AUSTIN, Texas -- All right, fellow procrastinators. Of course, we have days to go before Christmas -- no point in precipitously plunging into purchasing yet. On the other hand, it is not too soon to begin thinking about just how long we can put it off. And following our customary habit of last-minute, one-stop shopping for all, check on the location of your nearest independent bookstore. Failing that, fall back on a chain. The bookstore is where you can't go wrong on everyone from Great Aunt Pearl to the new in-law who plays golf.

Among the year's special picks:

-- "War Is a Force That Gives Life Meaning," by Chris Hedges. A war correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, Hedges understands on a visceral level what war looks like and does to people. But this book is more important for his extraordinary intellectual struggle to understand the phenomenon. He may not have all the answers, but he sure has some. Heartbreakingly intelligent.

-- "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History," by Philip Bobbitt. Yep, this one is just as serious as it sounds. On the other hand, it is such a good mind-stretcher, such a gift for getting one's head out of daily minutiae and onto more enduring and important matters. Like a good teacher, Bobbitt first tells you what he's going to tell you, but I found plenty of surprises along the way. This is a big book in every way: Bobbitt is weaving together enormous amounts of history. It seems to me more the way Europeans approach history than the way Americans do (although Bobbitt teaches at the University of Texas Law School and is, incidentally, LBJ's nephew.) (Obligatory disclosure: I have a slight acquaintance with the author.)

-- For a complete change of pace, the gentle and delightful mystery series by Alexander McCall Smith, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and ensuing books "Tears of the Giraffe" and "Morality for Beautiful Girls." The detective is Mma Ramotswe of Botswana, sort of a cross between Miss Marple and Hetty Wainthropp. It contains much fascinating incidental information about Botswana.

-- Exploring the world from a woman's point of view is always a good way to go, and "The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices," by Xinran, nonfiction, is a perfect example of why. These stories came out of her groundbreaking radio call-in program for women. Many are poignant, some are take-your-breath-away tragic. All together, they give a better sense of what China is like than all the big "overview books" I have read about that country.

-- For political junkie friends: "Master of the Senate" by Robert Caro. What can I say? I didn't like his first two books on LBJ, but he nails it in this one.

-- "Wealth and Democracy" by Kevin Phillips. In my opinion, the only people writing about politics today who "get it" are those writing from a populist perspective. It's just a matter of keeping your eye on the shell with the pea under it, and Phillips does.

-- "A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution" by Carol Berkin. This one takes fresh look at the much-trampled ground of Philadelphia in 1787. What I like about this treatment is that it drops the, "It all came down to us written on a stone tablet" pose and goes into all the confusion, paranoia and luck involved.

-- Back to fun: "Tishomingo Blues" by Elmore Leonard. It includes his usual nutty array of do-badders and incompetents, for some reason starting with a guy who dives off a high platforms into small pools (somebody has to do it) and going on to a mad mix of Dixie Mafia and nutcases. (Obligatory disclosure: I have a very slight acquaintance with the author, too.)

-- One of the best books written about Enron & Etc. is a novel, "Moral Hazard" by Kate Jennings. How often do you finish a sensitive, well-written book, look up and say, "Good Lord, let's regulate derivatives." For nonfiction, I still like "Pipedreams" by Robert Bryce about Enron, and I do know the author.

-- "The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt. Maybe it's the Southern-summer thing, but I loved this book about a gutsy kid who sets out to find out who killed her brother.

-- Three recommends on children's books from THE source, Eden Lipson: "The Thief Lord" by Cornelia Funke, for 8 and up -- a wonderful adventure set in Venice. "I Stink!" by Kate and Jim McMullan, 4 to 8 -- the memoirs of a garbage truck, with the alphabet in what it collects. "Hoot," by the same Carl Hiiasen who writes wonderful books for grown-ups, 10 and all the way up -- an environmental caper novel ... great fun.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.