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September 04, 2005|Susan Reynolds

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Live! From

Death Valley

Dispatches From America's

Low Point

John Soennichsen

Sasquatch Books: 192 pp., $22.95

"COULD it be," asks desert rat John Soennichsen, "that as our world shrinks around us and fewer and fewer untamed regions are left, each of these remaining areas of pristine purity, of stark beauty, of unexplained phenomena somehow take on an aura of greatness, of specialness, of holiness?" He fell in love with Death Valley on a family trip in 1965 when he was 13. Today, the 3.4-million-acre national park draws a million or so visitors a year; in the last 150 years, 200 have died, most of dehydration. The Shoshone called Death Valley Tamesha, or Land of Fire. In one funny scene, Soennichsen, armed with cheap beer and fried potatoes, spends a June weekend alone in Badwater, 278 feet below sea level -- a sort of scientific experiment ("Everything acrid, caustic, bitter, or unpalatable eventually arrives here. Why shouldn't I?"). By 1 p.m., the temperature has reached 121 degrees, and it stays that way until 8 p.m. The author's mind wobbles.

Soennichsen's tales of death by heat exhaustion and dehydration are compelling, as are his meditations on the valley's flora and fauna (including miners, tycoons and aliens) and the weird rocks that slide of their own volition across dry lakebeds. Threaded throughout is the story of William Lewis Manly, who in 1849 split off, with a few friends and his family, from a group bound for California's goldfields to find a shortcut. It's fine, dry writing, deadpan. Soennichsen has an eye for the truly strange and a fascination for discovery (of self and landscape) not unlike those of the men and women who first stumbled across the desert in search of gold.

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The Devil's Picnic

Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit

Taras Grescoe

Bloomsbury: 224 pp., $23.95

IT'S a truism, claims Taras Grescoe, who calls himself "Aleister Crowley with a backpack": "Ban something, and it becomes stronger, costlier, and more coveted than ever before." This goes for smelly, unpasteurized cheeses, Norwegian moonshine, absinthe, Cuban cigars, poppy seed biscuits and coca leaf tea (Grescoe's fantasy picnic, to be held, ideally, on San Francisco's Mt. Davidson under its looming cross). He spends a year in seven countries, seeking out such delicacies as Epoisses cheese, which smells so bad it's said to have been banned from the Paris Metro; the author writes fondly that it makes "Gorgonzola smell like Velveeta." Grescoe finds that countries like Norway, where prohibitions against alcohol are strongest, have not only high rates of alcohol consumption but also rampant drug cultures (heroin, it seems, is cheaper than tobacco in Norway). He taunts officials in "nanny states" like Singapore, a place with zero tolerance for porn, chewing gum, even poppy seeds. He eats bulls' testicles in Madrid and visits an absinthe distillery in Switzerland. You feel hung over just reading the thing -- guilty, implicated and strangely hungry.

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How Not

to Get Rich

(Or Why Being Bad Off

Isn't So Bad)

Robert Sullivan

Bloomsbury: 112 pp., $9.95

IN these days of endless striving, Robert Sullivan is our very own expert on how not to make money. Education, for example, is essential if you plan to remain poor or at least vitally underpaid. Marrying for love and playing with your children rank high on his list of important habits for highly ineffective people. Sullivan, whose "The Meadowlands" and especially "A Whale Hunt" are marvelous classics, reminds a reader, in his latest book, of James Thurber or Esquire editor Rust Hills. Marry for love, he advises, not for the obvious reasons but because divorce, "with a good attorney, and some trumped-up psychological-harassment charges," might make you rich.

"History downplays the unwealthy," Sullivan writes soothingly, "but the nonrich can take pride in the fact that they are part of a long and undistinguished line of not-rich people. Indeed, one can safely say that the nonrich own the past."

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