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Turkish Hat Dances

February 25, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

A FEZ OF THE HEART: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat by Jeremy Seal (Harvest Books, $14, map).

Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, forced his country to nuzzle up to the West before it had reached dating age. Among the edicts geared to making Turkey more European: the fez was outlawed. In Turkey, headgear seems to have the symbolic seriousness of a flag. After the 1925 edict, heads, as well as fezzes, rolled.

Imagine making this the basis of a travel book. Imagine selling it to a publisher. Somehow, English writer Jeremy Seal did both and we are the beneficiaries: "Fez" is both breezy and engaging.

Ostensibly to track down the origins of the conical red hat--once universally worn by men of the Ottoman Empire--Seal traveled Turkey from Istanbul to war-torn Kurdistan. The result is part history lesson, part political report, part gooney travelogue. There's far more about fezzes here than I ever wanted to know, though far more about modern Turkey than I ever expected to learn.

Seal's search is obsessive enough to be funny (he even visits the Moroccan city of Fez). And, without turning the fez into some grand metaphor, it cleverly gives the reader context for the country's current political and financial troubles.

A SCHOOLTEACHER IN OLD ALASKA: The Story of Hannah Breece edited by Jane Jacobs (Random House, $24, photos).

Hannah Breece was 45 and single when she went to the wilds of Alaska (which was everywhere in Alaska) in 1904. For 14 years, she taught in a series of one-room schools-battling ignorance, disease, poverty and deadly winters. In the 1930s, with the help of her great-niece, Jane Jacobs, she wrote a memoir of her time there. The manuscript languished for more than 50 years until Jacobs, who went on to become a book author, decided to dust it off and reedit it. Breece was not a natural storyteller, but there is charm to her unsophisticated account, and the force of her pioneering tribulations comes through.

TRAVELERS' TALES: HONG KONG edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habe ger, Sean O'Reilly (Travelers' Tales, $17.95, paperback). TRAVELERS' TALES: SPAIN edited by Lucy McCauley (Travelers' Tales, $17.95, paperback).

Two more volumes of this estimable series that includes France, Mexico and India. The "Tales" are collections of contemporary travel stories mostly taken from magazines and newspapers or excerpted from books. The authors range from the famous (a piece by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is in the Spain book) to the unknown. Most pieces are about five to 10 pages and focus on some observation or adventure. The quality of the pieces is uneven, though as a whole the books provide a rich and evocative portrait of each place. Terrific airplane books, if you're flying to one of those destinations.

Quick trips:

FROMMER'S WALKING TOURS: Venice by Robert Ullian and Thomas Worthen (Macmillan, $12.95, paperback, maps). More guides from the Frommer travel factory. This series includes London, Paris, New York, Berlin and Tokyo. The Venice guide outlines 10 walks that are expected to take from one to five hours, depending on your pace. The sights within each walk are numbered, and the numbers are found on corresponding route maps. The books are a handy size--maybe too handy. I find the maps small and hard to read, and while there is good use of anecdotal history, the descriptions could be richer.

THE MEDITERRANEAN CAT photos and text by Hans Silvester (Chronicle Books, $29.95). Maybe some day Jimmy Carter can negotiate a moratorium on cat books. In the meantime we have the sequel to Silvester's "Cats in the Sun" photo album of 1994. This time the photo essay shows cats occupying the Greek island of Cyclades. I say "occupy" because they apparently outnumber the humans there and, like a conquering army, have complete run of the place.

Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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