- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

If you are looking for a vicarious and invigorating trip to Paris and its neighboring villages along the Seine circa 1880, check out Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (Viking, $25.95, 408 pages), a lengthy fictional portrait of the origin of Auguste Renoir’s painting by that name. The painting hangs in Washington’s Phillips Collection.

The characters represented in the scene make up the cast, and the plot moves at a slow and leisurely pace, much like the River Seine itself as it passes by Chatou, the site of the riverside restaurant and boat rental La Maison Fournaise — which inspired the painting. The author of “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” happily at home here with one of her favorite artists, has produced a good summer read.

Her account feeds the imagination without overtaxing the brain and makes a perfect escape into what conceivably lay behind one of Impressionism’s best known works. Ostensibly only the portrait of some convivial Sunday picnickers, “Boating Party” is rife with intrigue as Ms. Vreeland delves behind the scene to reveal daily habits and ways of life among a talented crew of friends and rivals. The reader is made to feel a part of the late 19th century’s gossip and personalities.

Much more meaty, but a less likely candidate for a spring-summer beach tote, is The Archaeology of Tomorrow: Architecture & the Spirit of Place, by Travis Price (Earth Aware, $45, 208 pages, illus.). Mr. Price is an architect (on the adjunct faculty of Catholic University), here giving vent to a high-flying philosophical spirit that he calls “an expedition into time itself … the meaning of time both in nature and in the mysteries of myth.”

If that strikes you as a bit heavy, then plunge headlong into the captivating photographs — all in color — of built environments seen at their most elegiac and advantageous, most of them his own creations.

You are traveling here into one man’s idea of how to best use modern materials in natural settings all over the world. Yes, the topic becomes quite a stretch for conventional travel, but the range and angles are captivating. Foremost National Geographic explorer Wade Davis writes a lengthy foreword that helps to explain what he calls the vision and mission of Mr. Price, giving us an informed description of the Peruvian sacred site of Machu Picchu.

Mr. Price designed the impressive personal office where Mr. Davis labors under a domed cathedral-like interior when he isn’t scouting the ends of the earth doing anthropological research.

Fabled Venice is a far distance from the wild places of the world, at least in Judith Martin’s account: No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (W.W. Norton, $24.95, 330 pages). Her personal take embraces the cosmopolitan nature of the water-bound city, with emphasis on the word embrace. She is clearly enamored, as she states at the outset of this unusual combination love story, history and travel guide. Her subtitle is telling. And for others similarly afflicted or wanting to be, the end section on page 311 offers information on “Support Groups for Venetophiles.”

The cover of this handsomely produced book — enhanced with old black and white photographs and illustrations — credits Eric Denker as Ms. Martin’s “cicerone,” or guide. This is someone well versed in the treasures of northern Italy, she explains. The two are well-matched. Mr. Denker is an art historian and contributor to guide books on Italy. Both are Washington, D.C., residents who have lectured together about the enticements of Venice.

The title is deliberately provocative, of course, and comes up early, on the very first page, in a reference to a line in Henry James’ novel “The Wings of the Dove” when heroine Milly Theale asks to be “At Venice, please, if possible, no dreadful, no vulgar hotel.” And right away we are in the picture as the sublimely sated Miss Martin / Manners wishes us to be. The author is instructing readers into the fantasy that she implies has ruled her life and gives us the best way to pursue it.

Florence doesn’t stand a chance up against the initiation she proposes: Renting a space (a room of one’s own) and staying awhile in what she describes as “a village, three miles across at its widest, which has not been a serious factor in world politics or trade for several hundred years.” Yes, the place arose in a swamp — well, marshes — and somehow has grabbed hold of the imagination of some of literature’s most creative souls. She capably guides less talented contemporaries through customs and concerns, alternating between past times and the present day with great flair and affection.

Stephan Talty’s Empire of Blue Water (Brown Publishing Group, $24.95, 332 pages) is a giant leap across waters of a far different kind but with equal, if quite different, rewards. This is the account, as the subtitle states, of “Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign,” a riveting tale about colonial infighting in the Caribbean, centered on 17th century Jamaica. The florid language on the cover is apt; the main characters and their adventures are larger than life. It’s well researched nonfiction that reads like a novel and will assuredly make a great film.

This is fascinating stuff for anyone even remotely drawn to the historic battles waged by Spain, France, Holland and England for dominance that rested in large part on the riches of markets overseas. Captain Henry Morgan (he of rum fame), a self-styled privateer or mercenary, contracted to fight the Spaniards on behalf of England and had a remarkable degree of success, considering the odds. As the author points out, Mr. Morgan and others like him had surprisingly egalitarian standards aboard their ships. You might even call him enlightened, given the caste systems in place elsewhere at the time.

Jamaica, an island 146 miles long by 51 miles at its widest points, was covered with jungle and imposing mountains. It held its own as a vital connection between Central America and the sea routes to Spain. And one learns from his telling that the topography seen by the invaders was a great deal different from what today’s cruise ship tourist encounters. “Most of the trees and flowers now flourishing on the island were introduced by the English.” Read and weep for the souls who perished in the interim. Your reward includes fresh insight into pirates’ dens of old.

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

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