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Gift Books

Catered by our own cooks, a banquet of the best coffee-table books of the season.

Reviewed by the staff of Book World
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page BW08

Fun and Laughs

Okay, so you know the obvious stuff, such as Batman's secret identity (Bruce Wayne) or the name of Superman's Arctic hideaway (The Fortress of Solitude). Maybe that's all some folks need to know about our Spandex-clad protectors of humanity. Others, however, want more -- and we're likely to acquire much of the information we need in The DC Comics Encyclopedia (DK, $40). Within its 350-plus pages lie the answers to many of the more profound riddles surrounding some of the mightiest beings in the superhero universe. When and why, for instance, did Dick Grayson give up his Robin costume and become Nightwing? (In short, he and the Bat had a spat, after which the Caped Crusader gave the aging Boy Wonder his walking papers.) And when did Wally West, formerly known as Kid Flash, drop the "Kid" and replace his uncle, Barry Allen, as the adult superspeedster? (After the complicated Crisis on Infinite Earths, it turns out, when Allen died saving the Earth from the Anti-Monitor.)

Just think of the hit you'll be at parties when you reveal your mastery of superhero trivia. Which superheroine shares the name of a popular antiperspirant? Secret, "the ephemeral wraith." Height and weight of Wonder Woman? Six feet, 165 lbs. Height and weight of Superman? Six feet, three inches, 235 lbs. Vital information is not limited to good guys either. The encyclopedia includes helpful stat sheets on the Riddler, the Joker, Lex Luthor and all the infamous villains in DC's rogues gallery. Dutiful coverage is given to superteams as well, such as the Justice League, the Legion of Superheroes and the Teen Titans. And you're not likely to find anywhere else such cool explanations as this one introducing the the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., a defunct villain group: "During World War II, a group dedicated to the extermination of eccentricity and difference . . . began snatching the soul husks of men using the silver tongs of the all-powerful Telephone Avatar, a being they had trapped in a sub-sub-basement of the Pentagon." It's all here, with an abundance of full-color illustrations.

-- Jabari Asim

Pound for pound, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker (Black Dog & Leventhal, $60) may be the season's funniest book -- and that's saying something. This wrist-shattering volume, which ought to come with a gym membership to help readers hoist it, reprints hundreds of the best of the New Yorker's signature cartoons, as well as including two CDs holding all 68,647 cartoons that the magazine has ever printed (well, except for those in your living room stack of the most recent issues to catch up on). Such stalwarts as David Remnick, Roger Angell, Lillian Ross, John Updike, Calvin Trillin and the magazine's current cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, offer clever commentary, but most readers will race ahead to the cartoons themselves -- which will elicit reactions ranging from grins to helpless laughter. Some cartoons hold up distressingly well (one 1957 gem shows a worried woman asking her travel agent, "Which country is the least mad at us?"); some more recent ones (such as the happy-hour regular telling his buddy, "I figure if I don't have that third Martini, then the terrorists win") are very much of their time. Others are just brilliantly silly, such as Gahan Wilson's 1999 cartoon of Moby-Dick, still trailing harpoon cables, musing to another whale, "Now that I've wiped him out, I kind of miss the little peg-legged bastard." The cartoons' underlying drollery, urbanity and breezy grace instill an overall sense of an abiding, deeply civilized sweetness -- and display an astonishing consistency of worldview down the decades. The only question: Who in Manhattan has an apartment big enough to hold the thing?

-- Warren Bass

"Toyland, Toyland,/ Little girl and boy land/. . . Childhood's joyland,/ Mystic, merry Joyland! Once you pass it borders/ You can ne'er return again." Actually, here's your chance: In The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys (Keys, $50), Tim Walsh provides a fascinating look at our collective toy chest. Walsh, who in his childhood picture on the dust jacket bears a striking resemblance to Alfred E. Newman of Mad magazine fame, is an obvious game enthusiast. (He is also an inventor -- among his board games is "Blurt!," which was rejected by "every major toy company in the United States" but has sold more than a million copies.) Focusing on the "Playmakers" -- the inventors, designers, developers and insiders whose imagination propelled the creation of these timeless toys -- Walsh writes: "In the business of toys, ideas abound. This book is about entrepreneurs who dreamed of creating fun and did it! . . . [It's] meant to be a giant thank-you to the individuals responsible for the biggest, brightest and best playthings ever created."

Walsh also offers timelines and extensive (and interesting) research on each of his selections. His choice of toys followed certain "rules of the game": at least a 10-million-copy seller, on the market for at least 10 years, "invented outside of the major toy companies" and "by an identifiable person," and "the toy had to have significance to me or my friends." He presents the toys chronologically, moving from the Flexible Flyer to the Super Soaker, with lots in between -- Lincoln Logs, View-Master, Cootie, Clue, Magic 8 Ball, Yahtzee, Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, Etch A Sketch, Spirograph, Trivial Pursuit and more. Colorful illustrations and vintage ads remind us of the magic of toys.

Walsh ends his introductory author's note by suggesting that readers "pull up a comfortable chair and settle in for some fun." I second the motion.

-- Evelyn Small

Art and Architecture

The Cathedral Church of London, as St. Paul's is formally known but never called, has been an indelible symbol of the city for centuries, the silhouette of its dome a familiar sight on the skyline for nearly 300 years. But if all you know of St. Paul's is that it was the setting for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, you're in luck. This, the 1,400-year anniversary of the cathedral's founding, has brought forth the hefty, sumptuously illustrated St. Paul's: The Cathedral Church of London 604-2004, edited by Derek Keene et al. (Yale Univ., $125), which details the building's long evolution from the year 604 to the contemporary controversies over commercial development in Paternoster Square, which abuts the cathedral grounds.

Over 40 scholars and experts provide essays on subjects ranging from liturgy to decoration to social history, all placed in the context of broad historical surveys. These include the wholesale rebuilding of the church after each of the three Great Fires of London, in 962, 1087 and 1666. The last led to the appointment of Sir Christopher Wren as the architect of the St. Paul's that stands today, reputedly the only cathedral designed, built and completed in a single architect's lifetime. Its legacy has been hotly debated ever since. Initially derided as too austere inside or simply not grand enough (comparisons to St. Peter's in Rome were inevitable), the building, and its architect, underwent a positive reappraisal -- a "Wrenaissance," if you will -- toward the end of the 19th century, when Wren became regarded as a singularly English genius. He did, after all, solve the conundrum of a classical dome placed on what was an inherently Gothic structure -- a rather untraditional choice but, as it turns out, an auspicious one. A recent survey found it to be the best-loved building in the United Kingdom.

-- Christopher Schoppa

In 1904, Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated 26 ceremonial objects to the Jewish Theological Seminary's library. Thus was born one of the jewels of New York City's "Museum Mile," the Jewish Museum, which now houses some 28,000 works inside the magnificent old Fifth Avenue mansion formerly owned by the Warburg family. The museum's splendors -- encompassing both Chagalls and challah covers -- are celebrated in Masterworks of The Jewish Museum, by Maurice Berger and Joan Rosenbaum (Yale Univ., $60), which features handsome photographs of art and artifacts from the permanent collection alongside gratifyingly clear descriptions by the museum's staff. The book ranges from a 1910 Rosh Hashanah greeting carved on a walrus tusk from Jews in Nome, Alaska (a community that Shimon Peres likes to refer to as "the frozen chosen"), to videotapes of the Eichmann trial to a gorgeous inlaid tile wall from a 16th-century synagogue in Isfahan. The museum's collection of Hanukkah candelabras gets a showcase of its own in Susan L. Braunstein's Luminous Art: Hanukkah Menorahs of The Jewish Museum (Yale Univ., $50). In 1951, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proudly presented a menorah (by this book's standards, rather a plain one) to President Truman, who is said to have cracked, "I've always wanted one of these." This holiday season, plenty of readers, Jews and gentiles alike, may find themselves wanting one of these appealing volumes.

-- Warren Bass

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