Thursday, May 17, 2012

Francoise Pommaret's "Bhutan": Book Review

This new edition features what has made this Odyssey guide so popular; it's the first written on this Himalayan kingdom (originally in 1990). Translated by Elisabeth Booz and Howard Solversen from the French, it carries in its tone a slightly old-fashioned feel which enhances the eye the Tibetologist and resident Francoise Pommaret brings to her adopted home. Her photographs, along with those credited to Yoshiro Imaeda and Lionel Fournier, enhance the value of this as a cultural guide, interspersing tidbits from past explorers and short topical essays on culture, religion, language, medicine, and other nuances.

The main text gives a general overview (compared to Lonely Planet's details as in what medicines to take--a few words here vs. lots of specifics there), the lay of the land, religion and the concomitant frequent festivals, and history. Then, the center portion starts where the visitor will arrive, the Paro Valley and Thimphu, and takes one around there and then to central valleys and eastern realms. A short trekking section follows, and glossaries conclude this compact (if a half-inch or so thicker than Lonely Planet) introduction. Here, with some verve (also best found in her section on landing near Paro and then visiting the streets of the capital), Dr. Pommaret's text comes alive. The author states it's "less a catalogue of addresses" than an introduction to the culture, to be fair to any reader contemplating its purchase. Still, I wish it had more than one map for a place the size of Switzerland. All the same, the illustrations and elaborations of customs and backgrounds provide their own value. Lots of temples to see, crafts to buy, and hills to climb: that's the gist of the contents.

Like the "Blue Guides" for other countries, which nod more to cultural landmarks and historical context rather than the phones and websites and opening and closing hours of where to eat and where to shop, this Odyssey guide features a companion akin to a travel guide in person. One who's able to point out the significance of the sights, and to alert one's eye to what might not be seen or missed or misinterpreted otherwise. One advantage it possesses over Lonely Planet is more photographs; one disadvantage is the less-user friendly organization, as it's more a narrative than a rapidly accessible itinerary arranged by days, charts, icons to be taken in at a glance. Similar information is here, but it's nestled deeper.

I am (to date, alas, and with fees jumping from U.S. $200 to $250 per diem in 2012) an armchair traveller, but I found this a helpful companion after reviewing recently Barbara Crossette's 1995 account centered in Bhutan on the vanishing Buddhist kingdoms surrounding it, "So Close to Heaven." She speaks at length of the dogs barking, and I note ear plugs are recommended. I am not sure given altitude and winding roads how rapidly visitors acclimate to the terrain, but it seems enough must, as visitors increase along with the guide fees seeking wisely to limit access and protect cultural change. Still, as Lisa Napoli's "Radio Shangri-La" notes (see my review 3/2011), change must come, even to this remote destination.

Therefore, books such as Dr. Pommaret's are necessary to show visitors, at a distance in fantasy or up close in reality, the nature of the place so far away, and protected from intrusion for so long. She's a sympathetic observer of its qualities, and although her very presence and this guide represent the inevitability of change, it's best to have such shifts controlled by those who can mediate between the influx of visitors and the wishes of the Bhutanese to handle change. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

1 comment:

jordan said...

Hello Fionnchu,
My name is Jordan, and I'm with TLC Book Tours. We coordinate online blog tours for authors and publishers. I'm working with TLC Book Tours on a tour that I think would be a good fit for Blogtrotter. The tour I'm currently working on is the book "The American Bible: How our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation" by Stephen Prothero. In this book, Prothero examines documents, songs, speeches and literature that "continue to inspire discussion and provoke impassioned debate among Americans, puts them back into their original context, and unearths the longstanding American tradition of civil debate which has been lacking in recent political discourse." (Press Release) I saw that you reviewed "Religious Literacy" last year, and thought you might be interested in Prothero's most recent book.
If you were interested, we'd have the book sent out to you in exchange for your posting your thoughts on the book on a mutually agreed-upon date in mid-to-late June. We don't require positive reviews, just honest ones. 
I'd love to have you on this tour if you're interested! I look forward to hearing from you!