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La vida loca, flamenco style

May 11, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer


A Journey Into the Heart

of Flamenco

Jason Webster

Broadway Books: 330 pp., $23.95


This story starts with a nice prologue: "Often we end up doing what we almost want to do because we lack the courage to do what we really want to do. For years I lived in Italy because I wanted to be in Spain."

From there, Jason Webster, an Oxford-educated Englishman looking back on his early 20s from nearly a decade later, tells how his fascination grew for flamenco culture -- the guitar-based music, the dancing and the footloose lifestyle that often surrounds it. He recounts life in what he calls the smallish city of Alicante (population 265,000) on the Mediterranean coast, studying guitar, forging relationships and chasing duende, that ineffable sense of aesthetic and emotional transcendence that's said to materialize in the most profound moments of a flamenco session.

As this tale develops, the author's adept way with words becomes clear. Here he is, describing the day his guitar teacher decided he was ready for a duet:

"We both looked at each other when the piece finished.

" 'Ole,' he said slowly and quietly. The hairs lifted on the back of my neck. Juan got up and went to the kitchen to make some coffee. I put the guitar down and stood at his window, looking down into the street. Ole. He had never said it to me before. It was the nearest I would ever get to praise."

The other thing that becomes clear as the story advances, however, is the author's bad judgment. First he takes up with a married woman. Then, extricated from that problematic pairing, replanted in Madrid and enthralled by a romantic view of Gypsy culture, he takes up with a flamenco troupe whose members soon enlist him in cocaine abuse and auto theft. About these near-fatal missteps the author expresses some regrets. But if the text is to be trusted, these are not things he did once or twice.

I wonder a little about trust and the text. Given the specificity of his descriptions and the immorality and illegality of his exploits, I kept looking for an explanation of how many literary liberties, if any, the author has taken. I didn't find any, apart from a sentence in tiny type on the copyright page: "To protect the identities of those involved, some of the names and places in this book have been changed." It's an absorbing tale, novelistic in its plot as the narrator digs into a subculture and gradually learns some belated life lessons. But how closely tethered to reality is it?

It's best to treat much of this story warily while enjoying the language and the glimpses it offers of how the art of flamenco is faring in the new Spain.


A guide for the adrenaline-driven

Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous PlacesRobert Young Pelton's

The World's Most Dangerous Places

HarperCollins: 1,076 pp., $22.95


Now more than ever, the idea of this book seems perverse, if not offensive.

But it's in its fifth edition, which suggests that the demand is out there, fueled by, I'm guessing, some chemical in the testosterone family.

Of course it's silly, and occasionally suicidal, to go to dangerous places just for a thrill, which seems to be what Robert Young Pelton's target reader has in mind. That reader should mind the credits in front, which note the deaths of "Dangerous Places" contributors Wink Dulles, killed in a Thailand motorcycle accident in 2001, and Gervaise Roderick Scott, shot "while waving a white flag" in the middle of a Russian conflict in 2002. And it's worth noting that Pelton was taken captive for 10 days in January by Colombian paramilitary troops along that country's border with Panama, then released unharmed.

Further, it would be great folly to read the glib briefings here, interspersed with war stories, and mistake them for sufficient pre-adventure research.

If you can get past all the bravado and laughing-skeleton logos, however, the book has some thought-provoking discussions of the world outside the U.S., including South Africa's AIDS situation and Balkan poverty and, in the early chapters, some fascinating figures to remind us about the relative nature of risk and the dangers we accept as routine in the course of our snug, affluent Western lives.

The two most dangerous jobs in America? Driving trucks and working on farms, says the U.S. Labor Department. Countries with the highest reported traffic fatality rates? Egypt, Kenya, South Korea, Turkey and Morocco.

The Iraq pages, of course, are largely obsolete. Printed before the war, they include this aside: "When wire-guided ordnance isn't raining on it, Baghdad is possibly the safest, and certainly the friendliest, city you'll ever visit."


Step by step in

the City of Light


500 Photos

Maurice Subervie

Flammarion: 488 pp., $24.95 paper


This book, 6 by 8 by 2 inches and nearly as heavy as a brick, sneaks up on you. The images are not rarefied, ravishing, novel ways of seeing the city. Instead, most are medium-distance cityscapes, interiors and exteriors that cumulatively deliver the sense that you've just had a long walk around the metropolis.

The book is organized by geographic categories: the Seine and its islands, the Right Bank, the city's covered passageways, the Left Bank and gardens. If you haven't been to Paris before and want to whet your appetite, this will work fine. If you want to bring along a collection of visual clues to consult before a day's wanderings, the book is suited for that as well. If you're looking for high art, keep shopping.

Christopher Reynolds' books column appears twice a month.

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