Holiday Readings

John Brennan talks about the prison at Guantanamo Bay at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on August 6, 2009. CSIS

Critic Janet Maslin helps CBS News Sunday Morning browse through the pages of the season's best books.




There is a little book called "1000 Places to See Before You Die."

Just the thought of such a thing may strike you as exhausting. But there comes a time late in the holiday season -- I think it's here! -- when peace, quiet and escape begin to seem awfully tempting. So, the ambitious, globetrotting travel guide is actually a relaxing thing. It will take you anywhere with the flip of a page, and you don't have to move a muscle.

Same with "Walking: The World's Most Exceptional Trails." It lists some splendid hiking trails and itineraries, even if the Sherpas and the pueblos and the glacier-fed lakes are only figments of your imagination.

If you'd rather imagine the world of movies, you couldn't ask for a more appealing tour guide than the actor Jeff Bridges. He may be a laid-back guy, but he also turns out to be a skilled, witty photographer. "Pictures by Jeff Bridges" is disarming movie-set photos started out as gifts to cast and crew members, but now they'd make a gift for anyone.

The gorgeous portraits to be found in "Phil Stern: A Life's Work" are glossier. These are pictures of the most glamorous Hollywood stars and jazz luminaries, but they too have a delightful candor. Stern specialized in pictures of celebrities actually enjoying themselves -- taking breaks from filming, spending time with their families, looking exultant in the recording studio or in front of audiences. He often caught the real person behind the public image.

There's a different kind of behind-the-scenes look out this year, too: a whole book about a house near Pittsburgh.

Franklin Toker's "Fallingwater Rising" is a terrifically interesting account of how the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece came into being. It is by no means a picture book for the coffee table. It looks into everything about the Fallingwater project -- from the tensions between Wright and his patron, the department store magnate Edgar Kaufman, to the public relations blitz that accompanied the finished product. It is the rare amalgam of captivating illustrations and a fascinating story.

Louis Auchincloss's trim, sharply-observed novel of manners, "The Scarlet Letters," covers the same mid-20th century period when Fallingwater was built. But you won't find any modernism there. It is a reassuringly old-fashioned story of adultery, snobbery and social-climbing, written with the awareness that some things never change. Auchincloss writes elegantly and shows how well he knows this terrain.

But, maybe what you'd find most relaxing is a mystery. Well, how about a mystery anthology featuring short stories from the best writers in the British Isles? Anyone who knows Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid or Anne Perry should sink right into "The Best British Mysteries" and discover a treasure trove of mystery writers who are less well known here. For anyone who loves thrillers, here's one little prediction: you just may miss a night's sleep with Joseph Finder's "Paranoia" early in the New Year.

Happy holiday reading.
  • Rome Neal

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