November 26, 2008


Weather: The Ultimate Book of Meteorological Events. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $40.

The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $24.99.

     Books make wonderful gifts for Christmas or any other special occasion, and some books, by their design and heft, really cry out to be used for gift-giving. Weather, assembled from material by the contributors of the Weather Guide Calendar, is both gorgeous to look at and tremendously informative. It is as up-to-date as worries about climate change and possible desertification, and as aware of the past as the history of the still-inexact science of forecasting. The photos are the first things you will notice, and they are simply magnificent: the Grand Canyon’s South Rim as cloud-to-ground lightning strikes; a huge tornado over Kansas, photographed from a small plane; the illusion of three suns over northern Canada, as a polar bear walks by; clouds of all shapes and sizes; the inside of an ice cave; closeup views of the gorgeous geometry of snowflakes – these and many other photos make Weather a feast for the eyes. And it nourishes the brain, too. A timeline of major events in meteorology runs from 600 B.C. to the present. A discussion of North American storm tracks explains why some areas consistently get hit much harder than others. An article on Robert Fitzroy, captain of HMS Beagle, explains his complex relationship with Charles Darwin as well as his invention of a barometer still used today. Another writeup discusses Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an astronomer by training who invented the science of studying tree rings, now used to diagnose the effects of air and water pollution. There are essays on lightning, Earth’s auroras, winds and storms (including dust storms, hurricanes and waterspouts), plus plenty of information on rain and snow and ice and other forms of water. Weather makes a lovely gift in any season for anyone with an interest in the ways the world around us affects our everyday lives – or for someone who simply wants to marvel at some splendid photographs that capture the fascinating phenomena that surround all of us.

     The fascination of The Lincolns is of a different type. Now that a new President of the United States has been elected, many people are wondering how he will measure up against the nation’s greatest leaders – one of whom was indisputably Lincoln. But The Lincolns is more a family album than a book of political analysis. Indeed, even when it delves into politics, as it must, it generally does so from a personal angle, as when Mary Lincoln responds to someone who compares her husband’s looks unfavorably to those of another politician: “Mr. Lincoln may not be as handsome a figure…but the people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are long.” Mary, born Mary Todd, was not young Abraham’s first love, and there is information here on that woman, Ann Rutledge, who died (probably of typhoid) in 1835; and also on Abraham’s second love, Mary Owens – who appears in one of the many fascinating photographs that Candace Fleming includes in the book. Here you will find a Lincoln pay stub, pictures of his friends and family, official Matthew Brady photographs of the newly elected President and First Lady – and a picture of the latter’s dressmaker, a former slave who had previously made dresses for the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There is considerable material on the Civil War, including information often omitted from traditional history books – such as the strong objections to the Emancipation Proclamation among Northern soldiers who were fighting from loyalty and patriotism and did not want to die for the freedom of blacks. But even in its pages on the war, The Lincolns focuses on the personal as much as possible, with a photo of one of Lincoln’s stovepipe hats, an anecdote about the President’s lack of appetite, a frightening dream he had near the war’s end, even Mary Lincoln’s accusation that Andrew Johnson “had some hand in” Lincoln’s assassination. The book continues through Mary’s death in 1882, touching on the couple’s children and grandchildren – and making it clear that the triumphs and tragedies of this family affected not only the nation as a whole but also, very deeply, the family members themselves. Large in size and laid out in an old-fashioned design and typeface, The Lincolns beautifully reflects the era of which Fleming writes – and also stands as a book very much worth considering in the 21st century, as today’s families await the inauguration of the nation’s first black president in January.

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