Books That Won't Be Coasters

books on a shelf
If you're bestowing a book as a holiday present, choose wisely. And you could do worse than to heed the advice offered by Contributor Janet Maslin of CBS News Sunday Morning.
When you give people books as gifts, you hope that you're making them an offer they can't refuse. You hope that the book you've picked will offer endless hours of surprise and delight. Or that it will at least be opened. Or that if it sits on a coffee table, that it won't wind up being used strictly as a coaster.

But sometimes even the nicest books find themselves under coffee cups, which is why it's important to pick gifts that truly hold the recipient's interest. One thing's for certain: if "The National Enquirer: Thirty Years Unforgettable Images" is the gift of choice, it's GOING to get opened. And by people who wouldn't TOUCH the National Enquirer at the supermarket, either.

Some of the pictures collected here are almost criminally shocking. Some are unforgivable, but other are surprisingly lovely, too. And they all tell stories, one way or another, as they offer up candid, unadulterated images of people who usually work hard at image CONTROL. That honesty is amazing even when it is harsh.

But if you'd prefer glamour to candor, then here's the ultimate: "Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories", a lavish book devoted to Marlene Dietrich and some of the most beautiful, lovingly composed Hollywood still photographs ever taken. With a gorgeous cover image by Josef Von Sternberg, the filmmaker who most adored Dietrich, this portrait gallery includes glimpses of memorabilia -- rom the star's costume to her love letters from well-known admirers to the custom-made stockings designed for those famous legs. They were very special, and of course, so was she.

When it comes to larger-than-life personalities, here's a choice for the history buff: "Theodore Rex," Edmund Morris' latest book about the wildest character to inhabit the White House. This volume is the second installment in Morris's extended biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and it confines itself to the eventful years of his presidency. Along the way, it offers a very full and captivating idea of the man himself -- especially when it draws on Roosevelt's own great, heartfelt, no-nonsense writings. Anyone who enjoyed David McCullough's recent biography of John Adams will find this one required reading, too.

You can't go wrong with humorous books -- unless you're Dave Barry, and your latest book is described as a "a vicious and unprovoked attack on our most cherished political institutions," and it came out ust after Sept. 11. But "Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway" is a funny guide to Washington all the same, even if it insists on including drawings of the Giant Prehistoric Zucchini that figure in Barry's thinking.

For those who favor more sophisticated amusement, The New Yorker humor anthology called "Fierce Pajamas" is a sure bet. Open it anywhere and you'll find something wry.

Nature looms large at gift-giving season. And it REALLY looms large in "Earth From Above," the most spectacular coffee-table book around. Those aerial photographs by Yann Arthus-Bertrand span the globe and pick out patterns everywhere, from topographical landscapes to flamingos in Kenya to Versailles from above. It's a breathtaking volume, even if my scale says that it weighs 9 1/2 pounds.

Closer to the ground, the naturalist you know might also appreciate "The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior," a companion to the previous Sibley birdwatching guide. It tells you not only how to spot birds but also how they nest, molt, and forage for food. Here's the place to discover the exact workings of the hummingbird tongue.

And should you seek a larger, more cosmic view, Stephen Hawking claims to have "The Universe in a Nutshell." That's the title of his new bestseller. And it's illustrated, so you can understand quasars and black holes and computer chips and the way matter warps space-time that much better. A tall order perhaps, but this is a lucid, audacious job of bringing abstract science to life.

Thrillers don't make you work quite that hard. And for sheer entertainment value, they make welcome gifts. Two of the best this season are Stuart Wood's quick, breezy "Orchid Blues" and the much more intricate "Pursuit" by Thomas Perry. Perry pits two diabolically smart hit men against each other in a war of nerves, and focuses with riveting intensity on every tiny aspect of their thoughtful duel.

Finally, let's not neglect the frivolous. Diana Vreeland certainly didn't: she wrote a regular column for Harper's Bazaar devoted to the flightiest of fashion ideas. It was called "Why Don't You," and so is this book-length of fashion ideas. So: Why don't ou "wear violet velvet mittens with everything?" Why don't you "turn your old ermine coat into a bathrobe?" "Why don't you "paint a map of the world on all four walls of your boys' nursery so they won't grow up with a provincial point of view?" And why don't you know someone who will find this decadently amusing? Say! Maybe you do.

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