Books: The Smug and the Homey

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Outside magazine, July 1996

Books: The Smug and the Homey
By Miles Harvey

Notes from a Small Island: An Affectionate Portrait of Britain, by Bill Bryson (William Morrow, $25). As his previous works, such as The Lost Continent, have so delightfully demonstrated, Bill Bryson is one of the funniest travel writers on the
planet. In this gleeful romp, the expatriate American journeys across England to make sense–and fun–of the “smug and homey little isle” where he lived for the previous two decades. His travels take him from Wapping (“like being in the midst of an ugly-building competition”) to Bradford (a town whose “role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in
comparison”) to Liverpool (where he assumes he has arrived during a “festival of litter”). Journeying the country, he encounters one unforgettable character after another, including a boy “who appeared to regard his nose as a kind of midfaced snack dispenser” and “the world’s most boring man.” But Bryson makes as much fun of himself as he does of England, concluding that despite
all his grumbling he loves “every last bit” of his adopted land. His book lets us laugh at the peculiarities of the British as we laugh at our own.

A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat, by Jeremy Seal (Harvest Books/Harcourt Brace, $14). “You are ridiculous. Welcome to Turkey,” a customs agent tells Jeremy Seal upon learning of the author’s plans to track down the history of
Turkish hats. And what, at first glance, could be more ridiculous than the fez, that cylindrical curiosity best known to Americans as the headwear of Shriners and various Life in Hell comic-strip characters? Yet the fez has played a central role in Turkey’s conflicting desires to be both Western and Eastern, both secular and Muslim. In an effort to modernize his country, Sultan
Mahmud II banned turbans in 1826 and ordered his people to wear fezes. Then, in 1925, AtatËrk, the founder of present-day Turkey, banned fezes; again the goal was modernization. In order to understand these profound cultural revolutions–and their ongoing importance–Seal travels from Istanbul to Anatolia, where he meets one of the last remaining fez makers, to eastern
Turkey, where he discovers fezlike hats atop stone heads at ancient ruins. The result is a marvelous travel book, fascinating and funny, that gets inside the heads of the Turkish people by looking at what’s worn on top.

Ice World: Techniques and Experiences of Modern Ice Climbing, by Jeff Lowe (The Mountaineers Books, $29.95), and Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide, by Lou Whittaker with Andrea Gabbard (The Mountaineers Books, $16.95). The tools and techniques of ice climbing have changed considerably since Yvon Chouinard wrote his classic how-to guide
Climbing Ice in 1978. Now one of the most innovative contemporary masters has delivered his own comprehensive overview of the slippery endeavor. Lowe’s state-of-the-art guide, which has excellent sections on history and equipment as well as practical instruction, is the latest among several fine climbing books recently published by Seattle-based Mountaineers Books–most notably
including the no-punches-pulled memoirs of renowned Mount Rainier guide Lou Whittaker. The author recounts plenty of thrilling triumphs, including successful ascents of Mount McKinley, K2, and Kanchenjunga, but also pays special attention to the dark side of the sport. “I wasn’t born a mountaineer,” he explains. “I’m as dumb as the next guy and I’ve screwed up in the mountains.”
We can be thankful, however, that Whittaker, unlike so many of his climbing associates–from Willi Unsoeld to Marty Hoey to Chris Kerrebrock–is still around to tell his extraordinary life story