BOOKS SEASON’S READINGS

Sixteen books worth giving for Christmas.

CROCKPOTS AND calculators come and go as Christmas gifts, but books always remain in style. They’re easily wrapped, returnable (if you don’t write “To my darling niece Maryellen” on the inside), unbreakable and, generally, reasonably priced. They require no batteries, overnight assembly or knowledge of neck size. They ruin no diet and leave no hangovers. You can even find one for every possible taste, including that of non-readers.

Among the choicest books of this holiday season are some splendid art books (with prices and heft to match), books on Americana and Texana, handsome reprints of literary classics, a pop-up book for adults, a book for cooks and a book for car buffs, and an indispensible guide to getting through holidays and assorted social tribulations.

If you buy the whole lot of 16 books summarized below, you’ll need a strong back as well as a fat wallet – the combined group weighs in at 70 pounds and costs $605.15.

American Churches by Roger G. Kennedy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $50) is the choice book of this Christmas season. In a text of extraordinary sensitivity, Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution, explores America’s churches, chapels, temples and synagogues with an eye toward their spiritual as well as architectural and cultural origins. He traces some, such as the great Gothic cathedrals of New York and the Wren-Gibbs steepled churches of New England, directly to Europe. Others, like Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, grew literally out of the landscape of the Southwest. Still others are pure products of American genius married to reverence for the source of all creation. Foremost among these is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Close behind: Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Kennedy takes on the obvious choices, like the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, and he tries to do justice to Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral, focal point of a “22-acre shopping center for Jesus,” in Garden Grove, California. It’s not easy, and Kennedy has his own little private joke at the end of this section; to catch it you must read the introduction.

Then there’s the dramatically unexpected, like Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, an outdoor structure with crossed pine timbers built in the Ozarks two years ago. It may be the most worshipful place mentioned in the book, and that’s saying a lot, considering the awesome elegance of Temple Emanu-El in New York and the glistening, jewel-like churches of Charleston, South Carolina.

This is a large and important book. It’s brilliantly photographed and written with psychological insight (Kennedy has long been a student of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s work), architectural acumen (this too is a lifelong interest of the author) and spiritual sensitivity. It is remarkable testimony to the rich diversity of American religious life.

The National Museum of Natural History by Philip Kopper (Abrams, $60) is far more fascinating than its dry title suggests. Almost everyone knows that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History houses the Hope diamond, dinosaur skeletons and fine Indian artifacts. But Philip Kopper goes far beyond these collections up front to give a glimpse backstage into the complex operation and vast holdings of the museum. We learn, for example, that beetles are used to clean cadavers, that staff members took to tippling the alcohol used to preserve rare specimens and that museum artists have been known to plunge underwater to sketch fish.

The photographs are of the same high quality that makes Smithsonian magazine a delight, and the text is every bit as interesting as the objects depicted.

A.C. Greene has committed an act of great courage in writing The 50 Best Books on Texas (Pressworks Publishing, $14.95). Chances are he trod on a few toes in making his selections, but he also gave a few almost-vanished reputations a deserved boost. No doubt, too, his list will send a number of readers to the library in hopes of ferreting out volumes long out-of-print and probably long-since disappeared. A few of his choices are being reissued by various university presses.

Greene, a well-known Dallas writer, emphasizes that these “50 best” are his choices. In a brief (one-page) account of each book, he manages to say something about the book’s intention and place in Texas letters and something about the author, whom he more than likely knows. It’s useful for Texas buffs and readable for everyone.

Her Work: Stories by Texas Women edited by Lou Halsell Rodenberger (Shearer Publishing, $16.95) is an appealing volume of short pieces by a diverse range of Texas talent. Naturally, we were delighted to see Jo Brans’ story about divorce included, since it first appeared in D and our sister publication, Houston City. Funny, sad and insightful, it reads even better the second time. This is a true account of Brans’ 15-year marriage to Bill Porterfield, columnist with the Dallas Times Herald, and their painful pulling apart, which settled finally into a friendship that had been impossible for them before. Brans includes some of his letters to her and their children, and they’re wonderful, as you might expect from Bill Porterfield. So is this story, as you might expect from Jo Brans.

Another gem from Her Work is “His Children” by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, who gives us a further glimpse of her grandmother, redoubtable Bess Jones, who became the model for Hailey’s heroine in her best-selling novel, A Woman of Independent Means. Her grandmother, Hailey relates, used to give her Christmas presents early, collecting the gratitude due her well in advance of the holidays and uncannily making everybody else look a little late. She generally gave her grandchildren a check and promised that their grandfather (her second husband and not their real grandfather) would have his check for them on Christmas Day. It would always equal hers, but she managed to leave the impression that his generosity was the result solely of her coercion. That’s our Bess. Anyone who read A Woman of Independent Means will recognize her in a minute.

Laura Furman’s offering, “Eldorado,” is an especially touching portrait in miniature of a widow who must sell her Eldorado. It was bought by her husband before he died and has served her well for several years, but now it’s broken down and badly in need of major repairs. Fur-man has skillfully shaped this story into a meditation about truth and falsehood and the fuzzy line we must walk between the two to preserve our dignity.

Dallas loves Neiman-Marcus. Neiman’s has style, history and flair -all of which chairman Stanley Marcus has come to epitomize. In His & Hers: The Fantasy World of the Neiman-Marcus Catalogue (Viking, $25), Marcus writes with the simplicity and candor born of consummate self-assurance. Not for him the cloak of silence for lapses in taste, goofs and lack of foresight. He even unabashedly acknowledges the basic motive behind the extravagances of N-M’s famous “his and her” gifts: publicity.

In the first half of the book, Marcus explains how the Christmas catalog began and developed into its present slick, sophisticated form -when color photography, order blanks and the like were added. In the second half, Marcus presents catalogs from the past and recalls some of the most unusual, popular and expensive gifts.

In this paean to marketing by a public relations genius, what comes through is N-M’s commitment to offer the customer just a little more-in quality, service and panache.

The enormous sweep and grandeur of Western art is well illustrated and beautifully explained in History of Art for Young People, second edition by H.W. Janson with Samuel Cauman (Abrams, $22.95). The text has the hallmark of a quality children’s book: It reads just as well to adults.

From cave art to op art, Janson (author of the well-known History of Art) provides a comprehensive but unintimidating survey of major styles and movements and their connection with the history, philosophy and social development of their time. His generalizations are pithy and sensible, illustrated by major art works.

Four hundred illustrations, maps and time lines, a glossary of terms, “books for further reading” and a detailed index make this volume an indispensable introduction to art history.

Henri Rousseau’s originality was early noted, but long mocked as untutored and crude. In the 30 years (1884-1914) or so that the extraordinary customs inspector exhibited at the Salon of the Independents, he inspired jeers from most critics and admiration from such artists as Picasso and Gauguin and writers such as Apol-linaire.

The lack of commercial success never daunted him. The World of Henri Rousseau by Yann le Pichot (Viking, $75) celebrates that persistence, as well as the tenacity of its author. For almost a lifetime, le Pichot has been obsessed with tracing the sources of Rousseau’s art. He found them in art galleries, postcards of the most banal sort and picture albums (most especially, Wild Beasts). While the illustrations explore these ordinary inspirations as the raw material for Rousseau’s work, le Pichot’s text investigates Rousseau’s psyche.

Le Pichot’s writing is cranky, disorderly and difficult. Yet the book represents a major service to Rousseau lovers and art critics, for the author tracked down innumerable Rousseau works in private and unidentified collections. For those who know Rousseau only from a few of his jungle paintings, the collection will be a surprise.

In technique, training and career, John Singer Sargent was Rousseau’s opposite. An American expatriate who moved easily in the world of high culture inhabited by the likes of Henry James and Edith Whar-ton, Sargent spent time at Giverny, painting with Claude Monet, and in England, chumming with Robert Louis Stevenson. Sargent’s dazzling technical ability was apparent very early; by age 22 he was exhibiting in the Establishment Paris Salon (which Rousseau never did).

Known for his commissioned portraits of the rich and fashionable, Sargent created a small scandal at the Salon of 1884 with his now famous portrait of Madame X, a woman of great beauty and small discretion. For all his success, Sargent grew tired of portraiture and turned increasingly to watercolors, street scenes and landscapes, some of them almost impressionistic, others in the style of Manet or Velazquez.

According to Carter Ratcliff in John Singer Sargent (Abbeville Press, $85), the artist’s death in 1925 at the age of 69 left a gap that was never again bridged between the modern and the traditional, between high art and mass culture.

The text is dry but readable, yet less informative than one would want. Absent is a contemporary assessment of Sargent’s gifts. The many color plates are excellent.

The intent behind Love: A Celebration in Art and Literature edited by Jane Lahr and Lena Tabori (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35) is so simple that one wonders why no one else has attempted it. Edited by two divorced women, the book’s selections reflect their understanding of heterosexual love, which they see as “a discipline” whose heart involves “honoring, nurturing, hallowing and affirming.” Jealousy, unconstant love and unrequited love – the usual subjects of song and poem – they regard as “aberrations” and so omit. Their choices are personal but hardly eccentric and include both the familiar and the obscure.

Among the better-known literary selections are “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Shakespeare’s sonnet “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds,” Cole Porter’s You’re the Top, an excerpt from one of the more psychologically graphic chapters of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Collette’s Cigi. Most of the art is European (Bon-nard, Picasso, Rubens, Chagall), but there are also some Hindu and Tibetan temple sculptures and Etruscan and Egyptian art. A great deal of the interest of the book comes from the beautifully laid-out juxtaposition of visual and literary arts.

Christopher Idone, author of Glorious Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40) says he doesn’t think of food “as a sacred cow.” Perhaps that’s why the 43 menus and 150 recipes of the book show such imagination.

Founder of New York’s “most prestigious catering service,” Idone gives us a notion of why his company is so successful. (It recently catered N-M’s 75th anniversary bash at the Fairmont.) Idone gives exquisite attention to all the details that make dining an aesthetic as well as gustatory delight, from china, decor and lighting to the arrangement of the food, which falls somewhere between traditional haute and nouvelle cuisine.

The menus and accompanying photographs present breakfasts, lunches, large and small dinners, teas, cocktails and big parties in a wide variety of settings -from greenhouses and corporate dining rooms to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Glorious Food is never trite. Take for example the menu for Thanksgiving: pumpkin soup; corn sticks; pheasant with juniper berries, orange zest and sage; puréed vegetables; lingonberries; New York State cheddar; grapes and nuts; syllabub; espresso; California Sauvignon Blanc and Port.

American Cars by Leon Mandel (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $48.50) is a big, handsome, hefty book sure to appeal to car buffs, written by a former editor of Car and Driver and Motor Trend magazines. Gorgeous photographs make even “vulgar” cars such as the 1959 Buick resemble sensuous, gleaming works of metal and glass and well-designed cars such as the 1936 Cord Westchester Sedan veritable works of art.

The illustrations (450 color photographs, many full-page) are of some of the 1,400 autos in the Harrah Collection in Reno and are not entirely representative of the range of American cardom.

The accompanying text is written in prose as lean and vigorous as a 1913 Race-about. Arranged in roughly chronological order, each section explains the era’s social history, technology and the driving impressions of a car typical of the epoch. You’ll learn, for example, that driving the 1923 Model T (color: black; cost: $295; weight: 1,620 lbs.) required the coordination of both hands and both feet, that “braking was a thrill” and that sans windows, heater and shocks, the ride was far from luxurious.

From the rough-hewn pine settle that protected pilgrims from drafts to under-lighted furniture platforms of a New York highrise apartment, American Decorative Art by Robert Bishop and Patricia Cob-lentz (Abrams, $65) represents a vast compendium of American taste during the past 300 years. The usual contrasts show up-between utilitarian and comfortable, native and imported, contemporary and traditional. For utility, there’s the chair/ table, a handy contraption that functions as a chair with lid up and table with lid down. For comfort, there’s the contemporary modular sofa. Native furnishings are best seen in quilts, Shaker chairs and boxes, Pennsylvania tole work and trundle beds, and in wallpaper and upholstery design.

Particularly interesting are photographs of complete interiors, such as an over-draped and claustrophobic Waldorf-Astoria hotel room of the 1890s and an elegant 18th-century parlor. These re-creations make it easy to imagine life before central heating, electric lights, wall-to-wall carpeting and upholstered furniture.

The 443 illustrations (160 color plates) are carefully chosen and handsomely presented.

For a generation reared on KISS, comics and Coca-Cola, what could be more out-of-it than a 19th-century literary classic like Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (Scribners, $17.95)? Set in Scotland in the 1750s, the story has all-but-forgotten words like “laird” and “singular.” It also has plenty of action, suspense, a 17-year-old orphan cut in the heroic mold and a prose style of pith and sinew. It reeks of atmosphere.

Granted, it’s quaint. No sex, no whining, no psychological introspection, no slang, no divorced, alcoholic, abusive parents (just a miserly, murderous, crotchety uncle and a cast of minor villains). The plot is both clear and contrived; the pace, swift. The book itself is a throwback to a time when “paneling” meant oak not vinyl. It looks, feels and handles like that old-fashioned object, a hardbound book.

Scribners has issued this edition, which features illustrations of the 1913 edition by well-known artist N.C. Wyeth. Everything about the book invites the reader – wide margins, handsome typeface, generous spacing, raggedy edges, sturdy cover and binding and, of course, wonderful color illustrations.

After Charles Dickens finished Oliver Twist and brought to public attention the plight of homeless orphans, he scouted around in good journalistic fashion for another scandal. He found it in the schoolmasters of Yorkshire, “traders in the avarice, indifference or imbecility of parents and the helplessness of children.” Nicholas Nickleby is the result. It isn’t as tightly knit or colorful as Oliver Twist, but nevertheless it makes just as scintillating stage material. Hence the 8-hour London and Broadway hit of last year and hence this volume (The Illustrated Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, MacMillan, $19.95) complete with 19th-century black-and-white illustrations and 20th-century color photographs of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production.

Our hero, Nicholas, is a stalwart if dull young man faced with two villains, Wack-ford Squeers, the brutal headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, and a scheming, heartless uncle who has less-than-honorable intentions toward Nicholas’ saccharine sister. In addition, there is a host of the usual preposterous and delightful Dickensian characters involved in a number of soap opera subplots and coincidences.

This edition is a facsmile of the 1870s “household edition,” and its typeface is not as sharp as it should be. But it’s a pleasure to read nonetheless.

The Dwindling Parly by Edward Gorey (Random House, $8.95) is the ultimate subject for an 8th-grader’s book report: It’s short (12 pages at 40 words per), has a simple, fast-moving plot and a cast of perfectly proper English family members and perfectly wonderful monsters.

A few limericks tell the tale of the hapless MacFizzits who visit Hickyacket Hall. Only one survives; the rest are snatched, gobbled and swallowed by a menagerie of prehistoric beasties who pop up (literally) in various imaginative ways.

For whimsy, this is as good as anything by Edward Lear and too good to waste only on moppets. Give it to your adult friends, too. They’ll love it.

How much more pleasant and civilized life would be if everyone heeded the advice of Miss Manners (Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin, Atheneum, $19.95). Would it not be a delight to sit down to a dinner to which you had been invited by handwritten note and at which you were seated next to someone other than your spouse, facing china, silver and stemmed glasses for water, white wine, red wine and champagne, and at which no one discussed how much he paid for his house, indoor gym or Rolex watch and what it is now worth?

Miss Manners’ advice is sound, shrewd, comprehensive and laced with wit. On eating bacon, for example: “The correct way to eat bacon is with a fork. Limp, greasy bacon is easily eaten this way, but is not worth the eating. Crisp bacon is delicious, but is impossible to eat correctly. Life is often like that, but it’s a shame it has to be that way at breakfast time.”

Following Miss Manners’ advice will enable you to cope with the social complexities that arise as a consequence of our modern life -namely ignorance, absence of servants and propensity to divorce or otherwise conduct social lives not recognized by traditional guides to etiquette. More specifically, Miss Manners will instruct you on how to make a proper debut, seat the bride’s warring divorced grandparents and cure your doctor of addressing you by your first name.

Please buy this book for yourself (since you can’t give it to friends without implying that they need it), enjoy it conspicuously and let your teen-age children know it’s much too sophisticated for them.

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