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Books to Go

A Tiring Walk . . . or Maybe Just Tiresome

February 11, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

ON FOOT TO THE GOLDEN HORN: A Walk to Istanbul by Jason Goodwin (Henry Holt and Co., $14.95, paperback).

After communism fell a few years ago, Jason Goodwin and two friends decided to walk from the Baltic port of Gdansk to Istanbul. The 2,000-mile trek took Goodwin through parts of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

The walk started in spring and, as the miles dropped slowly behind, Goodwin witnessed the tentative, alien shoots of new societies, warmed by proto-democracy, growing up through the wrack of Eastern Europe's long winter.

Goodwin and his pals (one left before the halfway point) slept in barns, churches and on living room floors. They met Gypsies, drunks, thieves, warm-hearted farmers and hopeless souls.

"On Foot" was highly praised in England (where it was first published in 1993) for Goodwin's observational acumen and pungent views of regional character (and characters). His descriptive zest is undeniable. Two samples:

In a Polish hotel: "In our room we crunched bedbugs with our nails--real live bedbugs that sprang from gloomy novels by Zola into our pajamas."

At a party of Gypsies: "Their mood changed as they caught sight of us--a sudden whisper, a blank drunken stare, a leer. The atmosphere felt faintly thuggish, certainly unsteady: It swung wildly, like a lantern light in a high wind."

Nonetheless "On Foot" isn't easy to curl up with. All the journey's chronological signposts are missing. Is it July yet? Even the geography is obscure. Are they still in Transylvania? And though they often walked in fear of rumored dangers, most encounters only involved bad food and vaguely malevolent children.

"On Foot," which starts so promisingly, becomes as dull as a factory wall. Toward the end, a visit to one of Romania's infamous orphanages flashes past so quickly the reader almost misses the horror. I suspect the walk just wore Goodwin out--he crams the last third of the trek into 34 pages. Maybe that's the ultimate observation: Eastern Europe is too depressing and frustrating to sustain a narrative.

FIELDING'S GUIDE TO WORLDWIDE CRUISES by Shirley Slater and Harry Basch (Fielding Worldwide Inc., $18.95, paperback, photos). One hundred seventy-eight ships belonging to 58 cruise lines are rated on two separate scales: one to six stars for traditional cruise ships; one to six anchors for adventure cruises (usually smaller, shallower draft vessels). An exhaustive effort by longtime cruise experts and Times columnists Slater and Basch. Lots of tips and inside information on each ship (for example, the QE2 gets a C+ for its standard outside cabins) and helpful lists, such as "five favorite spots," "five good reasons to book these ships" and "five things you won't find on board." Slater and Basch also rate scores of ports all around the world and include valuable beginner's information on the cruise life and choosing a cruise. Very detailed.

SOUTHWEST: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah by Rob Rachowiecki (Lonely Planet $19.95, paperback, maps, photos); ROCKY MOUNTAIN STATES: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana by Wayne Bernhardson, Robert Raburn and Marisa Gierlich (Lonely Planet, $21.95, paperback, maps, photos); PACIFIC NORTHWEST: Washington, Oregon, Idaho by Bill McRae and Judy Jewell (Lonely Planet, $19.95, paperback, maps, photos).

Three new "travel survival kits" by the backpacker/budget experts. North America is relatively new turf for LP, which specializes in exotica. (It has a city guide to Jakarta, not Paris.) But LP doesn't seem to have lost its acuity and bite. For example, the Rocky Mountain guide outlines the controversial reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone; the Seattle section of Pacific Northwest includes a listing of tattoo/body-piercing shops, and the Southwest guide chides visitors to go easy on overcrowded, over-trashed Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in southern Utah. The Southwest guide is particularly strong on Taos and the other pueblos of New Mexico. LP guides emphasize active and budget travel, including low-end lodgings and hiking and biking opportunities.


Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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