- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

Torrid zones, wine, Spain and Venice

Alexander Frater’s Tales from the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics (Alfred

Knopf, $25.95, 384 pages) is a book to treasure on many levels. The wealth of knowledge revealed on its pages scientific, sociological, geographical, linguistic and more plus the astounding mix of characters and incidents, should put this volume at the top of any list for those interested in making a thorough exploration of the author’s special world.

Mr. Frater, a longtime travel writer for London’s Observer, is a superb writer, a gifted raconteur, and what more could you wish for if you are in search of entertaining company on a cold night? Or even a day at home at home spent playing hooky from the office because you just could not put the book down.

Mr. Frater’s specialty is the zone that circles the world between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, and especially the many island cultures in the region more cultures than a humble reader might imagine exist. Mostly we learn about the wacky ways of the South Pacific terrain made famous in the musical of that name. The son of a medical missionary, he takes us on a wildly circuitous trip home to his birthplace, the island of Vanuatu, providing along the way many diversionary tales from excursions to territories covered in previous travels. Fortunately, there are simple maps included to give locations for countries visited by the author or otherwise mentioned in the text.

His “hook” at the outset is the good intention of supplying the local church in his birth town with a bell, which becomes the slimmest excuse to entice our interest in the diversions that follow. Be prepared to be fascinated and frustrated: The exegesis on history and operation of custom-made bells is thorough no surprise, perhaps, from a man who cites among key sources, “The Wellcome Trust Illustrated History of Tropical Diseases” and “Tropical Diseases: From 50,000 BC to 2500 AD.”

Alan Tardi’s Romancing the Vine: Life, Love and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo (St. Martin’s Press, $25.95, 345 pages) is also justifiably a personal memoir. This title has a double meaning a dual love affair since Mr. Tardi falls simultaneously for a vineyard and a woman connected to its wine.

The two themes vie for attention throughout the tale as told by Mr. Tardi, a trained chef who left his New York City home and restaurant in 2001 to live in the small village of Castiglione Falletto in the heart of Italy’s Barolo wine country. We learn all about cultivation of the vine a primer of sorts and a good deal about the history of the European wine trade.

He totally identifies with the land, a hilly area in the province of Cuneo, in the region of Piemonte in Italy’s northwest near France. There are recipes included to attest to his devotion, some 25 of them. Among them is a recipe for two and a half quarts of meat sauce. (You will want to try it anyway.) It’s a year’s worth of characters and oenophilic lore, complete with some charming illustrations and useful glossary.

Then hop over to Spain for Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past (Walker & Company, $29.95, 384 pages). This well traveled journalist, the Guardian newspaper’s Madrid correspondent, knows his subject as he ventures through the past to explain the present personality of a country so varied that even in modern times its complicated medieval legacy is part of everyday life.

It’s poignant and unnerving to be reminded that 2007 is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica unleashed by special request from General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Hence, the ghosts Mr. Tremlett refers to, still lingering in the aftermath of that devastating war that cost a million lives.

In the last chapter, titled “Moderns and Ruins,” he explores his adopted country’s cultural profile in similar terms, including an insightful analysis of the films of Pedro Almodovar. He describes the scene in Mr. Almodovar’s native village the night the famed Spanish director won his Oscar. Worth the price of admission, as the expression goes.

Just as vividly, but with far less passion, Louis Theroux, son of the writer Paul Theroux, wants us to know about the weirdness of America in his cleverly titled book The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures (Da Capo Press, $24, 240 pages).

It’s not as though we haven’t heard a great deal already about the Klu Klux Klan, the right-wing Mormons, the gun nuts and the Christian fundamentalists. What he does is take a character of note in each of several categories of outrageousness, and then give us more views of them than we are accustomed to seeing in media reports.

He knows his subject well, having previously done a film about some of them; this is his account of a return journey to see how they have fared. Give him credit for his perseverance: the quality a reader may need as well to keep company with some of his encounters.

Skipping cultures again, Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca (Bantam paperback, $13, 368 pages) can be regarded as a first-rate guide for anyone thinking of starting life over in Morocco or even making a first-time visit.

Mr. Shah had the advantage of a family connection to the often quirky world he explores so graphically. The book is his account of the experience of moving his family from gray rainy London to the more extreme emotionally and temperamentally environs of North Africa. He proceeds chronologically so we can share his zigzag efforts of restoring a once-grand home to its final conclusion.

Overall, the approach is a bit reminiscent of the same travails that have beset exiles writing about attempts to settle down in Tuscany and Provence: colorful scene-setting, interlaced with comic asides, and a sense of “all’s well that ends well.” In Morocco, however, there are the Jinns to consider unseen spirits not to be trifled with.

The characters include the familiar figure of a crooked contractor. A breezy treatment, just made for the movies, the account is thorough in all but one respect: how Mr. Shah could afford to pay the grand amounts required for his remodeling scheme. There is a convenient glossary of terms and handsome illustrations, making this a bargain at $13.

Finally, a brief mention of the superbly produced Venice From the Ground Up by James H.S. McGregor (Harvard University Press, $18.95, 344 pages). While too heavy to function as a guide book, this well written portrait proceeds in similar fashion, with chapter headings relating to key districts of the fabled city. Color photographs and maps of great quality are included.

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

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