Sit Back, Relax And Read

CBS Sunday Morning contributor Janet Maslin of The New York Times reviews the books ripe for this season's summer reading lists.


Here's a book called "The Last Days of Dead Celebrities." Can tabloid journalism get any sleazier? The author, Mitchell Fink, takes a group of famous people. All they have in common is the fact that they are no longer with us. Then he invades their privacy by describing the ways in which they died.

But you know what? This isn't what it sounds like. It turns out to be a reasonably thoughtful, not too gossipy book that puts attitudes toward death on a par with attitudes toward life.

And it suggests that if celebrities' lives reveal anything about our own experience, maybe their deaths do, too. This is not to say that you won't want to hide this book in a brown paper wrapper if you're reading it on an airplane. It just means that even the most predictable-sounding subject matter can take you by surprise.

Take "Ava," Lee Server's biography of one of the most beautiful and headstrong women to appear on a movie screen. This author wrote an earlier book about Robert Mitchum, so he knows a thing or two about hard-living Hollywood stars.

So do we. We know that they behave with wild abandon and then pay for the error of their ways, except that's not what happened to Ava Gardner.

She fell for bullfighters, fought epic marital battles with Frank Sinatra, drank so much that she couldn't work after lunchtime and managed to stay gorgeous and footloose no matter what. The surprise here is that she could live her life in permanent party mode and keep on ticking.

She worked often but not very hard-and you might think creating a legend like hers required some exertion. But in "Doing Nothing," Tom Lutz reveals that slacking, loafing and procrastinating are part of a great tradition, one that has shaped more famously industrious figures than you might imagine.

If there's anything more satisfying than relaxing with a good book, it's being told by the author that you're right to take it easy. And that an anti-work attitude might be as defensible as the other kind.

When Dora, the heroine of the disarming novel "Literacy and Longing in L.A.," wants to take it easy, she doesn't engage in stereotypical California behavior. Surprisingly, she binges on books. And the authors, Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, make Dora's book habit a surprisingly fresh angle for what looks like another chick-lit candidate for beach reading.

It's surprising to find a novel this fizzy full of lines like, "Well, I got a little sidetracked and I don't mean with Thomas Pynchon."

There hasn't been a thriller as showily literate as "The King of Lies," by the lawyer-turned-first-time-author John Hart, since Scott Turow came along. This book isn't interested in quick turns of fate; its author has cooked up a North Carolina crime story and he wants you to dwell on every little Gothic nuance. That tactic might not work if the plot were not so solidly constructed, or if it didn't pay off in the end.

"The King of Lies" would be the mystery story with the most baggage this season if it weren't for Matthew Pearl, who has now created a two-book franchise on the cusp of mystery, literature and historical fiction.

First he worked Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes into "The Dante Club." Now, in "The Poe Shadow," he teases a globe-trotting 19th century mystery out of this summer's most surprising "It" guy, Edgar Allan Poe.

But when it comes to surprise value, nothing rivals revisionist history. Nothing has more preconceptions to shatter or more unexpected questions to ask. So in "Rough Crossings," Simon Schama wonders what became of American slaves who chose to align themselves on the British side of the Revolutionary War.

The answer is complicated, wrenching and remarkable in its novelty, in light of the fact that the terrible events described here are so fundamental to our past.

The revisionism in Nathaniel Philbrick's gripping "Mayflower" is even more surprising, since the familiar story of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock is so utterly familiar.

Anyone brought up to think that the pilgrims arrived in a pristine new land may be surprised to hear how many Native Americans already lived there, and how many Europeans vessels were already fishing off the New England coast.

Then there's the holiday on which "Mayflower" has so much bearing, and although you may never look at a turkey dinner in quite the same way, it's not Thanksgiving that most comes to mind. It's Father's Day.

Enjoy your summer reading!
  • Sean Alfano

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