A Certain Dedication in the Himalayas

IN THE HIMALAYAS: Journeys Through Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan by Jeremy Bernstein (Lyons & Burford, $14.95 paperback). Using his own travels as the starting point, Bernstein treks into the political and social histories of these exotic, austere and rapidly changing mountain lands. Since 1967, Bernstein has visited the roof of the world several times and chronicled his adventures first in a series of articles in the New Yorker; then in a 1970 book, "The Wildest Dreams of Kew"; then in an updated version of "Kew" titled "In the Himalayas," published in 1989.

This latest incarnation is an updating of the update. But it's more than just warmed-over stew. He has included a new adventure--an arduous trip to Tibet's 21,850-foot Mt. Kailas, one of the East's most important religious sites--and added some perspective to earlier trips which, he admits, were seen with naive and uncritical eyes.

Perhaps best known as a science writer (he's a physics professor as well as a writer), Bernstein is a wonder. He weaves historic detail and personal anecdote into captivating narratives. Five sections are devoted to Nepal, three to Tibet and one to Bhutan. Among his destinations were the Mt. Everest base camp and the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Anyone who has ever trekked in Nepal will instantly recognize his descriptions of iron-legged porters, leech-infested trails, curious children and soul-shaking mountain-scapes. His research has conjured up a number of vivid characters, including eccentric English explorers and Tibetan kings, mountain climbers and lamas.

His style is pure New Yorker (pre-Tina Brown): simple and witty, devoid of histrionics. An example: One day in Nepal, he falls in with a member of the trekking crew, a Sherpa woman who is herding some yaks. She is beautiful. "The only thing I can think of asking when we are walking along together is 'Yak?', pointing to the beast. 'Dzopchuk,' she says, giving the beast an affectionate tap on the rump. That about exhausts my Sherpa, and she does not know any English. We pad along the trail in our separate linguistic spaces. I wonder if she ever fantasizes about marrying a trekker or a climber.' "

Quick trips:

PARIS (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, paperback, maps, photos, illustrations). The jacket insists that Paris is the world's most beautiful city. So it's surprising the visually dizzying Knopf Guides series didn't get around to Paris sooner. Includes fold-out schematics of the Louvre, Notre Dame, underground Paris, the Musee d'Orsay and the Seine. The pages are filled with photos, illustrations and cutouts--an explosion of file art. Exciting to thumb through; ultimately rather confusing, even wearying. Two other lively volumes were released recently: "St. Petersburg," which includes eight touring itineraries in the city, and "The Holy Land," which takes the reader to Sinai, Eilat, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Tiberias.

TRAIL OF FLAME: The Red Hot Guide to Spicy Restaurants Across America by Jennifer Trainer Thompson (Ten Speed Press, $11.95, paperback). Hot is hot these days, so some such guide was bound to come along. Thompson is no cuisine snob; among others, her guide embraces Thai, Indian, Creole, Cajun, Mexican and Texas chili joints.

Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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