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Books to Go

Deciphering the Essences and Evils of the West

October 25, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN

LASSO THE WIND, Away to the New West by Timothy Egan (Knopf, $25, hardcover).

"It may be easier to lasso the wind than to find a sustaining story for the American West," writes Timothy Egan, a third-generation Westerner and Left Coast correspondent for the New York Times.

But he's decided to try. The result is fine reportage, current and historical, refracted through one opinionated, often original mind and then honed and polished until it reads more like literature than journalism.

Like his apparent inspiration, the late Edward Abbey, Egan is tough on cowboys, concrete and bureaucrats. Nor has he much patience for the sagebrush rebels who think unmarked helicopters are out to deprive them of their constitutional right to graze cows.

But he's hardest on what Walter Prescott Webb has called the West's "oasis civilizations," towns like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, built through massive water diversions by a breed of developer that water historian Marc Reisner calls "the water kleptocracy."

After reading Egan's chapter on Las Vegas, visitors will look differently at the water spilling over the Mirage Hotel's faux volcano. They may even change their mind as to the nature of the sin that Sin City is committing.

But Egan's at his best when he's more subtle. Two of my favorite chapters are titled "A Colorado River Town I" and "A Colorado River Town II." The first is about Lake Havasu City, the Arizona spring break mecca dreamed up by a speculator whose gimmick was to import one of England's beloved landmarks. The second is about Supai, an isolated Havasupai Indian village hidden away in a small valley that spills into the Grand Canyon.

Riding in on horseback, Egan asks his painfully laconic Havasupai guide if he's ever been to Lake Havasu City, 200 miles downriver.

"Nope."

"Ever heard of it?"

"Nope."

"The London Bridge is there."

"The what?"

"They brought it to the desert from London and rebuilt it, piece by piece."

"Why?"

THE EXTRAORDINARY IN THE ORDINARY: Works in Cloth, Ceramic, Wood, Metal, Straw and Paper From Cultures Throughout the World edited by Mary Hunt Kahlenberg ($60, Harry N. Abrams, hardcover).

For 35 years, Lloyd Cotsen, founder of the Neutrogena Co., collected textiles and folk art from virtually every point on the compass. About 2,500 of those objects are now at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M. Now hundreds of them are in this book. A late 19th century Japanese fireman's coat depicting a Genji warrior slaying a giant spider demon. Beaded belts from the Congo. A feathered ceremonial mask from Brazil. A birchbark and porcupine quill book cover from Nova Scotia.

This celebration of multicultural creativity will inspire wanderlust, if not to China, where one might find a delicate banner emblazoned with fearsome winged tigers, then at least to Santa Fe. Extraordinary.

Quick trips

ASIA OVERLAND by Mark Elliott and Wil Klass (Trailblazer Publications, $19.95, paper).

Any wimp can fly from Istanbul to Siberia. It takes guts, gastrointestinal fortitude and a strategy to do the trip overland, on local trains and buses. Here's indispensable, up-to-date advice on how to avoid being blown up, poisoned and subjected to brain-damagingly intricate bureaucratic buffoonery. Wonderful hand-drawn maps and illustrations.

DESERT WILDFLOWERS OF NORTH AMERICA by Ronald J. Taylor (Mountain Press, $24, paper).

Mojave buckwheat, claret-cup cactus, Painted Desert primrose, violet snapdragon vine, sticky sand verbena. Paint these, Renoir! You'll wind up with a pretty canvas, but how do you capture the intricate fragrances, the nuances of color that only a magnifying glass reveals, or the rapturous dance of fragile petals whipsawed by a blast furnace wind? This is the guide to communing with living blossoms.

ULTIMATE SHOPPER, The Local's Handbook to the Most Unique Shopping on Oahu (The Bess Press, paper, $11.95).

Each page sports a color photo of a unique or at least quirky shop--Patriotic Sports, "for all your camouflage clothing and accessory needs"; "Swing Songs" for "work of art hammocks and wind chimes"--and a black-and-white shot of the stores' owners or staff goofin' off. For those who think paradise must cater to consumers.

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

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