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BEST OF BOOKS

Need something to read in the new year?

by Stephen Mansfield

SHADOW OF THE SILK ROAD, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins)

When a writer of Colin Thubron’s stripe turns his attention to the Silk Road, following a route from Xian to the shores of Antakya in Turkey, it’s worth paying attention. Crossing the Uighur regions in a local bus, Thubron muses on the mixed feelings produced by overland travel: “Your map is opened, then torn while somebody locates his village. Somebody else tries on your glasses. Drowned in this Uighur boisterousness, you find yourself longing for the Chinese reticence.” Stopping at a restaurant full of barking Chinese, he finds himself “romanticizing the Uighur warmth and generosity.” In the world of travel writing, this is as good as it gets.

AMERICAN SHOGUN: MacArthur, Hirohito and the American Duel with Japan, by Robert Harvey (John Murray)

Robert Harvey’s biography examines the life of two iconic figures: an American hero endowed with nerves of steel, a divine emperor wracked by them; a general who crafted his own destiny, a Japanese born into his. MacArthur, a ham actor who liked to wear Japanese kimonos at his desk and pose at dramatic moments of history with a corncob pipe, could hardly have been more different from Hirohito, a man of diminutive physical stature, known to favor frock coats and top hats. An engrossing read for the long winter nights.

ANT EGG SOUP: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie (Sceptre)

I recently came across “Ant Egg Soup” in a Beijing bookstore, and though not published this year, it feels like a new find. Mortared, marinated and broiled fish dishes, enriched with organic molds and acidulous sauces, are my own culinary recollections from trips along the waterways of the Lao interior. River fish stuffed with herbs, wrapped and tied in the bark of a banana tree before being buried in the red-hot ashes of a fire, produces a quality and rusticity of taste you would be hard pressed to find in urban Japan. Cow placenta salad, water-buffalo rind, baked moose, swallow wrapped in leaves to rot for a week before cooking, and the ant egg soup of the title are some of the delicacies De Bie plunges into without so much as a shudder. In recording her food sampling experiences, the author turns travel into gustatory artistry.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photojournalist and author whose work has appeared in more than 60 magazines, newspapers and journals worldwide. To date he has eight books published and his latest work “Tokyo: A Cultural History” (Oxford University Press) will be on sale next year.