- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 10, 2004

Christopher Wren, retiring from his job as a New York Times reporter, took a walk — and how. Walking to Vermont: From Times Square into the Green Mountains A Homeward Adventure (Simon & Schuster, $24, 273 pages) is his account of what it was like to end his career and take off for Vermont. Literally, to set out on foot from his New York office and head for his country home in bucolic New England.

Savoir faire and all that, he has managed to produce a wanderjahr of sorts in 273 pages. The only problem is that we wish he’d spent his time telling us more about his previous wanderings as prime observer in the world’s hot spots, where we less adventurous (and less qualified) folks are not likely ever to go.

Okay, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth (or whatever you want to say to excuse some mild kvetching). He did 400 miles by foot and that is a lot more than most people ever contemplate while roughing it in their mid-60s. Mr. Wren gives us a blow-by-blow documentary of how a modest yet intrepid soul conquers the Appalachians — not to mention the vagaries of exits out of Manhattan. Imagine this as a National Geographic TV special in book form, complete with sonorous voice-over.

Because we know he is going to make it in good shape. A temporary setback in a well-equipped hospital en route (due to Lyme disease symptoms) hardly counts as a cliffhanger. “Walking to Vermont” is just right for any voyeur who wants the Appalachian Trail experience but hasn’t the guts or wherewithal to take it on.

More to the point, the book is an extended essay on the wisdom of retiring in full throttle and using one’s physical abilities as well as mental acuity to fulfill a personal whim. For that reason alone, the book will have great appeal for readers likely to agree with his musing that “the best part about growing old is that welcome relief from being merely young.”

• • •

With its subtitle alone, The Road to McCarthy: Around the World in Search of Ireland by Pete McCarthy (Fourth Estate, $25.95, 384 pages) lets us know we are in for some wide-ranging journeys. But we sense that we’ve been down this road before: the Irishman adrift in exile, caterwauling about among even crazier creatures than he.

This story is plainly is one man’s hegira, the author’s first-person account of how he went in search of his namesakes throughout the world. Well, throughout some selected parts of it anyway.

It’s a talk fest, a travelogue in dialogue. Fewer words adding up to fewer pages perhaps would have made the trip more memorable for the reader, who gets exhausted long before the end from eavesdropping on every little detail.

But this Anglo-Irishman manages to engage us for as long as we are willing to hang around. His is a spirited journey in every sense of the word. He takes us cheerfully from his home in Sussex to Tangier, New York, Australia, Montserrat in the West Indies, Montana, Alaska, and Cork. In between we get up to date in Dublin.

Mr. McCarthy, apparently a well-known personality on British television, took the familiar gambit of pursuing whatever kin he could in every quixotic way possible. “Everybody wants to be in on a good story,” he states as the reason why genealogy and the search for one’s roots has such a hold on modern audiences. Even more so in a frenetic world where people constantly are being uprooted.

• • •

Ian Johnson’s take on contemporary China in his tri-part volume Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China (Pantheon Books, $24, 324 pages) is a triumph. Mr. Johnson writes in depth about three ordinary citizens’ quite different attempts to find justice under a corrupt and hypocritical government. Of course, we learn how unusual and daring such people are.

The author’s reporting skills are phenomenal. (Much of the material comes from dispatches published in The Wall Street Journal, where Mr. Johnson now serves as Berlin bureau chief.) They lend themselves well to the undercover work he pursued to achieve his aim: to give readers a view of the world’s most populous country from the perspective of some less-than-predictable rebels up against a formidably bureaucratic machine.

In spite of failure, including the beating death in jail of a 58-year-old grandmother and practitioner of Falun Gong, their very efforts make this a hopeful book in many ways. Mr. Johnson writes about a China the world seldom hears about — a land of fear and frustration coupled with unusual shows of courage by citizens sticking out their necks.

The author’s narrative style can be plodding; there is a danger of bogging down in details of his every move and the actions of his chosen heroes. But he is especially compelling when he explains the more subtle complexities of the Falun Gong movement’s relations with the Communist regime. One of the author’s findings: Atheists, not Marxists, are the culprits in seeming to collude with a government determined to wipe out any effort at judicial reform beyond what can be controlled from above.

Mr. Johnson learned Chinese in college and was an exchange student in that country in the mid-1980s, which he followed with two years of study in Taiwan. Upon being posted to China as a journalist, he realized that many of the demands for change were coming from the grassroots and that telling the story in human terms had more validity than simply quoting political dissidents of renown.

The book includes sections on individuals upset by the razing of historic Beijing and on spiritual yearning in the midst of an abrasive materialistic culture. The first section is about a brave peasant; little did Mr. Johnson know at the outset that he never would succeed in meeting him.

“Wild Grass” is an invaluable aid for anyone visiting China (even in an armchair) and hoping to understand its economic and political struggles.

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

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