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Tips for Trips to Samarkand :...

JOURNEY TO KHIVA: A Writer’s Search for Central Asia by Philip Glazebrook (Kodansha International, $23 hardcover) and CENTRAL ASIA: The Practical Handbook by Giles Whittell (Cadogan Books/ Globe Pequot Press, $15.95 paper).

“What child,” asks British author Philip Glazebrook rhetorically, “has not responded to the ring of (the) names, Bokhara, Khiva, Samarcand, and their images of cupolas and courts and shadows in the sand, images glinting with the scarlet thread of cruelty and spilt blood . . . ?” Well, probably most of the kids in Los Angeles today for starters--not more than a dozen of whom are likely to know Samarcand (or Samarkand, as it is more usually spelled) from Salt Lake City.

But never mind. For anyone who has heard of them, these cities--all of them in the newly independent Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan--are fascinating, mysterious, places; a domain (or so we imagine) of capricious khans, wily merchants, dashing nomads, colonial adventurers, beautiful sequestered princesses. Such characters pop up in Glazebrook’s book, in his many historical and literary references, as he visits and travels between the three aforementioned Uzbekistani cities plus a fourth, Tashkent. He deftly blends his colorful history with contemporary anecdote, though, and with observations both appreciative and ironic, and he writes in an accessible, evocative style--so that we can easily picture him fending off a murderous attacker in a Moscow hotel room or defending Mrs. Thatcher at an inn outside Bokhara or standing alone before the slender jade tombstone of Tamerlane in Khiva itself.

Giles Whittell’s extremely well-researched and enjoyably crafted Cadogan guide, which covers not just Uzbekistan but also Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan and a bit of western China, establishes practical parameters for a Glazebrook-style jaunt. The history is sound, the fables and tales amusing, the details riveting.

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ADVENTURES IN CHEAP EATING: HAWAII: The Comprehensive Guide to Righteous Deals & Authentic Meals on Oahu by March Egerton (Tsunami Press, $9.95 paper).

I was going to mention this book--which offers short reviews of some 175 restaurants, bakeries, takeout stands, coffeehouses, etc. on the island of Oahu--as a “Quick Trip.” Its subject is relatively minor in the greater scheme of things, after all. But it turned out to be such pure delight to read--full of color and unforced humor and good-natured commentary--that I think it deserves slightly more space. March Egerton has obviously not just visited every place he writes about (by no means common practice in the restaurant-guide business, I’m sorry to say), but has made an attempt to understand each one and find its strong points. Of a dish of seaweed, bamboo shoots and pickled plums served at the Japanese noodle house called Tentekomai, for instance, he notes, “It’s not for everyone, I grant you, but damn tasty if you’re feeling open to a little adventure.”

His frame of reference is also sometimes astonishingly wide. In reviewing the wonderfully named Masu’s Massive Lunch Plate, for instance, he writes that, “Common to all the specials is enough meat to make ‘The Jungle’ seem like a stroll in the garden.” A typical repast here, he adds, might include “Fried pork chop with tonkatsu sauce, charcoal-broiled top sirloin steak, fried shrimp tempura, baked Spam, Melveen’s famous Tita-style Vienna sausage and tuna-potato salad.” Aloha, heartburn.

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Quick trips:

A SENSE OF MISSION: Historic Churches of the Southwest, photography by David Wakely, text by Thomas A. Drain (Chronicle Books, $18.95 paper, $35 hardcover). Twenty-nine churches in adobe, wood or stone, many of them little jewels, most of them from the 18th and 19th centuries, presented handsomely and respectfully in luminous photographs and clean, crisp prose.

NEW ORLEANS by Bethany Ewald Bultman (Compass American Guides/Fodor’s, $16.95 paper). Music, food and Mardi Gras are (not surprisingly) among the principal themes of this affectionate portrait of New Orleans. Like all the Compass guides, this one has plenty of bright photography, lots of local color and plenty of boxes and sidebars on various subjects. There’s no great depth here, but a pretty good portrait of the city shines through.

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