By Isadora Tattlin
Algonquin (2002), $24.95
The meta-shopping list with which Isadora Tattlin begins her memoir is crucial: "4 cases Scotch-Brite sponges ...3 cases each gin, whisky, vodka, vermouth ... 12 kilos Kalamata olives ... 120 liters pine disinfectant." It's not just a list, it's a life plan, though Tattlin's life -- in Cuba and wherever else she lives as the American wife of a foreign diplomat -- is no ordinary one. Brought there by her husband's work during the early '90s, an era Castro called the periodo especial in an attempt to explain away hardships brought on by the withdrawal of economic support from the Soviet Union, Tattlin spent her days tracking down nearly-impossible-to-find everyday goods -- from flour to a cassette recorder. In Cuba, things are resolvered or conseguired (just two of the uniquely Cuban concepts Tattlin details throughout), so she secures the help of seven domestics to get the job of daily living done. Though her socialite commitments verge on parody by the book's end, her descriptions of the island's divine landscape, lip-smacking tastes, and putrid smells make even her "it's so hard to find good help these days" quandaries fascinating. Housewives are notorious for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary every day; Tattlin's gift is that she makes the extraordinary (whether it's a severed pig's head that's swarming with flies, Castro's beard at a dinner table, or the curious dilemma of Cuba itself) accessible to everyone.
-- Denise Sullivan
Following The Sun
By John Hanson Mitchell
Counterpoint (2002), $26
Making a pilgrimage from the brown hills of Andalusia to the gray shores of the Scottish Hebrides, John Hanson Mitchell followed the solar passage astride an aging Peugeot bicycle. Stopping at medieval cathedrals, ancient temples, and the occasional village pub, Mitchell recounts the highlights of his journey, salting his prose with plenty of in-depth historical, scientific, spiritual, and cultural diatribes on the significance of the sun. The result is an armchair-travel feast: a diary, textbook, and mystic tome all rolled into one. We learn of ritualistic solar worship, the miracle of photosynthesis, the sun-worshipping lemurs of Madagascar, and much, much more as Mitchell makes his way north from spring to the summer solstice. As editor of Sanctuary, the journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Mitchell is well-versed in birds, plants, and trees, and tends to color his text with poetic depictions of nature and pretty odes to the weather, the changing skies, and, more often than not, culinary indulgences. The only thing the solitary Mitchell doesn't seem to embrace completely is other people, and there are some weaker moments here during which the reader might wish Mitchell had suffered fools a bit more gladly. Nevertheless, the book's dry tone, the wide breadth of its author's knowledge, and his unbridled passion for the sun and all it shines on provide a remarkably engaging read.
-- Jessica Hundley
By Thornton McCamish
Lonely Planet (2002), $12.99
Fascinated since childhood with Marco Polo and, more recently, what writer Jonathan Raban called "the dangerous edge of the sea; the dregs of society banished to the littoral," Australian-born McCamish set out alone to ports worldwide in search of sea dogs, wharf rats, and adventure: from the former pleasure port of Marseille, past the croissants and cafés of Trapani, onward to Beirut, and around Africa, finally to arrive at the Gateway of India. While the author's constant comparisons of his own experiences to those in other writers' books can be distracting, the fact that McCamish is fully aware of this penchant can soften the irritation and provide great historical reference. "As usual," he notes at one point, chiding himself gently, "I was seeing the city through the pages of a book; Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh." Throughout his journey, the impermanence and wideness of the sea keep McCamish going. "When you pack your bags for a place you only hope exists, you risk traveling the world and seeing nothing. You risk traveling badly," he writes, though McCamish took these risks, embraced his fear of disappointment, and never gave up. His sensitivity and insightful wit engage the reader, but it is his persistent love for the restlessness of ports, and the way he captures the humanity in those shipbound characters who surround him, that keeps these pages turning.
-- Jennifer Leo
Food: A Taste of the Road
Edited by Richard Sterling
Travelers' Tales (2002), $18.95
As all-over-the-map as are the settings of its anecdotes, this newly updated collection aims to prove that food is a vehicle for the discovery of the soul of a place, of a culture, and of oneself. Since it is also a travel book, these gustatory journeys toward enlightenment edited by Berkeley gourmand Sterling don't generally happen at the taqueria around the corner, but in far-flung, exotic locales: native legumes uprooted from the Australian bush; a Kenyan barbecue of freshly killed goat; marrow sucked from knife-blades in remote Tibet. While the writing is never less than good, frequently excellent, and occasionally transcendent, the book's design includes more-or-less relevant quotations that keep popping up in the text and are as intrusive as a waiter who doesn't know when to leave diners alone. The overall effect would be dyspeptic, were it not for the inclusion of palate-cleansers like P.J. O'Rourke's ruthlessly honest -- and yes, horribly funny -- coverage of Somalia's 1992 famine, and a short course in the philosophy and praxis of Dumpster-diving. What might otherwise seem like gristly bits of conscience politely set to one side actually fit in with a menu that frequently pairs revelations of life's less savory aspects along with the sublime.
-- Ann Elliott Sherman
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