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Reviews in brief: Coffee table gift books

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



By Judy Chicagoand Frances Borzello

Prestel, $65

The life and work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has been the subject of many books, exhibitions, plays, dance pieces and even a movie directed by Julie Taymor. The artist’s cultlike status as a “feminist artist” came decades after her death in 1954, when, at the age of 47, she succumbed to the physical traumas that plagued her since childhood. Not incidentally, it was that physical agony that she so magically transformed into the often nightmarish, shocking, ritualistic, impossibly vivid images that make her canvases so unforgettable.

In this exceptionally lush book, with its color-saturated reproductions, handsomely designed to suggest Mexican “retablos” (devotional paintings), Judy Chicago, a leading feminist artist since the 1970s, has collaborated with art historian Frances Borzello to devise an intriguing “conversation” with Kahlo’s work. The focus is on the scores of densely colored, heavily symbolic self-portraits Kahlo made — some familiar, others that might be revelations to even the most devoted Kahlo fans. And the conclusions reached enhance understanding of both Kahlo and the women artists who followed her.

The child of a German-Jewish father and Mexican-Catholic mother, and the adoring wife of the politically charged muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo captured aspects of blood sacrifice that suggest both Catholic and Indian ritual. But as Chicago rightly asserts, it was Kahlo’s unabashed passion for life that remains the most defining feature of her art.

Hedy Weiss

Theater critic



By Nat Gertler

Little, Brown, $35

You’re a good subject, Charlie Brown. Digging beyond Charles Schulz’s oft-reprinted cartoons and his oft-told life story, this volume concentrates on the strip’s characters and the many ways they thrived outside the newspaper pages. It’s a slipcovered museum exhibition, full of oddities forgotten by even the most devoted Peanuts popper. Every few pages, a pocket appears, stuffed with some piece of ephemera — a 1960s coloring book, a “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” cel, a housewife’s letter that led Schulz to create black playmate Franklin. Happiness is a Christmas afternoon spent browsing these treasures.

Darel Jevens

Daily features editor


By Rick Meyerowitz

Abrams, $40

More than four decades after the National Lampoon published its first issue, in spring of 1970, the often hilariously and relentlessly subversive humor monthly is still held in high regard by casual comedy mavens and professional funny folks the world over. “If you don’t buy this magazine,” one classic cover depicting a fretful-looking pooch at gunpoint warned, “we’ll kill this dog.” But no canines were threatened — not publicly, anyway — in the making of former Lampoon contributor Rick Meyerowitz’s well-curated retrospective Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great.

From the pioneering work of celebrated founding fathers Doug Kenney and Henry Beard to a touching 1982 eulogy of Chicago’s own John Belushi and the rich illustrations of Bruce McCall, the material in Meyerowitz’s chock-full tome is smartly silly, dizzyingly surreal and bitingly satirical — sometimes all at once. There’s also a large full-color photo of Hitler sunbathing in the nude.

Mike Thomas

Features reporter


By Josh Robertson

Chronicle Books, $35

Josh Robertson, who once served as editor of the After Hours section in Playboy magazine, has penned this celebration of all things Bunny, those iconic hospitality hostesses that have fueled many a man’s fantasy for the past 50 years, starting at the first Playboy Club in Chicago.

More than just a picture book peppered with anecdotes, the book’s engaging narrative chronicles everything — from the decision to make the club’s waitresses dress like “bunnies,” to the design of the clubs and the “keys” (brilliant marketing tools) to the “rules of bunny comportment” as outlined in the official Bunny Manual (each girl was required to study it and memorize its guidelines), which included the necessary steps in the famous bunny “dip” to properly serve drinks and food, and the fact that Bunnies were never allowed to sit while working the club, among other dos and dont’s.

The photos — a mixture of the tame, the glamorous, the historic and the nude — showcase everything from the evolution of the Bunny costume to the evolution of the global empire of clubs led by the man in the pajamas. Hugh Hefner’s foreword takes the Playboy Bunny story full circle, calling the book “a celebration of a certain mystique.” More to the point, it’s a look back at one of the greatest “branding” success stories in the world, and an adult slice of Americana — tails, cuffs, collars, seamed stockings and all.

Miriam Di Nunzio

Weekend Editor


By McSweeney’s

Chronicle Books, $45

In this age when people talk about the death of the printed word, it’s encouraging to take note of what San Francisco publishing house McSweeney’s has and continues to do. Just picking up one of their books or magazines, one can sense the devotion and care that’s put into each of their projects. Sturdy. Detailed. Elegant. Innovative. It’s their attempt to not only resuscitate the printed word, but to help it thrive.

So it’s no surprise to see Art of McSweeney’s, a charming glimpse back at the life of author-editor-founder Dave Eggers’ experimental literary journal (originally conceived in 1998 as a home for wayward writings rejected by other magazines), as well as its several offshoots (The Believer, Wholphin and countless books).

The focus is, of course, on the design and construction of McSweeney’s works, but it’s not all talk of fonts and picas. Instead we get a detailed, often humorous, view of the creative process from the writers, editors and designers that worked on them, always accompanied by the rough sketches, illustrations and outtakes of their journey.

It’s as lovingly crafted as anything in their back catalog — the fold-out dust jacket doubles as a suitable-for-framing poster full of words and drawings by Eggers, for Pete’s sake. Certain to make any McSweeney’s disciple exclaim “Huzzah!” this Christmas.

Bryan Barker

Features designer


By Tony Fitzpatrick

Firecat, $44

Earlier this year artist Tony Fitzpatrick debuted “This Train,” his mood-spinning stage show based on his collages and writing inspired by the hobo alphabet. Now he has compiled this work and much more in a sharply designed art book by the same title. Fitzpatrick, a prolific artist and writer, has an inquisitive mind that is constantly confronting new ideas and inspiration. Much of his work has been influenced by Chicago and its unique history and colorful citizens.

But in recent years, Fitzpatrick has stepped out of these bounds to embrace new muses ranging from Crazy Horse and the South Dakota Badlands to New Orleans and Japan, a city and country he has grow to love. Yet he’s also inspired by owls, moths, spiders and the flower shop across the street from his former studio (now a gallery).

And that’s the beauty of this book. With the sharp reproductions of his collages sitting alongside their accompanying prose poems, we see an artist’s mind and eye at work. Fitzpatrick’s straight-talkin’ world is often gritty and streetwise, but it’s also filled with the beauty of words, ideas and a singular imagination.

Mary Houlihan

Features reporter

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