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BOOKS TO GO

Oddly Portland and cleanly France

Guides offer a stranger Oregon, an artful New York and a sudsy past.

August 10, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Fugitives and Refugees Fugitives and Refugees

A Walk in Portland, Oregon

Chuck Palahniuk

Crown Journeys: 176 pp., $16

*

Here is a man who savors the sublime, the profane and the ridiculous. And the most ridiculous thing of all in this book may be the author's warning to readers on Page 92 that a visit to the world's largest hairball (one of the many offbeat Oregon attractions detailed here) is "not for the queasy."

Mr. Palahniuk, you'll lose the queasy long before Page 92 -- if not on Page 16, where the author's tonsils appear in the jar of formaldehyde, then on Page 41, where a certain adults-only ritual among devotees of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is described, or Page 56, where a demure mother does something bad with a sharp object to a man in a hospital. And after Page 92 -- don't get me started.

Palahniuk has written a truly unpredictable travel book, one that not only reveals a deep, if twisted, affection for and knowledge of his hometown, but also features local recipes (plausible and tempting) and includes several lists of attractions (with phone numbers) that suggest conscientious research but don't quite degenerate into guidebook-speak. (Would Arthur Frommer recommend the asphalt basketball court on the dormant crater of Portland's Mt. Tabor? Or the annual Emily Dickinson singalong at the city's Cafe Lena?) One must concede, as is cleverly noted in the publisher's about-the-author note, that "Portland, Oregon, lives in Chuck Palahniuk."

Like many of the writers commissioned for the ongoing Crown Journeys series of "walks" in authors' chosen locales, Palahniuk is principally a novelist. He's 40-ish and has published five novels, including "Fight Club," which was made into a movie starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Palahniuk favors forthright, jarring language, likes to shock and does not soon tire. But that doesn't mean he can't paint a picture or turn a phrase.

"The trouble with the fringe is, it does tend to unravel," he observes early, and then again later.

"It used to be easy when friends or family came to visit Portland," he writes. "First, you took them to the Van Calvin Mannequin Museum. There they saw hundreds of dusty mannequins, arranged in a nightmare setting in a sweltering hot warehouse. My favorite was the room where seventy battered, naked children sat watching black-and-white cartoons on a huge console television.

"Then you visited the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, where tourists were married and publicly humiliated by the minister. Then the Western Bigfoot Society. Then the UFO Museum. Then maybe you went to see the strippers at the old Carriage Room."

Some of his information may be unhelpful if you're not curious about derelict buildings, elephants or transvestites. And there's no point in reading this book if you don't wonder what sort of youth subculture might live in a city best known for being green and wet.

But where is it written that all travel literature should be written with a wholesome, age-35-to-95 demographic in mind? This is a resolutely 18-to-35 sort of book, possibly even an 18-to-25 sort of book. If the world is ready for "Captain Underpants" books to win over a generation of 10-year-olds (and it has), this may be just the travel lit those readers will want in their collegiate years.

*

Museums and Galleries of New York CityMuseums and Galleries of New York City

Insight Guides: 224 pp., $17.95 paper

*

Smaller museums get some ink

From the start, this volume's team of writers owns up to the daunting challenge ahead: Beyond the big five -- Metropolitan, Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, Whitney, Natural History -- greater New York teems with more than 70 other notable museums. The book begins with some quick art and regional history and a few maps, then on Page 55 charges into museum-by-museum rundowns.

Amid scores of color photos, the Met gets 10 pages; the Montclair Art Museum, four paragraphs. The book might be a bit bulky to carry around, and with just three pages of text, its "galleries" chapter doesn't really deserve to be advertised on the cover in big letters. But as a resource to be consulted in the hotel before a day's meandering, it looks like a good bet.

*

LavoirsLavoirs

Washhouses of Rural France

Mireille Roddier

Princeton Architectural Press:

88 pp., $24.95 paper

*

More than dirty clothes and suds

From the same press that has brought us thoughtful, understated volumes devoted to serial imagery of grain elevators and New York subway stations, here are scores of evocative black-and-white photos from the long-idle laundering houses of the French countryside.

The pictures are prettier than you might expect -- plenty of handsome stone walls, graceful arches and reflective water -- and the scenes, peopled only by the occasional child at play, do illuminate the rustic ways of the 18th and 19th centuries and the nobility of well-executed vernacular architecture. The text gives laundering history and social context, and the design is elegant. For those who can't get enough of French culture, and their numbers are not small, bienvenue, Francophiles.

Books to Go appears twice a month.

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