- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

Accepting an invitation from his publisher to write an account of one of Europe’s most tantalizing cities, John Banville gives us an atmospheric tour of people and places he has known in Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City (Bloomsbury, $16.95, 242 pages, illus.). Each anecdote, each site, each person recollected in memory is wonderfully evocative of the place.

This is a beautiful book, lovely to hold and admire. Provocative photographs decorate the cover, with a few — too few — delicate drawings inside. (Oh, for an album of photographs when the mind’s eye doesn’t suffice.) A vivid black-and-white graphic of downtown Prague along the fabled Vltava River fills the inside cover. The whole package is black and white and gray, hinting at a combination of mystery and melancholy that seems to suffuse the town and its history.

History takes up most of this slender volume, from Mr. Banville’s first view of the city in the early 1980s, under a snowy winter cover, to a last look just after the disastrous floods in the summer of 2002. Calling Prague “one of Europe’s three cities of magic” (along with Turin and Lyon, of all places), he writes, “There is loveliness here, of course, but a loveliness that is excitingly tainted.” And he notes at the end, “Prague has claws and does not let go.”

• • •

A second “city book” is Facing Athens: Encounters With the Modern City, by Athens native George Sarrinikolaou (North Point Press, $18, 144 pages). It’s a timely antidote to the many upbeat messages coming daily from Greek officials on that city’s preparations for this summer’s Olympic Games. It’s also a useful counterpoint to the mythic Zorba and his much-vaunted spirit of kefi — a joyous embrace of life that often overlooks the tedious and mundane issues of the everyday.

Mr. Sarrinikolaou writes feelingly in this account of an “exile’s return,” while revealing the vulnerable heart and growing pains of a historic but bedeviled city, full of rude efficiency and a charmless observance of ritual. No, the gods and goddesses are not always kind.

By walking, talking, looking and listening, he conveys what life is like for the ordinary Athenian. Prejudices and inadequacies are rife, in his view. Racism — an abiding dislike of gypsies, many of them Albanians — galls him as he ventures into outlying suburbs that house the poor.

The coin of neglect is everywhere, he observes. “In Athens there is always something to take and someone to take it,” is how he sums up an abiding ethos. He sees bare, ugly mountainsides that once were home to forests and explains the trend as “unchecked development [which] is simply the more modern outcome of a chronic recklessness.”

It’s a credit to him that he cares so much. One of the book’s most moving sequences is about the shocking treatment of his grandfather at the hands of professional health care practitioners. An inadequate social services system is blamed.

• • •

Author Howard (“The Bird Artist”) Norman has a less polemical, more quixotic approach in his take on Nova Scotia for the National Geographic Directions series. His clumsily titled My Famous Evening: Nova Scotia Sojourns, Diaries & Preoccupations (National Geographic, $20, 224 pages, illus.) is a personal, impressionistic tour of that insular territory on Canada’s far eastern shore. The book consists of three different settings and themes — extended vignettes — chosen to illustrate the variety and character of the people.

In the first vignette, Mr. Norman tells the story of a woman who, in 1923, left two children and a husband to go alone to New York City in hopes of hearing and seeing Joseph Conrad read from his work. Chapter Two is about the folktales of a local Indian tribe, developed around bird names and sightings. The third story takes us into the life and mind of a scholar obsessed by poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Nova Scotia resident early in her life.

Each story is a numbered chapter interspersed with photographs; the whole is prefaced by an extensive introduction (“Sudden Noir, Deeper Calm”) and brought to a close by a poem in tribute to photographer Robert Frank.

This is sober entertainment. “What good is intelligence if you cannot discover a useful melancholy?” Mr. Norman asks at the end, quoting Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa. And the author’s final words: “Robert Frank’s landscape photographs instill in me a melancholy useful because it helps clarify the world, and equals late autumn.” Does the sun ever shine up there?

• • •

If most travel books are descriptions of landscapes and people seen through the eyes of the curious, prepare for a very downbeat view accorded post-Cold War Russia and especially the Central Asian republics by journalist/teacher Elinor Burkett in So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places (Harper Collins, $24.95, 336 pages). What would be the right places, one wonders after reading of her close-up encounters.

This engaging travelogue is partly about the miseries and misunderstandings of being a Fulbright program teacher in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, coaching students in journalistic standards and, well, thinking straight in general. Later the author and her husband travel to Kabul just after the retreat of the Taliban and on to Iran, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, China and Vietnam. (This was in 2001-02, before the present war.) Anti-American feeling is rampant when it isn’t expressed as outright envy.

The September 11 attacks seemed only to encourage her to keep challenging fundamentalist Muslim attitudes towards women, and towards a certain forthright Jewish woman in particular. Maybe the experience of being a university department head (as she is currently at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks) prepares you to stand up to anyone and anything.

• • •

Another political-minded traveler with tales of adventures in exotic places is Christiane Bird, author of A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan (Ballantine, $25.95, 432 pages). Her book is a portrait of the people of Kurdistan and their struggles to find a home through the centuries. Timely and highly informative, this volume will give the reader an entirely sympathetic account of the history and culture of a mostly Muslim population that numbers as high as 30 million. Their claims are not yet recognized but, as headlines these days show, they are critical for the future peaceful resolution of Iraq.

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

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