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BOOKS TO GO

Stories That Span Sea to Shining Sea

AMERICA, TRUE STORIES OF LIFE ON THE ROAD edited by Fred Setterberg (Travelers' Tales Guides, $19.95, paper).

FIRST TIME EUROPE by Louis CasaBianca (Rough Guides, $9.95, paper).

PROVENCE, A COUNTRY ALMANAC, revised and updated, by Louisa Jones (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95, hardcover).

SANTA FE--TAOS HANDBOOK, Including Albuquerque by Stephen Metzger (Moon Travel Handbooks, $13.95, paper).

April 25, 1999|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMERICA, TRUE STORIES OF LIFE ON THE ROAD edited by Fred Setterberg (Travelers' Tales Guides, $19.95, paper).

The Travelers' Tales folks have taken on Thailand, Mexico, India, France, Spain, Hong Kong, Brazil, Italy, Nepal and, most recently, Japan. Each volume offers an eclectic mix of engaging stories. But none has as rich a sampling of adventures and impressions as this volume on the good old U.S.A.

The epigraph, from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," goes a long way toward explaining why: "Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations."

In some cases, the collected writers plunge into the unfamiliar. Elsewhere, they plumb the depths of places they already know. Author Sue Hubbell, a Kalamazoo native, pokes around in Colon, Mich., "the magic capital of the world," during the small town's annual magicians' convention. Atlantic Monthly contributor James Fallows, a true Beltway boy, offers a primer on visiting D.C.

Big-name writers abound in this anthology--Charles Kuralt, Jim Harrison, Andrei Codrescu, Jan Morris, Dave Barry, Sallie Tisdale, E. Annie Proulx. But some of the best stuff comes from people still largely unknown.

Anthony Walton, author of the book "Mississippi, an American Journey," tells about driving with his mother and cousin from their home in Illinois to Mississippi, the starting point of their family's and many other African Americans' great migration north.

Along for the ride, we eavesdrop on their gossip and reminiscences, and see this Southern state from a perspective that blacks may find familiar and others will feel privileged to share. But the conversations and insights offered in the car would stir readers even if Walton's race were unknown.

One small example, resonant to anyone who has paid attention in places where the rural and urban overlap: "Bouncing around northern Mississippi as a kid, I could easily tell social rank--that is, who lived in town, who in the country--by the amount of red dust on the lower half of vehicles."

Perhaps the most riveting story is Janine Jones' dramatic description of a Los Angeles bus ride she took the night that she arrived in the city from Paris. As the bus crawls across town, a young man in saggin' pants and several of his not-entirely-sober friends confront her. In her dialogue with the man--and her adrenaline-saturated interior monologue--are lessons for travelers everywhere.

Quick trips

FIRST TIME EUROPE by Louis CasaBianca (Rough Guides, $9.95, paper).

"To be honest," the author says, "if you were to throw away this book, pack a tote bag, and hit the airport tomorrow, you could probably go and have a great time." Read this book, though, and you'll avoid some lousy moments. In essence, this is a prequel to the other guidebooks a traveler will want to peruse--a way to psych up and start preparing.

PROVENCE, A COUNTRY ALMANAC, revised and updated, by Louisa Jones (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95, hardcover).

This colorful tome first appeared in 1993. The renovated version brims with fine photographs, maps and listings, and essays arranged by season.

SANTA FE--TAOS HANDBOOK, Including Albuquerque by Stephen Metzger (Moon Travel Handbooks, $13.95, paper).

Among the historical factoids that this compact gem discusses is the rise and decline of the Penitentes, a radical Christian order whose members hiked the wilds flailing themselves with yucca whips. During high season, visitors to tourist-thick Taos may feel as if they are engaging in similar mortification. Metzger's suggestions offer salvation.

Books to Go appears the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

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