Art books: A perfect holiday escape

These books offer a window on art, photography, and exotic cultures.

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Half the fun of the holiday season is perusing the gift-book aisle: savoring the gorgeous images, and daydreaming over books about far-off lands.

Such books may introduce one to a completely different aesthetic, and the best ones offer a window into the cultural environment that gave it form. "Tibet Style," with images by fashion photographer Yann Romain (Flammarion, $34.95), looks at the clothing and adornment of those Tibetans who live in a rural, high-plateau area leagues away from the capital, Lhasa, with its cellphones and smog. The people in the villages of Amdo and Kham love Western sunglasses and aspire to more than a hardscrabble existence. Their clothing not only protects them from the climate (harsh winds and eight months of bone-chilling cold), but it also recalls the draped, wrapped, and elaborately tied layering of their nomadic ancestors. These influences are rolled together with a smattering of Chinese, Indian, Mongolian, and even Turkish styles to create a highly individualized method of dressing.

While some readers might find it odd that a book explores "style" in an impoverished and remote country, the objective here is to show how people have adapted fashion to suit their own purposes. Instead of being driven by whatever trends are popular, these Tibetans retain and pass down through generations elaborately appliquéd coats made of animal skins or fur. Instead of rejecting the symbols of the various religions that have swept over them – whether Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian – they incorporate those symbols and colors, along with Western influences, into their dress. The result is a fascinating personal style unequaled on the catwalks of Paris, Milan, and New York.

Recommended: 11 best books of December, according to Amazon's editors

If Tibetan villagers can transform our concept of fashion, architecture can transform our notions of worship. "House of Worship: Sacred Spaces in America" (Dominique Browning, editor; Assouline, $45) features more than 30 edifices devoted to prayer and contemplation. These buildings, all in the US, run the gamut from a simple Quaker meetinghouse to a Byzantine-inspired cathedral.

Anyone can worship anywhere, and as Ms. Browning points out in the introduction, "a prayer whispered under a canopy of redwoods is as powerful as one that rings out in a cathedral." But churches, temples, and mosques are constructed out of a desire to create and sustain a community of believers. The collective experience of worship is of primary importance, although a sensitive architect will seek to instill the means for individual communion with God.

Religious architecture in America was largely a reaction against, or an invocation of, European styles. Visionaries such as H.H. Richardson, with his design for Trinity Church in Boston, and Bernard Maybeck, who designed First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley, Calif., transcended the arguments for or against European influences. In the late 20th century, Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and Fay Jones's redwood chapel at Powell Gardens in Missouri grafted onto ecclesiastical buildings a sense of power and repose – with modern overtones.

Repose is not a word one would apply to skiing, and leafing through "The Art of Skiing: Vintage Posters From the Golden Age of Winter Sport" (Jenny De Gex, Universe, $45) reveals an avalanche of vintage posters of graceful skiers, skaters, and bobsledders in action. These colorful advertisements from the 1890s to the 1950s evoke the romance of winter holidays on the slopes of Norway, Austria, France, the Canadian Rockies, and New England. The collection, which includes about 800 posters, was assembled by Mason Beekly and is now housed at the Mammoth Ski Museum in Mammoth Lake, Calif.

Tourist boards and railroad companies hired graphic artists to produce advertisements that glamorized the winter-resort experience. The vertical aspects of skiing translated perfectly into illustrations with strong vertical and diagonal lines, which convey a sense of motion. The result: a perfect pairing of subject and design.

The pairing of exceptionalphotographs and archeological expertise in "The Maya: Histories and Treasures of Ancient Civilizations" (Davide Domenici, White Star, $35) expands a reader's appreciation of this ancient people. The elegance of carved stone and chiseled deities, together with the refined architecture of the tombs and temples, shows a sophisticated sensibility. Detailed photographs capture the texture of the stonework, while each era in Mayan history is thoroughly explored in the text. In contemplating the timelessness of Mayan art, it is impossible not to wonder: What did these people know that has been lost to us?

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