- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

The reader of Philip Caputo's latest book, Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa (National Geographic Books, $27, 288 pages), is going to learn a lot more about lions than he ever imagined wanting or needing to know. The education is worth it. This is a superb travel adventure tale laced with some worthy observations and musings about the nature of lion stalking past and present as well as the relations between man and nature in the wild.
Such facts as the lion's ability to consume up to 75 pounds of meat in a single sitting, and their habit of not eating the stomach of their prey. (They bury it instead.) Man-eating lions, we learn, have quite precise ways of killing a victim either a bite to the head or a bite into the chest but leopards are more efficient killers.
It was a debate over the habits and habitat of the so-called maneless lion that inspired Mr. Caputo to go on his journey. He introduces us early to the story of Chicago-born hunter Wayne Hosek venturing into Zambia's Luangwa Valley. Mr. Hosek bagged his beast, all 550 pounds of it, and donated it to the Field Museum in Chicago but not before being afflicted with what the author describes as a "spooky paralysis." The lion was thereafter known as "the Man-eater of Mfuwe," one of the biggest of his kind ever known.
The mystery he refers to is as much man's relations with the natural world as it is in understand the habits of this particular animal. None of this comes easy, we are forewarned. "The rationalities of science are not all they're cracked up to be … here are forms of knowledge not to be acquired by the examination of evidence or the testing of theories and hypotheses but only by listening to the older voices in the human mind."
Mr. Caputo and his wife joined a photographer and two scientists from the University of Minnesota who were interested in studying killer lions in the Kenyan plains of Tsavo, which, appropriately enough, means "a place of slaughter," as we are informed with chilling precision early in his account. Their goal is to try to unravel certain mysteries about the breed why, indeed, they are maneless and whether or not they are "natural" man killers.
Over 100 years ago, two of the Tsavo area's indigenous maneless lions killed and ate no fewer than 140 workers employed in building a bridge over the Tsavo River. Not surprisingly, that incredible piece of history was the basis for at least one book and two feature films.
"Was there some linkage among manelessness, big body size, and proclivity to prey on people?" he writes in the beginning chapter titled "Act One: Legends." "Could the lions of Tsavo be a throwback to primitive lions of some heretofore unknown subspecies? Could they tell us something about the king of beasts? Those questions, as much as longing for an African adventure, were what prompted me to go to Tsavo."
The ghostly presence of these beasts provides an element of suspense, to say the least, with Mr. Caputo living through quite a few scary moments of his own. The author, who is an acclaimed novelist, capably fulfills his intention of inspiring in his reader a respect for the African lion bordering on awe. That's different from affection, of course.
In his epilogue "Why the man-eaters did what they did" he tells us he has learned "that nature is indifferent to us and to our fates, individual or collective."
The habits of naturalists and adventurers are tracked throughout as well.
"The longer you spend with wildlife, the more you identify with them. But you can carry it just so far," he quotes a veteran safari guide whose favorite animal is the elephant. "After a while, you don't like people all that much."
"In years of wandering in wild places, from Alaska to Central Asia to Africa, I've learned that nature is indifferent to us and to our fates, individual or collective," Mr. Caputo concludes. A downer those words may be, but he gives the reader much to think about and does it in greatly entertaining fashion.

By contrast, Peter France's book A Place of Healing for the Soul: Patmos (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 240 pages) is an adventure that is mainly of the spiritual kind. We are given a trip into the nature of religious faith disguised as a travel book. Although there seems to be a book about Greece on every publisher's list these days, this one is different and admirable in the risks he takes to try explaining the special other-worldly attractions of the Eastern Aegean island of Patmos.
Given such a daunting task, it is understandable that he falls somewhat short in his ability to captivate a reader as well as Mr. Caputo does.
The reason, of course, is the difficulty of getting across in print the case he makes for Patmos as an overwhelmingly spiritual place. It's just too difficult to rid the mind of the tourist hordes and and those beautiful beaches, not to mention real estate hassles for the outsider trying to make it sale while focusing on Mr. France's story of his conversion from religious skeptic to Greek Orthodox believer. His tale is complete with immersion in holy water, which happens to be one of the book's most hilarious scenes.
He does well with his descriptions, however, and we aren't shortchanged at all about an account of the state of his soul before and after the plunge. Or maybe this reviewer just hasn't been in a situation, mental or physical, where it is possible to say with a straight face that "flowers are God." Still, the British remain some of the best at the business of examining one's soul against the background of another country's character. Mr. France changes faith and houses and manages to give Patmos the biggest boost in many a day.

In In Sicily (St. Martin's Press, $23.95, 192 pages), master traveler Norman Lewis, also of British origin, clearly relishes a return trip to one of his favorite islands which is Sicily, of course, a place overflowing with material upon which to spin stories and prove the author's talent for friendship.
Mr. Lewis gives the reader every reason to want to go to that mafia-cursed land so rich in contrast and contradiction. With a light touch, he confesses at the outset that he wed the daughter of a Sicilian whom he met in London. There could be no better a way to speed the process of cultural integration. For Lewis fans, this small volume which, like the Patmos book, cries out for illustrations or at least a map is an update concerning his wanderings. Newcomers to the work of this prose stylist will rejoice in making his acquaintance.

Alain de Botton is more philosopher than raconteur, and in The Art of Travel (Pantheon Books, $23, 246 pages), he makes the convincing if obvious case that much of the value of traveling stems from a person's ability to observe carefully what is around him with fresh eyes. Visual acuity wins the day, and art here means awareness. He very charmingly and capably convinces us how unaware most of us are as we move about in the world.
By carefully balancing subjective with objective considerations, he draws us into his method. Some observations are commonplace, such as the fact that a person's moods and mindset his everyday self can influence his impressions of a new place, but most will leave the reader mentally reaching for a pencil to check off the graceful, witty turns of Mr. de Botton's mind.
"Journeys are the midwives of thought," he notes. "Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks charged with listening to music, for example, or following a line of trees." Each chapter begins with teasing bits about some of his own personal travels that reveal little about himself but serve as introductions to enlightening commentary on the work of such creative souls as Edward Hopper, William Wordsworth, Gustave Flaubert, Van Gogh and John Ruskin. Along the way, he has some very sensible advice to offer the everyday tourist as well.
Equally enticing is the packaging, which resembles a valuable leather tome that fits neatly into a large pocket or hand. The black and white illustrations are wonderfully placed to enhance the overall design. Kudos to the publishers and to Mr. Botton for underlining his emphasis on visual smarts within the book's own physical form.

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

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