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Originally published Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 7:00 PM

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Artsy gift books about Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong, Bette Davis and more

A year-end roundup of some of the noteworthy books about the arts, including "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," "Bette Davis: Larger than Life" and "Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast."

For the arts-lovers on your list, a roundup of books about actors, musicians, artists and more.

Performing arts

"Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" By Terry Teachout (HMH; $30)

To state the obvious: Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong had a seminal role in the development of jazz. Wall Street Journal critic Teachout makes that case anew in this sympathetic, musically astute bio — but with none of the grinding axes marring some recent biographies of a revered trumpeter-singer called "Pops" by his fellow players.

Armstrong's colorful life is like a newsreel of the "American Century" — from his scrappy, fatherless youth in segregated New Orleans, to his radical trumpet virtuosity in Roaring '20s Chicago, to his enshrinement as America's beloved jazz ambassador to the world.

The man's joie de vivre, adeptness at crashing racial barriers and simmering rage over racism are well-covered here. So is Armstrong's passion for entertaining (he literally toured himself to death), and his genius as a born improviser — of talk, painting, horn-blowing, scat singing.

Though branded an "Uncle Tom" by some in the 1960s, Satchmo's beaming smile and exuberant showmanship were not shuck 'n jive. Concludes Teachout, "[Armstrong's] sunlit, hopeful art ... spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole."

Misha Berson, Seattle Times arts writer

"A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student" By Valerie Gladstone (Henry Holt; $18.95)

For an aspiring young ballerina, this should be a welcome present: a photo portrait of precocious 13-year-old dancer Iman Bright's daily life studying at the prestigious, demanding Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater school.

Striking photos by Jose Ivey depict the radiant Iman in dance class, rehearsal and on (rare) breaks with family. Her self-discipline and love of dance shine through Gladstone's short passages of text, which quote Iman on the rigors and joys of a youth spent pursuing artistic excellence.

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M.B.

"Thank Heaven"By Leslie Caron (Viking, $25.95)

Caron, a native Parisian, rose swiftly in the 1950s from gamine ballet dancer to glam Hollywood actress co-starring with the likes of Gene Kelly "An American in Paris"); Fred Astaire ("Daddy Long Legs") and (ex-lover) Warren Beatty ("Promise Her Anything").

In her intelligent, unpreening memoir, Caron serves up tantalizing tidbits about her leading men and candidly reflects on meshing marriage and child-rearing with a glittering career highlighted by Oscar-honored turns in "Lili" and "Gigi."

Now in her 70s, and still acting, Caron also describes recent bouts with (and recovery from) alcoholism and depression, with candor but no wallowing. In fact, this is one celebrity bio that makes you want to meet the author and continue the conversation, over café au lait.

M.B.

"Bette Davis: Larger Than Life" By Richard Schickel and George Perry (Running Press; $35)

This heavily illustrated, biography-filmography, provides further proof that Bette Davis was a superb character actress in leading-lady furs.

The scores of glossy movie stills tell it all — Bette as London floozy (in "Of Human Bondage"), Bette as Southern belle ("Jezebel"), Bette as imperious monarch ("The Virgin Queen").

Film historian-critics Perry and Schickel contextualize the Old Hollywood appeal of Davis, whose versatility and screen magnetism made her far more successful than more conventionally pretty starlets of her day.

They toss in a insight or two about the willful Davis' New England youth, driving ambition, stormy marriages, defiance of movie moguls.

But those photos of her in character, even those gorgons in dodgy 1960s horror B-flicks (the only roles she could snag in late middle age), speak much louder than words. Her heavily stylized acting may be out of fashion today. But there's no doubt that Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and other women character stars of today owe much to the trailblazing and divine Ms. D.

M.B.

Visual arts / history

"Challenging Traditions," Ian M. Thom (University of Washington Press, $65). This handsome book, subtitled "Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast," is an important addition to the collection of any art buff or devotee of Northwest culture. It surveys the work of 40 living, Native artists — from masters such as Jim Hart and Richard Hunt to upstarts such as Sonny Assu. Included are interviews with each artist, conducted by Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Ian M. Thom. The photos are crisp, the commentary thought-provoking and the works of arts themselves — hybrids of traditional and contemporary forms and methods — drop-dead gorgeous.

Lynn Jacobson, Seattle Times A&E editor

"Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Washington's First World's Fair: A Timeline History" by Alan J. Stein, Paula Becker and the HistoryLink staff (HistoryLink/University of Washington Press, $29.95). This beautifully packaged history offers both a wealth of anecdotes and a savvy selection of vintage photographs and memorabilia that bring the 1909 A-Y-P Exposition to life.

"Picturing the Alaska-Yukon-Exposition: The Photographs of Frank H. Nowell" by Nicolette Bromberg (University of Washington Press, $35) opens another entryway into the 1909 fairgrounds, through the eyes of the A-Y-P's official photographer whose black-and-white images are handsomely reproduced here.

Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times arts writer

"Ansel Adams: In Color," edited by Andrea G. Stillman and John P. Schaefer (Little, Brown and Company, $35). When you think of photographer Ansel Adams, his stark, almost severe black-and-white depictions of the American West come to mind: Yosemite's sheer Half Dome, bathed in silvery moonlight. But Adams also shot thousands of color images — rich, almost touchable pictures of the Southwest, Hawaii and Washington state. Originally published in 1993, "Ansel Adams: In Color" has been revised and expanded with 20 previously unpublished photographs.

The artist himself, who died in 1984, was never entirely happy with his color prints (working with color was "like playing on an off-key piano" he told photographer Harry M. Callahan, who selected the images for the original book). But these lush, textured pictures tell a different story.

L.J.

"National Geographic Image Collection" (National Geographic Society, $50). Culled from the National Geographic Society's archive of more than 11 million images, this vast assemblage of pictures is at times downright weird in its juxtapositions: an extreme close-up of an ant with a microprocessor; a lone penguin on the vast ice of Antarctica; Tunisian students, circa 1914, watching their teacher etch letters in the sand.

The photos, divided into four categories (Exploration; Wildlife; People & Culture; Science & Climate Change), argue persuasively that National Geo photographers are among the best chroniclers in the world of nature and cultures.

L.J.

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