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BOOKS TO GO

Truth and Consequences in Travel Writing

RICK STEVES' POSTCARDS FROM EUROPE 25 Years of Travel Tales from America's Favorite Guidebook Writer (John Muir Publications, $16.95, paper).

WATER--WORLDS BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH with photographs by Art Wolfe, text by Michelle A. Gilders and Claus Biegert (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $50, hardcover).

THOMAS JEFFERSON'S JOURNEY TO THE SOUTH OF FRANCE by Roy and Alma Moore (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95, hardcover).

THE CHRISTIAN TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO THE HOLY LAND by Charles H. Hyer and Gregory A. Hatteberg (Broadman and Holman Publishing, $19.99, paper).

THE GOOD BEER GUIDE TO BELGIUM AND HOLLAND by Tim Webb (Storey Books, $16.95, paper).

May 09, 1999|BOB SIPCHEN

RICK STEVES' POSTCARDS FROM EUROPE

25 Years of Travel Tales from America's Favorite Guidebook Writer (John Muir Publications, $16.95, paper).

In 1631, the mayor of Rothenburg drank three liters of wine in a single gulp. That act somehow saved the town from rape and plunder during the 30 Years' War. Or so it is said.

And so tourists flock to this remade medieval town in southern Germany and watch a wooden mayor pop out of the city hall glockenspiel to mechanically reenact that supposed feat.

"Deep down inside," Steves writes, "tourists must know it's a lie. But they assemble here at 9 each night and stare at the city hall."

Steves is the host of a popular PBS travel show and, over the past 25 years, has authored many guidebooks on Europe. So he is not surprised when the people he meets at a Rothenburg nightclub treat him solicitously. But he is depressed. "I'm thinking hard," he writes, "about honesty."

Travel writing, like all writing, comes in assorted levels of engagement and truthfulness.

Giddily sploshing about in the shallow end of the travel-writer pool are the perky boosters, enamored of tourist boards and afraid to unsettle readers intent on embracing a place's happy myths.

At the deep, dark end of the pool are the travel cogitators, ever ready to experience a new place from the perspective of portentous gloom that's gripped them ever since that sophomore seminar on existentialism.

Steves grapples here with cultural phoniness--the faux ancient buildings, the commerce-driven cheeriness--and with questions of depth and honesty.

By and large, his own approach is a good balance between extremes. He does not pull punches in discussing cultural disappointments and human failings. But he doesn't savage anyone. This book, he writes, is his chance to focus on something sightseeing tourists (and his tour guides, presumably) often overlook: people.

WATER--WORLDS BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH with photographs by Art Wolfe, text by Michelle A. Gilders and Claus Biegert (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $50, hardcover).

Here's a bit of biology: "Every species on Earth is completely dependent on water."

Here's some geography: "Water covers more than 71% of Earth."

Meteorology: "Before rain can fall, water molecules must first condense around small atmospheric particles called condensation nuclei."

Water bears discussion in every academic field, and, like the planet's seas and streams and rain clouds, the studies are intricately interlinked. The authors rise to the difficult task of making water as intriguing in prose as it is in the photos that are this stunning volume's raison d'etre.

Water reflects speckled rock and golden sky; it surges over the haunches of a brown bear seeking salmon; slakes the thirst of zebra; crashes on sea lions in California; catches the sunset as it cascades from the fluke of a humpback whale; explodes in a New Mexican rainbow; cakes as snow on trees in Japan; and, as ice, makes a playground for Antarctic penguins.

Interspersed through this aquatic dreamscape are well-chosen quotations. Here's what Mark Twain said in "Life on the Mississippi": "The face of water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day."

Same goes for this book.

Quick Trips:

THOMAS JEFFERSON'S JOURNEY TO THE SOUTH OF FRANCE by Roy and Alma Moore (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95, hardcover).

The year was 1787. Jefferson set off for three months to tour from Lyons to Marseilles to Toulouse and environs. His admiration for the art and landscape he encountered is outright gushy. And the aphorisms spill from his pen: "No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing." Beautiful photographs put it all in perspective.

THE CHRISTIAN TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO THE HOLY LAND by Charles H. Hyer and Gregory A. Hatteberg (Broadman and Holman Publishing, $19.99, paper).

"Knowing the land of the Bible," the authors write, "is as important to understanding God's Word as knowing the layout of a baseball diamond is to comprehending the game of baseball!" This book maps the diamond and gives a play-by-play account of biblical history in a geographical context.

THE GOOD BEER GUIDE TO BELGIUM AND HOLLAND by Tim Webb (Storey Books, $16.95, paper).

Yes, there is such a thing as "beer tourism," and this book could be its bible. It offers 19 beer museums, dozens of breweries, maps and detailed beer critiques. And the primer on brewing and the types of beer and ale makes it a worthy companion for a trip to Germany or Ireland as well.

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

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