On discovering a beautiful, yet ancient Burmese basket in the British Museum, Rory MacLean falls into a reverie of his accidental visit to the intoxicating country 10 years earlier. Memories unleashed, MacLean, with his wife Katrin, begins a bizarre quest around Burma with the goal of finding an identical basket himself.
What follows is, thankfully, not a travelling Challenge Anneka, but a moving tale of the Burmese people that the couple meet as they follow up various dead-end suggestions.
MacLean's prose shifts between past and present, truth and, frequently, fiction as he weaves in the stories of four ordinary Burmese women and their extraordinary bravery. His talent lies in his ability to picture, in exquisite detail, an individual life, then pan-out in an almost filmic manner to acknowledge their place in the wider newsworthy events of their country's history.
After reading Under the Dragon, one can never again see Burma's masses as faceless hordes. MacLean shows Burma to be a country of repression and fear, but also one of great individual kindness and passion.
MacLean's compelling book is as finely crafted as we imagine the intriguing museum basket to be.
Tennessee Music by Peter Coats Zimmerman (Odyssey, pounds 15.95)
Home of Elvis, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry and . . umm. . . Parton's Eastern theme park, Dollywood, Tennessee is the state that launched a thousand careers.
Traipsing through the region's tangled musical roots is Peter Coats Zimmerman, a Tennessee born and bred, journalist and music enthusiast. Zimmerman's guide to the region and its musical development is enjoyable, yet comprehensive - he defines the genres (blues, country, soul...) without attempting to pigeon-hole the greats and gives an extensive run-down on the interesting areas of Tennessee.
By peppering the information with anecdotes and many old or rarely seen photographs and caricatures, he gives the reader a real flavour of the region, while lightening the reading load.
Much needed emphasis is placed on the social and economical assets of the region. Zimmerman also includes invaluable lists of attractions, events, shops, restaurants and hotels, a suitable discography and easy to read fold-out maps. This makes Tennessee Music an essential for all travellers and devotees fascinated by the development of music in this prolific area of America.
Shadows and Wind by Robert Templer (Little, Brown, pounds 18.99)
Robert Templer, too young to have had direct experience of the Vietnam war, found that his ideas of Vietnam were, like those of most westerners, formed by American war movies and books.
In 1990, he went to Vietnam as a foreign correspondent for a French news agency and found a country where war had already become part of history. In his book, Shadows and Wind, Templer seeks to bridge the gap between nostalgic fantasy and the reality of contemporary Vietnamese life.
He explores the experience of modern Vietnamese people - a relatively uncharted area - and looks at the issues facing government and people. A shaky economy, an intolerance of anti-government voices and official corruption loom large in his findings, and Templer foresees the growing entrepreneurial culture offering more attractions to new generations than Communism.