Photo: boys running on bridge Bhutan

In Bhutan a group of exuberant boys run across a bridge.

Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy

By Don George

Book of the Month:

Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli

Open to visitors since only 1974, the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has long enticed me. The first airport was built there in 1983, television and Internet service began in 1999, and traffic lights still don’t exist in the capital, Thimphu. Most enticing of all, Bhutan is the only country on the planet that measures its success not in terms of Gross National Product but rather Gross National Happiness.

This last fact was virtually the only thing American public radio reporter Lisa Napoli knew about the country when she agreed to move there in 2007 to help develop a national radio station targeted toward Bhutan’s youth. Her new book, Radio Shangri-La, recounts the adventures and revelations that ensued.

Napoli appreciatively evokes Bhutan’s idiosyncrasies: Even in the city, men wear the traditional kilt/bathrobe called a gho and women the elegant “neck-to-floor swath of fabric” called a kira, both in bright blues, oranges, yellows and pinks; in the countryside, Buddhist prayer flags and evil-repelling images of phalluses—some wrapped sweetly in bows—predominate; the mountains, rivers, and terraced valleys are almost impossibly picturesque, and the stray dogs almost impossibly omnipresent; and even when the king calls for elections to create a modern parliament, monks must be consulted to determine the most auspicious dates.

In her efforts to create a modern radio station, Napoli also discovers some of the country’s venerable riches: the deep foundations of Buddhist faith; the optimism and compassion of the people; the enlightened leadership that seeks to preserve the environment, nurture sustainable tourism, and modulate modernization with tradition. But she also uncovers the fault lines of that modernization, as television lures youth from rural fields to urban desk jobs, and 21st-century materialism infiltrates everyday dreams.

Like most great journeys, Napoli’s odyssey wends inward as well as outward. The disgruntled fortysomething who moves from Los Angeles to Thimphu at the beginning of the book emerges from her Bhutanese adventures with a new confidence and calm. By the end of this moving account, we recognize that Napoli and Bhutan are both at a crossroads, and hope that both find fulfillment on their now-interlinked paths.

New Book Roundups:

Island Tales

Nathacha Appanah’s moving novel The Last Brother is set in Mauritius during World War II as two boys—an Indian immigrant and a Jewish exile from Europe—become unlikely friends in their struggle to survive. Devil-Devil, by Graeme Kent, follows Sgt. Ben Kella, who is also an aofi a, or tribal spiritual peacekeeper, as he investigates a strange series of murders in 1960 in the Solomon Islands.

Into Cold Climes

The Magnetic North is Sara Wheeler’s riveting account of traveling—with kids in tow—through the landscapes and communities of the Arctic. Along the way she herds reindeer, rides a Russian icebreaker, and shares a bathroom with a seal, among other adventures. In the noirish novel Snowdrops, author A.D. Miller paints a portrait of a hedonistic, surreally corrupt Moscow in the early 2000s. We, the Drowned, by Danish author Carsten Jensen, is the epic story of the Danish port town of Marstal, following one family of seafarers from the mid-19th century to the end of the Second World War, and from rocky Newfoundland to frozen northern Russia.

Journeys Into the Past

Two novels arrive this month for lovers of historical fiction. In The Matchmaker of Kenmare, by Frank Delaney, during World War II two ordinary citizens from the neutral country of Ireland are drawn by an American military intelligence officer into a covert mission that takes them to war-rattled London; Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud tells the story of how that now well-known wax sculptor was taken in by the Versailles court of Queen Marie Antoinette and later survived the French Revolution.

If You Liked…

Palestinian Walks, my Book of the Month pick in June 2008, check out author Raja Shehadeh’s newest book, A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle. Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer who lives in Ramallah, attempts to trace the tracks of a great uncle who had to go into hiding after speaking out against Palestine’s then Ottoman rulers. His memoir is rich with Palestinian history and landscape.

One Last Thing:

Epistles of an Enigma

Two decades after his death, Bruce Chatwin remains an enigmatic paradigm of literary wanderlust. His first book, In Patagonia, a kind of cubist recreation of his encounters in that region, profoundly influenced my own sense of the possibilities of travel writing. The Songlines is included on many lists of the best travel books. In the new book Under the Sun, his wife, Elizabeth Chatwin, and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, have collected letters that span Chatwin’s lifetime, from his eighth birthday until his death at the age of 48. Reading these missives from around the globe—Sudan, Afghanistan, Edinburgh, Tierra del Fuego, London, Nepal, Alice Springs, New York, and much more—is like eavesdropping on a brilliant, passionate, unpredictable, peripatetic friend. It’s a mesmerizing mosaic that reflects Chatwin’s world in unguarded shards.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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