Big Words

These reads won't stay on the coffee table for long

You don't need a dictionary to read every weighty tome. You do need sturdy wrapping paper (don't you hate all those corner rips?) and an even sturdier checkbook. Size isn't everything, though. The state of world peace makes atlases dated by the time they're published. Bibles? If she wants one, she has one. If he needs one, think of something else. Finally, don't give novels, especially thick ones. Active readers generally have a waitlist shelf in their home, plus several "to read" lists of titles, making novels one of those gifts that keep on taking. They require their targets to surrender hours of holiday vacation time just to prepare for your aggravating phone call: "Did you read that book I gave you?" The following 1999 publications may look good on a coffee table, but they'll be consulted too often to stay there. Larger Than Life: A book this heavy needs Muhammad Ali on the cover. A sophisticated paean to both legends and unsung talents, Glory: Photographs of Athletes (William Morrow, $45), expresses how the exertions, disappointments, and physical obstacles overcome in competition refine one's spirit. Richard Corman showcases big names like Ali, Keith van Horn (such a hottie), a very pregnant Bonnie Blair, Ken "Should I Atay or Should I Go?" Griffey, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (her photo makes this an inspiring choice for friends who need to be shamed into exercising). Poised alongside the stars are poorer but equally hungry talents: boys dirt-biking into the air above a slew of graffiti, an Italian Lolita perfecting her handstand among ancient stones, the determined faces of a girls' lacrosse team in the shadows of their sticks, and many more. Five-Course Reads: Nina Simonds' latest book, A Spoonful of Ginger (Knopf, $30), is a natural choice for the health-food aficionados in your life. Seattle's outsized community of herbalists, Chinese medicine practitioners, and nutritionists are abuzz with praise for these recipes, guaranteed to put some yin in your yang. Say goodbye to PMS with Spicy Ma Po Tofu with lamb and ginger (meat with tofu—who knew?). Pumpkin Caramel Custard will clear winter dampness from the body and may even improve diabetes. Throw out the Viagra and cook the more sensually satisfying Grilled Shrimp with Chile Dressing. Most of Simonds' recipes don't require exotic ingredients or even a wok. Stick a Post-It on the last page before wrapping this one; the simple hangover tonic may be your friend's first drink of the new millennium. More Than a Thousand Days: Every winter publishers posing as historians commercialize the scandals and tragedies of the year into glossy, gaudy photo albums. To make a present of one usually says, "I know nothing about you but I had to spend at least $30," making them popular choices among parents of teenagers. Still, the neutral gift has its place (bosses, for instance), especially when they're as classy as Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering, and Hope (Phaidon, $49.95). Brief quotes from each year's well-known figures, rather than pretentious essays, introduce sections. Artistic movements aren't overwhelmed by political ones, and while there are a few generals on tanks and politicians on podiums, I was impressed to see how even the Vietnam War images, for instance, could overcome a desensitized gaze. Scenes of individuals replace generic crowd shots, and the many rare and restored photos are a welcome respite from "iconic" images. Big Ego, Bigger Libido: Narrowing the finalists for Really Long Academic Biography involved the most heavy lifting of all. Political bios weren't enough of a challenge (Hermione Lee's recent literary biography of Virginia Woolf weighs more in paperback than both Hillary's Choice and First Son, for instance). And sociology manifestos like Susan Faludi's Stiffed: Betrayal of the American Male (nearly 700 pages) have sparked enough size puns for inclusion here. What makes Secrets of the Flesh: A Biography of Colette (Knopf, $30) an irresistible literary biography is author Judith Thurman's comfortable prose and unpretentious approach (it's "a biography," not "the biography"). Widely praised in reviews for elucidating the complexities of Colette's mysterious, mutable character, Thurman embraces the contradictions within the prolific author's 80 volumes of essays, novels, and letters. Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette created an identity outside boundaries, from her controversial stage roles to her numerous relationships with lovers both much older and much younger, male and female. She disdained both men who would dominate her and suffragettes who preferred celibacy to "complicity with the oppressor." Go ahead and wrap Secrets up with Ken Burns' latest mega-documentary (on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) for a more comprehensive feminist history. Magical Proportions: Recent news stories tell of parents who don't want schools inducting their children into Harry Potter's atheistic world of wizards and spells. They say that the astronomical, unprecedented sales figures of the three Harry Potter novels suggest that J.K. Rowling sold her soul to the devil. If you can think of a man, woman, or child who hasn't read them, go ahead and give the Harry Potter Collection: The First Thrilling Adventures of a Wizard's Coming of Age (Scholastic, $55.85). One final note: Eschew online book-buying, if only to avoid the delivery fees that go with this kind of poundage. The Fed Ex truck officially replaces Santa's sleigh this year, so actually lugging these books to the homes of friends and family may make the biggest impression of all. Elizabeth Brinkley is a freelance writer in Seattle.

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