- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

If all good travel writing is reminiscence with an emotional edge, then these three books fill the bill nicely. Each is a personal statement of a kind, a rapture of three completely different kinds. And for many different reasons, none is an adventure the reader is likely to imitate.

In Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China & Mongolia 1921-1925 (Aperture, $35, 190 pages, illus.),Mabel Cabot writes an account of several expeditions that her mother, Janet E. Wulsin, took to the far reaches of Asia in the early 1920s. Married at the time to Frederick R. Wulsin, Mrs. Wulsin’s letters form the core of the narrative along with those of her husband. The couple also took a great many of the fantastic photographs that are the highlight of this lovingly produced book, which is part tribute, part adventure story, part memoir.

And what amazing images they are, capturing life in worlds that still are considered exotic climes. In words of the director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, they “offer rare glimpses of a part of China’s visual past that has been poorly documented.” While such places are accessible to today’s hardy travellers, the scenes and commentary provide a vivid picture of the history of the period.

Mrs. Cabot gives due credit to Mr. Wulsin — who quite abruptly left his wife in 1929 to marry another woman the next year — but her research project compiling the couple’s observations and photographs clearly was conceived in homage to Mrs. Wulsin. “Women explore differently from men: they often let their instincts guide them, following the trail wherever it leads,” reads an introductory statement borrowed from a 2001 book by Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen titled “Women of Discovery: A Celebreation of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World.”

The text is equally the story of a marriage between two restless bluebloods as it is of journeys undertaken in challenging conditions.

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From a handsome outsize book with cover blurbs by such personalities as George Stephanopoulos (Mrs. Cabot’s son-in-law) to a functional paperback about life in a small subsistence village in the Papua New Guinea outback is quite a step. But not an entirely illogical one. Life was equally arduous for the anthropologist author of Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea (University of Hawaii Press, $17.95, 212 pages) — a period from 1975 to his last trip in 1998.

Michael French Smith, happening by chance on the village of Kragur on the island of Kairiru as the subject for his Ph.D. thesis, also kept copious notes and turned them into a sympathetic first-person account of his experience among “exotic” people. Again, too, there are excellent footnotes and valuable references cited. The small black-and-white photographs, while far less impressive than those in “Vanished Kingdoms,” are appealing and necessary complements to the text.

If ever you have been curious about the working methods of cultural anthropologists, this is the book for you. Mr. French Smith labors — perhaps too much — to explain in great detail what he does and how he does it without losing sight of the people with whom he was involved. He works gracefully around the conflicts built into such a double role. How he dealt with them during his four visits, the first of which lasted nearly 13 months, could be a model etiquette guide for any traveler — or modern tourist— exploring any off-the-beaten track.

We are informed at great length about the food, habits, sexual mores and religious customs of the 350 village inhabitants to the point where we feel we know each individual with whom the author himself developed a relationship. His sensitive exploration of Kragur natives’ developing taste for capitalism and their embrace of Catholicism as a force for community cohesion are especially compelling. One chapter is titled, tellingly enough, “Food, Money, and the Strangeness of Capitalism.”

Writing about cultural change and the villagers’ changing attitudes through the years, he cautions wisely to beware attitudes that people from more developed societies often bring to bear: How such people “often find it hard to think about change without thinking about progress….The more successful people have been in the world, the more they seem to see things this way.” Then he sets out to find answers to the question “What Does Kragur Want?”

He writes simply and plainly — none of academia’s woolly prose for him — explaining clearly at the outset where he is going and how he got there. In a moving epilogue, we are brought up to date about Papua New Guineam’s struggles to survive as a newly independent country.

• • •

Journalist-turned-author Jim Sterba writes lovingly in Frankie’s Place (Grove, $23, 288 pages)about his life with writer wife Frankie Fitzgerald (author of “Fire In the Lake, ” the prize-winning book about Vietnam). Appropriately subtitled “A Love Story,” the book’s title refers to her family’s rustic retreat along some of Maine’s more civilized shores and doubles — or triples — as memoir, travelogue and, surprisingly, a cookbook. A recipe for Fried Green Tomato Fried Rice even fits into this lighthearted saga along with a tempting bouillabaisse.

Moules mariniere comes early enough in the tale to possibly encourage readers to leave the page and go straight to the kitchen. Throughout, we get everything but the smell of pine woods mingling with garlic and the tangy bliss of fish.

The descriptions of landscape are equally loving, but then who could fail with Maine? To be sure, Mr. Sterba gives us the downside: the problems keeping these old New England summer cottages alive and the politics in a place where the enviroment seems always up for grabs between warring factions of the Pure and the Practical.

Frankie’s voice is strangely subdued; most definitely this is the man’s tale. One suspects this isn’t a completely “frank” account of two writers in tune with one another and their sylvan world. But why should it be? There are enough “how-to” arduous confessionals out there on the market.

Charm carries the day, along with flashbacks to Mr. Sterba’s early years growing up on a Michigan dairy farm and some of his experiences as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Anyone imbued with a love of Maine or romance in general will relish an acquaintance with Mr. Sterba and the Down East characters who manage not to come across as caricatures.

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


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