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

Bhutan, as one woman's encounter

  • Apr 22, 2011
Rating:
+3
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 who want to become more Westernized in their media, within a strongly traditional culture. Like Steil, Napoli seeks love and finds it, so she thinks, among the ex-pats in the capital city. Yet, as readers will find, Napoli's maturity may make for a more satisfying moral than Steil's to her journey, as much delving inside herself as describing what she sees on the outside in this Himalayan kingdom.

Similar to Steil's time abroad in its scope and events, Napoli's itinerary during 2007, the Year of the Female Fire Hog, seems rather limited, for time and sights. She tells of what happens at Thimphu's newly launched Kuzoo 108 radio, even if her tale tends towards the everyday in a globalized pop culture blur that links her to her Bhutanese hosts as often as what keeps them still so much different than Americans. As she does not get out of the capital much, there's not a lot that happens. But her enthusiasm, tempered with her growing understanding of Buddhist transience, enriches her straightforward narrative. She's not a flashy writer, so the depth comes more from subtle transformations inside her, compared to the rapid ones in a nation eager to tap into what it sees as the excitement, comforts, and goods of globalization.

The irony of her (a native Brooklynite) leaving downtown L.A. (working for NPR's "Marketplace") to quiet down in this place that seeks to settle people into a happiness based on not materialism but spiritual balance does not escape her. She and her radio crew try to promote a "Symphony of Love" for Valentine's Day while she comes to terms with the lessons of what may appear to be lifelong love, but in fact may be a pleasant encounter. Her tempered wisdom works well in her telling.

Later, her return to Bhutan, twice in a brief time, brings already the sense of a rapidly Westernizing realm. It's one that appears in her perspective as a protective one, like that towards a lover, worried about the object of her affection becoming too altered, too quickly. But that attachment's not the Buddhist way, either, as she learns.

While I learned much less about Bhutan itself than what I'd expected, a bibliography, some fact-filled chapters late in the book, and a list of websites point us towards more information. The tone's therefore a bit uneven, but this may reflect her own preoccupations as they shift from first visit to follow-up complications. (I wish photos were included: they were needed to enhance the rather low-key account of what Bhutan looks like, at least beyond Thimphu, where she's settled in for most of the events.)

Napoli favors her own vantage point, as character-driven rather than focused on scenery or excitement, and she keeps the story a modest one. She reveals enough of her past to inform her own transformation but she does not linger. She keeps the story moving, and although the tone of later chapters, after her first return home and then back again, feel altered, she's changed from her Bhutanese stay. Her own sudden embrace of being a godmother, and her own insights as she connects more with a country in need of contraception and all sorts of careful planning with temptations all around it, make for a satisfying, delayed-coming-of-age tale.

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May 31, 2011
Fabulous review, John! I just saw your comment on my review, and came to check yours. I loved your take on it. I was also reading your review of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky. That's a book I should read! The Middle East fascinates me quite a bit - might have something to do with growing up there for a while.
June 01, 2011
Did you know another new book came out, "Married to Bhutan," Linda Leaming's account of what you'd expect? I don't have time to read it, but I thought you might like to know. As for Asia, Athira, so for the Middle East-- I'm an armchair traveler, but of course enjoyment's enhanced if you can compare and contrast what you've experienced with the author's account. (Hope you find "Woman Who Fell" of interest, and Steil's story generated some Fleet Street tabloid coverage, which I did not know until after I finished and reviewed her story...)
 
May 25, 2011
Excellent review as always, John! Have you checked out @'s thoughts about this one? http://community.cafelibri.com/reviews/book/...n_isolated_Bhutan_.html
 
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More Radio Shangri-La: What I Learn... reviews
review by . March 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 the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #54
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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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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Details

ISBN-10: 0307453022
ISBN-13: 978-0307453020
Author: Lisa Napoli
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, Travel
Publisher: Crown
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