- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Ancient Shore: Dispatches From Naples (University of Chicago Press, $18, 127 pages) is a book you don’t so much read as inhale. This slender volume is all about the essence of Italy as distilled through the experiences of eminent authors Shirley Hazzard and her husband, the late Francis Steegmuller. Part memoir, part travelogue, their reminiscences constitute an elegiac love letter to a city where they had a second home for many decades.

A perfect present as a thank-you to a dinner host or to anyone passionate about Italy, in the book the couple thoroughly immersed themselves in the expatriates’ life; Ms. Hazzard first went there in the 1950s but they still easily identify with the impressions of a newcomer coming there for the first time.

“Like luck itself, Italy cannot be explained,” is Ms. Hazzard’s concluding coda. The book is neatly divided into two parts, the second being a previously published account of Mr. Steegmuller’s disastrous encounter with motorcycle thieves, the notorious scippatori, which is not as much a downer as one might suppose. It shows what a talented writer and observer can do with a dramatic incident arriving out of the blue to interrupt a person’s sanguinity.


For the stay-at-home traveler, overcome by fatigue or an empty bank account, Oxford University Press has the solution in the 15th edition of its Atlas of the World (Oxford University Press, $80, 448 pages) with its lush oversized format brimful of detailed maps and information. Said to be the only one of its kind that is updated annually, it also is a considerably less costly item than its closest competition from the National Geographic Society. Granted the print portion of the book is relatively small, but those essays on contemporary topics such as biodiversity and climate change are well-researched gems all their own.

The reader can feast his eyes on the multiple sights and colors of our global existence as he snuggles up in his favorite chair, far from the hassles of the airport and custom and passport lines. Read about the latest country to take its place in an ever-expanding list: Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia earlier this year. This outsized volume is ideal for the compulsory browser and statistics’ maven and an indispensable encyclopedia for geography lovers.


Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (Simon & Schuster/ Free Press. $26.95, 390 pages) is billed as the last book by a well-known British writer who died in 2006 and is one that easily wins the heart of anyone who equates a walk in the woods with a meditative state. Mr. Deakin combines his lyrical impressions and observations with a solidly scientific mind in first-person tales of walks and journeys in near and far European woodlands. The word wood here is used imaginatively, because his account also takes in a fond acquaintance with the many living creatures he finds in forests of England and the continent.

He moves at a leisurely pace. One wonderful chapter, “Among Jaguars,” in a section titled “Sapwood” is a digression to the factory in Coventry responsible for manufacturing the Jaguar car to ponder the design and ownership of this cherished machine. It is the burred walnut veneer found inside on its door panels and dashboards that intrigues him and is responsible for a wonderfully detailed examination of that precious material. We learn the origins of the word walnut and a brief bit of history about how mahogany came into fashion through necessity when walnut trees died of exposure in bitterly cold temperatures.

“Walnut, however, remains the more beautiful wood, and the relative rarity of burr veneer also imparts a sense of individuality to the Jaguar owner,” Mr. Deakin writes. Burr “is an excrescence of would-be buds rising from somewhere deep inside the tree like a spring.” Each car consumed six and a half square feet of the veneer.” Walnut also is favored for gunstocks and propeller hubs. Who knew?


And who knew what a rich vein of travel literature could be mined from the so-called Father of History? With The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History (Da Capo Press, $27.50, 348 pages), British writer (and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society) Justin Marozzi has penned something of a classic, taking on the ancient world through modern eyes and bringing fresh impressions to such familiar, even cliche, places as Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Greece. The four countries compose the four parts of the book, the longest of which naturally is the latter. Three chapters are devoted to Iraq, where the author spent a year in 2004-05 and got a very personal up-to-date slant on America’s stamp on that country. “Herodotus’ generalized observations on religion — each man thinks his own is the best — were being confirmed across the country in pools of blood,” he writes at one point, when he is trying to get to Babylon.

It’s a big plus, too, to find such a book of such quality illustrated with handsome black and white photographs worthy of the text. Mr. Marozzi obviously knows his Herodotus and knows how to give his observations impact. There is much here to digest and ponder, both on how the ancients lived and traveled and how we need to pay heed to their wisdom and, yes, charm.


A passing mention must go to yet another epic journey taken by the American author William Least Heat-Moon, known for his roadie adventuring in “Blue Highways” following the blue road markings on maps some 25 years ago. This time, in Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (Little, Brown, $27.99, 576 pages), he has gone in search of the offbeat in America’s small towns, a hegira many hundreds of pages long. To mosey is to ramble. A reader will be rewarded who has time to follow his personal style. Calling himself “an elder of the road,” Mr. Least Heat-Moon is by turns delightful, whimsical, informative and illuminating along his quirky and original path.

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

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