fine 19th-century novelist whose works, though still underrated, truly stand the test of time is the subject of Jenny Uglow's equally fine biography, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. The author of ``Cranford,'' ``Ruth,'' ``Wives and Daughters,'' and other novels, friend and biographer of Charlotte Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell (as she was known) seems to have embodied the most admirable and agreeable aspects of Victorianism: A highly respectable minister's wife and a devoted mother, she was also a high-minded radical, impatient with social injustices, sympathetic to the poor and the outcast. This full-scale biography does justice to both the writer and the woman.

The first half of the last century, when America was still covered in the natural splendor of what Longfellow called ``the forest primeval,'' were years in which artist and naturalist John James Audubon undertook his ground-breaking documentation of America's winged wildlife. Shirley Streshinsky's Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness tells the fascinating story of his challenging and venturesome life.

Larry Watson's compelling short novel Montana 1948 is, among other things, a searching look at the frontier values of the American West. Set in a small town in eastern Montana just after the end of World War II, this evocative, tightly written piece of storytelling presents a family plunged into a severe moral crisis when one of its most admired members is discovered to have committed a crime. The conflict between bravado and a quieter kind of courage is seen through the eyes of the narrator, a young boy coming of age, who is a lot wiser than his years. This novel will appeal to anyone who appreciates first-rate fiction.

In this century, under totalitarianism, Russian poets often found themselves in the roles of prophets, dissidents, exiles, or martyrs. Some idea of the vast variety of their voices can be gleaned from Yevgeny Yevtushenko's compendious anthology, Twentieth Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel, featuring more than 650 selections from the work of more than 650 poets, along with notes, glossary, and introduction. Yevtushenko and his fellow editors Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward have divided the book chronologically, beginning with ``Children of the Golden Age'' (poets born before 1900, including Aleksandr Blok, Marina Tsvetayeva, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam), and proceed next through the ages of ``Silver'' (those born before the Revolution) and ``Steel'' (born before World War II, like Joseph Brodsky and Yevtushenko himself). The last section is poets born after World War II currently embarking on their careers. Avant-garde or traditional; classical or romantic; witty, outraged, passionate, or lighthearted; these poems present an exciting range of style and subject matter.

Japanese No theater flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, an aristocratic, poetic, highly sophisticated blend of formal elements that included music, verse, mask, dance, and myth. A major treasure of Japan's cultural heritage, No theater also captured the imagination of Western poets and dramatists, most notably Yeats and Pound. While there is no substitute for seeing and hearing drama performed, the two dozen plays chosen, translated, and annotated by Royall Tyler in Japanese No Dramas are an excellent way for Western readers to acquaint themselves with this classic tradition.

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