A ""brief romp"" through West Africa, Egypt, Iran, Central Asia, western China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts, 1993, etc.). You have to hand it to Kaplan. He travels light, he travels dirty, and he goes to places that most travelers would thankfully avoid. He has also done his homework and has a useful frame of reference in which to fit his experiences and observations. Many are valuable. His comments on West Africa evoked wide discussion when they appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. In assessing the value of a diplomat's optimism about Africa, he asks drily, ""How did he arrive at the airport?""--a reference to the crime, bribery, and anarchy often associated with mere arrival in Africa, but which high-level diplomats usually avoid. In considering levels of crime in various poor and overcrowded cities, he punctures easy explanations based on cultural factors by comparing similarly horrendous crime rates in Cambodia and Sierra Leone (he had believed that crime rates would be lower in Cambodia, with its ancient civilizations based in written language). Contrary to expectations, in Iran he notes how the country and its culture ""appeared minimally affected fifteen years after the revolution."" He contrasts the attention given to AIDS with that given to the 100-200 million people who contract malaria every year and the 2.5 million people who die annually of the disease. His most enduring impression is of the weakening of state structures throughout the area and the growing strength of ethnic and religious identity. He covers a much wider area than he did in his more valuable Balkan Ghosts, and his expectations about finding general paradigms are disappointed. Nor are his efforts to make his discoveries relevant to the US very convincing. But for sheer entertainment, vigor, sharp observation, and thoughtful comparison, Kaplan takes a lot of beating.