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Doing As the Italians Do

August 27, 1995|JOHN MUNCIE

AN ITALIAN EDUCATION: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona by Tim Parks (Grove Press, $22).

Tim Parks is a temperate, agnostic Anglo-Saxon in a humid, Catholic Latin world. But he's no outsider. He teaches in a Verona university, has an Italian wife and his two children, Michele and Stefania, are Italian born. This gives him a unique perspective from which to analyze things Italian, which he did in the witty travelogue, "Italian Neighbors," and does again here.

"Education" covers a period of around seven years, beginning just before the birth of his daughter. The title refers, in part, to how Italian-ness is inculcated into his children by doting grandparents, idiosyncratic neighbors, school traditions and unrestrained Mediterranean sensibilities. But it also speaks to Parks' own development as an Italian, a father and an Italian father. "If my children are inevitably acquiring an Italian education," he writes, "they force me to acquire one, too."

Parks is an expert on the mundanities of Italian life--at the beach, in the condo, by the fishing hole. With his often-wondrous descriptive powers and self-deprecating style, he has been compared, a bit unfairly, to Peter Mayle, whose observations of Provence have charmed so many. Parks is trying to dig deeper. While "Education" revels in cultural quirks, it's also about a father watching, with growing horror, pride and indulgence, as his children grow up.

It's a winning combination. In response to an Italian parent's concern that Parks has left his toddler in bed alone, Parks writes: "I point out that it's late for a little boy, and I am just about to go on to say that his bed time is seven o'clock, when I remember that there is no word or expression to translate 'bedtime' into Italian. There is something coercive about the notion of a bedtime. It suggests that there comes a moment when parents actually force their little children to go to bed and will not take no for answer, something unthinkable in these more indulgent climes."

Language and cross-cultural transliterations are a preoccupation. The book is peppered with odd phrases, curse words and song lyrics. Quite intentionally, the reader gets an Italian education, too.

Not everything works. The children are not always as amusing as their father thinks. But it's worth indulging Parks, as he does them.

A WALK ALONG LAND'S END: Discovering California's Living Coast by John McKinney (HarperCollinsWest, $20).

A couple of years ago John McKinney took on an epic challenge: to hike the entire California coast, about 1,100 miles. As a trailblazer for the nonprofit California Coastal Trails Foundation and as the longtime Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, he was certainly the man to master it.

McKinney didn't pack light for the trip. Along with camping equipment, he toted some cumbersome literary conceits and a heavyweight ego. And while he seems to step pretty lightly under the burden, readers may find it a tougher journey.

One problem is the detours. Some are physical (600 miles among the coastal mountains behind Los Angeles and Santa Barbara), some chronological (in particular, two interminable asides about helping save waterfowl during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and protesting the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo in 1970). Maybe McKinney should have packed a compass. The personal side trips unbalance the chronicle. McKinney spends 191 pages getting to the Golden Gate and only 44 getting from there to Oregon.

Then there's Joseph Smeaton Chase. In 1912, British-born Chase made a similar trip on horseback to explore his adopted state. The book that Chase wrote of that adventure, "California Coast Trails," became a sort of Bible for McKinney during his trek and Chase his guardian angel. McKinney even starts talking to Chase's ghost at one point. It's a gimmick of dubious value.

"Land's End" is not without highlights. McKinney writes vividly about California's "ragtag remnants of natural history." He knows and cares about such wonders as San Diego's isolated Torrey pines, the chaparral of backcountry Santa Barbara and the foggy Lost Coast north of Fort Bragg.

His sense of outrage is a strength, too. McKinney is a native son who has witnessed firsthand the effects of California's explosive growth. He rarely misses an opportunity to excoriate developers for "boutiquing" coastal towns and nearly destroying the coast's ecology. Conventional targets, perhaps, but not unworthy of scorn.

Quick trips:

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