If you're not yet swept up in the holiday spirit, perhaps the exquisite One Hundred Miracles, by Christopher Calderhead (Welcome, $40), will prove the elixir you need. Calderhead, an artist and Episcopal priest, selected 100 extraordinary works of art depicting miracles and added his own summations of the wonders represented and pithy analyses of the elements used by the artists to lend the works emotional immediacy. It makes for a lively and visually arresting read for art lovers, especially for those to whom miracles hold meaning.
The stories primarily come from biblical sources and the 13th-century collection The Golden Legend, complied by Jacopo da Voragine, then archbishop of Genoa. The artists run the gamut from early illuminators of prayer books and icons to Caravaggio, Titian, William Blake and Chagall. Many of the miracles recounted will be familiar, even soothing, serving for generations as ethical guideposts and harbingers of hope.
-- Christopher Schoppa
Readers of Robert Graves's historical novel I, Claudius may remember Livia (wife of Emperor Augustus Caesar and mother of Tiberius) as the serpent-like poisoner of those who dared to challenge her family's hold on the Roman empire. In the sumptuous Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House, by Donatella Mazzoleni (Getty, $150), Livia returns in a different form: her homes. (Domus is Latin for house.) Her house on the Palantine Hill near Emperor Tiberius's palace in Rome and her villa at Prima Porta (both excavated in the 19th century) reveal remarkable taste. The wall paintings of a lush forest of laurels take on a magical significance after the reader learns of the legend of how Livia chose the site for the villa: "It was here that an eagle dropped into the empress's lap a white hen bearing a laurel branch in its mouth."
Most of the excavated houses and wall paintings pictured are from Pompeii, the Roman city buried for centuries under ash and pumice after the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79. There is, for example, the House of the Faun, over 200 years old when it was buried, one of the largest in the city, with a majestic mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating Darius III, king of Persia. The Villa of the Mysteries, excavated in the 20th century, depicts on its walls scenes of a bacchanalian feast that are astonishing for their vivid color schemes and illusionist perspectives.
Many of Pompeii's treasures have been moved to museums in Italy and abroad. The wall paintings gathered here are a fount of inspiration for artists, architects, garden and interior decorators and, maybe, too, for ordinary folk planning the villas of their dreams.
-- Kunio Francis Tanabe
Someone had to do it: be the first to throw off the carapace of corsetry that women were expected to wear to minimize their feminine attributes. That someone, according to Harold Evans in They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Two Centuries of Innovation (Little, Brown, $40) was a debutante named Polly Jacobs. In place of the customary whalebone apparatus, she improvised something much simpler and easier on the wearer: "She . . . stretched two pocket handkerchiefs round her breasts, pulled taut by two pink ribbons stitched to the fabric and made fast at her back." Then, one night in 1913, she went to a Manhattan ball, where her uninhibited dancing made a striking impression. The end result of Jacobs's impulsive act was the invention of "the first modern brassiere to receive a patent."
Other inventors chronicled in this book, the companion to a PBS series, may be better-known (Cyrus McCormick, Thomas Edison, E.G. Otis of elevator fame, Henry Ford et al.), but few have delivered more comfort than Jacobs, who later married a doomed poet and restyled herself Caresse Crosby. Any woman who has ever burned a bra, or cheered those who did, should recall what a liberating device it originally was.
Leaping ahead to the day before yesterday, Evans lends some perspective to the career of the country's über-tycoon: Is Bill Gates "an anti-innovator? He has never invented any important, original software; hundreds of small innovative companies have died in Microsoft's bear hug; and Microsoft has never been first to market with any major innovation." What he has done, Evans concludes, is to create "the software equivalent of fast food: standardized, ubiquitous and not always satisfying."
As for They Made America, it seems about as far from fast food as a coffee-table book can be: quirky and satisfying from the first chapter to the last sidebar.
-- Dennis Drabelle
"To the Emperor of Morocco, Great and Magnanimous Friend," begins the Dec. 1789 letter from George Washington that formalized the infant United States' first diplomatic relationship with a foreign country. The republic is now represented abroad by 186 embassies, some of the most photogenic of which have been memorialized in Elizabeth Gill Lui's Building Diplomacy: The Architecture of American Embassies (Cornell Univ./Four Stops, $50). Many of these outposts are glorious, ranging from the battered, history-laden feel of Moscow's famous Spaso House -- redolent with Cold War ghosts -- to the neoclassical, 18th-century Hôtel de Talleyrand that U.S. diplomats in France now use for cultural events or attempts to resuscitate U.S.-French friendship. Other embassies are merely utilitarian, and one, Eero Saarinen's monstrous 1959 London chancery, is so unforgivably ugly it's a wonder Tony Blair even takes Washington's calls.
These little pieces of America abroad have not gone unmolested; after Hezbollah bombed the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, a commission led by Adm. Bobby Ray Inman set strict security measures. That led to the construction of "Inman boxes" around the world, which were (as Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have put it) "loathed by those who worked in them and mocked by citizens of the host country as a sign of American neurosis." But the security fears were real, as shown when al Qaeda destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998 -- a mass-casualty attack that proved a watershed in its escalating terror campaign.