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When the Write Way Is Inside Out

July 10, 1994|COLMAN ANDREWS

DESTINATIONS PAST; TRAVELING THROUGH HISTORY WITH JOHN LUKACS by John Lukacs (University of Missouri Press, $26.95 hardcover).

John Lukacs, the distinguished historian, author of such books as "1945: Year Zero," "Budapest 1900" and "The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age," would probably be the first to tell you that he is not a travel writer. He doesn't assemble guidebooks, and he doesn't construct well-rounded, comprehensive "destination stories" in any conventional sense. If he's not a travel writer, though, he is certainly a writer who travels, and who apparently can't resist jotting down his observations when he does--and then shaping them into dense, quirky, highly enjoyable little essays on places.

"Destinations Past" is a collection of pieces written between 1954 (a brief but evocative sketch of Venice and nearby Chioggia) and 1993 (a no-nonsense consideration of Zermatt). Most of them have been published previously--a few in travel magazines, but others in such tony periodicals as "Commonweal" and "The New Republic."

As befits a historian, Lukacs includes in his writings a lot of historical asides, as well as a good deal of what might be called cultural analysis. He certainly knows how to describe the physical attributes of the places he writes about--which range from Warsaw to Philadelphia, from Finland to Andorra--but he seems more concerned with writing about what makes them tick. He gets at places not from a respectful distance, with a panoramic view, but from the inside.

IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS; THE AMERICAN VISIONS GUIDE TO AFRICAN-AMERICAN HERITAGE SITES by Henry Chase (Henry Holt, $16.95 paper) and THE JEWISH TRAVELER; HADASSAH MAGAZINE'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S JEWISH COMMUNITIES AND SIGHTS, edited by Alan M. Tigay (Jason Aronson Inc., $30 paper).

Genealogically, few of us can trace our roots back more than half-a-dozen or maybe a dozen generations. Our cultural roots, the source of what might be called our heritage or patrimony, spread far wider and reach back much further--and are, or ought to be, available to all of us. These two new guidebooks take culture, in the broadest sense of the term, seriously, and both should prove invaluable traveling companions for anyone seeking to learn more about, respectively, the African-American and the Jewish past.

"In Their Footsteps" confines itself to the United States and (briefly) Canada, and lists relevant monuments, museums, cemeteries, churches and other sites. Included are notes on everything from the Motown Museum in Detroit to the Quantrill Raid Monument in Lawrence, Kan., to L.A.'s own California Afro-American Museum and Museum of African-American Art. The entries include complete information on location, hours and admission fees, and each geographical section is introduced with a well-crafted essay by a noted African American writer (among them Gloria Naylor, Ismael Reed and Amiri Baraka).

"The Jewish Traveler" is worldwide in scope, offering overviews of Jewish history and community in well over 100 cities and regions, from Albuquerque to Zurich. Included are sightseeing tips, notes on local kosher restaurants and recommendations for further reading. The entries are a bit sketchy--not surprising, considering the number of places covered--but they are full of fascinating lore.

Quick Trips:

SOJOURN IN GASCONY; PLEASURES OF THE PALETTE by Erasmus H. Kloman (Judd Publishing Inc., $11.95 paper). A charming little diary of a stay in southwestern France, by a retired corporate-executive-turned-artist. The prose is personal and a bit plain, but nicely captures the flavor of the region.

BLUE GUIDE: SPAIN, sixth edition, by Ian Robertson (W.W. Norton/A.&C. Black, $23 paper). Unfashionable, unglitzy, sparsely illustrated, published in type that ranges from small to smaller, the Blue Guides are hardly in the forefront of the guidebook industry these days. As this new edition of Ian Robertson's superbly researched volume on Spain reminds us, though, they are absolutely packed with fact and lore and background--guidebooks for the thinking traveler.

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