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Paperback Originals

October 06, 1985|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The adventurers and explorers whose exploits are recounted in Women of the Four Winds by Elizabeth Fagg Olds (Houghton Mifflin: $8.95) are notable, among other reasons, because of the accident of their gender. According to Olds, these pioneering women of the early 20th Century were "vigorously mobile females" whose "global assaults were still regarded as aberrations." But their treks are notable, too, because of their courage and daring, their restless intellectual curiosity, and their appetite for high adventure. Indeed, "Women of the Four Winds" is a real-life rendering of the stuff of Saturday matinees, no less exotic or exciting than "Indiana Jones" or "Romancing the Stone," and considerably more compelling because it is so real.

Annie Peck, for instance, was a 60-year-old "monster of persistence" who succeeded in reaching the unconquered summit of the highest peak in the Peruvian Andes only after five failed attempts. Marguerite Harrison, a foreign correspondent and espionage agent in Europe during the tumultuous years after World War I, may have been the first American to see--and survive--the Gulag. Delia Akeley, abandoned by mutinous and panic-stricken guides during a trans-African safari in 1909, managed to search out her husband and save his life after he was mangled by a bull elephant. And Louise Arner Boyd, "a grande dame of San Francisco society" in the 1930s, not only financed but led seven scientific expeditions through the icebound northern reaches of Greenland.

Olds tells these tales with the discipline of a serious biographer, with the novelist's sense of drama and detail, and with an appreciation for the underlying social and scientific history that makes the accomplishments of these four women so remarkable. "Having after all been born in the Victorian era, they donned their knickers with misgivings, rode astride but wore concealing robes or jackets, and bivouacked with their porters and bearers with uneasy apologies," she explains. "But meanwhile they managed to explore some of the earth's most unlikely spots, encounter adventure as wildly improbable as their predecessors' and contribute much to our knowledge of people, customs and geography."

The endlessly inventive Richard Saul Wurman and his AccessPress have dazzled us with a distinctive series of guidebooks on big cities and big-league sports. Now he has turned his genius for the graphic display of information to medicine and surgery in Medical Access (AccessPress, P.O. Box 30706, Los Angeles 90030: $9.95), a typically colorful and kinetic handbook for the consumer of medical services. "Medical Access" describes 120 diagnostic tests and 32 surgical procedures with clear, cool prose and the stylized graphics that have become Wurman's signature, and provides answers to about 74 questions about doctors, hospitals, patients' rights, medical costs and insurance. It's all so elegantly done that even the depiction of colonoscopy seems unintimidating.

Fred Bronson's The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (Billboard/Watson-Guptill: $14.95) is dressed up to resemble yet another book of lists, but this is much more than an exercise in music trivia. Bronson tracks more than 600 songs that have topped the "Music Popularity Chart" in "Billboard" over the last 30 years, starting with "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1955 and concluding with last spring's "We Are the World." But Bronson is no mere list-maker--he writes with authority, intimacy and enthusiasm about each song, the artists who wrote and performed it, and its place in the popular culture. The photographs, the lore and the tunes will prompt a rush of nostalgia in anyone whose poignant adolescent memories can be readily evoked by the sound of "Runaround Sue" or "My Boyfriend's Back"--but "The Billboard Book" also deserves attention as a substantial and enduring work of cultural history.

The World of Oz by film historian Allen Eyles (HP Books: $9.95) is another memory book that also serves as something of a standard reference. Eyles surveys the books, plays, motion pictures and other works that have been inspired by L. Frank Baum's original novel of 1900, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and the other 13 titles in the Oz canon, thereby demonstrating that there is far more to Oz than the familiar 1939 movie version. Lavishly illustrated and closely annotated, "The World of Oz" is enriched by the sweep and the depth of its author's scholarship as well as his obvious affection for his subject. But I was put off by his insistent (and, I believe, undeserved) references to Disney's recent film, "Return to Oz," which were apparently the result of some indistinct (and undisclosed) corporate sponsorship of the film.

New and noteworthy: Now that Louis Farrakhan has once again reminded us of the misperceptions and outright slanders that continue to plague the Jewish community, I was pleased to come across Clues About Jews for People Who Aren't by Sidney J. Jacobs and Betty J. Jacobs (Jacobs Ladder Publications, Culver City: $8.95), a compassionate and insightful little volume that answers more than 200 questions about the traditions and practices of Judaism--and gently debunks many of the stereotypes about the Jewish people.

Titles reviewed in Paperback Originals have been published in softcover only or in simultaneous softcover and clothbound editions.

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