GIFTS THAT GO PLACES : Books : The season's most readable armchair journeys

Jones is a free-lance newspaper and magazine writer based in Los Angeles

In 1935, Evelyn Waugh was sent to Abyssinia by England's Daily Mail to serve as a war correspondent. The book that emerged from that trip, "Waugh in Abyssinia," has long since been out of print.

Waugh's wish that it never be reprinted (apart from the excerpt he chose to use in "When the Going Was Good") means that the book is virtually impossible to find.

Earlier this year, I found a copy at an antiquarian book fair. It was a first edition, in good condition, with the dust jacket intact. The pleasure I felt was immediately tempered, however, by the book's price. What had sold originally for perhaps a dollar or two now cost a staggering $600.

I resisted the temptation to buy it. This, I thought, is a book I'd like to receive as a gift. Wishful thinking, to be sure.

All of which serves to introduce the subject of travel books as presents. Perhaps no other gift can bring as much pleasure to the traveler, whether armchair or actual, as a well-written or well-illustrated travel book.

Basically, there are three types: travel guides, which make up the vast bulk of the genre and which vary widely in type and quality; the so-called photo essay or coffeetable picture books, where the quality range is even greater, and travel narratives, the best of which survive to become travel literature.

To better illustrate the difference, here is an example of each kind, any one of which would make an admirable gift:

Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" (Knopf, $19.95) is travel literature of the highest order. It is a book destined to be read and reread for decades to come. The very essence of French rural life seeps through its pages. "A Year in Provence," in fact, goes by all too quickly. After reading it, I can only hope that Mayle will allow us to spend another 12 months in his village and in the company of the odd assortment of characters he introduces.

Then there is Loren McIntyre's "Exploring South America" (Potter, $40), a volume of an entirely different sort. In a year that has seen the publication of several top-notch photo essay books, this one stands out. The photography is nothing short of breathtaking, providing a stunning look at a continent sadly unknown to all too many Americans.

Thirdly, a new type of guidebook, very likely the first in a series, is Patty Lurie's "A Guide to the Impressionist Landscapes" (Little, Brown, $16.95). This is a soft-cover book of day-trips from Paris to the sites where the great Impressionist paintings were created.

In other words, if you want to see where Monet painted "The Bridge at Argenteuil," for instance, Lurie's guide will show you the painting, show you what's there now and tell you in detail how to visit the spot. The book provides maps and directions, and includes costs and the time needed. It even tells you where the original painting hangs, in this case, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. A simple idea marvelously executed.

But while guides such as this are pointers to where travelers intend to go, travel literature and the photo essay books are more indicative of where people dream of going. As a result, they, rather than guidebooks, are more popular as presents.

What follows is a selection of books that this year is sending travelers out on journeys of fact or fantasy; books that would make the ideal gift for those with wanderlust in their soul. Some are personal suggestions, others have been recommended by bookstore owners and a few are included based on the reviews given by other writers. First, the best of the coffeetable travel books.

Antarctica, certainly, is a place most people never will visit, and yet "Wild Ice" (Smithsonian Institution Press, $29.95) is among a number of top-selling books on that bleak and forbidding continent.

Co-authored by Ron Naveen, Colin Monteath, Tui De Roy and Mark Jones, "Wild Ice" is every bit the photographic equal of "Exploring South America." But whereas in the latter book the reader can almost feel the heat and humidity rising from the Amazon jungle, here he or she is numbed by the icy grandeur of Antarctica. "Wild Ice" is an unforgettably beautiful book.

An equally remote but no less intriguing destination is the subject of "The Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan" by Shiro Shirahata (Cloud Cap Press, $75). Said Michael Chessler of Chessler Books, a mountain and adventure specialist in Colorado: "It's primarily photos, very little text, just captions. It's magnificent. By far the best book ever done on the Karakoram, which is where K-2, the second-highest mountain in the world is."

Another mountain book to peak the interest is Edwin Bernbaum's "Sacred Mountains of the World" (Sierra Club Books, $50). "I'd recommend it," Chessler said. "It's a beautifully done book, and people are drawn to mountains."

Dreamers also are drawn to remote islands, and while it may not feature white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees, "Iceland" by David Roberts and Jon Krakauer (Abrams, $39.95) fully conveys the flavor of "the land of sagas."

On the opposite side of the globe lies one of the magic names of travel: Katmandu. Every year seems to bring a new picture book on the region, but few, if any, are the equal of "Kathmandu: The Forbidden Valley" by Wendy Moore and R. Ian Lloyd (St. Martin's Press, $40). Lloyd's photographs are every bit as stunning as those in "Wild Ice" and "Exploring South America," while Moore's thorough research is evident throughout.

Another photo essay book attracting notice is "The Heritage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" (Graphic Design Publishers, $75). This one might be a bit difficult to find, but Lansing Sexton of Sidney Kramer Books in Washington, D.C., says the search will be worth it.

"Apparently, the man who owns the (publishing) company spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia and he'd always wanted to do this book," Kramer said. "He took a lot of great photographs while he was there. It has great stock and beautiful photos. I think it's probably our outstanding picture book."

Then there is "African Ark" by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher (Abrams, $65), who have turned their attention from East Africa and their critically acclaimed "Maasai" to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Once again, their photographic images are as startling as the landscape though which they journey, this time accompanied by journalist Graham Hancock, whose text supplements the pictures.

"The photography is absolutely stunning," said Elaine Petrocelli, owner of the 50,000-volume Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. "It's a very fascinating book whether you're planning to go there or not."

A more likely destination for travelers is Italy, whose essence has been captured in the latest in the "Day in the Life" series. "A Day in the Life of Italy" (Collins, $45), was shot on April 27 of this year by a team of 100 photographers, some of whom succeeded better than others. Still, the book is selling well and will appeal to those who love Italy.

Bridging the gap between photo essay books and travel literature is "The Silk Road: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom" (Simon & Schuster, $29.95). Here, outstanding photography by Carlos Navajas is complemented by the words of one of the top travel writers in the world, Colin Thubron ("Where Nights Are Longest," "Behind the Wall"). Navajas wins the day, though, with some exquisite photographs.

Among travel writers whose work is consistently popular, the late Bruce Chatwin ranks near, if not at, the top. "Bruce Chatwin is kind of the standard against which all others are measured, here anyway, in terms of sales," said Mark Lamphier of The Globe Corner Book Store in Boston.

Chatwin's latest and tragically last work is "What Am I Doing Here?" (Viking, $19.95), a collection of essays and reflections on the subject of travel and on specific journeys, completed shortly before his death in January, 1989. The book lives up to the high standard Chatwin set in "In Patagonia" and "Songlines."

A collection of another sort has been put together by Australian author Peter Conrad under the catchy title of "Where I Fell to Earth" (Poseidon Press, $18.95). In it, Conrad manages to weave an astonishing tapestry out of his observations on life in four disparate cities: London, New York, Oxford and Lisbon.

With the historic events in Eastern Europe on everyone's mind this year, Marcus Tanner chose a fortuitous time to write "Ticket to Latvia: A Journey From Berlin to the Baltic" (Henry Holt, $19.95). As Geoffrey Moorhouse observed on the book's dust jacket, "Too many travel writers find themselves more fascinating than the places they visit, but Marcus Tanner belongs to the classically inquiring tradition."

In other words, this is not only an exceptionally well-researched work, but an extremely well-written one, too. The fact that it introduces us to a region and a people we know little about makes it all the more fascinating.

If exotic parts of the world appeal, then Mark Hudson's "Our Grandmothers' Drums" (Grove Weidenfeld, $18.95) will certainly fit the bill, set as it is in Gambia. This is Hudson's first book, but his exploration of village life in the African country goes far beyond the superficial and establishes him as a powerful new voice in the field of travel literature.

Similarly, "Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia" by Peter Theroux (Norton, $18.95) takes the reader a world away from the familiar and introduces us to cultures and customs undreamed of by the average American. Theroux's fascination with and deep knowledge of the Arab world is plainly evident, but the charm of "Sandstorms" is his ability to tell a tale. Current events in the Middle East make it an even more compelling read at the moment.

Leaving the desert far behind, Lawrence Millman's "Last Places: A Journey in the North" (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95) takes the reader on a splendid adventure following the route of the Vikings 1,000 years ago. From Norway to Newfoundland, Millman's trek encompasses the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. An enviable journey and a well-told tale.

Another northern traveler is Alastair Scott, who takes an equally adventurous trip in "Tracks Across Alaska: A Dog Sled Journey" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $19.95). Despite a complete lack of experience, Scott sets out to travel the Iditarod Trail alone. His give and take with the sled dogs alone makes the book worth reading, but there is much more.

Down in the Lower 48, meanwhile, Thomas H. Rawls has turned his attention to towns that otherwise might escape our notice. In "Small Places: In Search of a Vanishing America" (Little, Brown, $17.95), Rawls recounts a way of life that is rapidly disappearing, to our great loss. Nostalgic and entertaining.

Finally, for those who don't necessarily want to read but merely to dream, there is the ultimate gift for map lovers: "The Times Atlas of the World" (Random House, $159.95). Said Tom Thompson of Phileas Fogg's Books and Maps for the Traveler in Palo Alto: "It's of interest to anyone who has an interest in maps at all and in traveling at all. It also has an absolute wealth of earth science information in it. . . . You could spend hours in a book like this."

Or in a book like "Waugh in Abyssinia," assuming you can find it. If you do, buy it as a gift. After all, 'tis (almost) the season.

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