Norman Douglas' 'Siren Land' offers a classic look at southern Italy

Los Angeles Times

It may be late August, but do you still wish there was time to visit Italy this summer? Of course you do, and don't worry: Forget plane and ship fare. Forget even buying a copy of a Fodor's guide. Turn instead to "Siren Land: A Celebration of Life in Southern Italy" (Tauris Parke: 198 pp., $16 paper), a book that offers what's best described as "deep travel" — that sense of place far richer than any fleeting tour can supply. Norman Douglas was 43 when he published this book, his first, in 1911, about his physical and mental travels around the island of Capri and the Bay of Naples. This is an early 20th century classic from the golden age of travel writing: an era when travel writing meant bringing distant places close and not, as it often is today, finding something outlandish or extreme that hasn't yet been on YouTube. Douglas muses on how Greek culture transformed a region planted with "vines and oranges and walnuts" and whose sea is "smooth as a sheet of sapphire" with phrasing that is lyrical and seems effortlessly written. His ideas easily meld the mythic with the modern. "It is rather puzzling when one comes to think of it," he writes, "to conceive how the old Sirens passed their time on days of wintry storm. Modern ones would call for cigarettes, Grand Marnier, and a pack of cards, and bid the gale howl itself out." Douglas makes you long for cards, cigarettes and Grand Marnier, even if you're the type of person who doesn't gamble, smoke or drink.

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