BOOK REVIEW / Never too hot to handle: Christopher West takes a tour around the wilder shores of armchair travel

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The Independent Culture
THE Great Travel Writing Debate continues: it is currently fashionable to rubbish the genre as overgrown holiday anecdotes - X goes to Y by bike, boat, foot and yak, and meets a cartload of eccentrics. Two new travel books give the lie to this caricature by doing what good travel writing has always done - by recreating distant places in readers' imaginations; by inspiring understanding; by providing the pleasure of vicarious adventure.

Louis Sarno's Song from the Forest (Bantam pounds 14.99) is an extraordinary tale. The author hears a piece of music on the radio - in Flemish-speaking Belgium, so all he can glean is that it is from 'somewhere in Africa'. He has to find out more. He does; it is by Ba-Benjelle pygmies from the Central African Republic. He has to go and hear the music and record it for posterity. He does. The plot is his attempt to immerse himself in the life of the pygmies - not just intellectually, but via the trials of real friendship and, later, painful obsessive love. There is a great deal of sadness in the book, but also joy and humour, purveyed not with the colonialist's sneer but with admiration and affection.

David G Campbell's The Crystal Desert (Secker pounds 17.99) is also outstanding. It deals with Antarctica. Campbell is a biologist, and sometimes gets overwhelmed with technicality - what the hell are 'sessile benethic fauna'? But biology also fills the author with a deep sense of wonder at the diversity and fecundity of life on our planet, at human vitality and courage. To this sense of wonder and enthusiasm he adds a real flair for writing - his imagery is as sharp and clear as the polar air.

Pico Iyer is nearly a top-class travel-writer. He is observant, well-read, clever - but that's the problem. He is clever, and wants us to know it. His latest book, Falling Off the Map (Cape pounds 14.99), is a series of essays on 'Lonely Places', by which he means oddball, reclusive countries like North Korea, Iceland and - he reckons anyway - Australia (doesn't this fellow own a television?). The book's weakness is Iyer's irresistible urge to generalise. Its strength is that when he gets off his high horse and does some proper travelling - as he does in Paraguay - he writes superbly. His gift for irony, brought down to earth, becomes funny and illuminating. Up there, summing up whole nations in a couple of Wildean witticisms, it is plain arrogant.

Other books failed to light a fuse, though will entertain readers with particular interests in the areas covered. Bettina Selby's Beyond Ararat (John Murray pounds 17.99) takes us cycling in north and east Turkey. It exemplifies a common travel-writer's dilemma - how do you write engagingly about a place you didn't like? For the first part of her trip she is an agreeable travelling companion, even if she does seem to regard anything that is less than 500 years old as an abomination. But entering the far eastern part of the country she encounters mad dogs, stone-throwing kids, overbearing men and potential terrorists. She clams up and becomes defensive - who wouldn't? The pleasure evaporates, and nothing really replaces it.

Peter Biddlecombe's French Lessons in Africa (Little, Brown pounds 15.99) deals with francophone Africa. Nigeria and Ghana apart, almost all West African countries speak French: their currencies are tied to the franc; their leaders were probably once French MPs and now drink Dom Perignon for breakfast. Biddlecombe is a businessman, and knows the area well. The book is full of useful information and carefully thought-out views on aid, corruption, African politics, global economics, but his style and the publishers' presentation of the book exude a kind of gin-and-tonic smugness.

Monica Connell's Against a Peacock Sky (Penguin pounds 6.99) is a series of vignettes of life in Jumla, an inaccessible part of Nepal where the author spent two years researching her PhD. She has some good stories to tell, particularly about the women, but there is always an anthropologist's reticence about the telling - almost everything is described from the outside. In the introduction, the most personal part of the book, she says she was 'infatuated' with the village. She should have let this show more.

Christopher Somerville goes walking down the West of Ireland in The Road to Roaringwater (HarperCollins pounds 16.99). Compared to Nepal, this isn't very intrepid - especially as he pops back to England every now and then for a rest. There is too much 'how to' detail - the author turns left at the stile, passes a waymark to his left - but Somerville does develop a good-

natured empathy with Ireland and the Irish.

Both North and South Poles feature in Pole Positions by Daniel Snowman (Hodder pounds 16.99). Snowman is a features producer with BBC radio, and the book has a Radio 4 feel to it: serious analysis of world problems, interviews with experts, healthy dollops of science, history, politics. It is all a little dull, especially when compared to The Crystal Desert: it is the work of a professional journalist, who has now probably moved on to some new area of global concern. Nowhere too hot, I hope.