Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: Radio Shangri-La

Sometimes a book just speaks to you. For me, Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth did just that.

Of course, Napoli is a news producer, and she recognizes a good story when she sees one. And her story of helping out a tiny start-up radio station with a quirky cast of characters in the most remote capital city on the planet is a really good one. But what moves this book from really good to great is Napoli’s willingness to share her own fears and confront her own assumptions about culture and authenticity.

Napoli faces down her struggles and successes with equal clarity and frankness – even optimism:

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 had made a mess of her life, started to melt away. Replacing it now was new vision of me: one part proud Ambassador of the United States, one part curious anthropologist, 100 percent human. pg. 31

Not that Napoli sugarcoats her times in Bhutan. Like the news professional she is she reports – and then contextualizes. For example, a Bhutanese monk, realizing she was a foreigner with means, suggested Napoli needed a puja, a series of ceremonial prayers by monks, to remove the obstacles in her life. The price he quoted was exorbitant – more than a month’s salary. But rather than focusing on how the monk tried to rip her off, she focused instead on how she and her co-workers, Pink and Ngawang, crossed their cultural divide to diffuse the situation gracefully:

“You can think about it,” said Pink sweetly.

“Well, I don’t really have to think about it. That’s quite expensive.”

Rinpoche chattered a response in Dzongkha [the national language of Tibet]. Ngawang relayed, “He says if you pay a hundred dollars, that will be okay.” Her smile told me she was on to the extortionate monk.

For a split second, I worried this Rinpoche might pray to the wrong deities if I refused. Make my obstacles more intense. Then I remembered that I didn’t believe in spells.
pg. 85

There are funny and sad and frustrating moments in this book, as well as a wealth of information.* I teach a class in International Strategic Communication, and one of the things I talk to my students about is the importance of stepping outside of your own cultural framework. Napoli’s book illustrates all the difficulties of doing just that – and also all of the possibilities once you’ve done it. I’ll be assigning this book the next time I teach this class. And I can’t wait to read it again!

Here's another one for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, so thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting that. It's definitely been my most successful challenge of the year. It also counts for the South Asian Reading Challenge. That one is finally coming along as well! Thanks to Swapna at S. Krishna Books for hosting.

*Who knew that UTEP's campus is inspired by Bhutanese architecture? Certainly not me!


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book, Col. I do like good non-fiction too.

    It's great that you will be able to use the book for your class. For the students, it will be more interesting than a standard text book too.

  2. This sounds really good~I love stories like this one. I'll have to give this one a try.

  3. I enjoyed this book too. My book club had the privilege of Skyping with the author and she's a gem!

  4. @Leeswammes -- I really think the students will enjoy it. In fact, I may give them a couple of books to choose from for that section of the course. If you have any other cross-cultural, non-fiction ideas, I'd love to look at them!

    @Buckeye Girl -- It really was a pleasure to read.

    @Kathy -- Lucky! I held off reading your review until I had finished mine. Now I have a few to catch up on. I'm glad you liked it!

  5. I really liked this book. I felt like I learned about Bhutan (of which I knew nothing), read a good story, and enjoyed myself!

  6. I put this on my wish list a while back. It sounds like a great read.

  7. Oh, that does sound like fun, Colleen. Now if I could just find another half-hour in each day (see, I'm not even being greedy!).

  8. @Helen -- Same for me -- the only thing I'd ever seen about Bhutan was a movie called World Cup (also highly recommended).

    @Diane -- I think you'd really love it.

    @Karen -- I know. I've left so much challenge reading for the summer, that now I feel like I'll never have enough time. But if you do have time, you'll love it!

  9. This author came to a local bookstore, and I meant to go see her, but I was exhausted after work and forgot! I'm still kicking myself! I've read so many favorable reviews. I'll have to get to this one soon.


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col