Alluring Escapes From the Holiday Rush

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It's the morning after. Yule-log remains smolder in the fireplace, there's a thick mulch of shredded wrapping paper on the living room floor, the new video game makes the dog howl and -- call 911 -- somebody actually ate the fruitcake. Thank goodness someone provided a way to escape: a picture book, a portal to distant places. You can be that someone, and here are five suggestions on what to choose. -- Jerry V. Haines

"The Asia Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the Continent" (Lonely Planet, $40, 231 pages)

What do you picture when someone says "Asia"? Choose your image from among societies, animals and landscapes as diverse as Japan, Laos, India, Turkmenistan, Israel and Yemen. This book zooms like a dragonfly over all of the countries, pausing for a moment by a stilt fisherman in Sri Lanka, then to shy Uzbek women holding stacks of Frisbee-like bread; then to Afghan refugee children playing on discarded war machines; then three Palestinian girls about to break into giggles. And temples and mountains and fortresses and . . . .

Along with the photos are guidebook-style thumbnail histories, cultural features and "random facts": There are 17 million blood-linked descendants of Genghis Khan in Asia; when lights go out in North Korea, many locals shout "Blame America!"; the highest temperature ever recorded in Asia (129 degrees) was at an Israeli kibbutz.

"One Hundred & One Beautiful Towns in Italy: Shops & Crafts," by Paolo Lazzarin (Rizzoli, $45, 272 pages)

It seems somehow subversive in this season of charity to recommend giving as a gift a book so likely to inspire, well, greed. Surveying Italy's 20 regions and focusing on what each does well, Lazzarin shuns mere souvenirs and anything mass-produced.

But that leaves a lot: some things that you might be able to fit into your roll-aboard, some that you'll just have to be content to admire. As the photos show, it all has that wonderful Italian elegance of the everyday. It's clear that there's more to Italian craftsmanship than Ferraris and Ferragamos. There's the Borsalino hat from Alessandria in the Piedmont, dolls and puppets from the "toy towns" of Lombardy, violins from Cremona, church bells from Agnone in Molise and accordions from the Marches. We want it all.

"A New England Autumn: A Sentimental Journey," Ferenc M¿t¿ (Norton, $39.95, 160 pages)

"Our summer made her light escape/Into the Beautiful," wrote Emily Dickinson. M¿t¿'s photographic celebration of fall in New England also takes us into "the Beautiful." It's the bittersweet season, the brilliant colors of turning leaves, farm buildings and pumpkins on porches, both cheering us and reminding us of what's inevitable. But why not enjoy the moment: a white steeple against rusty woods; a few defiantly bright red leaves clinging to a bush otherwise denuded; a wispy waterfall? Harbor scenes, misty or reddened by low-angled sunlight, evoke quiet, and maybe loneliness and the chill of the following season.

Accompanying the photos are selections from Dickinson, Robert Frost, Henry David Thoreau and other writers. Frost's road not taken; Thoreau's Walden, the "perfect forest mirror"; the old fisherman Elizabeth Bishop finds mending his net -- we can create our own mental pictures to paste next to M¿t¿'s.

"The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army," Jane Portal, ed. (Harvard University Press, $40, 256 pages)

Certainly China's Qin Shihuangdi, "First Emperor," was a man to be feared. Taking power in the third century B.C., he rigidly ruled his subjects and brutally vanquished enemies. But fearing death, he sought to co-opt it, to rule in death as he had while living. Thus, for example, he ordered an enormous tomb -- "not a monument," say the authors, "but an analog of life, through which this ruler perpetuated his authority over the known universe into the invisible one of life after death."

In 1974, farmers drilling a well near that tomb came upon additional ancient funerary objects, leading to the discovery of the now-famous army of warriors, formed from clay. Researchers found pits holding an estimated 7,000 such soldiers (standing at attention, most facing east) -- presumably the forces for his intended "never-ending rule over the universe." The detail, as the photographs show, is remarkable. They still look ready to attack, awaiting only the imperial word.

"Wine Across America: A Photographic Road Trip," by Charles O'Rear and Daphne Larkin (Ten Speed Press, $35, 224 pages)

Whether this is good or bad news remains to be determined, but with North Dakota's entry in 2002, each of the 50 states now has its own wine. And that seems like justification enough for a road trip -- highlighted by tastings and conversations with vintners -- and a lot of shutter-snapping in each state. O'Rear's photos show us vineyards in improbable places and conditions: at the base of an arid Utah rock tower; snowed-in in Minnesota; at 6,400 feet in Colorado. But the more obvious California, Oregon and Virginia operations are pictured extensively as well.

The romance of wine is compellingly communicated in shots of the vines and bodegas, but mainly in the enthusiastic faces of the winemakers. But where is D.C. in this? Where can we get a glass of Foggy Bottom pinot?

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