Travel books: A century of Beverly Hills; a look at Myanmar

Chicago Tribune

"Beverly Hills: The First 100 Years"

Rizzoli, $100

It seems only right that a book celebrating Beverly Hills' centennial anniversary costs $100. The price matches the heft and ambition of Robert S. Anderson's massive and heavily illustrated tome. In fact, Anderson is the official centennial historian of the famous small town.

Though Beverly Hills and its famous ZIP code (90210) epitomize luxury and glamour, the town itself has more humble roots. A century or so ago what would become Beverly Hills was nothing more than a field of beans. But when a group of savvy businessmen discovered water ("lots of it") and formed the Rodeo Land and Water Co., originally for oil speculation, the future was set. It was a Los Angeles real estate agent by the name of Percy H. Clark, though, who came up with the idea for the new settlement, an attractive, well-planned and three-tiered community: the closer to the foothills, the bigger the houses and lots. It was Clark who also suggested that the new community replace the familiar grid system with curving streets ("unheard of at the time," writes Anderson). As for the town's moniker: this most celebrated of California sites was inspired by President William Howard Taft's vacation home in Beverly Farms, Mass.

The area's earliest inhabitants were Native Americans known as the Tongva, who lived a "peaceful agrarian life, rich in family and feast," Anderson notes. In early August 1769, though, everything changed when the first white settlers arrived, a contingent of Spanish explorers led by Capt. Gaspar de Portola. Their goal was to establish Franciscan missions along the California coast. Unfortunately, among the "gifts" the white men brought with them was smallpox, which by 1844 effectively destroyed two-thirds of the indigenous population. Four years later, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded Mexican California to the United States. California became a state a quick two years later.

Anderson devotes chapters to some of the town's most iconic landmarks. The Beverly Hills Hotel, which opened in 1912, was designed in mission style in honor of the original settlers, while the guest rooms were individually designed, each with its own character and color scheme. The gardens, tennis courts, stables and riding trails took advantage of the idyllic Southern California weather and ambience. Additional chapters discuss the entertainment industry — by the late 1920s, Beverly Hills had already become the preferred address for the movie colony even as the City of Los Angeles, unsuccessfully, tried to annex its neighbor in a bitter political dispute. There also are sections in the book on the Beverly Hills school system (including the building of Beverly Hills High School), the historic theaters of Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive and the Greystone Mansion.

It's a fascinating history that features wonderful vintage and color photographs.

"Myanmar (Burma)"

DK, $25

Bordered by Bangladesh and India on the west, China on the north, Laos on the east and Thailand in the east and south, Myanmar (Burma) has a population of about 60 million spread over more than 260,000 square miles. In this first edition, author David Abram examines Myanmar's turbulent past and promising future. Long known for its decades of civil war and ethnic strife, things changed with the easing of the tourism boycott in 2010 and its end two years later.

Abram looks at Myanmar's people and culture (about 90 percent of Burmese are Buddhists) along with glimpses into the country's traditional dress, sports, festivals and flavors. But the bulk of the book is devoted to an exploration of Myanmar by region. These include Yangon (home to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most venerated Buddhist shrine); Bago (home of the country's best loved reclining-Buddha shrines); the Bagan archaeological zone (considered one of Southeast Asia's greatest archaeological treasures, including some 2,000 monasteries, temples, shrines and stupas); and Mandalay City, a 21st century boomtown.

The back portion includes practical information on etiquette and security concerns.

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