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So <i> That’s</i> What the Rainforest Fuss Is About

VISIONS OF A RAINFOREST: A Year in Australia’s Tropical Rainforest, text by Stanley Breeden, illustrations by William T. Cooper (Ten Speed Press, $24.95 paper).

Everybody talks about the rainforest but nobody does anything about it. Well, some people do, and other people try, but for most of us the rainforest remains a mystery, remote and exotic. We know it (and a very big “it” it is, varied and far-flung) needs help, but maybe aren’t sure quite how or why.

Breeden, a leading Australian natural historian, knows one patch of rainforest intimately--a 4,650-square-mile, 140-million-year-old area in northern Queensland. Breeden actually set up house in this preserve a few years back, and began keeping a diary. This is an eloquent elaboration of his first year’s worth of notes, greatly enhanced by William Cooper’s vivid, almost hyperrealistic renderings of local flora and fauna. The tone is one of educated awe. While not robbing the rainforest of its mystery, Breeden and Cooper bring it at least tentatively within our ken. Ah, we might find ourselves thinking as we put the book down, so that’s what all the fuss is about.

THE WHITNEY GUIDE TO TWENTIETH CENTURY ARCHITECTURE by Sydney LeBlanc (Whitney Library of Design/Watson-Guptill Publications, $18.95 paper); CHICAGO’S FAMOUS BUILDINGS, fourth edition, edited by Franz Schulze and Kevin Harrington (The University of Chicago Press, $19.95 hardcover, $9.95 paper); BOB VILA’S GUIDE TO HISTORIC HOMES OF NEW ENGLAND by Bob Vila, BOB VILA’S GUIDE TO HISTORIC HOMES OF THE MID-ATLANTIC by Bob Vila and BOB VILA’S GUIDE TO HISTORIC HOMES OF THE SOUTH (all Lintel Press/Quill/William Morrow, $15 paper).

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Unless it’s a museum, a hotel or a world-renowned monument (the Eiffel Tower, say, or the Taj Mahal), travelers tend not to pay much particular attention to the architecture of the cities they visit. But architecture can tell us much about local history, aspiration and civic personality. Even just paying fleeting attention to whatever architecturally significant structures might whiz by us in the cab or on the train can enrich our experience of a place immensely. A good aid in pursuit of this goal would be the excellent “Whitney Guide,” which covers some 200 key buildings all over the country. It is authoritative, stylishly written and easily understandable even for the non-specialist. (Incidentally, some 33 of its entries are found in the L.A. area--one more than is listed for New York City. Look around.)

Only 16 Chicago buildings appear in the Whitney Guide. Nonetheless, the city--birthplace of the skyscraper--was recently judged by members of the American Institute of Architects to possess the finest architecture overall in the nation. Indeed, it owns glorious buildings aplenty, from both the 19th and 20th centuries, including some by such giants as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe, and “Chicago’s Famous Buildings” covers 167 of them. The writing is rather dry and a bit more technical than that in the Whitney Guide, but the architecture-conscious visitor to Chicago will find it of great value.

Bob Vila, author of several books on home renovation, former host of the popular “This Old House” series on PBS and current host of the nationally syndicated “Home Again,” concentrates on private rather than public architecture in the first three volumes of his “Historic Homes” series. Since all the houses listed are open to the public at least on occasion, he concentrates on their historical connections, their interiors and, where appropriate, their collections of art or artifacts.

SEATTLE ACCESS by J. Kingston Pierce, et al. (Access Travel Guides/HarperPerennial, $18 paper) and SEATTLE BEST PLACES, sixth edition, by Stephanie Irving (Sasquatch Books, $12.95 paper) .

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Seattle, a city full of small delights (from sidewalk espresso carts to Georgian Revival facades to exquisite hidden parks and gardens) seems particularly well suited to the abbreviated, color-coded Access format. As usual with Access, the recommendations are sound and up-to-date, the maps are easy to read and the miscellaneous bits of information that season the text are fascinating--like the fact that the phrase “top man on the totem pole” is pretty silly, since it’s the bottom figure which is most significant.

Though far more conventional in format, the Best Places guide is full of useful tips, too, and usually offers a bit more detail than Access about restaurants and hotels. There’s also a useful (if cartoony) removable map and information sheet about Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.

Quick trips:

UNDISCOVERED ISLANDS OF THE CARIBBEAN, third edition, by Burl Willes (John Muir Publications, $14.95 paper). Knowledgeable, first-person accounts of scenery and facilities on Providenciales, Vieques, Marie-Galante, Carriacou, Isla Mujeres, Jost Van Dyke and other offbeat Caribbean island destinations, some less “discovered” than others.

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CAFE SAN FRANCISCO by James M. Forbes (James M. Forbes, $10.95 paper; available by mail from Cafe San Francisco, 915 Cole St., 168, San Francisco 94117, for $15.45 including tax, postage and handling). Surprisingly professional-looking despite the fact that it is self-published, this 429-page guidebook covers more than 250 Bay Area cafes, coffee houses and coffee bars (complete with notes on the patrons each attracts), and offers plenty of coffee and cafe lore on the side.

FOCUS ON TRAVEL: Creating Memorable Photographs of Journeys to New Places by Allen Rokach and Anne Millman (Abbeville Press, $45 hardcover) . Sort of a coffee-table how-to book, combining hundreds of pretty (and sometimes stunning) pictures with advice both philosophical and practical for would-be photographers on the road.


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