Feature

Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books

Gifts for readers: Feasts for the mind and senses

My Last Supper by Melanie Dunea(Bloomsbury, $39.95)

“You can learn a lot about people” by asking them what they’d eat for their final meal on earth, said Joel Stein in Time. That’s the idea behind a game that chefs play late at night when the customers have gone home, and it’s the conceit behind photographer Melanie Dunea’s enlightening new book. Fifty top chefs agreed to play along, and surprisingly few “piled on the caviar, foie gras, and truffles.” Simple comfort foods won the day; Jacques Pepin actually chose a hot dog. Dunea’s portraits capture Anthony Bourdain in the nude and Lidia Bastianich wearing fanciful pasta headwear, said Jennifer Leuzzi in The New York Sun. But neither the idiosyncratic images nor the recipes are the main draw. “The real appeal is the conversation,” the chance for a foodie to enjoy virtual tête-à-têtes with dozens of well-known chefs.

30,000 Years of Art(Phaidon, $49.95)

This 13-pound tome from the editors at Phaidon is “the ultimate do-it-yourself story of art,” said Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times Magazine. Beginning with Lion Man, a sculpture apparently created from mammoth tusk in 28,000 B.C. Germany, the book supplies only minimal commentary as it “sumptuously” reproduces 1,000 images on its 1,000 pages. Its strictly chronological, every-culture-counts ethos “delivers pleasingly bizarre juxtapositions” at almost every turn. Readers must decide for themselves what it means that the year 1475 produced both a delicate Leonardo portrait and a Picasso-esque ironwood carving from the Dominican Republic. A book that “at first sight” looks like a gimmick thus turns out to be “an engrossing educational journey” through the history of human creativity, said Frank Whitford in the London Sunday Times. More surprising still, said Michael Merschel in the Dallas Morning News, is that the whole journey is “priced less than a sweater.”

Designby Stephen Bayley and Terence Conran(Firefly, $49.95)

Don’t be fooled by the “boring, textbook-like cover,” said Maggie Wrobel in the Toronto Globe and Mail. This ambitious compendium of international design history is both smartly written and gorgeously illustrated. Organized primarily as an A-to-Z encyclopedia of essential figures, companies, and moments in the last three centuries of design, it’s the kind of book you’ll dip into repeatedly just for fun, said Deborah Hornblow in The Hartford Courant. Co-authors Stephen Bayley and Terence Conran write “with verve and personality” about everything “from Pyrex to poster art,” from Henry Ford’s Model T to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of a “global village.” They’re as astute about Finnish furniture designer Eero Aarnio as they are about the Milanese manufacturer Zanotta.

Evolutionby Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste De Panafieu(Seven Stories, $65)

“Some of nature’s greatest works of engineering” can only be fully appreciated after an initial shudder, said Michael Hanlon in the London Daily Mail. Skeletons, particularly the skeletons of the earth’s 10,000 vertebrates, are the stars of this eye-opening nature title. Judging from Patrick Gries’ gorgeous black-and-white photographs, “all animal life is far closer, under the skin, than we might have thought.” Accompanying essays explain how these precious bones reflect the history of life on this planet, said Carl Zimmer in The New York Times. While most of Gries’ images “retain the simplicity of traditional anatomical drawings,” said Lucy Davies in the London Daily Telegraph, more than a few convey a “wicked humor.” In a book that reminds us how closely related we are to both chimpanzees and sharks, that’s only appropriate.

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