- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004


All hail the new Ludwig Bemelmans book, Hotel Bemelmans (Overlook, $24.95,

302 pages). Yes, that Bemelmans, the writer dead these 42 years and the one best known for his “Madeline” books. He is still able to capture a reader’s heart with a collection of stories centered mainly on the only slightly fictitious Hotel Splendide.

To journey with him won’t take you far, since the setting for most of the pieces is the interior of the thinly disguised old New York Ritz and the focus is on its splendidly eccentric personnel and guests. The publisher claims the reissue also contains some new material never before in print, but another reason to dive into Mr. Bemelman’s zany and utterly captivating world is exposure to his witty black and white drawings: 73 of them by the publisher’s count.

No less than Anthony Bourdain, a culinary wise soul of the present day, has lifted a glass and penned some praise for the master raconteur whom he calls “the original bad boy of the New York hotel/restaurant subculture.” It takes one to know one. Mr. Bourdain has received the lion’s share of attention for his own witty memoir entitled “Kitchen Confidential.”

The genre isn’t new, since many authors of note have penned entertaining accounts of their experiences in the demimonde of restaurant land. What comes across in this new collection and makes the author’s work so engaging is, in the words of a New Criterion reviewer, Mr. Bemelmans’ “cosmopolitan innocence and joy for life” — two things in short supply of late. Suffer for sure the man did, since he began at the bottom — an Austrian immigrant working as a lowly assistant waiter and an incompetent one at that. But he had an eye and an ear and could fashion a colorful anecdote as well as anyone.

Equally compelling in a far different way is Seasons in Basilicata: A Year in a Southern Italian Hill Village” by David Yeadon (HarperCollins, $25.95, 490 pages). Never say you didn’t have more to learn about Italy, especially the southern regions that have received far less attention and attract far fewer tourists than vaunted Florence, Rome and the northern hills. Mr. Yeadon provides plenty of reasons for a visit to the wild mountainous Basilicata, even if most travelers can’t take off a year to absorb its character as he did. The region is a large swath of the arch on Italy’s boot, with outlets to two seas.

The drawings — Mr. Yeadon’s own — work beautifully with the text, which is an account of how well he and his wife integrated themselves into one of the most superstition-ridden areas of Europe. Carlo Levi is his idol and mentor in the exploration (Levi was exiled before World War II to the ridgetop town of Aliano, where the Yeadons eventually settled.)

This is a true traveler — a Britisher who now lives in New York State, Italy, and Japan as publisher materials state — who can make the most innocent encounter a memorable experience. The book’s length is intimidating but once launched into the trip, a reader may find himself unwilling to fall behind since Mr. Yeadon has wrested such a wealth of valuable historic and picturesque detail about the region.

May Peter Beard always be with us. Here again, in Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa (Knopf, $26.95, 156 pages, illus.) is an author with a vivid imagination who can tell a good story. Africa is the setting this time, and, again, the true tales are drawn from his adventuring life in a meaningful way.

Mr. Beard, of course, is well known as an explorer and photographer who long ago chose Africa as a specialty of sorts. Here he is recounting some of the highlights of his many years on that continent — especially in the East African hills that he has known for four decades or more. The Zara of the book’s title is his young daughter. It was in Kenya, near Nairobi, that he bought land and set up a home he calls Hog Ranch.

We never learn much about Mr. Beard’s past or present life beyond the margins of Hog Ranch and its inhabitants. How Zara came into his life, we are not told. The beauty of the book is its casual and delightful descriptions of roping rhinos, tracking crocodiles, and photographing elephants. Then, while on a picnic in the wild in September 1996, he very nearly loses his life.

Rambling, discursive and infinitely fascinating, this relatively brief excursion should inspire a love of Africa and its people in anyone previously untouched by that continent.

The inclusion of copious photographs and decorative illustrations is a definite contribution and the book’s designer is rightly credited by name at the end opposite the lovingly framed portrait of a tusked elephant, ears spread wide, as if to charge the reader. This is a commemorative book whose theme is the familiar lament for worlds fast disappearing. “The faster and farther we go from nature, the more we seem to love: not just crocodiles and elephants, but the whole diversity package,” Mr. Beard writes.

Curiously, the jacket Susan Orlean’s for My Kind of Place: Travel Stories From A Woman Who’s Been Everywhere (Random House, $24.95, 277 pages) shows a smiling flirtatious woman in high heels, black hat, and snappy pantsuit posed in what looks to be a cabaret. Hats off to the author (“The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup” and “The Orchid Thief”) and this collection of her recent writings organized into “Here” (the U.S.), “There” (abroad) and “Everywhere” (a hodgepodge of commentary).

No doubt, the image is meant to reflect a sophisticated take on the world — whatever that adjective means anymore. She is a ‘cool’ and detached witness to such offbeat scenes as a taxidermists’ convention and the sturm and drang of a life in a public high school in Manhattan. She has the gift of empathy along with an observer’s keen eye, the traits of any good travel companion.

The Orlean book makes perfect reading for the train, bus or plane, but if your tastes run more to fiction and poetry, then there is newly available The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators and Waiting Rooms (Picador, $15, 379 pages). Here’s an original, if ever there was one. Clever editors at that esteemed periodical thought up a way of enticing readers to re-read old contributions in a new format.

Richard Powers provides an appropriately thoughtful introduction to what is a handy paperback organized, roughly, in ways that would reflect the amount of downtime a person spends in various transitory states. The longest works, not surprisingly, are for waiting rooms, the shortest in elevators. Some of the poetry is quite lengthy for the latter ride but then some city elevators (don’t forget the Metro escalators) are time-consuming. What better way to shield oneself from the anxiety than absorption in good, even great, fiction?

Another wayward book is A Year of Sundays: Taking the Plunge (And Our Cat) To Explore Europe by novice writer Edward D. Webster, who works for the Ventura (CA.) County Transportation Commission. The title at first glance might not be inspirational enough to lure the animal lover, much less a travel fiend. Look closer and you will ‘see’ that apart from the cat Felicia Mr. Webster’s company includes his sightless wife.

It’s a pity there are no photos — so stingy are certain publishers in these hard times — but the cover is intriguing enough: a white walking stick beside a pair of wooden shoes. He goes overboard with detail but comes up with an entirely sympathetic account of the challenges involved in their wanderings.

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

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