DINNER WITH PERSEPHONE by Patricia Storace (Pantheon Books, $25).
For her trip to Greece, Patricia Storace packed an unconventional guidebook: the "Oneirokritika," a collection of dreams and interpretations of dream symbolism by Artemidorus, a Greek writer of the 2nd century. It turned out to be a good choice. In a country so myth-intoxicated, it's as important to know the psychological landscape as the physical.
Storace spent a year traveling to numerous cities and villages, partaking of the yearly cycle of ceremonies, talking with writers, painters and just plain folks. Frequently she turned to Artemidorus and his modern equivalents to help her interpret what she had just seen and done. As you would expect, this gives the book a dreamlike, sometimes hallucinatory quality. The chapters aren't so much connected by chronology or subject matter as by image and metaphor (the Persephone of the book's title is a mythological character symbolizing life cycles and rebirth, among other things). In Storace's Greece, personalities and emotions are exaggerated; the distinction between myth and reality is blurred; Alexander the Great is as significant to the man on the street as the current president.
"I saw a nation both tormented and exalted by imagination," Storace writes, and "Dinner With Persephone" suffers and is exalted in much the same way. Storace tends to make even mundane events swell with hidden significance; yet her observations, often witty and knowing, are richly textured. She has deeply absorbed the history, literature, politics, mythology, religion and anthropology of the county, and the book overflows with wonderful tangents and descriptions.
Storace is a poet and magazine writer with a highly polished style. Of a trip to a region bordering Albania she writes: "The landscape there is startlingly erotic, and made sense for me of some modern popular paintings I had seen on wood of nymphs metamorphosing out of the mountain rivers, the waters steaming behind their heads like transparent veils. I watched a blue and white river coursing through a curved channel that seemed to have taken on the shape of a woman's body, the water spurting like a man's seed over the woman lying underneath."
AMERICAN DISCOVERIES: Scouting the First Coast-to-Coast Recreational Trail by Ellen Dudley and Eric Seaborg (The Mountaineers, $24.95, photos).
In the middle of Kansas, in the middle of winter, chiseling frozen mud from their bike gears, Ellen Dudley and Eric Seaborg must have cursed the whole idea of an American Discovery Trail. But they persevered and eventually, after a journey of nearly 5,000 miles, hiked and biked their way across the United States.
"American Discoveries" is the compelling journal of an expedition set up by Backpacker magazine and the American Hiking Society to scout out a single cross-country route linking various public trails and roads: a kind of coast-to-coast Appalachian Trail. This expedition consisted of the two authors, a sag wagon, lots of gear and sometimes a third partner.
With time off for promotional and bureaucratic duties, the trip took more than a year. It's a surprisingly harrowing adventure, especially in Nevada, where the ADT team covered some rugged, often unmarked trails.
The tale is told in an unusual way, with the authors alternating the writing and leapfrogging each other to describe the journey's next scene. Both are lively writers who find highlights in the people who helped and hindered them along the way.
EXPLORING BAJA BY RV by Walt Peterson and Michael Peterson (Wilderness Press, $18.95, paperback, maps, photos).
A superb guide for anyone exploring the peninsula, not just RVers. Together the Petersons, father and son, have spent many years in Baja and have spiced up the book's basic fare--history, listings and kilometer-by-kilometer route outlines--with colorful personal anecdotes. While the book focuses on the three Ps of RV travel--parks, pavements, preparation--it is rich in other details. The Petersons discuss hotels, make restaurant recommendations, give fishing and diving tips, and provide a good outline of Baja's plant and animal life.
Walt Peterson (the father) also has "The Baja Adventure Book" to his credit, and "Exploring Baja" reads like it was written by people who have experienced the place, not just visited.
GUTSY WOMEN: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road by Marybeth Bond (Travelers' Tales, $7.95, paperback). A slim volume directed toward women but useful for either gender. Some of the advice is basic to the point of insult ("You can save a lot of money by planning") but there are gems: "There is no worldwide standard for tipping for services, but my rule of thumb is: Never tip less than the price of a beer in the local currency."
SEASONAL GUIDE TO THE NATURAL YEAR: Florida With Georgia and Alabama Coasts by M. Timothy O'Keefe (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95, paperback, maps). SEASONAL GUIDE TO THE NATURAL YEAR: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee by John Rucker (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95, paperback, maps). Two new volumes in this excellent series. (A Southern California book is forthcoming.) Each book is a month-by-month calendar of what's happening in the natural environment. The Florida book, for example, looks at everything from the winter migration of the white pelican to the summer swarms of Bibionidae flies, better known as "lovebugs."
MIAMI: A Lonely Planet City Guide by Nick and Corinna Selby (Lonely Planet, $11.95, paperback, maps, photos). In the past few years, Lonely Planet has complemented its library of country guides with more than two dozen pocket-size guides focusing on cities. As in their country guides, the city books include such sections as "Facts for the Visitor," "Getting Around," "Places to Stay" and "Shopping." The difference is in the details. The Miami "Places to Eat" section, for example, has many more recommendations, which are broken down by cuisine as well as price. Other new books from LP: Indian Himalaya and a city guide to Seoul.
ROMANTIC DAYS AND NIGHTS IN SAN FRANCISCO by Donna Peck (The Globe Pequot Press, $14.95, paperback). Twenty-nine one- and two-day itineraries, complete with suggestions for lodging, eating and activities. Good resource for weekend trip planning.
HALLIDAY'S NEW ORLEANS FOOD EXPLORER by Fred Halliday (Fodor's Travel Publications, $16.50, paperback). Excellent for foodies or anyone headed to New Orleans. Discusses the history of the city's cuisines (including the difference between Creole and Cajun), places to shop, food festivals and many restaurants. Includes some recipes.
FROMMER'S FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION TO ITALY by Marc and Kim Millon (Macmillan, $19.95, paperback, maps, photos). Colorful guide to the cuisine of Italy. First chapters give an overview of such things as cheeses, pastas, wines and bread; final chapters focus on foods of various regions. Includes handy glossary.
WAY STATIONS TO HEAVEN: 50 Major Visionary Shrines in the United States by Sandra Gurvis (Macmillan, $15.95, paperback). Paintings that cry, knotholes with Jesus' image, housewives touched by God, mystical vortexes. Sure.
CHEAP EATS IN ITALY: Florence, Rome, Venice by Sandra A. Gustafson (Chronicle Books, $10.95, paperback). CHEAP SLEEPS IN ITALY: Florence, Rome, Venice by Sandra A. Gustafson (Chronicle Books, $10.95, paperback). New editions of these guides, part of a helpful series. I've not used the Italy books, but some years ago I got good results with the Paris versions. Lots of choices (62 hotels just in Florence, for example) and good additional information such as shopping tips and a mini-glossary.
THE STANDING STONES OF EUROPE: A Guide to the Great Megalithic Monuments by Alastair Service and Jean Bradbery (Orion, $15.95, paperback, maps and photos). For the amateur archeologist. Description and history of some of Europe's more dramatic prehistoric sites.
Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.