- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

Almost by necessity, many contemporary travel books increasingly are stories about, or re-creations of the exploits of old-time explorers. The notion that, because of these brave souls and their discoveries, there are no more worlds left to conquer undoubtedly helps drive the current passion for extreme sports and adventuring.
Put the two together and we get Michael McRae's The Siege of Shangri-La: The Quest for Tibet's Legendary Hidden Paradise (Broadway, $25, 229 pages), a wonderfully engaging account of attempts to find the last secret corner of the Himalayan kingdom the world's deepest gorge that had lured expeditionary travelers for centuries.
Here's a challenge to knock your socks off, and maybe kill you off as well. The 'hidden paradise' is the Tsangpo River Gorge, introduced as "the great romance of geography" for 19th-century explorers and a likely substitute for the mythical Shangri-La of James Hilton's 1933 classic, "Lost Horizon."
Beginning with the story of the first of these attempts to find the remote spot in eastern Tibet, a canyon 25,000 feet deep , the author shows his devotion to the subject by joining one of the most recent trips to that desolate, almost unimaginably hostile terrain. We get the then and now in impeccably vivid fashion with close-up accounts of the personalities involved in the various quests as well as essential geographical and botanical facts.
And not just facts about the amazing abundance of flora and fauna to be found at those heights but also enticing lore about the language and customs of people in that so-called lost world. Who wouldn't be impressed learning that the word "pundit" tossed about so blithely in contemporary Washington originally referred to native surveyor-spies hired by the British to do covert mapping expeditions in Tibet? Compasses and coded route notes were carried inside prayer wheels; a walking stick might hold a thermometer for measuring the boiling point of water numbers that somehow could be converted into altitude readings. Clever, those Brits, and valient those hearty folk who carried out such treks.
The book is a treasure trove of the fantastical and gut-wrenching experiences that accompany these expeditions into the wild that doesn't neglect, either, the mixed blessings of glory seeking and its effect on the people who seem almost compulsively drawn to the challenge. It's also a handsomely packaged physical product that includes a bounty of black and white photographs that leave a reader hungry for more.
As a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure and correspondent for both the National Geographic and Outside magazines, Mr. McRae certainly has the credentials for the job. Nor does he stint in judgments about various sponsors' vanity including the Geographic in pursuing 'me first' schemes.

Just as enticing for readers hooked on voyeuristic tales is The Best American Travel Writing 2002 (Houghton Mifflin, $27.50, 384 pages ), edited by Frances Mayes of Tuscany fame under series editor Jason Wilson's watchful eye. I'd give prizes in several categories for many of the pieces included, here listed alphabetically. (Note: Candidates for the 2003 book should submit articles by the last day of this month.) Ms. Mayes will do that job for you if you take the time to read the introduction in which she praises "the individual, passionate and observing voice."
Such voices are on full display in this collection of geographical portraits stimulating and captivating enough not to need the accompaniment of photographs. (Howeveer, some pen and ink sketches would be a welcome breather scattered among some 350 pages.) Let's cheer on Jim Harrison, whose "Soul Food", originally published in Men's Journal, is one of the most humrous and heartfelt pieces, about his exuberant failure to resist food in almost any form.
Desert and water stories are represented in nearly equal measure, but often the setting of the story, as in "Forty Years in Acapulco," by Devin Friedman (another Men's Journal contribution), is irrelevant compared to the emotion expressed in the writing. Mr. Friedman's piece might just as well be placed in a collection of short stories.
By contrast, Lawrence Millman's first person story titled "In the Land of the White Rajahs," from "Islands," represents the more conventional form of travel writing, one that can be a turn-off without considerable patience on the reader's part. "One morning in Sarawak I found myself wandering through the jungly extravagance of Gunung Gading National Park." (Maybe that opening line is meant to be a satire of the form.) Patience is rewarded, however in Mr. Millman's recital of the truly exotic to be found in Southeast Asia.
Three cheers, too, for "Home For Dinner" from Molly O'Neill in The New Yorker, a moving account of an acclaimed New York city chef's return to his native Cambodia so he "could give my mother some happiness before she dies." We get atmosphere galore along with some fine instruction on food preparation. Such an accomplished profile would not have been possible without the author's sensitive cultivation of Mr. Sottha Khunn's friendship over the years. This is truly travel writing from the inside.

The slight but touching novel by Romana Petri about a stay in the Azores qualifies as travel fare because of the Italian author's ability to create such a descriptive picture of a remote territory in the Atlantic that few American tourists ever visit. The title The Flying Island (Toby Press, $12.95, 106 pages) refers to just one of the many islands that compose the Azores, and the bulk of the slight book is about a solitary visitor's interaction with the inhabitants. Each chapter is a different encounter; each is remarkably evocative.
There is no question that Ms. Petri is a poet at heart and she makes much of her first-person fictional foray in the islands and the characters she encounters there. The book is must reading for anyone contemplating a visit to those isolated parts of Portugal.

Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill by A.M. Homes (National Geographic Society, $20, 200 pages) is one of a series of commissioned works by National Geographic Books that pair noted writers with their favorite places. The results are slim volumes commemorating familiar locations for the most part, and the idea seems to be that the original take by a singular talent will provide fresh insights into well worn paths and people around the world.
In this case, the author might better have made her subject the Chateau Marmont that is the castle in the title and take us from there into the wayward precincts of America's most celebrated coastal town. As it is, she offers up a mix of impressions that range all over the map like urban sprawl.
Unaccountably, she ventures out into the valley, to test the spas in Palm Springs, which she calls "a town of retired decorators," and neighboring La Quinta, both golf towns where she discovers she is really a hard core city person at heart. Good enough for her but a reader won't care much. The high point is her visit with residents of an old actors' home, called the Motion Picture and Television Fund Retirement Community. It's a gem of a sketch, like many of the interviews she tackles on her journey into the cliche that is 21st century L.A.

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



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