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Gifts you may not want to let go of

Planet Earth, Introduction by Robert Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, $40 Eplorations: Great Moments of Discovery From the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Edmund Hillary, Richard Leakey et al., Artisan, $35 Casa Yucatan, Karen Witynski and Joe P. Carr, Gibbs Smith, $39.95 London Sketchbook: A City Observed, Paintings by Graham Byfield, text by Marcus Binney, St. Martin's Press, $30

November 24, 2002|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Here come the holidays, and with them the season's usual bounty from the publishing industry: coffee-table books. Here are four new travel-related volumes that might make worthy gifts.

"Planet Earth" is a book that strikes you between the eyes. Its lures are many, from the richness of the colors in these pictures taken from space to the thrill of spotting a familiar continental profile. Then there's the overarching idea that all these half-abstractions are really the skin of the planet, seen from near and far.

One series of images shows the cities of Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome from the sky, with the pyramids of Giza thrown in as a bonus. Elsewhere, a lone cloud hangs over the coffee-colored Sahara, and the "Marree Man," a 2.4-mile-long drawing, is gouged in the soil of Australia's Simpson Desert by artists whose identities are unknown. (Computer enhancements account for the supernatural sharpness and dramatic colors of many of the images.)

Those entranced by abstraction will enjoy the format, which opens with 199 unnumbered pages (including several that fold out) crowded with blazing, not-quite-comprehensible shots. Many of them, in fact, might pass for canvases by German painter Gerhard Richter, whose color-drunk abstract works are part of a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this winter.

More literal-minded readers will prefer pages 200-231, where the editors show thumbnail renditions of previous images, this time with often-staggering caption information. The book's 150 color images, most shot from satellites and all gorgeously printed in Italy, were gathered by the German Aerospace Center, with help from NASA and other national agencies that pay attention to satellites.

Also just out from the same publisher: a book titled "Full Moon," which collects 128 NASA photos (72 in color, 56 in black and white), mostly from Apollo missions. Images were selected by Michael Light from a trove of about 32,000 shot by U.S. astronauts. This hardback edition is priced at $24.95, about half the cost of the first release of "Full Moon" in larger format in 1999.

Before the sun set on the empire

From the considerable Royal Geographic Society archives in Britain come these images and brief chapters: a Tibetan musician, mouth agape in song, from the 1860s; a four-car caravan across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s; elephants rinsing off in India's Gandak River in 1996; and about 295 more. Caption information is generous -- and enough to make you wistful for those days when truly undiscovered wonders were still within reach. Images are sepia-toned and color, mostly depending on when they were taken. The cover is paperback. Together, these elements serve as a grand reminder of the days when the empire-building British were venturing into every earthly extremity they could find, and then emerging to write dryly about their adventures.

In fact, much of the text is in the voice of the heroic deadpan British explorer. For instance:

"I myself am fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to organize one or two minor expeditions to remote spots in Africa where there were no roads or airfields and marching with porters and/or camels was the best option at the time," writes Richard Leakey.

Mexico as seen by home decorators

More interior designers than travelers have heard of Witynski and Carr, but for anyone contemplating a trip to Mexico's eastern end, there's ample reason for paying attention to this coffee-table book. These two know the territory, and the illustrations they choose, though mostly intended to inspire civilian and professional decorators at home, throw a welcome light on historically rich corners of Mexico that lose out to beach resorts (especially the nearby Cancun) in many travel texts.

This volume is Witynski and Carr's fifth Mexico-inspired design book since 1997. Along with information on materials and architects, its back pages include hotels and restaurants.

This book alone isn't enough to get a visitor through the Yucatan, but it will certainly fuel daydreams with its images of restored courtyards, stenciled walls, tiled floors, carved wooden shutters and shaded hammocks.

An artist's eye on England's capital

Here is a pleasant look at London. The design is inviting, Byfield's watercolors are exacting and evocative(and printed on luxuriously thick paper stock), and Binney's text on London's workings and notes on architectural history are authoritative. It's entertaining to consider that No. 10 Downing St., with its 1766 facade, is "possibly the most famous front door in the world" and satisfying to learn that while SW1 and SW3 (which include Harrods, the trendy shops of Sloane Square, parts of Knightsbridge, Westminster, Pimlico, Belgravia and Chelsea) are among the most fashionable postal codes in the country, SW2 and SW4 (Brixton and Clapham, basically) are "rather less so."

The scores of illustrations range from such aged wonders as Westminster Abbey to the London Eye Ferris wheel, opened in 2000.


Calendar writer Christopher Reynolds' book column appears twice each month.

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