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Books to Go

Burning Life Questions on the Mississippi


RIVER OF FORGOTTEN DAYS: A Journey Down the Mississippi in Search of La Salle by Daniel Spurr (Henry Holt and Co., $23, hardcover).

Seventeenth century French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was the first European to sail down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Daniel Spurr is the 6-millionth middle-age American male of the 1990s to get the notion that traveling somewhere will ease the feeling that his life is going nowhere.

A La Salle aficionado--fanatic?--and veteran writer on sailing, Spurr decides to trace the fur trader's route down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. He takes along his 7-year-old son, Stephen, because he despairs that the boy knows more about skateboards and Nintendo than nature and history, that he parrots beer commercials and is getting his budding value system from Beavis and Butt-head.

So Spurr buys a beater of a cabin cruiser called the Pearl. He notes that the man who sells him the vessel seems saddened by the transaction. More than a car, a boat can do that, Spurr writes, "especially to the boy in the man to whom it reveals itself . . . as the fort, the cave, the cabin in the woods, the ultimate escape machine, the womb without a head requiring address."

The Pearl is ugly, he decides, but he also thinks, "If Huck and Tom were alive today . . . this was the sort of boat they might conspire to buy for another run at adventure."

Woven into Spurr's narrative are flashes of travelogue cross-cut with details of La Salle's expedition and yarns spun off the top of his head to entertain Stephen at night. But Spurr's story is really about life, and it is carried along on a current of sadness--a midlife melancholy deepened by the recent death of the author's father and the earlier death of his first son at the age of 12, killed while crossing a railroad trestle.

Travel, of course, doesn't defeat death--as La Salle, too, discovered. But as this father and son--and later Spurr's grown daughter, Adria--discover, it can enhance life. As the adventure unfolds, Spurr, of course, is still stuck doing the things grown men must do--contending, for instance, with an Evinrude that continually belches and balks. But Stephen catches catfish in the river and butterflies in a field and tree frogs on the lawn of an Illinois inn. And Spurr finds solace in that. "Time still to be a boy," he writes. "If he'd let himself. If the world would."

COASTAL CALIFORNIA by John Doerper, photography by Galen Rowell (Compass American Guides, $19.95 paper).

There's a list of lodges and restaurants at the back of this book, but it's incidental. This guide's strength is its insider's knowledge of the coves and ocean-view hilltops hidden along the state's 1,200 miles of coast. Who but a true San Francisco local would know, for instance, about China Beach, a safe (if cold) swimming spot just south of the Presidio? And who but a history buff would know about China Camp State Park on Marin County's eastern shore, where the shacks and shrimp boats of a historic Chinese immigrant fishing village have been preserved? But the book's greatest appeal is its dozens of color photographs by Rowell, arguably the state's finest nature and adventure photographer. Check out his shot of a glaring great horned owl at Point Reyes, or his close-up of a California poppy beside a setting sun.

Quick trips


Champagne, Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Rhone are, of course, wines and regions. This is a guide to both, as well as to the vintners whose alchemy transforms soil and vine into intoxicating nectar. At first it seemed odd that the guide features word and photo portraits of these grapesmiths. But their faces are character studies. I imagined these men and women being shaped by the land, then pouring personality into their vintages.

FRENCH VINEYARDS: The Complete Guide and Companion by Michael Busselle (Pavilion, $24.95, hardcover). This big, comprehensive tome has not a trace of the madcap. But it's plenty authoritative and loaded with fine color pictures.

THE NAPA AND SONOMA BOOK: A Complete Guide by Tim Fish and Peg Melnik (Berkshire House, $17.95, paper). Wine country restaurants, lodging, museums and night life are as much a part of this book as winery listings. But those are informative. Who knew, for instance, about the Hakusan Sake Gardens four miles from Napa, where visitors can sip this traditional Japanese rice wine hot and cold?

TOURING TEXAS WINERIES by Thomas M. Ciesla and Regina M. Ciesla (Gulf, $18.95, paper).

Spanish monks planted the first Texas vines in 1650. About 300 years later, California kicked off a domestic wine boom, and the Lone Star Beer State has been pokey about catching up. They're making progress, though, and this is a slick and pretty guide to dozens of grape-crushing establishments.

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

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