Tricky to write this review since I know the author and I was initially reluctant to give it a 5. However, on its own merits the book probably deserves it, though I guess it would be difficult to find one reader who is able to appreciate everything it has to offer. For the book transcends categories, the book cover suggesting it is a travel/memoir but it is part also written for those with an interest in textiles and finally (and the stand out aspect for me) a powerful anthropological insight into the changes occurring in the post-socialist world and how development projects can make a small but significant difference.
As a travel book it wanders off into other parts of Uzbekistan as well as Afghanistan but is at its best when at home in Khiva. The author has a great eye of the absurd, and the book is chocked full of wonderful insights and the recounting of dramatic tales. However those wanting to find out more about, say, Bukhara, might need to know more than that is is the home of cunning competitors and human organ exporters. So it won't replace a good general guide book, but for the traveller whose itinerary would take in Khiva reading this book would enrich the experience enormously as it brings alive the history as well as the present realities of this fascinating city.
As a memoir it packs real emotional punch as the politics of the country cruelly cut short the love-affair with Khiva. To those interested in the history of textiles and the bringing of past designs back to life, this is a must read.
However for me, as someone interested in the development of society in Uzbekistan, the book's greatest value is as an insight into the plight of provincial towns in post-independence Uzbekistan. To spend seven years in a small town, and to make hugely impressive progress in mastering the language and the social norms, means that the author gained a level of trust and acceptance that opened up a window onto the sorrows but also the joys of everyday life. Accounts of domestic abuse and economic injustice are quite depressing, but then there are moments when acts of empathy and compassion deeply move both the author and reader - such as when the fellow weavers club together to buy their colleague a wedding dress. It is telling that while the minarets and murals grab the attention at the beginning, it is the personalities so vividly described that are mourned by the author who can't return, and for whom the reader also feels a sense of loss. For while the workshop projects are admittedly no panacea for the problems the town faces, they did bring both income and dignity to many of the downtrodden, and the project, shaped in part by the author's own stubbornness, was an irritant protest against the corruption that surrounded it. As such it should also be read by anyone conducting community based projects and interested in social change in Central Asia. The account of the project, honestly accepting mistakes made and bringing insight into the difficult choices to be made, make for a revealing, informative and stylishly written introduction.