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Reviewed: 'Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin'; 'The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands' by Patrick Leigh Fermor; 'A Tiger in the Kitchen' by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

February 13, 2011|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Los Angeles Times
  • Bruce Chatwin from his book "Under the Sun."
Bruce Chatwin from his book "Under the Sun." (Viking )

Under the Sun

The Letters of Bruce Chatwin

Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare

Viking: 554 pp., $35

Bruce Chatwin was the King of Wanderlust. Born in 1940 in England, he was stricken with two addictions: the need to travel and the need to write. These letters, from his first week at boarding school in 1948 (to request stamps from his parents) to his death from AIDS-related illness in 1989, map a too-short life, fully lived. Benin, Tierra del Fuego, Nepal, Sardinia, Afghanistan, Mauritania. "I know well what I am fleeing from," he once wrote, quoting Montaigne, "but not what I am looking for." Chatwin's books ("In Patagonia," "Anatomy of Restlessness") employed so many forms: fiction, essay, reportage, autobiography, ethnology and pure gossip. Accounts of inaccuracy tarnished, but did not swamp, his reputation. He worked for Sotheby's, a job that sent him around the world, before throwing in as a journalist at the Sunday Times. He was famous for his sudden takeoffs. One day, he sent a telegram to his editor: "Gone to Patagonia for six months." A traveler's letters are often the most vivid account of his journeys: unpolished, immediate, revealing his state of mind. San Francisco, he wrote his wife Elizabeth, "doesn't really bear thinking about. It's utterly light-weight and sugary"; Nepal is a place of "unalloyed happiness … where I never for a second felt mildly annoyed." Chatwin, who spoke five languages, counted among his friends Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert Mapplethorpe and Edmund White. On his passport, under occupation, he wrote: Farmer.

The Traveller's Tree

A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands

Patrick Leigh Fermor

New York Review Books: 404 pp., $19.95 paper

Patrick Leigh Fermor, fellow traveler and friend of Bruce Chatwin, began his travels with a walk across Europe in 1933, when he was just 19. Years later, that journey was memorialized in "A Time of Gifts" and "Between the Woods and the Water." Both have become backpackers' bibles, poetic inspiration for those on foot. "The Traveller's Tree," published in 1950, records a different journey, beginning in 1947, through the Caribbean. The islands had not yet exploded into wholesale tourist stops; Big Sugar and waning colonialization kept most locals feeding the coffers of other countries.

Fermor poked his nose in the Rastafari community in Jamaica, voodoo in Haiti, the legacies of "buccaneers and filibusters" in Tortuga. Cock fights, nutmeg and cacao drying in the sun, a "tropical exuberance" blows off the pages. Unlike Chatwin, known for getting lost in his own world, Fermor rarely forgets his post as the reader's eyes and ears. There's a thoroughness, an intention to get it right. "What's your job?" an old colonialist in Jamaica asks. "I had to think hard before answering, 'I'm a writer.'"

A Tiger in the Kitchen

A Memoir of Food and Family

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Voice: 292 pp., $14.99 paper

This memoir is less controversial, more inspirational than Amy Chua's fiery book on Chinese parenting. Singapore-raised and American college-educated, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan rushed down the career path, her father's voice in her head, before pulling up short with a longing for her past. Living on bagels, ramen and hamburgers, Tan realized she had become a food exile.

Memories of the Teochew (a Chinese ethnic group in Singapore) recipes her aunties and grandmother made (lotus-seed-filled mooncakes, duck every which way, spring roll-like popiah rolls, bird's nest soup) crowded her days in New York City, where she had lived for 17 years. Tan spent a year collecting the fusion recipes — the blend of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian — that make up the comfort food of Singapore. Tan's tiger qualities reveal themselves in her fierce determination to draw her past into her present, to slow down, to learn how to make the food of her childhood.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

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