THE SPELL OF THE VIENNA WOODS: Inspiration and Influence From Beethoven to Kafka and SWITZERLAND: The Smart Traveler's Guide to Zurich, Basel, and Geneva, both by Paul Hofmann (Henry Holt, $22.50 each hardcover).
A longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Rome-based Paul Hofmann has recently been turning out thoughtful, accessible travel books in the educated guidebook idiom. ("Roma: The Smart Traveler's Guide to the Eternal City" was his last before these two.) What's unusual about them is that they offer where-to-go/what-to-do material--the sort of thing usually published in durable paperback format--in hardcover form.
Hofmann writes well--economically, clearly, with a tone that is friendly without being overly familiar--and he obviously knows his material. But I'm not sure that his travel tips--the sort of information that is, by its very nature, ephemeral--deserve so serious a treatment.
His "Switzerland," for instance, is full of savvy recommendations for hotels, restaurants and amusements in the three cities it covers--and he does a good job, I think, of convincing readers that the least-known of the three, Basel, is in fact an extraordinarily appealing place, well worth a visit.
But does the book have literary merits beyond its clarity and attractive tone? Will it be of use to anyone five years from now, when hotels and restaurants have changed ownership or closed and prices have changed? And if not, well, why a hardcover?
"The Spell of the Vienna Woods" is something else again. Here we find not Hofmann the guide maker, but Hofmann the charming, urbane chronicler. Perhaps it helps that he is Austrian-born himself. It certainly helps that what he attempts to give his readers in this case is not guidebook fare at all, but glimpses into the heart of a great European city and its surroundings. History, personality and humor are interwoven effortlessly in this book's pages; it is a pleasure to read.
If I were traveling to Austria, I would certainly stick it in my suitcase as a guide to the eternal pleasures of the place. Of course, I'd also take along the latest edition of some good paperback guide to the country, for the ever-changing particulars.
SHAKER HERITAGE GUIDEBOOK: Exploring the Historic Sites, Museums & Collections by Stuart Murray (Golden Hill Press, $15.95 paper).
Through an elegantly shaped but unadorned archway, two brooms, one normal and the other child-size, lean against a wall. On the near side of the arch, two clean-lined ladder-back chairs hang upside down on the wall.
The effect is positively surrealistic. But this is not surrealism: This is a Shaker interior at the Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Mass.
The Shakers, originally called "Shaking Quakers," were a group of British religious dissidents who became the most successful of the utopian religious movements in this country. By the middle of this century, the group had all but died out--but the pure, enviably confident simplicity of Shaker design has become famous.
Shaker buildings, museums and collections can be seen today from Maine to Indiana to Florida. This sympathetic, impeccably researched guide to such Shaker sites, combines the usual practical information (addresses, opening hours, etc.) with solid historical lore.
Perhaps most surprisingly, "Shaker Heritage Guidebook" reveals there is still one eight-person Shaker community operating on traditional principles at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Me.--complete with museum, shop and guided tours.