- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

“Cheechako” is an Alaskan word for newcomer — the well-meaning naive immigrant who either adapts to the land or leaves for warmer, more civilized climes. “Land of the Radioactive Midnight Sun: A Cheechako’s First Year in Alaska” (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95, 288 pages) reveals the state as seen by an outsider intent on conveying his experiences with a wealth of humor and charm. This account of an Air Force man’s indoctrination into the folk ways of our northernmost state also works well as a travel guide for anyone contemplating a similar move.

It’s clear at the start that author Sean Michael Flynn isn’t going to wimp out, but we stick with him anyway.

The year’s adventures are organized conveniently enough by the month. His first entry, December, becomes “Rednecks, Roughnecks, and a Guy Named Catfish.” January is “Authentic Frontier Plumbing.” The light touch is entertaining. But after the umpteenth reminder of how cold temperatures can get up north yonder in polar bear country, and how rigorously rugged are its adopted natives, a reader may become a little restless. Haven’t other books covered this territory in similar fashion? Well, yes and no. At least Mr. Flynn’s credentials are different.

Not many military men, I’ll wager, have been able to put time spent in exotic locales to such an advantage. His storytelling gifts are strong. Nor does he neglect to remind us of some more serious matters concerning the true natives of the land when he delves into the history and condition of so-called Native Alaskans. He also supplies a brief on oil exploration issues without delivering a polemic. His only real bias, naturally, favors the airmen deployed from Eielson — his air base home — off on tours of duty in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

There is much here to amuse and enlighten, especially for people in the lower 48 who never before have visited cheechako land. The book also might work to instruct someone contemplating a career in public relations — especially with the military.

A far more ethereal production is Earth: The Definitive Visual Guide to Our Planet (DK Publishing/Smithsonian Institution, $50, 520 pages), edited by James F. Luhr. Apart from the vainglory implicit in tackling the entire physical profile of our planet under one cover, the resulting product is remarkable to behold. And also remarkably heavy to hold. As a reference work, it might require a table of its own.

The 520 pages of startling full-color beauty contain a multitude of photographs and graphics of great quality. (A thought: Do those TV travelogues spoil us just a little when it comes to appreciating such a book?) Just when you feel your eyes are saturated, you are teased by some wee fact of special interest bracketed off into a corner. Thus, on page 359, under the section named Urban Areas, you learn that New Yorkers generate nearly a quarter of a ton of garbage every second, or 24,000 tons a day.

Maybe you didn’t really want to know this but the book tries anyway to force you to relish such throwaway bits of information and mundane facts. Snippets of biographies adjacent to pertinent bits of land mass provide relief from an onslaught of geophysical, botanical and climatic details. Ever wonder why most Manhattan skyscrapers are located in the south and center of the island? Apparently, that is where most of the solid granite can be found that is needed to support the weight of those giant manmade structures.

The snippet method isn’t always successful, however. Turn a page or two and read a caption that says China is the world’s most populous country and one of the most polluted. The person eager to paw through this book already knows that, I’ll guess. But most of the time you are in for a grand tour offering up-to-date science illustrated by a bevy of modern imaging techniques. Like a TV show in print form, the book is a bit slapdash but ultimately riveting.

Writing about the so-called Silk Road, or Roads, has become something of a cottage industry in the publishing world of late. No matter. There is plenty of complicated history on this turf to go around. Two newcomers are Frances Wood’s The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia (University of California Press, $29.95, 270 pages) and Alexandra Tolstoy’s The Last Secrets of the Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo by Horse and Camel (Lyons Press, $32.95, 232 pages). The former is a far more worthy investment of time and money. The latter is a personal memoir (penned by a distant cousin of the author of “War and Peace”) about a daring eight-month-long trip that four intrepid Englishwomen made by horse and camel across some of the most far-flung trails in the world.

Frances Wood, author of the comprehensive and lavishly illustrated “The Silk Road,” is head of the Chinese section at London’s British Library and brings other impressive credentials to the job. (Jacket material says she is author of the 2002 edition of the “Blue Guide to China.”) The book’s satin pages are dense — at times ploddingly so —with information, but her writing style is wonderfully clear and unadorned.

Keeping straight the blurring whirl of Asian names and places isn’t a task for the soft-hearted, however. The author doesn’t stint on the plethora of exotic cultural, religious and political people and places involved. Want to know in plain language exactly how silk is formed and why jade was so prized? Start reading on page 26.

Early on, the author corrects the often misleading impression that the Silk Road is a singular trail. Rather, it is a series of ancient trade routes that stretched from Central Asia to Europe. She credits Marco Polo for initiating the romantic aura of a journey from Baghdad to China, but says it was German explorer and geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen who gave the route its romantic name. (“Seidenstrasse” in German.) A brief epilogue contains a summary account of what the Silk Road is like today, 2,000 years and many plundering campaigns later.

Long live the beautiful blondes — and brunettes — who persist in keeping diaries about their travel experiences that prove they can stay friends while enduring some very trying times together. Romance is literally part of the story related by Countess Tolstoy. A postscript tells the reader that this past September she married the handsome man who was her group’s guide in Central Asia. In some circles, you can’t have a better ending than that.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the Features desk at The Washington Times.

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