- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

What follows is a magical mystery tour investigating extremes of place and emotion, from inner space to the boundaries of outer space . The trip encompasses several spiritual journeys as well as some punishing physical adventures of a kind that the word ‘travel’ doesn’t begin to suffice.

The experiences of author Greg Mortenson, in Three Cups of Tea (written with David Oliver Relin, Viking, $25.95, 352 pages) encompass both. When he set out bravely to conquer the famously difficult Himalayan K2 peak by way of honoring a beloved sister’s memory, he had no idea that more than a decade later he would become the brains and brawn behind a nonprofit organization working to build schools for children — mainly girls — in the remote mountain border villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The story of how this happened is a cliffhanger as well as an first-hand introduction to the people and places of a region little understood by most Americans. The subtltle, “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time,” underscores the motivation behind his work.

A glint of hero worship in the pages (is there any discomfort that Mr. Mortenson can’t endure?) is only a tease to spur on the reader. The mystery is how such a physically strong but self-effacing personality was able to surmount the prejudices and paranoia rife in this part of the world in order to undertake a successful project that thrives today as the Central Asia Institute based in Bozeman, Mont., his home.

He attributes his inspiration to a series of accidental encounters with strangers who cared for him after failing in his original mission to lay his sister’s necklace on the K2 summit. Clearly, he is a man apart. But the trained nurse, mountaineer, natural linguist and diplomat is also a thoroughly grounded one. The challenges and how he faced them are ready-made for the movies or TV.

So might be Abdellah Hammoudi’s account in the book, A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 293 pages), if it weren’t so frustrating a read. The text meanders along as the author disgorges a seemingly endless series of reflections among myriad outward impressions of the trip.

Timeliness is all in today’s publishing world, so the theme has an obvious advantage among many books purporting to explain Islam and its tenets. A Paris-trained anthropologist who is a Princeton University professor, the Moroccan-born Mr. Hammoudi had the good idea of recording what it is like to be a secular Muslim making his first trip to Mecca, the pilgrimage known as the hajj that Muslims are expected to make once in their lifetime.

As fascinating as the route is — traveling in crowded buses from Medina to Mecca, experiencing dizzying contrasts (“Prayer and Shopping” is one chapter’s title) — the trip loses some of its lure in endless repetition. It’s impossible to forget that the author is an academic studying himself first among all the other characters around him, compelling as some turn out to be.

“To trace one’s footsteps like this is to find oneself face-to-face with one’s own doubts,” he writes. “One of them was that my departure would seem more and more like a return, but by another route on which my footsteps had left enigmatic traces… . What was making me do this? As I faced toward Mecca, I did not know what the outcome of my trip would be.”

Such passages are interspersed among stories about Islam and its people. He characterizes his style and his experience as “elliptical ” Even so, an editor would have improved its impact.

By contrast, the spirited conversational tone adopted by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (Viking, $24.95, 352 pages) while often glib, is irresistible.

Her audience, of course, is quite a different one, the genre being a superior form of chick lit. Women with marital or emotional woes will respond at once in sympathy. Miss Gilbert decided that the best way to follow up a miserable divorce was to leave a superficially successful life in New York and live abroad in three different countries for a year.

It’s a theme rife with cliche, but her storytelling skills are a cut above the fray. There is structure to the book — each chapter named for the 108 beads, called japa malas, on a yogi’s necklace. We never lose interest in the plucky nature of an American woman trying her best to reap the wisdom of the East after enjoying a bit of Italian dolce far niente along the way.

She confesses her quest is a religious one. She talks about the search for God , without embarrassment. What she finds in the end is the all-consuming love affair with a mortal, the kind that movie scripts require.

Science writer Bruce Stutz’ Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season (Scribner, $24, 236 pages) is a more earnest inquiring mind chasing knowledge with a different kind of spiritual bent.

He sets out in a 1984 Chevrolet Impala and follows lengthening days going generally westward across the country. His is a beatific search: the rejuvenation of a soul recuperating from a heart operation eager to sample knowledge of the world around him.

This is a naturalist’s journey, a supersize trek. The memoir begins from his stance in a hospital bed waiting surgery; his physical travels begin in Brooklyn and go all the way to Alaska. His aim is to meet spring and celebrate life.

His “narrative of light and warms” as he calls it is a sly and winning way of investigating what all the various ‘ist’ sciences have to offer. This is education of high order, a ruminative exploration of the state of America as seen by soil scientists, climatologists, geologists, botanists.

“I feel more drawn to the depths of small worlds. Within them lie all the great complexities of vaster places,” he explains at one point.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter for the features desk at The Washington Times.

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