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When a British teacher inherited an island's welfare

March 23, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

THE Solomon Islands are about 1,000 miles off Australia's northeast coast -- a long way from England's West Country, which is where we find Randall in the opening pages of this amusing, unassuming book.

Randall is a teacher in his middle 30s, 10 years into a career of facing 14- and 15-year-olds, when a rare possibility falls into his path. A friend's recently deceased godfather has left some money to pay for somebody, somehow, to aid the welfare of some people in the Solomons, where the godfather ran a plantation. In the manner of Hugh Grant stumbling into a screen romance, Randall lurches awkwardly toward this idea, and soon our fish is out of water and into the South Pacific.

Adventures, of course, ensue, beginning with the day in 1998 when he arrives by boat in his appointed tiny town and a crowd of 150 quickly gathers to appraise this lone white man as he stands with a smile frozen on his face.

"From the midst of this melee, the crowd parting on a muttered, indistinct instruction, there appeared a man, slight in build but wiry," Randall writes. "His curled hair was cut short, his face tattooed or rather, it seemed, carved, intricate patterns tracing either cheek. He thrust out his hand. Clearing his throat, he said in quiet and excellent English and without a hint of irony, 'Mr. Will, I presume?' "

Later, led to an outhouse perched over the sea, the author observes that "I had only ever peed into a tropical fish tank once before, and then only rather late on at a party."

He spent about a year on the island. Among the friends Randall makes along the way is clergyman Dudley Small Tome and his son Dudley Small Small Tome. Among the history he learns is the tale of how Americans and Japanese tangled in the Solomons during World War II. (JFK and PT109, it turns out, were there.) Among the profit-making projects considered as boons to the islanders' welfare: raising chickens. And later, fast food involving chickens.

Occasionally the reader catches Randall trying a little too hard for the laugh, probably stretching the truth for effect now and again, occasionally stacking up the sentimentality. But it's plain fun to pass the days with Randall, mocking himself and others and doling out details of a strange, engaging place. A good read.

Pocketing a brief

history of India

THE Rough Guiders have always been big diversifiers. Along with their books on cities and countries, they've published pop references on topics as diverse as world music and the Internet. The new Chronicle series covers countries but has nothing to do with hotels and restaurants. It's pocket paperback history, with hundreds of chronological entries interspersed with a few illustrations and many brief, boxed asides on such subjects as the life of Emperor Asoka (273-232 BC) and how Buddhism's Hinayana and Mahayana sects differ.

Entries are brief, naturally -- and events since 1964 are covered in a scant 25 pages -- but there's plenty here to give a prospective traveler to India a deeper view of a vast country, along with glossary, bibliography and index.

Among other recent topics in the Chronicle series, all released since September: England, China, France, Islam and Italy, with Egypt, Ireland, Greece and Spain to follow this summer.

Paris' landmark

in miniature

THIS is a small photography book -- from its dimensions, more of a nightstand book than a coffee-table volume -- and in more ways than one it's not enough.

Some of Herve's black-and-white photos are terrific, and the story of how he kept returning to shoot the tower, through a career that reached from the 1930s to the 1990s, is touching. (He was born in Hungary in 1910 and still lives in Paris with his wife.) The period feel of some images is striking.

But too many of these images are too alike, and if you're shooting girders and sky only, the difference between 1936 and 1963 matters little. Moreover, many of these frames suffer from being reproduced at such small size.

It would have been a feat indeed to capture a 986-foot tower in a book 9 inches tall, and this project doesn't quite manage it.

Christopher Reynolds' books column runs twice a month.

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