The Cities Book by Lonely Planet
The Cities Book is a big book, a heavy book and an expensive one at Bt1,750. I'll also wager that it's the only coffee-table book you can see from space. It contains, according to the blurb, 200 of the most "vibrant, diverse, hypnotic and chaotic" cities on the planet.
That may be so, but the claim that these 200 are the "best" cities is a dubious one. Some you will have never heard of.
There is a reason for this, because when you discover their true nature, you're probably very glad you hadn't. Santo Domingo comes to mind. Its "weaknesses" include crime, hurricanes, violent political history and aggressive police.
In nearly all South American cities, the constant negatives are "machismo and beggars", while in Africa, Nairobi is referred to as "Nairobbery" by the locals.
Minsk sounds a bit of a bummer too, with its ugly Soviet architecture, and "rude, blunt service". In fact, by page 420, a rural weekend starts to sound rather tempting.
This enormous Lonely Planet offering basically follows the same format as the "Bluelist" book reviewed in these pages a couple of months back - only it deals with cities rather than countries. Each city is analysed under various headings: anatomy, people, typical resident, defining experience, strengths and weaknesses, import and export - and a few "must do" items.
It's all fairly standard for the big five - Paris, New York, Sydney, London, and Barcelona - but gets more interesting with the lesser-known cities - and there is much to learn and enjoy.
Only 10 per cent of Dutch people own their own homes, but nearly all the residents of Amsterdam (of whom 47 per cent come from somewhere else) have a bicycle - 600,000 at the last count. But then, 200,000 of these bikes get nicked every year.
The strengths of Reykjavik include "long summer days", and its weaknesses "long winter nights", along with "legless drunks, vomit and the hideously high cost of living".
Ironically, by the time you reach the 165th city, the weaknesses sound more attractive than the attractions.
In St Petersburg, negative points include collapsing buildings, drunks and the foreign-pricing system where "Russians pay 90 per cent less for museums, the theatre and ballet". Wonder where they got that idea from?
Amaty in Kazahstan suffers from prostitution, avalanches, canine emissions and kidnappings, but has the "best ski slopes" in Central Asia. That's a relief.
It's the quirkiness of the writers (many of them local residents) that make the book an interesting pleasure. Under the import section for Kabul is listed "extremist rule, refugees, land mines and foreign aid". Exports include heroin, rugs, refugees and terrorists.
Meanwhile, Bogota has imported "Spaniards, drug trafficking and car bombings".
So, you can reasonably assume that a five-day break in the Colombian capital is going to have a bit more fizz about it than a weekend in Hua Hin. Whatever lights your candle.
A "typical" Belgrader is "hopelessly romantic, loves to fall in love, and then over-dramatises it all", whereas your typical Caraqueno (from Caracas) "likes to discuss personal affairs loudly and without embarrassment."
Not surprisingly, the archetypal Luxembourger is wealthy - and confident. Their motto, Mir welle bleine wat mir sin, means "we want to remain what we are".
Apparently Jakarta is home to an impressive collection of monuments, including the towering column in the centre of Merdeka (Freedom) Square - popularly known as "Sukarno's last erection".
I'm still puzzled about the target market for this book. You can't exactly take it with you on your travels because it would blow your entire luggage allowance.
Perhaps it's for people who have been everywhere and can enjoy nodding in appreciation at the honest and perceptive insights, or is it simply for the armchair traveller?
Could be, but they'll need both arms to lift it.
"The Cities Book" is available at all leading bookstores for Bt1,750.