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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth » User review

A travel memoir, this time in isolated Bhutan - yet, luckily not another Eat, Pray, Love

  • Mar 11, 2011


If you walked into any village in all of Bhutan and shouted "Karma", a quarter of the heads would turn. There are only about fifty names in the whole country... There are no familial surnames, and most names are unisex. So it is entirely possible that a family could be made up of a mother named Karma Wangdi and a father named Karma Lhamo, a child named Karma Choden, and another named Lhamo Wangdi. 
When I was first offered to review this book, I spent a while thinking about Bhutan, the country which is the focus of this travelogue memoir. The first sad thing I realized was that even in spite of having stayed for eight years in India, and having grown up on a steady diet of news regarding the southern Asian peninsula, Bhutan very rarely featured in any flash news from that region. Although I knew plenty about Bhutan, there was still a lot I didn't. That, as well as the real reason why news about Bhutan rarely invaded my living room couch, was revealed to me in this book.

Radio Shangri-La is about Lisa Napoli's rediscovery of self through this remotely tucked away country in Asia. The book started out typically - a mid-life crisis bringing about a yearning for travel - especially to a little known country shrouded in mysticism and full of a promise of spiritual awakening. Warning flags immediately started popping up in my antenna - I haven't still forgotten the debacle that was Eat, Pray, Love. Luckily though, Lisa Napoli is very practical, and doesn't start off with dumping all her issues on us. In fact, it is many pages later that we really know what her troubles are. If not for the candid admission in the Preface that this is a story of her midlife crisis, I might have taken her for any one of us.
By the end of the book, I've learned enough about Bhutan to wonder which planet this country was in. Bhutan's monarchy made a conscious decision not to be "corrupted" by outside influences. It's unbelievably hard to get into this country - $200 per head per day! (Even if that hefty pay serves to keep most potential tourists out of the country, and thus not turn Bhutan into yet another country that serves as the world's spiritual ground, it's not a policy I approve of.) Lisa vividly describes the many customs of the country and its geographic characteristics that I could picture the place so well in my mind's eye. Too often, I find travelogues focus on only some particular aspect of a country. Not Lisa's, though. She doesn't stick to exploring only one facet of her favorite place in the world - instead she easily delves into other political and commercial news, and shares them with us.
I liked the second half of the book better than the first. The first half was way too descriptive for me, while the pacing of the second half a lot faster. The first half is really the exploration / rediscovery / change part of the author's life, and consistent with that, she shares a lot of what she learns during that phase with us. It has whole chapters that show what makes Bhutan the way it is -- resilient, incorruptible, paradisaical. I appreciated how well she made a case for it. But the second half, which is the acceptance / moving on part shows the reverse culture clash -- of her returning back to the states, completely transformed; and of one of her favorite people from Bhutan, who comes to visit her in LA.

Moreover, the first half of the book focuses on the "good" side of Bhutan. I may not have visited Bhutan, but there's a lot (esp the customs) that sounds similar to me because of the way of life in India. The author's initial perspective about the good virtues of Bhutan left me asking - where's all the bad stuff and the bad people? Even in a country so isolated, where radio broadcasting is received with the same gusto as Apple's iPads are in the tech world, and where everyone absolutely loves the king, there should still be the odd person indulging in bad politics or something about this mystic place that feels too ancient. I was rewarded in the second half with all those answers. The author presents a well-written case of why some things had better not be done in Bhutan, and what some changes can mean to the country and the rest of the world.
While I didn't agree with the author on everything, I loved that this was a very honestly written account of what she benefited from Bhutan. She didn't believe in superstitions or prayer rituals to make her life better but if that option was provided to her, she didn't denounce it or jump into it outright - instead she had a very practical response. That practical approach, her candidness and matter-of-fact tone in making any decisions are what make this memoir work very well.

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September 30, 2011
I have also read the debacle that is Eat, Pray Love. From your review was she there on some spiritual journey? I do like some of these memoirs. One I particularly liked was Running into Myself, where the person Thea to Rome, India, Greece and many other places.
May 25, 2011
I agree with @! This does sound like a great read!
May 25, 2011
Oh yeah-- feel free to check out this reviewer's thoughts on the same title: http://community.cafelibri.com/reviews/book/..._woman_s_encounter.html
May 25, 2011
Athira, I don't think I'll ever afford to go to Bhutan, so I enjoyed your review. I happened to write one too, before Adrianna noted it above and kindly linked to it. I note a comparison to a book that aroused more British controversy when it appeared a short time ago, Jennifer Steil as a NYC journalist who goes to jumpstart a newspaper in Yemen, "The Woman Who Fell from the Sky." See my review: http://community.cafelibri.com/Reviews/book/...n_Yemen-74-1504284.html
March 13, 2011
I hope I'd get to visit Bhutan one fine day & then I'll come back and read this book. I nearly made it there a few years ago if not for the full flights!
March 14, 2011
Oh wow! Once you do go to Bhutan, I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts as well!
March 11, 2011
This sounds like a great read. Thanks so much for sharing :)
March 12, 2011
Thank you so much for reading my review! I hope you get a chance to read this book!
March 12, 2011
Anytime! I hope I get a chance to read it as well.
More Radio Shangri-La: What I Learn... reviews
review by . April 22, 2011
A solid combination of travelogue and memoir, this takes us into a land where until recently, few could enter. And, with the tourist tax and limited access now, few can afford to visit. It reminded me of Jennifer Steil's Yemen encounter as "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky" (2010: see my review): a driven but weary journalist in a high-powered profession, unattached and searching for meaning, on short notice and happenstance leaves the big American city to advise those in a remote country …
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When Napoli met the handsome Sebastian at a cookbook party in New York City, she was intrigued by this man who traveled to Bhutan regularly. And when the accomplished L.A.-based journalist (MSNBC, CNN, public radio's Marketplace) researched the country about which he spoke so enthusiastically, she became entranced with Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom that sits between India and China. This country--dubbed "the happiest on earth" because of its focus on environmental and social progress--is hard to get to, with its remote location and governmental deterrents to tourism, like a per-person, per-day tourist tax. But a friend of Sebastian's needs help with startup radio station Kuzoo FM, so Napoli leaves L.A. and goes to Bhutan for six weeks. She writes, "After more than two decades of reducing even the most complex issues to 1,000 words or less, I was tired of observing life from a distance." While the author turns an eye on her own motivations (nothing further developed with Sebastian), she refrains from tortured navel-gazing and instead shares and reflects on Bhutan's people, history, and customs (from painting phalluses on houses to repel evil spirits to Buddhism's role in daily life). Napoli's adventures at home and abroad, in nature and career and spirit, will delight readers. (Feb.)
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ISBN-10: 0307453022
ISBN-13: 978-0307453020
Author: Lisa Napoli
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, Travel
Publisher: Crown
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