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Books to Go

Tropical Flashes and Flowing Rivers

May 11, 1997|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Balzar is a national correspondent for The Times

TROPICAL CLASSICAL: Essays from Several Directions by Pico Iyer (Knopf, $25).

Pico Iyer is a formidable talent and a facile writer. He travels to places that interest me, and he is engaged by people and ideas, both big and not so big, which likewise happen to interest me. Also, I have recently noted the generous overlap between his fans and my friends. So I feel discomfort in reporting my disappointment with this young writer's fifth book, a themeless collection of travel accounts, book reviews, profiles, observations and rants.

Iyer is a pacesetter among a new breed of travel writers. That's what my friends/his fans, say. I understand this to mean he is of the Bruce Chatwin school, wherein travel is not novelty but necessary, not escape but quest. The writer wanders to gain perspective and appreciation for our world. How does it look from here?

In this collection, Iyer travels from Ethiopia to Los Angeles. He contemplates a range of writers from Salman Rushdie to Derek Walcott to Jim Harrison. He meditates on affirmative action and frequent-flyer mileage programs, on the meaning of silence and the meaninglessness of book blurbs. Fifty-four pieces total. So, the source of my disappointment? From a writer of Iyer's emerging stature, one expects illumination, surprise, delight. And of these things, there is too little. His short account of Los Angeles, for instance, is glib, rushed and shapeless. The city is a stereotype, no it's not, yes it is, etc. Ethiopia is rendered superficially without lasting emotion, without characters or mood or how the place smelled. And frequent-flier miles: Haven't we all observed the irony of that trap?

Perhaps Iyer does represent the "new." That is, the visual. Images, and even ideas, strike the eye, glance off the mind and materialize on the page. The result is a cool, video detachment. I found I couldn't argue with Iyer any more than I could argue with a TV: Things just hurried by in a blur.

RIVER: One Man's Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea by Colin Fletcher (Knopf, $30, maps, photographs).

A whole army of baby boomers studied backpacking from Colin Fletcher and his 1968 treatise on equipment and ethos, "The Complete Walker."

Here, at age 67, without a book in eight years, Fletcher emerges from his morning shower with an idea to "pare the fat off my soul . . . to make me grateful, again, for being alive." He hatches a plan to travel the Colorado River from its headwaters in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming to its mouth in Sonora, Mexico.

Fletcher is a campfire storyteller, straight down the middle, step by step. Thirty years later, he is still in love with his gear, with solitude, with the very idea of being in the outdoors and, in a manner that I find inoffensive, with himself.

BALLPARK VACATIONS: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Baseball Parks Across America by Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel (Fodor's, $16.50, paperback, maps).

This volume lives up to its title--and then some. A blend of history and lore with a solid guide to baseball cities and side trips. Tour the Louisville Slugger factory in Kentucky. Bring your lawn chairs for the Cape Cod League. And would you believe, the LycomingCQ County Historical Society Museum in Pennsylvania displays the first home plate hand carved in 1939 by Carl Stotz, founder of the Little League? This book is child-friendly and plenty rich enough to inspire five years worth of vacations. But I can also see an executive thumbing through it before the next business trip. Who knows when you might have a few hours to kill?

THE UNOFFICIAL MINI-MICKEY: The Pocket-Sized Guide to Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger (Macmillan, $10.95, paperback, maps).

THE UNOFFICIAL DISNEY COMPANION: The Inside Story of Walt Disney World and the Man Behind the Mouse by Eve Zibart (Macmillan, $11.95, paperback).

WALT DISNEY WORLD: & Orlando Area Theme Parks by David Swanson (Fielding, $18.95, maps, photographs).

BIRNBAUM'S WALT DISNEY WORLD: Expert Advice from the Inside Source (Hyperion, $12.95, maps, photographs).

I don't get it. I thought the whole idea of Disney World was a place so predictable that one didn't need a guidebook. Here are 1,184 pages proving that theory wrong.

Want to know where subliminal Mickeys are hidden in the park? See Fielding. Want to race hundreds of others to Splash Mountain when the park opens? Check the shortcut in Macmillan's "Unofficial Mini-Mickey." How to take interesting pictures? Birnbaum's recommends this: "Fill in the frame with as much of the prime subject as possible." I still don't get it.

Balzar is a national correspondent for The Times. Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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