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The history on display here shows architecture as an expression of both art and politics. It also suggests some career direction: Anyone at the State Department feeling angst-ridden should, clearly, start angling to become deputy chief of mission in Madrid. Trust me.

-- Warren Bass

The armchair traveler seeking a literary touch to his or her tour need look no further than American Writers at Home (Library of America/Vendome, $50), by J.D. McClatchy, with photographs by Erica Lennard. McClatchy, a poet and essayist, provides the text (and context) for a quiet visit and a lovely look at the "houses where writers actually wrote." He features the homes of 21 authors, including Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers and Eudora Welty. Giving us a kind of "landscape of our literature," McClatchy focuses on the places where these writers created rooms of their own -- from estates (the Mount of Edith Wharton, in Massachusetts) to humbler homes (Whitman's New Jersey row house). Through anecdotes and stories, his text matches the writer to the work, as well as making connections between the place and the person who wrote there. He reports, for example, that Herman Melville, while writing Moby-Dick, "felt his room had become a ship's cabin."

Lennard's warm and often dramatic photographs allow readers to wander into Emerson's garden, peek into Douglass's parlor, picture Faulkner's reading chair in his study, and marvel at one of Millay's "doors-leading-nowhere" on her property. McClatchy is right in suggesting that the photos seem to create a "palpable presence" of the author throughout the book, bringing to life these private spaces of public literary people.

-- Evelyn Small

Immortality becomes him. Though Jimi Hendrix died in his sleep in 1970 at the age of 27, in the previous four years he had made such an impression with his electrifying image and revolutionary sound that young guitarists today still aspire to be like him. Classic Hendrix (Genesis, www.genesis-publications.com; $485), compiled by Ross Halfin, is a collection of 260 photographs by 34 photographers, many not published before, taken between October 1966, at the Jimi Hendrix Experience's show in Paris, to September 1970, at his final concert with his band The Cry of Love in Germany. His Experience bass player, the late Noel Redding, contributed the foreword, and Brad Tolinski, editor-in-chief of Guitar World magazine, narrates Hendrix's radioactive rise to international acclaim and superstardom, myriad adjustments to fame and success, and his struggle to stay artistically fresh despite exhaustion and band, business and equipment problems.

The photographs show Hendrix's feral sexuality and rugged elegance onstage, posing menacingly or playfully for cameras, kicking back comfortably in his studio, grinning genially during an interview, staring fatigued and listless on a train. Bright fluoro inks and period typefaces on heavy paper bound in aluminum and leather recreate a '60s vibe for this 1,750-copy limited edition.

Eerily, the last words Hendrix sang in public were "If I don't see you no more in this world, well I'll meet you in the next one and don't be late," from "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." His genius screams on in this world.

-- Mary Ishimoto Morris

Peoples and Places

In "Lawrence of Arabia," David Lean's desert-hearts masterpiece, there's an unforgettable scene in which Alec Guinness, playing Prince Feisal, gazes into Peter O'Toole's eyes and says: "I think you are another of these desert-loving English . . . No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing." Look at Michael Martin's photographs in Deserts of the Earth (Thames and Hudson, $60), and you begin to see that "nothing" is a rather complex concept. Caught in the late-afternoon sun, the 300-meter-high dunes of Arabia's Rub al-Khali -- the so-called Empty Quarter -- resemble a golden ocean, waves angling across its vast surface. Thousands of miles away, in our own Southwest, soapberry yucca plants dot the gypsum dunes of White Sands like spiny sea urchins on the bed of a sparkling sea.

Martin, like Lawrence, has a deep affinity for the desert, and it shows in this globe-ranging tribute to aridity. The Great Sandy, the Kalahari and the Karoo, the Namib -- around the world Martin goes, continent by continent, recording the particulars of ecosystems that make up a third of the planet's surface. Wisely, Martin uses science to offset the natural romance of his subject; early chapters answer the question "What is a desert?" and introduce "Types of deserts and their causes," while maps set the scene for each continent. In a foreword, Michael Asher, a biographer of Lawrence and his fellow desert-lover Wilfred Thesiger, offers up an echo of Lawrence's idea that the desert is clean: "There are no crowds, no endlessly roaring engines, no works of man to stand between you and the planet." During these frenetic days, nothing sounds so good.

-- Jennifer Howard

The Yangtze had no chance -- not after Mao Zedong swam across it in 1956 and wrote a poem calling for it to be dammed. When the project came up for a vote almost two decades after Mao's death, "one-third of the members of the National People's Congress either abstained or voted against [it]," notes Linda Butler in the introduction to her extraordinary book of black-and-white photographs Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake (Stanford Univ., $65). Those nays amounted to a "historic display of dissent," but it wasn't enough. When the dam is finished in 2009, the lake backing upstream will stretch 360 miles, "equivalent to the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles." By then, "parts of thirteen cities, 140 towns, 1,351 villages, and 657 factories will have been destroyed, and 1,300 archeological sites will disappear beneath its waters." In addition, 1.3 million people will have had to move elsewhere. Like the old Sierra Club volumes that recorded for posterity what was lost when Glen Canyon on the Colorado River was similarly drowned in the 1950s, Butler's book is an elegy for rock formations that took millennia to fall into place, for ways of life that will almost surely not be revived elsewhere, for neighborhoods about to be swallowed up by a standing flood.

But for all Butler's determination to record what will be inundated, she was not so doctrinaire as to miss the vigor and beauty in the construction itself. The photograph "Temple and New Bridge, Da Fosi" shows the upwardly curved and ornately carved decks of a temple against the backdrop of a new bridge's twin towers, steadied by a spider's web of cables. "If progress forward is too marked," she observes, "often a massive setback seems to occur. One wonders if there is a scale in heaven that balances the extremes."

-- Dennis Drabelle

Here are two books that will help you look beyond the miasma of past prejudices -- the earth as the center of the universe, humans as the center of the earth. In National Encyclopedia of Space, by Linda K. Glover et al. (National Geographic, $40), you will find amazing photographs of deep space that only recent technology has been able to capture. Take V838 Monocerotis, "once a tiny twinkle in the sky. . . . Monocerotis suddenly brightened and swelled to many times its former size in early 2002. Late that year, the Hubble Space Telescope took several photographs of the dusty nebula surrounding V838 Mon made visible by 'light echoes' from the star's dramatic outburst." The book comes with a map of the known universe, explains how our knowledge expanded from the time of Ptolemy to that of Stephen Hawking, and notes what spacecrafts are out there (one of them reached Saturn on June 30 this year).

In Earth from Space: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Firefly, $49.95), Andrew K. Johnston turns the satellite scopes upon our planet, utilizing an international source of remote sensing imagery. The book explains image processing using electromagnetic spectrum, the process of transforming computer data into clear pictures. But it is the many telling photographs that show the beauty of our planet, and how much we have despoiled it, that readers will linger over. See for yourself, for example, how swiftly the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, once the world's fourth-largest body of water, has dwindled; by 2020 it will probably be about one-tenth its original size. Fishermen lost their livelihood; people living on its shores suffer wind storms "laden with dust and pesticides" since two rivers were diverted for farming. The effects of deforestation in Brazil, air pollution over the Great Lakes, volcanic eruptions, global warming -- all can be studied more efficiently with the aid of satellite imagery, as this book shows. My favorite is the image of the globe with its hundreds of thousands of cities all lit up at night, from Eurasia and Africa to North and South America.

-- Kunio Francis Tanabe

Need a gift for someone who's been everywhere? Chances are she hasn't gone where photographer Norman Wu did -- namely, Under Antarctic Ice (Univ. of California, $39.95). Although Wu did not dunk himself under ice for literally every shot, he did so enough times to generate new respect for the contemporary wetsuit. (In his Photographic Notes at the end of the book, Wu points out that the water beneath the Antarctic ice is actually colder than the temperature at which freshwater freezes.) One photo captures the underside of fast ice in McMurdo Sound: a greenish-white embankment above which floats a rucked surface of light-soaked seawater, and below which hangs a benthic vastness where little or no light can reach.

Above "ground," Wu succumbed to the fascination with penguins that ensnares every visitor to the southernmost continent. The caption to a shot of Adélie penguins explains why the birds cannot be too finicky about fidelity: "Pair bonding is not as strong in Adélies as it is in other pygoscelid penguins. . . . The breeding season is short in the southern Ross Sea, and time cannot be wasted waiting too long for last year's mate."

-- Dennis Drabelle


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