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READING SOME BOOKS CAN BE A REAL TRIP

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With slick roads and weather-impacted airports, winter may not be the best time to actually go a-journeying. But books have no such constraints; they can take you far and wide, through time and space, there and back and all you have to do is turn the page. Here are three books that offer such journeys - to Africa, through the garden and on beyond the sun.

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Spectacular World of Wildlife, Reader's Digest, 272 pages, $40.

The word spectacular is tossed around lightly these days. But in this case, there are few other words that fit quite so well. This is, indeed, a spectacular book.

The editors at Reader's Digest challenged 20 of southern Africa's top photographers to submit their best works. Some 350 of them were chosen for the book and arranged according to habitat. From bush-veld-savannah to grassland, from forest to mountain to desert and shore, the photographs capture the magnificence, the uniqueness, the joy of Africa's wildlife heritage.

A brief bit of text introduces each section and gives the pictures context. A special portfolio in each section showcases an animal behavior: the hunt, camouflage, the waterhole. The text is readable and informative. But the pictures offer nothing less than the promised spectacle.

From the majestic lions of the Kalahari to the gregarious mongoose of the Karoo plains and the fearsome crocodile of the southern waterways, the book provides an intimate look at wildlife in its natural habitat, complete with the dangers and diversions found there.

They are pictures to study, to look at again and again, to enjoy as beautiful technical works, but also as a window on the diversity and delight of this precious wildlife resource.

The book includes a gazetteer of the major game reserves of southern and eastern Africa - should you be so lucky as to go - but this book is a good second choice if you can't.

JUST WEEDS: History, Myths and Uses, by Pamela Jones, Chapters, 256 pages, paper, $19.95.

Chicory, yarrow, dandelion, Queen Anne's lace. To you they might be nothing but weeds - but to Pamela Jones they are among the most generous and useful of nature's offerings.

"I hope to lure you in these pages on a journey of discovery among some of nature's most extraordinary survivors and heroes. My objective is simple: to turn your resentment and contempt for weeds into curiosity."

Complete with full-color illustrations by Bob Johnson, Jones discusses the background, folklore and modern uses many of these plants can be put to. We all probably know about dandelion greens and watercress, but did you know that "if the young leaves are gathered from practically the first moment they appear, there is nothing quite like chicory, a most welcome and nutritious spring green. . . . Thoroughly rinsed, they can be dressed as a salad with a little vinaigrette or served as a vegetable with melted butter, pepper and salt."

But whether you decide to serve up a banquet of weeds or not, there is a feast of information about these colorful plants.

For example: The first legislation against common barberry was passed in 1670. Black mustard is believed to be the variety mentioned in the Bible and has been used for seeds, oil and greens since ancient times. Horsetail ferns grew in much the same form as they do today some 100 million years before there were dinosaurs.

Even Jones admits that some of these plants can be a problem in the wrong place and that wild plants should not be eaten indiscriminately - a few are toxic. But neither should they be dismissed as pests out-of-hand. They, too, are part of our diverse environment to be appreciated and enjoyed. Yes, even the lowly dandelion.

THE UNIVERSE EXPLAINED: The Earth-Dweller's Guide to the Mysteries of Space, by Colin A. Ronan, Henry Holt, 192 pages, $35.

For as long as humans have looked to the heavens, they have tried to make sense of it all - concocting elaborate stories to explain certain patterns and arrangements, making crude instruments to let them look farther and closer, and wondering how it all came to be.

We now have bigger and better equipment and have found answers to some of these mysteries, although there is still much to explore. And for every answer, there seems to be at least one more question.

The universe can be mind-boggling, to say the least. But Colin Ronan, former president of the British Astronomical Society, does a good job of organizing, synthesizing and presenting many of these fascinating concepts, to showcase the very latest discoveries and theories.

Each two-page spread is a complete lesson, but lessons in each section build on and complement each other and are also cross-referenced to other sections. And each spread has lavish illustrations and helpful graphics.

Ronan takes us on a journey that begins with our home planet, moves to our moon and sun, then on through our solar system, then to our galaxy and then to the space beyond. The final section pulls together information from previous chapters to discuss the latest theories on the origin and eventual fate of the universe.

Using ideas and images we can all relate to (if Jupiter were the size of an orange, the Earth would be the size of a pea; Saturn is huge but has such a low density that a piece would float in your fish tank; a string of street lights demonstrates the brightness of stars; the noise of a motorcycle helps to reveal how our universe is expanding) Ronan presents a primer of basic astronomy that is readable and interesting as well as a useful reference tool.