Radio Shangri-La:
What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

by Lisa Napoli

Crown Publishers, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-45302-0.
Reviewed by Juliet Porton
Posted on 02/26/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

Before reading Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli, I knew exactly two facts about the country of Bhutan: it is ruled by a king who believes in measuring the nation's "Gross National Happiness" and, on a related note, is nicknamed "the happiest kingdom on earth." Napoli herself didn't know much more than that when, as a radio journalist dissatisfied with her career and stuck in a midlife holding pattern, she was invited to spend six weeks there mentoring the young employees of the country's first, fledgling radio station, Kuzoo FM.

When she arrived in 2007, Bhutan was in the middle of unprecedented changes. In the remote Asian country, nestled deep in the Himalayas, the first parliamentary elections were soon to be held, and television and radio had just recently arrived on the scene. Outsiders had been welcome only since the 1970s, and even now their numbers were strictly limited. Truly, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see everyday life in a place few people had even heard of.

Napoli describes how, by journeying to Bhutan, she could feel the story of her life being rewritten.

"No longer was I some burnt-out career journalist with no idea how to escape the grind. No longer would I see myself as a failure as a woman, either, for not having had a successful long-term romantic partnership that yielded a happy home filled with children. This long-crafted definition of myself, of a nice gal who made a mess of my life, started to melt away."

Napoli is a journalist by trade, and that is reflected in her writing. This isn't a book filled with beautifully-written landscape descriptions, there are no pictures of snowcapped mountains, and the personal revelations that come from the trip sometimes feel too neatly drawn. The book's real strength lays in Napoli's ability to create a vivid image of a time and place, and to share lots of history and details without boring the reader. You will feel like you've gotten to know each member of the Kuzoo FM staff personally, will picture the traditional Bhutanese homes, and will fear the spicy national dish, known as emadatse, that the author learns to politely decline.

Napoli reminded me that sometimes stepping away from your comfort zone is exactly what you need to make sense of your life. She writes that Buddhists believe that everything you need is right here, within you. "And yet, occasionally a shakeup in location, or in the company you keep can touch you in just the right way, awaken something inside you. At precisely the moment you need it."

Whether you are looking to kick-start your own adventure or just love to explore different cultures, Radio Shangri-La will take you somewhere you've probably never been before.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Lisa Napoli is a native of Brooklyn, New York, and graduate of Hampshire College in Massachusetts. She has worked for some of the biggest names in journalism: CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and NPR. Her first book, Radio Shangri-La, tells the story of her time spent helping to launch a radio station in Bhutan. Napoli now lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website.

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