THE BEACH: The History of Paradise on Earth by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker (Viking, $25.95, hardcover).
Lena Lencek spent her childhood summers on the beaches near the family's apartment in Trieste, Italy. When the Lenceks moved to Chicago, they vacationed on the Lake Michigan shore in Wisconsin's Door County. Now Lencek drives from her Portland home to Oregon's fog-muffled beaches.
Lencek and Bosker are university professors (of Russian and medicine), and their writing is an energetic fusion of academic pomposity and pop culture poetics: " 'Jaws'-like deterrents to safe sea-bathing drew their inspiration from ancient lore that painted the turbulent depths as miasmic stews of bellicose, limb-chomping creatures that guarded their domain with the ferocity of a water-based secret service."
Their research goes beyond comprehensive to compulsive.
Did you know that a grain of sand is almost indestructible and may be millions of years old? That some sands "sing" or "bark," as if endowed with vocal chords?
Did you know that throughout the 18th century, coed nudity was the norm for British bathers?
Fun as this information is, the accompanying photographs and line drawings are even more amusing. One early "life preserving apparatus" looks like it was lifted from TV's "Lost in Space."
For its historic sweep, fresh insight and dazzling weirdness, this is essential summer reading.
ARCHITECTURE IN FRANCE, 1800-1900 by Bertrand Lemoine (Harry N. Abrams Inc. $45, hardcover), TREASURES OF THE FRENCH RENAISSANCE, Architecture, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings by Ivan Cloulas and Michele Bimbenet-Privat (Harry N. Abrams Inc., $49.50, hardcover), NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS by Alain Erlande-Brandenburg (Harry N. Abrams Inc., $75, hardcover).
Save money. Give your feet a break. Buy a good bottle of Burgundy and these three new coffee-table books from Abrams, and you can experience France without venturing to a place where you might miss the "Jerry Springer Show." Excellent color photos. Fine line drawings. And all in English!
AMERICA'S BEST HISTORIC SITES--101 Places to Take the Family by B.J. Welborn (Chicago Review Press, $14.95, paper).
Compared to the Smithsonian Guides, this is Cliffs Notes for the hurried historical site collector. Capsule histories and headings such as "Hot Tips" and "The Best Stuff" make this book useful for those who plan to do the bulk of their learning after they arrive.
SIERRA NEVADA--The Naturalist's Companion by Verna R. Johnston with drawings by Carla J. Simmons (University of California Press, $25.95, hardcover). This is the revised edition of the classic first published in 1970, and it remains invaluable to anyone visiting California's "range of light." There are color photos by the author, including a painful shot of a chagrined dog who got too close to a porcupine.
Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.