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GIFT BOOKS : COFFEE-TABLE TRAVELER : The Mental Traveler

December 05, 1993|KEVIN COYNE | Coyne is the author of "A Day in the Night of America" (Random House)

They arrive each Christmas like postcards from a rich and restless friend--big, lavish travel books dispatched from all corners of the globe, glossy chronicles of lands where the rivers are all crystalline, the mountains all snowcapped, the deserts all shimmering, and the natives all smiling. Their photographs aim for the epic and the lyrical, and their prose usually wheezes and puffs as it tries to keep pace.

The least ambitious of them settle for being simply a means of transport (cheaper than airfare, mostly, and lighter than luggage) to places we might otherwise never see. The most ambitious try to spark what James Joyce called epiphanies - those rare moments that flash with sudden spiritual insight.

In the tonnage of this season's crop, one of the best is the one that meets Joyce on his own turf. JAMES JOYCE: Reflections of Ireland, text by Bernard McCabe; photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur (Macmillan: $35; 160 pp.), is a modest album that pairs passages from Joyce's prose with photographs that illustrate them. The images alone are undistinguished, but set beside the words they sparkle. The grim and grainy view from Grattan Bridge in Dublin is the same view that a character in one of the stories in "Dubliners" had ,and when you see it here, it's hard not to have the same thought, the same Epiphany, that he had when he saw it. "There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin."

In FAR JOURNEYS: Photographs and Notebooks (Viking: $35; 160 pp.), the late Bruce Chatwin illustrates his own prose, demonstrating that he was almost as good a photographer as he was a writer, which was very good indeed. Before his far-too-soon death in 1989, Chatwin had traveled farther and smarter than any of his peers, and he recorded his journeys, as we learn here, in photographs that match the luminous grace of his books.

Chatwin's photographs, like his notebooks, are studies in color and light, pattern and space, so abstract at times that the actual subject is all but unrecognizable. Instead of guidebook highlights, we see painted boats, tin shanties, billowing flags, sun-baked mud houses--landmarks of a world as bright as Joyce's Dublin is gray. In word and image both, Chatwin framed the world with a fresh and honest eye, and this beautiful book only makes us feel his loss more keenly.

The photographer Frans Lanting offers a vision of Africa very different from Chatwin's. A regular contributor to National Geographic, he spent a year on assignment in the Okavango Delta region of northern Botswana, where he found, he writes, "an Africa I thought no longer existed." OKAVANGO: Africa's Last Eden, edited by Christine Eckstrom (Chronicle Books: $45; 168 pp.) is the record of his sojourn there--a large, elegant book that gives his work more room to maneuver in than a constricted magazine. His photographs have the expansive authority of a trumpeting elephant. Hippos wallow, antelopes bound, crocodiles thrash. Water buffalo and zebras converge into dense packs. A stalking leopard is frozen in mid-stride, its eyes wide and hungry. A lion pauses at a stark and misty water hole--a haunting image that looks as if it might have been made a millennium ago. And his prose, thankfully, is admirably restrained.

One of Lanting's Okavango photos turns up again in STRANGE AMAZING AND MYSTERIOUS PLACES, essays by Richard Marshall (Collins Publishers San Francisco: $45; 160 pp.), a book in which the prose, regretfully, is not so restrained. The idea here was to collect a greatest-hits portfolio of photographs of exotic locales and then-- with a nod to Joseph Campbell, and a forgettable introduction by William S. Burroughs--"uncover the underlying themes that link places, sacred and otherwise, around the world." The photos are compelling, and some of the juxtapositions are illuminating--Antarctica and the Namib Desert, for instance, or Tibet's Mount Kailas and the Ka'ba of Mecca. But the accompanying essays are ponderous, and stingy with actual facts. (Just how high \o7 is\f7 Machu Picchu, anyway?). The overall effect is something like a New Age Time-Life book.

Mount Kailas also figures in a smaller, more sensible book, THE TRAVELER: An American Odyssey in the Himalayas--text by Eric Hansen, photographs by Hugh Swift (Sierra Club Books: $25; 102 pp.)--a tribute to the late Swift, who in his brief, nomadic life logged 15,000 foot-miles in the world's highest mountains, walking from Bhutan to Nanga Parbat, and circling Mount Kailas three times. The text captures the gentle, questing spirit of Swift, including his ambivalence at leading trekkers through these once-unreachable places. The photos are Swift's own, taken with a battered old Nikon and a single lens: Their understated beauty is the result of the clear, loving eye that made them.

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