Saturday, August 6, 2005

Books about love come in many guises, not the least of which are those in the so-called travel genre that have a personal slant embracing all kinds of strong emotion: passion, friendship, romance, sentiment and just plain longing. Kiss & Tango: Looking for Love in Buenos Aires by Marina Palmer (William Morrow, $24.95, 324 pages) manages to include all five on the list — but more passion than friendship, to be sure. “Tango had connected me with ME,” she writes at the end. “It had revealed the flame of passion burning within … .” She certainly has hit upon a trend. The publicity wheels of late grind endlessly about tango’s lure and visitor bargains to be had in Argentina.

Ms. Palmer certainly didn’t get any such bargain in the love arena when she fell in every way for the sensual, soulful and somewhat misogynistic cult — call it the folk dance of Argentina, at least in tourist minds. Suffice it to say, her account is a roller coaster track described in excessive, often unnecessary detail, of what it is like for a young woman to give up her big city advertising career and, without speaking any Spanish, transplant herself south in order to be transformed into a competent tango performer. She endures — three cheers — even as her lovers do not. Her account, a sizzler in diary form, beginning January 1997 and ending in March 2002, is probably most useful for those curious about tango and the world of milonga (tango dance hall). This is, undoubtedly, one of the best beach books of the summer.

By contrast, Gen X journalist Gayle Forman in You Can’t Get There From Here (Rodale, $23.95, 325 pages), sets out with her husband Nick to take on the world, or at least some far-off parts of it: Tonga, China, Cambodia, India, Kazakhstan, Tanzania, South Africa and a bit of The Netherlands. Her subtitle —”A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World” — refers to the many offbeat — “fringe” — characters and customs that she uncovers in the course of their journey. The profiles are astute and the ‘shrinking’ angle, about how globalization is overtaking us all, is a familiar one that she manages to make fresh. A subtheme is the vicissitudes of a marriage and how a couple manage to stay together despite different tastes and personalities while negotiating foreign climes.

Not one to stand by passively observing cultural norms, the enterprising writer is at her best describing her own involvement. She devotes a lengthy chapter on what it is like to be an actor in “Bollywood” movies, her take on India’s prime entertainment spectacle. While in Amsterdam, she does a thorough study of the red light district — the perverse side of love to be sure.

By contrast, Eleni Gage’s memoir, North of Ithaka: A Journey Home Through A Family’s Extraordinary Past (St. Martin’s, $23.95, 284 pages), is an act of endearment in every sense of the word. The subject is the year she spent rebuilding the ruined and abandoned home of her martyred grandmother in the ghost-ridden hamlet of Lia, in northern Greece. “Just as Ithaka provided a psychological home for Odysseus even though he spent most of his adulthood away from it,” she writes, “so Lia loomed in my mind: as a home from long ago that would require much effort to be reached.” Ithaka is one in a group of islands in the Ionian Sea southwest of Epiros. Here a sophisticated young woman from Manhattan takes up residence in a place far removed from her previous life and learns to live — as well as embrace — the values of both worlds.

But hers is a warmer more genuinely informed account of local customs and folkways, valuable for anyone curious to understand this remote mountainous land bordering Albania where the past and present exist together in an unquestioned state in residents’ minds. Ms. Gage — an extremely adept writer — in a sense grew up with the region through her family’s connections. Her father is Nicholas Gage, the author of “Eleni” that was centered around the story of his mother’s death at the hands of guerillas during the Greek civil war in the 1940s. .

“This Old House” the book is not, although we are given plenty of detail specifying what reconstruction involves in one of the poorest regions of Greece. An eccentric Athens’ architect hired for the job is just one of many colorful characters that fill the pages and seem at times to raise her account to the status of folk opera. There are meddling aunts, superstitious but caring villagers, a full panoply of old-world citizens who become her friends in the course of an angst and pleasure ridden 10 month period. A handsome hand-drawn map is thoughtfully provided, along with photographs that reach across the generations.

One can’t say exactly that British writer Andrew Eames “fell in love with” author Agatha Christie and so decided to pursue her — in spirit anyway — and then journeys through the European continent for his cleverly conceived tribute, The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq On the Trail of Agatha Christie and the Orient Express. (Overlook, $25.95, 403 pages). He fell into the challenge in an offhand way and then went about it with great respect for the fabled mystery queen who also had decided last minute to head south and eastward on holiday instead of to the Caribbean as she had planned. The only ‘crime’ committed enroute is reaching the end of such a splendid travelogue-cum-biography and having to close the book.

His story telling style is classic, beginning with the slight indulgence he takes by starting the tale of his excursions on a commuter train that takes him from Christie’s suburban home — a theoretical departure to mirror her own pilgrimage after her first husband left her for his golfing companion. He takes us in her shoes all the way to Iraq. And remember that he made it to Baghdad in 2002, a war-torn country and a far different place than it was in 1928. Contemporary characters he encountered could have been part of her own fiction, however.

A bare-bones map is provided and some alluring black and white photos of some of the scenes she would have witnessed when she traveled alone and then later in happier times with her second husband, an archeologist many years her junior.

Geoffrey Wolff’s The Edge of Maine (National Geographic, $20, 193 pages) is a more conventional but no less enticing homage to a single place he knows well. He has spent some 30 summers exploring the many parts of Maine’s coastline, on foot and under sail, and tells determinedly why he remains so attached to it and why others should be,too.

The series of which Mr. Wolff’s book is part — New Directions — deserves a special mention since it includes a number of worthwhile and engrossing personal approaches to ‘travel’ in handy format. Each is a love letter of sorts to a piece of earth a well-known author judges to be his or her favored terrain — small compact gems that are perfectly suited companions for the adventurous or stay-at-home voyeur. A big cheer for such titles as “Into A Paris Quartier” by Diane Johnson; “Among Flowers: A Walk In the Himalaya” by Jamaica Kincaid; and “Imagined London” by Anna Quindlen. More have been published and more are promised, praises be.

Hats off, also, to a beautifully done work from Rizzoli International Publications that will surprise and delight Edith Wharton fans. “The Cruise of the Vanadis” reproduces a long-lost manuscript she wrote about a Mediterranean cruise undertaken with her husband Teddy in 1888 when she was a mere 26 years old. The prose is straightforward and far from captivating but the book physically is a gem — indeed, a collector’s item — with commissioned photographs of the sites she saw as she made her way on the 167-foot Vanadis in the winter of 1888.

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

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