A GUIDE TO THE IMPRESSIONIST LANDSCAPE; DAY TRIPS FROM PARIS TO SITES OF GREAT NINETEENTH-CENTURY PAINTINGS by Patty Lurie (Bulfinch Press / Little, Brown and Co., $18.95 paper); A LITERARY COMPANION TO TRAVEL IN GREECE, edited by Richard Stoneman (J. Paul Getty Museum, $16.95 paper); A TRAVELLER'S HISTORY OF PARIS by Robert Cole (Interlink Publishing Group, $13.95 paper) and STROLLING THROUGH VENICE by John Freely (Penguin, $17.95 paper).
Seeing places through the eyes of those who have seen them earlier, and who have depicted them in words or in images, is hardly the only way to learn the world--but for the traveler at all inclined toward art or literature, it can be an immensely satisfying approach, lending meaning to even the most casual acquaintanceship with a city or a piece of landscape.
Artist Patty Lurie had a wonderful idea for a guidebook: She visited sites painted by such artists as Cezanne, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Van Gogh, throughout north-central France--all within day-trip distance (by train) of Paris. She or a colleague, Bertrand de Chauvigny, took photographs that reproduced as closely as possible the angle, light and subject matter of the painting in question. She then assembled these photos alongside crisp reproductions of the painted works and added brief text introducing the art and telling readers how to find the subject locale. The result is a volume that integrates art history and touring, and that the art-loving visitor to Paris can actually use.
Robert Cole, who teaches modern European history at Utah State University--and who has previously written "A Traveller's History of France"--does not integrate his guidebook material into the body of his work; it appears as an appendix. No matter. The historical meat of the book is presented amusingly and succinctly; it requires that the traveler do a little work, making connections on his or her own, but it also inspires said traveler to do so.
"A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece" is heavier going. Neither an anthology of Greek impressions through the ages nor a guidebook with a literary key, it is more like a lengthy, not undemanding lecture by an erudite professor. It may well appeal to the serious-minded traveler with plenty of time to read, but it's hardly the thing you'd want to take to the beach.
John Freely's volume on Venice is not quite a walking tour (its digressions are too numerous) and not quite a literary or historical companion, but rather a highly literate and history-minded appreciation of this most magical and mysterious of cities. I can't imagine anyone actually strolling around Venice with this in hand--but it would certainly be good preparation for a visit.
MOUNTAINS OF THE HEART; A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE APPALACHIANS by Scott Weidensaul (Fulcrum, $21.95 hardcover).
A prolific writer specializing in the attractively old-fashioned-sounding field of natural history, Scott Weidensaul lives in the Appalachians, in eastern Pennsylvania, near Kittatinny Ridge. The ridge, he writes, "is the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see at night, a constant and comforting wall whenever I look across the fields and wood lots of the neighboring farms." He is in love with the Appalachians, obviously, and he here presents a loving portrait of this mighty mountain chain, which stretches from Maine to Mississippi. He writes poetically at times, and involves himself in the story frequently and skillfully. He makes sense of the complex relationship between the flora, fauna, geology and history of the mountains, and--without preaching--puts us in our place in the greater scheme of things. I wouldn't call "Mountains of the Heart" exactly a travel book, but I think it would be splendid reading for anyone planning a visit to the Appalachians.
NAPLES '44 by Norman Lewis (Henry Holt, $14.95 paper). This new edition of a book first published in 1978 is a reminiscence by the elder statesman of British travel writing, Norman Lewis, of his days as an intelligence officer (attached to the American Fifth Army) in Naples. Obviously, it's about history and intrigue and such, and not really travel, but his observations of people and places are sharp and evocative, and he makes Naples--albeit the Naples of an earlier time--come alive.
SEASONAL GUIDE TO THE NATURAL YEAR by Ben Guterson (Fulcrum, $15.95 paper). More natural history--in this case, a straightforward but unusual guide to natural events throughout the year, in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. For the traveler, natural-history type or not, who wants to see wildflowers when they first burst into bloom or eavesdrop on wintering ducks or catch a glimpse of bald eagles or appreciate the colors of the desert in winter, this is just the thing.
Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month. For information on more travel books, see L28.