- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

Contemplating a trip to Mars? No reason not to go with A Traveler’s Guide To Mars: The Mysterious Landscapes of the Red Planet by William K. Hartmann (Workman Publishing, $18.95, 468 pages) by your side. Or, for stay-at-homes reading the book, the weirdly wild planet 242 million miles in outer space can seem just a handy few inches away. William K. Hartmann makes the guide come alive in several dimensions.

This well researched volume, so plentifully illustrated and compact, will give amateur scientists and voyeuristic travelers just about everything they need to know to prepare for the trip. Be warned. Mr. Hartmann describes Mars as a frozen desert with temperatures way below the freezing point, not a place conducive for long stays — but still he calls it the most Earth-like planet.

A planetary scientist, Mr. Hartmann is an active member of the U.S. Mars Global Surveyor mission and has been awarded a medal from the American Astronomical Society. Running throughout the 40 fact-filled chapters and a useful glossary are 15 personal essays he calls “My Martian Chronicles” describing the spirit and accomplishments of a longtime space addict. Part I of these, titled “Hitching A Ride on Mariner 9” and introduced coyly enough by the logo of a hiker with backpack and walking stick, is his account of being asked to work on one of the first probes to orbit Mars and map the entire surface.

The publication of this readable encyclopedic effort couldn’t be more timely with news that Mars and Earth recently got together, in a manner of speaking, by being only 34,646,418 miles apart — the closest they have been in nearly 60,000 years. According to press materials for the book, that means Mars appeared six times larger and 85 times brighter than usual. Among extreme facts of note within: Mars has an active volcano that is three times higher than Mount Everest. All hail the gleaming red planet, the brightest in the night sky.

• • •

Writer Jan Morris may be a candidate for a Mars venture since she seems to have visited most of the earth’s surface in the five decades leading up to the millennium. Perhaps she needs fresh territory. Someone with her talent and sense of curiosity deserves to be the first human foot on that faraway planet, if such is to happen.

Her book is called The World: Travels 1950-2000 (W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95, 445 pages.) but it should more rightfully be called “My World” since personal impressions prevail in a selection of her past writings divided roughly by country or region into decades covering the second half of the 20th century. Dedicated to her home country of Wales (“Gymru”), it is the first since she promised last year not to write any more books.

It begins with her scoop as the London Times’ correspondent who accompanied the British expedition to Everest in 1953 — the only reporter invited along and the first to report the successful ascent of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norkay. She got no byline (no one at the paper did in those days), but she certainly achieved notoriety enough later by changing from male into female (included here in “Casablanca”) and then becoming an independent journalist in the 1960s.

Each of the geographical sections have an introductory paragraph bringing us up to date. She writes first of the United States — and very movingly of post-war Manhattan — returning again in the 1990s. New York lovers will feel an abundance of deja vu, Chicagoans far less so. She doesn’t stint in opinion. The work flags somewhat when the comments are too obviously out of date.

She saves Hong Kong for the last, a final passage, her last piece of professional reportage — empire’s end on China soil — that neatly parallels the imperial glory of the Everest assault. Venturing between to every continent except the Arctic and Antarctica, she concludes as a less than ecstatic note about mankind’s lot. “Be kind,” she admonishes the world.

• • •

The difficulty of organizing disparate work on many themes contained in The Best American Travel Writing edited by Ian Frazier. (Houghton Mifflin Company, $27.50, 384 pages) represents a far greater challenge. Perhaps the only possible method is alphabetizing contents the way it has been done in this series for several years, since many of the stories defy easy categorization. (This year’s editor is writer Ian Frazier.) The succession of descriptive and anecdotal material, offered up with no illustration, can be somewhat disorienting, however.

The reader has to adjust rapidly, not least because series editor Jason Wilson has chosen to dedicate the 2003 edition to astronaut Laurel Clark and her companions on the ill-fated Columbia shuttle. No question but that Dr. Clark was a vital, outgoing and intrepid personality. Or so it seems from an e-mail excerpt she wrote home that he quotes in order to cite her capacity for wonder. A short introduction by the 2003 editor Mr. Frazier and we are plunged into the Poland of Pope John Paul II (by Lisa Auerbach, in Outside magazine, which claims a great number of entries), followed abruptly by an account of a steam engine fanatic in Cuba (Rebecca Barry in The Washington Post Magazine).

All well and good in terms of expanding our wonder at the mind’s capacity to absorb so much sensation and information in one sitting. The book is ideal for short commuting runs on a subway or train to help lift the reader far above his surroundings. The last essay, by William Vollmann, is a mournful hymn to poisoned water supplies in northern California., but not all in the collection is so somber. A short piece from Food & Wine about “My Dinner in Kabul” is an upbeat delight.

• • •

On, then, to another perpetually threatened habit, the Florida Everglades. Naturalist Ted Levin, author of Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades (University of Georgia Press, $29.95, 286 pages) seems to have talked with every expert and read every notable work about this fascinating — yes, and unique — tropical water system. The result is a perfect primer for the serious conservationist, a summary of past and present efforts to “civilize” a mysterious and ever-changing 6,000-square mile expanse only 5,000 years old.

Restoration projects of a sort are underway — way too late to save the acreage taken by developers and exploiters. The text cries out for more maps and photographs (we only get black and white versions), but Mr. Levin’s word portraits of the habitat of the tree snail, the frogs and panthers and their human counterparts are engrossing on their own. Prepare to expand your vocabulary as you come across sawgrass, sloughs, marl and other words dear to the hearts of crossword fans.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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