- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

Botanist David G. Campbell tells all, and he does it wonderfully, in ALandofGhosts:TheBraidedLivesofPeopleandtheForestinFarWesternAmazonia (Houghton Mifflin, $25, 280 pages). Mr. Campbell traveled to the mouth of the Amazon, 200 kilometers from the Pacific, to research an ecosystem seen by few people and which endures — although in great danger from Western civilization’s scourges — the same as it was 150 years ago. “A lonely terrain,” he calls it, but the day-to-day excitement he experiences is palpable.

He writes that his goal was “to explore one of the great and enduring conundrums of nature: How can so many species coexist in such a small patch of this earthly orb?” Fifty acres in this rain forest holds three times as many tree species in all of North America.

The characters are drawn magnificently — even the trees he describes have personalities. This is the book for extreme adventurers who are happiest at home in easy chairs reading about the challenges scientists face going where few have gone before. It is a moving and thorough account, complete with notes, index and glossary of Portuguese words at the end. (Page 30 has the entire list of supplies needed in this expedition for 16 people over six weeks’ time.)

The poetry of such an exotic place and the author’s obvious love of the land make reading this book a pleasure. This is nature at its most raw, and he spares us no detail about the organisms of the territory and how they survive. The inhabitants are front and center in his concern, and he gives them proper due as well.

“Every bend in the river is the territory of a different snail kite,” he writes in a chapter titled “River of Light.” “The Rio Moa, where moon snails as big as golf balls slide through the shallows on soft feet, is ideal kite habitat. The snails are easy pickings during the season of low water, when they lay crusty pink egg cases on the tallest culms of grass just above the reach of the hungry river.” A culm, if you didn’t know, is a stalk or stem.

Eric Idle’s TheGreedyBastardDiary:AComicTourofAmerica (HarperEntertainment, $23.95, 325 pages) by contrast, is a paean to fun, as might be expected from a Monty Python member let loose to roam the country on his own terms — by bus. Its publication just happens (oh, yes?) to coincide with the opening on Broadway last month of “Spamalot,” a musical adaption of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The British actor and writer must be intent on conquering America while embracing it in his special ribald way.

He does manage occasionally to let down his comic front, probably out of relief from unrelenting need to prove that the zany life is worth living. Mostly, however, he seems intent on ad nauseam entertainment in this stream-of-consciousness account of a 79-day 15,750-mile tour around North America that begins formally and a bit improbably, in Rutland, Vt. Call it a crusade against fear, the fear of losing an audience perhaps.

“Diary” makes a perfect beach book, easy to pick up and pick down again, especially for committed Python fans. The anecdotes are antidotes for a world in turmoil. Mr. Idle loses his way at the outset, by taking along a crew instead of taking off on his own. The “greedy bastard” tour,” he explains at the beginning, is a rock-and-roll term for daring to go sparingly on the road. He certainly spares us no detail about how to go funning around.

Theatrical historians take note: A postscript dated July 2004 is a 13-page account of how “Spamalot” came into being. A mostly sober look it is, too.

If your ticklebone isn’t tired, then two other titles may be just right for lighthearted summer digestion:

J.R. Daeschner in TrueBrits:ATourof21st-CenturyBritaininAllIts Bog-Snorkeling,Gurning,andCheese-RollingGlory (Overlook, $14.95, 338 pages)reverses the Idle line — Englishman in America — with an American-in- England view of the cream of British oddities.

How much more intriguing can one get with a subtitle like that. To see is to believe. Even better, this freelance journalist throws himself into the fray and captures quintessential oddball traditions that could only occur in old blighty. Except that the weird activities he describes are the stuff of present day.

Gurning, horn dancing, etc. — terms you never thought you needed to know. No deep science here, but plenty of riotous dialogue. Racing down heavily angled slopes in pursuit of wheels of cheese speaks of a more innocent time and an engaging, if bizarre, sense of humor.

• • •

On, then, to a softback guide, Ireland’sMostWanted:TheTop10BookofCelticPride,FantasticFolkloreandOdditiesoftheEmeraldIsle by Brian M. Thomsen (Potomac, $12.95, 288 pages). This is a bare bones treatment to introduce a stranger to the island’s cultural names and truths, beginning with some classic proverbs and maxims.

The whole is useful to get the spirit up in case a trip to Erin is on a tourist’s docket. The snippets are entirely apt, and timely. There even is a short chapter explaining, grimly enough, “IRA Guerilla Objectives.” Best stick to the ones about Irish stereotypes and jokes. Better for the morale for sure.

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

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