American flags are mingling with holly and tinsel this holiday season, as the burst of patriotism that swept the nation after the September terrorist attacks continues to find expression in displays of red, white and blue. In a country stunned by tragic loss and buoyed by stories of heroism and grace under pressure, books that celebrate the American spirit and the natural beauty of the land are a welcome source of comfort and rejuvenation. And in a reassuring piece of serendipity, three excellent new gift books that capture America, the beautiful, in all its glory have recently arrived on bookstore shelves.
The most glorious and unique book in the trio is America Wide, a collection of panoramic photographs by Australian photographer Ken Duncan. Each two-page spread in the book is an extremely wide-angle portrait of an American landscape, from the murky swamps of Louisiana to a breathtakingly beautiful Hawaiian beach. Duncan spent three years traveling across America, and he includes photos from each of the 50 states in this remarkable collection. Brilliant colors dominate the scenes, from the rich orange tones of an autumn hillside in Vermont to the soft glow of sunset near Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Along with the photos are Duncan's own brief commentaries on what makes America a great nation. Written long before the events of Sept. 11, his words have an almost eerie relevance today. "Our roots provide the strength to withstand the storms of constant change," he writes. The hardy pioneers who settled this country "have shown the way to overcome obstacles and stand strong in times of adversity."
A nation can be seen not only in its dramatic landscapes, but also in the faces of its people. Noted National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard uses this approach to fashion a kaleidoscopic view of the national identity in Portraits of America. Though he spent 37 years on the staff of a magazine that covers the four corners of the earth, Allard describes himself as "a photographer who specializes in America." Once given a choice by National Geographic of two assignments Russia or minor league baseball Allard immediately opted to photograph the national pastime. Some of those photographs are included here, glimpses of joyous, determined and dejected baseball players in towns like Bakersfield and Helena. As writer Richard Ford notes in his foreword, Allard finds his subjects "in remote and far-flung pockets of the American culture (blues clubs, minor league baseball parks, rodeos, Hutterite colonies, even, for God's sake, Minnesota) as though such faces and people weren't as available as once they were." In one striking photo, a group of cowboys, faces hidden behind their huge hats, huddle over a campfire at dawn. In another, an Amish boy, smiling broadly at the camera, clasps the huge hand of his much older brother. Taken together, Allard's beautifully composed and richly revealing portraits give us an intimate look at the face of America.
If a picture book could be described as "fast-paced," then USA would definitely earn that description. With more than 900 photographs packed into its 500 pages, USA covers a lot of ground everything from American landscapes to lifestyles to architecture. Spanish photographer Jordi Miralles journeys from sea to shining sea, showcasing sights from the Golden Gate Bridge to Grand Central Station. Brimming with visual tidbits, this paperback offers an appealing overview of the nation and its people.
And finally, if you're looking for yet another way to show your patriotic spirit, Workman Publishing has collected an inspiring series of photos in a 2002 wall calendar, Glory: A Celebration of the American Flag. Each month features a photo of the flag taken in the days after the attack amid the devastation at Ground Zero, billowing along a charred wall of the Pentagon and waving proudly in the hands of Americans young and old. All profits from the sale of the calendar will be donated to the 9/11 Neediest Fund to benefit families of the victims.