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Travel books: New York's storytelling murals

By June Sawyers, Special to Tribune Newspapers

December 25, 2013

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"Murals of New York City: The Best of New York's Public Paintings from Bemelmans to Parrish"

(Rizzoli, $45)

"In their purest form, murals have the ability to tell stories," writes Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. But as he also points out, there are plenty of stories behind each mural. And so this beautiful book combines gorgeous photography with the informative text of Glenn Palmer-Smith. Indeed, the stories behind the murals offer a mini-history of 20th-century American art.

The images are as lovely and impressive as anything this side of the Sistine Chapel. The book begins with the magnificent murals inside the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division. Architect James Brown Lord, according to Palmer-Smith, emulated the work of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. An early 20th-century jewel of a building, it was considered the "grandest" courthouse in the U.S. and, notes the author, "also represented the zenith of American mural painting."

One of the most entertaining murals is by painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish in the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel. (The mural originally was in the Knickerbocker Hotel). Consider the delicious irony in knowing that this most famous of images — that of the crowned visage of Old King Cole looking devilishly down on bar patrons — was created, reluctantly as it turns out, by Parrish, a teetotaling Quaker. Meanwhile, Thomas Hart Benton's populist "America Today" in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a sweeping vista of 20th-century American life, "the visual equivalent of Aaron Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man'" as well as, Palmer-Smith adds, the literary equivalent of a Carl Sandburg and a Mark Twain.

Relish too the characters from "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" and "The Divine Comedy" in the Morgan Library & Museum; the depiction of muscular workers on the lobby ceiling of the Chrysler Building; the childlike whimsy on the walls of Bemelmans Bar in The Carlyle hotel; and the impish antics of Edward Sorel's caricatures of 1920s- and 1930s-era celebrities in the Monkey Bar at the Hotel Elysee. (Sorel's work also is on glorious display at the Waverly Inn and Garden: 43 caricatures of famous Greenwich Villagers, from Whitman to Dylan).

Other artists include the Mexican social realist painter Jose Clemente Orozco (the New School), the African-American painter Aaron Douglas (Harlem YMCA), the left-wing Lithuanian-born painter Ben Shahn (Bronx General Post Office); the swirling musical symbols and images of Marc Chagall (Metropolitan Opera); and the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein (AXA Equitable Center).

The book is a majestic achievement.

"The Kid's Guide

to Los Angeles County"

GPP Travel/Globe Pequot Press, $12.95

Los Angeles appeals to all ages, but as the metropolis of movie stars, tar pits and Disneyland, it is especially popular with children. In this fun little guidebook, syndicated family travel columnist Eileen Ogintz writes about the City of Angels from the perspective of a child. There are chapters on museums (from the La Brea Tar Pits to the Autry National Center), Hollywood and Universal Studios, and, of course, Disneyland.

Chock-full of fun and quirky trivia (Mickey Mouse was almost named Mortimer; there are 88 cities in Los Angeles County), the book also includes "What's Cool?" sidebars scattered throughout the text. Those include getting lunch from a food truck or seeing stars at the Grove Shopping Plaza while on break from the nearby CBS Television City studio.

"Tell the Adults" sections offer tips and advice on how adults can help kids experience LA at its best. In addition, there are short sidebars on such iconic LA people and things as the Hollywood sign, Los Angeles County lifeguards (there are about 700 of them, from San Pedro to Malibu) and a dictionary of skateboard lingo ("deck," for example, refers to the wooden part of a skateboard) and surfer lingo (a "gremmie" is a beginner). Comments from children are included too.

ctc-travel@tribune.com