Page-turning selections of literature, art appreciation, history and nature, chosen by Seattle Times book critic Mary Ann Gwinn for giving and receiving.

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Lit Life

I’m ready to give the book the nine-lives prize. How many times has it been ruled obsolete? And yet, people are buying and enjoying print books more than ever.

I’ve used an e-reader on occasion, but when it comes to the gift books featured below, there’s nothing like the printed page for displaying their superior graphics, gorgeous illustrations and well-organized information. There’s something for everyone here, from the lighthearted (“The Aloha Shirt”) to the sublime (“Fireflies). Browse this list like you would a library shelf — I hope you find something for a loved one, or for yourself.

Objects of our affection

“Tugboats Illustrated: History, Technology, Seamanship,” by Paul Farrell (Norton, $49.95). Who doesn’t love tugboats? These sturdy workhorses of the waterfront are a reminder of our maritime past and full-fledged participants in the present. Farrell’s authoritative text gets a boost from both photos and illustrations. Seattle’s Foss Maritime and the Seattle Tugboat Race get a nod … as well they should.

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“The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands” by Dale Hope with Yvon Chouinard, foreword by Gerry Lopez (Pategonia, $60). This tribute to Hawaii’s favorite shirt, written by a veteran of the Aloha shirt industry, is a perfect antidote to a gray December day, or the next best thing to hopping a plane for Hawaii for a round of aloha shirt shopping.

“Vogue: The Shoe” by Harriet Quick (Conran, $125). Nearly 100 years of fashionable footwear from the pages of Vogue magazine are documented in this elegant doorstop of a book (which comes, like shoes, in its own elegant box). It’s an extravagance, but a delicious one, filled with shoes of every imaginable flavor; you might wish they could jump off the page onto your feet.— Moira Macdonald


“The Book: A Cover-To-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time” by Keith Houston(Norton, $29.95). There are lots of books about books — this one stands out by virtue of its beautiful design, compact size and the author’s erudition, wit and predilection for puns. “A splendid, challenging mixture of information and fun,” said Kirkus Reviews.

“The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations,” written and compiled by Emily Zach(Chronicle Books, $40). Seattle author Zach got the plum assignment of pulling together the story of author and illustrator Beatrix Potter (it’s the 150th anniversary of her birth). Many paintings and illustrations showcase her exquisite art, including watercolor landscapes that eventually inspired “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and other children’s books. Another book, “A Celebration of Beatrix Potter” (Frederick Warne, $25), collects the work of 30 contemporary children’s book illustrators as they riff on Potter’s stories. A delight for all ages.


The New York Times Book of the Dead: 320 Print and 10,000 Digital Obituaries of Extraordinary People,” edited by William McDonald (Black Dog & Leventhal, $45). A black-and-white volume that captures the essence of The New York Times obituary: superbly researched pieces of history that retain the immediacy of it-just-happened. Obits range from the 1860s to the present day and revisit the passing of such eminences as nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who “lived his life in the blinding light and the crepusculine shadow of the world’s first atomic explosion.” Or skip over to Osama bin Laden. Or Nora Ephron. An enclosed “key” unlocks an exclusive website that archives 10,000 additional obituaries. A must for the history enthusiast.

“The Secret History of World War II: Spies, Code Breakers & Covert Operations” by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop(National Geographic, $40). This volume combines stories of harrowing feats of espionage with historical artifacts, photos and ephemera. A photo of a Sten gun and a shattered Mercedes-Benz lend a documentary quality to the story of the assassination of loathsome Nazi Reinhard Heydrich by Czech patriots, as well as the grim aftermath — bodies of 200 murdered male villagers of the Czech village of Lidice, shot in retaliation, a fraction of the Czechs who would eventually be vengefully killed. If one antidote to living in a troubled time is to read about a REALLY troubled time, this book is the ticket.

“Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World,” written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotosfsky (Ten Speed Press, $16.99). A lively volume that sums up the lives of 50 women of science through words and illustrations. Of course I had heard of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who helped save the Everglades, but not Maria Sibylla Merian, the German scientific illustrator with a passion for insects whose “The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname” was a European hit in 1705. Physicists, mathematicians, volcanologists pack its pages — inspiration for any girl or young woman mad for the STEMs.

art and art appreciation

“Lessons in Classical Painting: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier” by Juliette Aristides((Ten Speed Press, $29.99). I have heard good reports on Aristides’ previous books — she’s the director of the Aristides Classical Atelier at Seattle’s Gage Academy of Art. This clear and well organized volume breaks down the art and craft of painting into numerous topics that will inform the intermediate artist interested in getting better.


“Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces” by Susie Hodge (Thames & Hudson, $39.95). A richly detailed, pleasingly designed tour of art masterpieces throughout history. The author, a highly regarded British arts writer, takes 100 works of painting and sculpture and analyzes them in terms of subject matter, symbolism, painting technique, composition and other essentials of the form.


“The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” written and illustrated by John Muir Laws (Heyday Books, $35). Give your would-be nature artist this enthusiastic and detailed guide to how to keep a nature journal — tools, techniques and explicit how-tos on drawing animals, birds, trees, landscapes and more. For more on the author, go to


“Plant: Exploring the Botanical World,” several authors (Phaedon, $59.95). A collection of 300 gorgeous images, from the earliest days of plant illustration to 21st-century digital photographraphs; from John James Audubon to Georgia O’Keefe; from the Americas to Asia and beyond. (The book even has its own YouTube trailer.)

“Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies” by Sara Lewis (Princeton University Press, $29.95). One of my few regrets about moving to Seattle is that there are no fireflies, the most magical animal on earth (my opinion). Lewis, a biology professor at Tufts University, says she is a scientist “working hard to stay susceptible to wonder,” and she combines her sense of awe with her extensive knowledge of the nearly 2,000 species of fireflies worldwide, including one called a “dark firefly” that does live here but doesn’t light up. No fair.

“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). Zickefoose, a gifted artist and natural-history writer, charts the day-by-day development of 17 different species of wild birds through more than 400 watercolor paintings and prose. Irresistible.

“What’s Really Happening to Our Planet? The Facts Simply Explained” by Tony Juniper, foreword by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (DK Publishing, $19.95). Does this sound like heavy-duty gift material? Well, these are heavy times. This book, through words, pictures and DK Publishing’s marvelous way with graphics, charts the progression of man’s planetary predicaments, from deforestation to ocean acidification to terrorism, with a more upbeat final section on “bending the curves”, e.g., slowing and reversing the damage.

coloring books

Edgar Allan Poe: An Adult Coloring Book” by Odessa Begay(Lark Crafts, $14.99). If I had the time or patience for coloring books, I might dive into this eerily beautiful collection of images inspired by Poe’s chilling tales. On the brighter side, there is “Color the Pacific Northwest” by Zoe Keller (Timber Press, $12.95). From the Space Needle to the rhinoceros auklet — the symbols of our region’s wild and civilized places. For kids, or kids at heart.