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Witty Details Add to Sisters' Adventures in Italian Town

February 25, 2001|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1983, freelance film editor Annie Hawes and her sister, Lucy, left their native London for a 10-week job grafting roses on a farm in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. The sisters thought they would have a vacation from foggy London. Little did they know that Liguria was a world away from their expectations of a carefree resort town. And they grew to love it.

Looking back 18 years later, Annie Hawes wrote of their experiences in "Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month is Enchanted." (Harper Audio; abridged nonfiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25; read by Miriam Margolyes.)

Hawes tells of the acclamation of the natives to the two pale stranieri (strangers) who arrived for a working vacation and never left. The Hawes sisters bought a dilapidated stone house on a hill, complete with 50 olive trees, and settled in for a life considered most eccentric by the friendly townsfolk. And the friendly townsfolk are plenty eccentric themselves.

Though similar to other books in which the author discovers a new locale, Hawes proves to have a talent for witty detail as she describes her makeshift open-air shower, local recipes and the politics of drought. She evokes a time and a place that may not sound paradisal but is certainly charming and (mostly) desirable. The abridgment, however, is not smooth. At least half of the original material is missing, and there are spots where the loss is apparent.

The writing is lively, and actress Miriam Margolyes matches it with an upbeat manner and voice that is attractive for its clear, clipped English tones and a timbre just this side of deep and smoky. She glides over Italian words and phrases, deepens her voice for men and displays a wicked comic timing.

Her skills as an actress are put to use as she captures the heavily emphatic (dare we say melodramatic?) responses of the Italians to the sisters and their English ways. Lively bits of music bookend each cassette.

*

Olive oil, as well as corn, butter, chicken, rice, salt, lemons, lettuce and ice cream are the focus of a fascinating look at a simple meal by food anthropologist Margaret Visser. "Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal," is as fascinating and addictive as any novel. (Recorded Books, unabridged nonfiction; 11 cassettes; 15 hours; $97 or $18.50 to rent; read by Suzanne Toren. For information, call [800] 638-1304.)

Visser presents each chapter as if it were the next course in a meal, beginning with corn on the cob and ending with ice cream. She refers to history, classical literature, the Bible, folklore, cookbooks and scientific research to tell us how and why we eat the foods we eat. She does all this with a dry sense of humor and the ability to present dense material in easily digestible terms.

The audio book's very title defines her wit, as she borrowed it from Byron's classic poem "Don Juan" ("since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner").

This is for anyone who has ever wondered about the origins of chicken nuggets or the purity of the oil drizzled on lettuce. And about that lettuce: Visser explains exactly why bags of the torn-up stuff do not turn brown. She details the intricacies of a Japanese business dinner and the amazing ways corn is used in our society.

Her prose is spirited and surprising, and she does not shy away from the ugly politics of agribusiness. The chapter on chickens explains the miserable conditions in which many of them live and die. She explains the pros and cons of irradiation, and the reasons California black olives are less appealing than those from other markets. (They are picked while still green, chemically darkened and then sterilized. Yum!)

Because this is written so accessibly, it is never too dense and never dull. Narrator Suzanne Toren has a clear, pretty voice and a no-nonsense manner. Her diction and pronunciation are wonderful, and she has plenty of energy. Toren understands and expresses the author's humor and mild outrage. If a foreigner is quoted, or a foreign phrase is used, she readily and capably supplies an accent. It is a delightful production.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: mystery books.

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