- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

Two islands and a city that sees itself as a world apart Corfu, Ireland and Rome, all legendary places in the traveler's imagination replete with complex histories and character. How could any writer go wrong with such subjects for an audience likely to be sympathetic in advance
Well, they can. At least one author here does. Admittedly, Emma Tennant's A House in Corfu: A Family's Sojourn in Greece (Henry Holt, $23, 207 pages, illus.), a memoir of her family's life on Corfu, invariably will be compared with the classic written by Gerald Durrell long ago about growing up on that Ionian island on Greece's western flank. Alas, in spite of great efforts to make her experience come alive for the reader, the author falls short on many counts mainly, I suspect, because of some awkward stylistic choices.
It's tempting, though hardly generous, to say that the best thing about the book is the jacket: a decorative blue border evocative of Greek embroidery patterns atop the photograph of a blue-shuttered white-washed dwelling in a grove of greenery and geraniums. Surely, this is every expatriate's dreamhouse, all the better when we learn it sits on about 14 acres overlooking the sea. The owners are the author's parents, a British financier and his wife who fell in love with the property in 1964. Her story is mainly about the labors involved in building what became their retirement home and about the many friends they made among the locals.
Shades of Peter Mayle in Provence, whose success in evoking a sanitized upbeat spirit of place the writer may be trying to emulate. A sentence chosen at random could have come from either book: "Dominated by seasons, spring planting, late-summer harvest of olive and grape, and in months punctuated by celebrations and farewells, we come and go (though I more frequently than others) to this place that has mysteriously become home."
The parenthesis is jarring and, unfortunately, typical of the prose. In the next paragraph the author has jumped ahead five years to tell of her father's death. Some 20 pages later, we are back again in time "Inflation haunted Greece in the 1970s and 1980s" and then lurching forward with a description in the present tense about a visit to Corfu town that she limply calls "a pleasurable experience." There is too much of this lazy, hazy writing throughout. Worst of all, nearly every scene is written in the present tense, which is confusing when it isn't downright annoying.
The book's three sections are prefaced with small black and white photographs of the land the Tennant family adopted but none of the people that made their stay so memorable. Travel-cum-memoir books depend one way or another on the personality of the writer to convince us of their merit. As one who has been to Greece several times over the years, I found myself yawning at yet another description of folk dancing at a wedding site and wanting instead to know more about Tennant family relationships.
"House" is beautifully produced: a hand-friendly size with deckle-edged pages and a detailed map. It might be a good present for the first-time traveler in Greek lands who knows nothing at all about the place. Just be sure to choose the recipient carefully.

G. Franco Romagnoli's A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman's Guide to the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City (Steerforth, $25, 272 pages, illus.) by contrast, is bound to entice both old and new Roman hands: the former for sentiment's sake and the latter for cultural enlightenment and useful information. It helps that the author is a native of the city one who apparently made use of his heritage in later life by writing a cookbook and developing a television show about Italian cooking while living in the United States. He treats his "outsider" (pelligrino) status with aplomb someone whose family does not go back seven generations. (Those famous seven hills of Rome, remember?)
Having one foot in each world, Europe and America, is our advantage since Mr. Romagnoli can write with great humor as an observer while introducing us to customs and contradictions in the character of a capital city that considers itself capital of the civilized world. Chapters are divided by categories of general interest: religion, food, health care, historic sites, even death. Handsome black and white photographs preface each section.
Death may seem an unusual topic to introduce in a quasi-guide but the choice is easily explained since, as the author notes, "In Rome, death, the image of death, the feeling of death is everywhere." His personal background allows for an easy transition into a description of the many cemeteries and catacombs that abound there as well as supplying us with insights into what it feels like to be Roman.
The writer's covert excuse for writing the book is an account of a return trip to his homeland. He looks the city over with a wry eye. "It is the theatrical gesture by now in the genes, that makes for Roman style … Style and beauty are everywhere … Even if, yes, sometimes they are overpowered by noise." Go forewarned then. There is much chaos amidst the splendor. But reading how Romans cope with their contradictions turns up some invaluble tips for travelers.

If I had to choose the perfect personal guide for a cultural appreciation trip, I woud pick James Charles Roy who goes to great lengths not to sugarcoat the Ireland he loves/hates so well. American Catholic by upbringing, Mr. Roy is a former journalist turned independent scholar a rare breed whose love for his adopted country convinced him to spend $2000 to buy a decrepit 16th-century, 55-foot-high stone tower in County Galway in western Ireland that is now his second home, what he dubs with splendid understatement his "pied-a-terre." (There are steps galore in this abode called Moyode Castle.)
Here again is an attractive book with the obligatory map and an even greater abundance of black and white photographs, but this time we are in the hands of a real writer whose own passions and peculiarities spill out on every page. Follow this man as he expertly weaves the past into the present with dialogue that is every bit as fascinating as the text.
Mr. Roy previously has written what would seem to be presumably less humorous works, such as "The Fields of Athenry: A Journey Through Irish History." His latest, The Back of Beyond: A Search For the Soul of Ireland (Westview, $25, 272 pages, illus.), is an account of a tour to ancient Celtic sites that he led for a group of highly diverse and mostly "ancient" fellow Americans. It's a convenient and winning way to frame a narrative. Who could resist signing up after reading the first lines of his opening chapter, ironically titled "You're Welcome To Ireland"?
"Ireland is different. Accept that from the start. It's friendlier, easier, warmer, happier, more straightforward, and less threatening to strangers than any other European nation I can think of. It also happens to be, for those who come to know the place, a land foreign, cold, harsh, perverse, uninviting, and devious."
So onward to Shannon Airport and to Galway, the author's base when he isn't living the family life in Massachusetts. The book's alluring title hints at his conclusion: "If I've learned anything from the miles I've traveled, it's to enjoy what you still have when and where you can … Everything else is beyond my control."
Between is a soulful account of a country in transition, delivered without the unctuous sentimentality that seems to accompany all those insulting publicity brochures about Ireland. Mr. Roy leads his tourist group through myriad adventures such materials seldom mention, charming the most recalcitrant member and giving readers along the way to give us a wrenchingly accurate portrait of a land and its people.

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



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