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Travel Books

A world view on drinking

By June Sawyers, Special to Tribune Newspapers

1:00 AM EST, January 28, 2014

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"The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey"

Crown, $25

Novelist and journalist Lawrence Osborne is a veteran traveler and a veteran drinker. In this entertaining travel essay/memoir, he combines both of his loves with a combination of sparkling prose and insightful observations. An Englishman who lives in New York and Bangkok, he admits that drinking is a personal choice and a comfortable habit with which he grew up. During his travels, though, he comes across a group of young Muslim men in Bali who consider it "a plague, sickness of the soul," an act that removes one from "normal consciousness."

Osborne doesn't necessarily disagree with them — it can be all that — but, for him, drinking also is a form of self-expression. Thus, in this short but emotionally wide-ranging volume, he traverses the world, from the Middle East to Italy to New York to Scotland, as he ruminates about the role of alcohol in our lives. Where do you draw the line, for example, between indulgence and restraint? Between social drinking and binge drinking? In some countries, people drink to get drunk; in others, drinking is a social, convivial act.

Osborne discusses what he calls the two states of wetness and dryness, hoping that he one day will stumble across that most paradoxical of creatures, a Muslim alcoholic, because a "Muslim alcoholic," he muses, " gives me hope that the human race can be saved." He contends that the worst time of the year for the "determined solitary" drinker is the forced merriment of Christmas and New Year's.

He reflects on the often contentious relationship between the drinker and the teetotaler. He visits the remote Swedish island of Bjare, the "Bordeaux of vodka potatoes," and where, not incidentally, Ingmar Bergman's bleak classic "The Seventh Seal" was filmed. In another chapter he travels to the island of Islay in Scotland's Inner Hebrides, a good place to examine the appeal of whisky and, in particular, the Japanese obsession with Johnnie Walker. ("In Japan, Islay is more known than Budapest, Kiev, or Glasgow.")

The book is endlessly fascinating, whether drinker or teetotaler.

"How to Be Danish: A Journey to the Cultural Heart of Denmark"

Atria/Marble Arch Press, $16

Patrick Kingsley is the Egypt correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, but here his focus is not on the Middle East but on Denmark. According to the United Nations, the Danes are the happiest people in the world, even as their murderous television shows (think "The Killing") have become cult favorites. Part reportage, part travelogue, this delightful guide to not-quite-all-things Danish tries to explain the Danish appeal, or what Kingsley, tongue-in-cheek, calls "Danish delirium."

In spring 2012, Kingsley spent a month in Denmark, from Copenhagen to Jutland, visiting schools and farms and churches, and, yes, even stopping by the set of "The Killing," and he interviewed more than 70 Danes from all walks of life. He discusses Denmark's earnest attempt to be a classless society.

"It also helps," he writes, "that the wage disparity between different jobs is not particularly large." Indeed, he adds that the gap between rich and poor in Denmark is the lowest in the world.

He discusses education (a university education is free); the so-called Nordic food revolution (Noma, in Copenhagen, was named the world's best restaurant for three years in a row); Danish furniture and architecture; the Danish welfare state and the high taxes they pay for it (a reasonable trade-off, Danes agree, for the return on investment they get); cycling (about a third of Copenhageners cycle to work); and immigration, a sometimes toxic issue that culminated in the controversial Muhammad cartoon crisis of 2005–2006.

How to be Danish? The concept of what Danishness means is changing and, Kingsley suggests, will continue to transform itself for the foreseeable future.

ctc-travel@tribune.com