Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ag déanamh rudaí atá triall

Bhí oibrí ag feacháint mise inné. Thug mé an bruscar leis an gcolbha. Duirt sé liom: "Ach, tá tú ag déanamh rudaí atá triall!"

Bheul, go fírinne, tá mórán rudaí ag imeall ár dteach anois. Tá Léna gá láidir faoi lathair chun feabhras a chur an seomra leapa. Mar sin, bíonn fir oíbre go léir an tseachtaine seo fada ansin.

Ina theanta sin, d'fhag Léna agus mé go Naomh Crios go hionduil nuair ba mhaith linn a fháil amach. Tá muid ar fanacht ag treasna ár chairde Crois agus Bob in aice leis a dteach faoi na crannaí ruadh. Is bréa linn é anseo, gan amhras.

Bhreatnaigh muid na Oscars a chéile. Chonaic muid an scannan "Amour" freisin. Ith muid ina bialann Iodáilis roimh.
Thóg mé beirt úrscéal fós. Ar dtús, tá mé ag tosú "Scamall Atlais" le Daithi Misteal. Béidh mé "Skippy Bás" amach romhainn le Pól Ó Muiri. Nach bhfuil an scríbhneoir as Gaeilge, mar sin féin!

Ach, caith mé a nascadh leis an Ghreasáin nuair bhí muid ina coillte. Bhí obair go leor ann, cuma cen áit a bhfuil mé. Críochnaidh téarma scoile agus tósaigh téarma eile anois.

Ní raibh mé ag súil le dul suas go gCalifoirnea Thuas chomh luath. Caithim ag oibre is mó ag múineadh le deánaí, léir mar i gceanna. Ar ndóigh, faighim siocháin agus ciúin gach lá a thagann mé anseo.

Doing earthly things

A workman was looking at me yesterday. I took out the trash to the curb. He said to me: "Ah, you're doing earthly things!"

Well, truly, there's a lot of things around our house now. Layne has a strong need presently to improve the bedroom. Therefore, there's workmen all this long week there.

Furthermore, Layne and I left for Santa Cruz as usual when we want to get away. We're staying across from our friends Chris and Bob near their house under the redwoods. We love it here, without a doubt.

We viewed the Oscars together. We saw the film "Amour" too. We ate at an Italian restaurant after.

I brought a pair of novels, still. To start with, I am beginning "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. I will follow next with "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray. It's not the writer in Irish, nevertheless [=Pól Ó Muirí].

But, I must connect to the Web when I was in the forest. There's a lot of work no matter where I am. One school term's ending and another's starting.

I had no expectation to go up to Northern California so soon. I must be working a lot teaching lately, all the same. Of course, I find peace and quiet every time I come here. Grianghraf/ Photo

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stephen Bodian's "Meditation for Dummies": Book Review

I approached this with admitted skepticism. However, as I liked "Buddhism for Dummies" despite its title, with Stephan Bodian as one of its co-authors (see my Aug. 2011 review of that 2nd ed.), I figured I'd give this 3rd ed. of "Meditation for Dummies" a try. I'm not sure what has been updated in this newest version, but it follows the same pattern as "BfD."

That is, chapters on Getting Acquainted and Getting Started introduce the topic. First, the scientific-stress reduction connection, and then how-to examples. This precedes a nod to a Zen context (Bodian began in that tradition before expanding into yoga), before impacts attributed to health and the brain receive coverage. Finally, exercises are given for love and compassion generation. A CD offers ten guided instructions to "the most powerful and effective" types of experiential meditations. I tend to be cautious about such claims, and about transcendent assertions. Yet, this is Bodian's orientation. All the same, eating an orange can also lead as a sidebar shows here to greater awareness, for those of us less transported!

Apropos, attitude adjustment, dealing with anxiety and tension, mindfulness, posture, routines, time, self-discipline certainly make up the heart (as in love and compassion, too) of the message. Chapters for each center the bulk of the core material as part 2. Part 3 looks at troubleshooting. That is, unraveling "habitual patterns," dealing with anger and sadness and grief, therapy, and roadblocks such as boredom, doubt, attachment, "hypervigilance," and excuses. Side effects, often claimed by those in the uplifting stages into bliss, gain brief coverage: wisely, Bodian reminds readers "Side effects are just that." Treatment of motivations, and solitary as well as group retreats and workshops, end this part.

Part 4 puts meditation into action. It takes the Hindu "yoga" path of devotion and the Vipassana one of Buddhist insight, and other devotional practices. It looks also at finding a teacher. Happiness is next considered, and this elaborated treatment nods to the Buddhist understanding as opposed to popular conceptions--taking the cultivation of compassionate action. For more on this, Bodian's companion volume on Buddhism is recommended by me.

Families, children, partners: they can be included, and love and work too. Part 4 wraps it up in the Dummies format with "The Part of Tens," reducing the material to ten FAQs and then ten all-purpose meditations. These aren't the same, by the way, as the ten selections on the audio CD--see its own Table of Contents. So are some books, websites, and centers listed. I was curious if many Jewish or Christian resources or approaches would be given, but even if a few are listed in the appendices, this book leans East and New Age. That is a minor drawback for those wanting a more comprehensive compendium drawing on Western schools. For readers open to eclecticism, therapeutic and a more syncretic, psychologically favorable, generally Hindu-Buddhist-insight perspective, perhaps unsurprisingly, constitutes the gist of this self-improvement guide.  (Amazon US 10/2/12)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Richard Hathaway's "Zen Explained"

In 128 Kindle pages, this aligns with its aim: demystification and clarity, rational presentation of what's often occluded. Richard Hathaway favors a scientifically and psychologically enriched introduction that rewards today's Westerner seeking a no-nonsense approach. He takes the novel cognate "eu zên" in Aristotle's "living well" virtue ethics and shows how it compares (harmony, satisfaction, idealization) and contrasts (impermanent, elusive, unstable) with the Zen meaning.

Early on, he investigates the "checksum" parallel of two-signal computing, and decision making based on neural chemistry that is pre-cognitive or before volition, despite our tendency for our brain to shout over our impulses. Thoughts themselves are shown to be all we are: "if there are thoughts and we are aware of these thoughts, then what we are is that which is aware of thoughts, You and I; we are consciousness." Read this section and this will make more "sense" than my concision may present this intricate but accessibly conveyed food for thought.

As to our "apparently hard-wired propensity that people have to infer that entities with plans and intentions cause the things they observe around them," I needed more. Hathaway cites Stephen Pinker about this supposition that we create a "theory of mind" to attribute causality to someone (often a God to punish us), but this section was under-explained. He appropriately turns to Daniel Dennett regarding the ego as narrator, a character in our own work of fiction--we write not our autobiographies but our biographies, Hathaway avers. Our self-identity rests on our imagination.

Of improvement, no rational system can totally please the one looking for answers. Looking within ("know thyself" and the examined life) for answers may fool us. "We have made of ourselves the author, and the author knows if the story is over he or she is finished, out of a job. There must always be a new chapter to write." That impels us to strive for goals, progress, or achievement. What Zen counters: an end to such ideals. Instead, an acceptance of one's mortality, and the freedom from grasping to what will vanish or decay. "Unhappiness stems from not accepting life as it is and instead clinging on to an image of what we want it to be." Rather, Zen offers enlightenment from within, not from without "to walk a path of quite [sic] joy, of serenity and inner peace that is always underfoot, and, as walked in the present now, lasts and does not fade in the murk of the remembered past or anticipated future." This passage demonstrates the calm with which Hathaway conveys himself.

Despite this very Buddha-dharma perspective, the treatment's light on the message attributed to the Buddha. He keeps the Asian vocabulary to a minimum. Hathaway stresses rather Taoist influence in its depths as the teaching passed through China. He elides this (saying it can be looked up elsewhere), but emphasizes that "wu wei" or "do nothing/ going with the flow" fits better with the Dao's spirit than with its superficial gloss of dharma. Whatever its derivation, it's not a system but an attitude: Zen lets us let go of our own burden, as if waking from a nightmare to find we're safe in our own bed. Wu wei encourages us to act without will or intention, to kill the ego and to stop needless striving.

Yet, we cannot seek our own release. It's a Catch-22: we cannot aim for the target we want to hit. While his chapter "Not Catholicism" disappointed by its facile caricature of that faith as teaching that one can do whatever harm one wishes as long as confession absolves the sinner, and then it's back to dirty deeds, Hathaway tries to teach, if via that poorly chosen example, how Zen demands commitment without time off during the week: it's not as if one does one's duty once on Sunday.

Reading on, I understood slightly more why Hathaway may have stereotyped Catholicism: his passion, after a "kensho"-like experience that hit him one day in Portsmouth, England, changed him from a rational skeptic--apparently non-religious and very fact-oriented--to an advocate for Zen. That term's stripped here, notably, of "Buddhism" as common qualifier or accompaniment. "In Taoism, just as God is an invention we made up between ourselves to explain nature, so the SELF [he capitalizes this as EGO to show its dominance] is an illusion we have spun into existence to explain our inner nature to ourselves. Enlightenment is realising this is so."

While I would have liked more on Taoism's influence on a more purely anarchic (in the positive sense), liberating Zen, Hathaway reminds the reader to stop reading about it. "Don't believe in Zen. Don't intellectualise and rationalise it. That is anti-Zen. Experience Zen yourself, directly. Practise zazen. Be mindful. Just that. Only that." He goes on to observe how religions are "ex vivo" (out of the living") in that they affirm an afterlife or reincarnation; Zen remains "in vivo," tethered to the here and now, yet not bound by it within the ever-present, eternal moment. Out of its creative anarchy, its creative principle moves everything.

Tricky, as this expands into a challenging take on Zen's analogous affinity with quantum physics and our own creation of our own perceived universe. He lost me a bit with this partial koan: "the universe would exist only as a probability wave if there were not living beings around to make it real." I anticipated this might lead to Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, and a few pages later, there it was. Later, Hathaway ties such a derivation to a link from ancient Greek for moral dimensions of Zen. This material proved rewarding, if for a small book too compressed at times to take in; with about a dozen typos, sometimes the casual style mixing with lofty concepts needed clarification and editing.

He concludes by encouraging us to take on Zen with the practical, experienced integration of it not as merely "dianoia" or book-learning, but "noesis." As a lived knowledge become understanding that goes beyond words, he promises that if we sit and we then practice mindfulness not as an activity but as within our spirit, the transformation will be telling, if beyond verbal expression: "Very soon all your questions will be answered." (Amazon US 1-23-13. I was provided a copy by the author; I found this a stimulating and provocative book worth reading.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Dalai Lama's "Buddha Heart, Buddha Mind": Book Review

What does this book offer any reader drawn in by its credited author? With many titles attributed to or about the Dalai Lama, it can challenge or dissuade the inquirer. Given a brief note of receipt and a blurb comprise the two reviews preceding, I will preview its contents a bit more.

These are talks from over four days in 1997 at a monastery in France. They're translated into/ through French and then English. This may partially account for the difficulty I encountered as I made my way into what for only its first ten pages appeared accessible. I've read a few books on Buddhism, and a few by the Dalai Lama (or those credited to him--as he works with a team of translators I admit by the time his words get filtered into English I am not sure how much they've been worked on, similar to an renowned artist and his atelier). But, this one felt tougher.

While the subtitle promises treatises about the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths, these are embedded in a formidable core of philosophical allusions to major schools of Buddhist thought, and these are assumed to be familiar to the audience. So are the many asides to particular and venerable proof-texts scattered on nearly every page. The Self and Karma, suffering, the Buddha's bodies (here it gets tougher to follow), refutation of the Self, omniscience, and practice make up the main chapters.

As the Amazon summation notes, a bit of humor is welcome. The Dalai Lama in self-effacing crowd-pleasing lines nods, for instance, to his own growing navel, and how it might block the ideal of a drop falling from nose tip to lap top while in the recommended lotus position. The book, in fact, veers all over: it can delve into the most recondite references as if common knowledge to the hearer, and then advise basic meditation postures. I admit the whole presentation baffled me, and it was difficult to persevere, but I did. Further, some may remain confused by the non-annotated sentence closing the penultimate talk: "May I ask the adepts of Shoukden not to join us." (133)

I am still not sure how the "clear light" enduring defies the impermanence in the chain of "interdependent production" (aka "dependent origination" in other books by other writers). He defines a buddha: "When momentary constructions are all extinguished, or spoiled, in the dimension of the clear light, and when they no longer spring back up from it, then to remain constantly in the unique innate original clear light to be called a buddha." (46) You may sense the translation's tone. "In a sense, the clear light is not a creator, but only in a sense; Buddhism accepts self-creation, or 'production from a point of departure in oneself.' So we must envision this mode of creation in respect to the clear light. However, my clear light has uniquely created my lives, and never the lives of others." (92) The Dalai Lama continues, but this puzzled me.

More elaboration was likewise not present on how reincarnation jibes with this fundamental teaching as neatly as the Dalai Lama suggests pithily in one of the Q+A sessions appended to each chapter, but the mystery of all this kept me going. It ends well, one page admonishing those of us who have no religion to watch ourselves closely, and for all to abstain from violence and to advance compassion. Happiness of mind and self-discipline endure as touchstones for the audience and author. Yet, this is no inspirational compendium for the casual reader. It's as if I expected a Catholic child's catechism, to find a dense treatise by Thomas Aquinas.  (Amazon US 1-26-13)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ken Haigh's "Under the Holy Lake": Book Review

While another Canadian teacher of English in the late 80s in this Himalayan kingdom's eastern remote reaches has gained nearly a hundred reviews on Amazon US for her well-written narrative, "Beyond the Sky and the Earth," appearing in 1999, this Ontario native, who parallels in his decision to leave grad school and no job prospects for a (nearly parallel in time) immersion instructing youth in grammatical niceties should be equally known. I liked Jamie Zeppa's account (see my own review in May 2012). But I did not know of Ken Haigh's 2008 story until I looked for more well-crafted, no-nonsense encounters in print from this often-romanticized realm.

After Easter Sunday Mass in Khaling (despite the Buddhist state religion, teachers often come from India and Catholic regions), Haigh looks back over the scene. "There were bright green highlights on the pasture, almost yellow, and deeper green in the pastures of the ravines. A lone white cow ambled down the hillside and onto the road where it was struck by a passing truck." (70)

What Haigh shares with Zeppa is a determination to avoid the soft-focus, combined with an acknowledgement of the love-hate feelings that may come once the initial confusion or infatuation wears off and the reality of separation from Canadian comfort sinks in. He relates his training, his hesitation, and his acceptance. He inserts a few excerpts from his diary to share his frustrations during the first summer's monsoons. Then, he adjusts with winter's better weather. He braves the bus to the capital, Thimphu, and he begins to get the hang of local habits.

Curricula debates, rodents, fatalism, preparing students as critical thinkers despite the rote parroting expected for the antiquated exams occupy his time. He even gets elected chairman of the Community Development Association, despite himself. The titular lake, diplomatic dinners, always more bureaucracy, the "tsechu" festival, a haunting glimpse of a blue-eyed stranger in a forlorn canteen: these typify the range of his chapters. He heads down to the Indian border, and up for his second Christmas among the Brokpa herders in truly remote Sakteng.

Unlike his counterpart's initial teaching situation, he's not in a hamlet accessible only by a day's journey from the "ghally lam," the east-west lateral paved highway. He's at the high school on the main road, not far from where Zeppa will later teach at the nation's first junior college--whose original site is now Haigh's assigned post. Still, at least in 1988, this is not a frequently visited spot, and taking into account the changes that such a road accelerates since Haigh's two-year stint, you get a sense of vast differences amid the relative (dogs aside) silence.

He writes straightforwardly, free of affectation. Simple black-and-white photos convey the sense of the places and faces. A small map suffices but it's not detailed; a glossary, reading list, and a few footnotes document his search for a rebel king's holdout near Khaling, for instance. He covers the essentials of the area's politics and history quickly in the "Accidental Area" chapter, and he keeps a keen eye out for the culture shock that's inevitable for any long-term foreigner. He realizes the temptations to play up the eccentricities and oddities, but he balances this with a frank representation of the interwoven familial and class connections that entangle the Bhutanese in a system that Haigh shows us in as honest and direct a fashion as he can, given his reliance on the English-language medium chosen by the monarchy to teach its citizens, across a land easy to praise but more difficult to analyze from a Westerner's perspective. (Amazon US 12-31-12)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Murray Gunn's "Dragon Bones": Book Review

This Australian IT engineer accompanies his new French wife to Bhutan for an extended consultancy, where she's hired to advise its dairy industry's agronomists. Like his compatriot Launsell Taudavin's "With a Dzong in My Heart" memoir set in 1988, Murray Gunn finds that advising the locals about Western methods clashes with rank-pulling bureaucrats, a more lackadaisical work ethic than he expected, and a series of culture clashes mixed with wonder at the kingdom's beauty, Buddhist traditions, and elevated atmosphere. He unfolds his own adjustments gradually, as do the Australian team of Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesfeld in their 2010 photographs and narrative "Bhutan Heartland"--conducted around the same time the past decade as Gunn's residence with Dominique.

She only arrives two weeks before him, but adjusts rapidly. Her shepherding of Murray allows us a way to learn the customs, cuisine, and etiquette. The expatriate community in the capital, Thimphu, shows the strain of that city's emergence. It's more than doubled the past decade; now the grand "tsechu" festival cannot accommodate in its vast dzong (fortress-monastery) the crowds who flock to watch the dances. Similarly, housing prices geared at foreign workers threaten to skew the market against Bhutanese, while crime (endured by Taudavin in an earlier stay), laziness, pollution, corruption, and tensions appear to increase.

This isn't the New Age Shangri-La marketed by the country by or for Westerners. Gunn does reveal the glorious vistas (he drives its harrowing roads, where more trucks and more drivers do not bode well for safety) and the calculated, carefully expressed charm of his often coy hosts. Yet, to be fair, he nods more to the modernizing pressures and his sympathies for "Southern Bhutanese" as he attempts to get behind the whispers and allusions. This lacks most of the cultural and historical context of other narratives, and he appears to gloss over the fragility of Bhutan's geopolitical predicament.

He does rush past in too few paragraphs what John Wehrheim's Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness (2011 rev. ed) details, as well as "Bhutan Heartland" in a vignette: the manner in which the Bhutanese had to advance to eliminate the Indian rebels, to ease the steady push from the largely Hindu Nepalese to move north into a small, undefended frontier region with limited resources, the last surviving kingdom under Vayrajana Buddhist rule--given the fate of Sikkim nearby to the same demographics and politicking that Bhutanese fear will overwhelm them. Not to mention the cultural turmoil that has happened across Nepal, Ladakh, and Mustang.

He's an experienced ex-pat himself; his own internal threat comes when his knee injury limits his trekking. Dominique, who works out with taikwondo, appears miffed by her husband's capitulation to his body. Ironically, Gunn himself can be snarky, (103) as when he puts down tourists (obviously less buff than he or his wife) who struggle up the easy Paro day-trail. Altitudes can fell even the most fit climbers, by the way. His own ten-day trek, the initial part of the Snowman Trek recounted in
Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World by Kevin Grange, Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek by Mark Horrell, and in partial form as Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson, shows how both he and his wife face their own physical limits, although the irony or inevitability of their own frustrations appears to escape them and their robust comrades at the time. Yet, unique to what I've read in other versions, he listens to his guide: "This is our life. We have to come up here no matter what the weather's like and we do the same trails over and over until our feet are sore. And we can never go anywhere else. There's no holiday for us." (134)

But sometimes Gunn's honesty makes him appear insensitive. Not all are as in shape as he and his wife. He bristles that those who can afford to visit are out of shape while most would-be younger visitors could tackle the treks, but the high tariff exacted (which he does not have to pay) limits intentionally tourism, to raise taxes and keep the specter of another Kathmandu distant.

Two years is longer than any tourist or trekker can arrange. Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa offers the standard account of a longer posting, but as that's from nearly two decades earlier when modernization appeared more an aspiration than a condition, Gunn's account's valuable. It's similar in its urbanizing situation to Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on My Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli, from a time in the mid-2000's. Unlike Napoli's thematic chapters, however, Gunn prefers a jump-cut, edgier pace. It resembles a documentary or "reality t.v." edited version of his experience: he slips in cultural information or relevant contexts quickly before leaping off to another topic, whose connection may remain subtle. 

This style may challenge some readers. Gunn chooses a more novelistic approach, although he prefers a straightforward explanation of what goes on. One of the few metaphors he uses compares his tall self in hiking boots beneath the Bhutanese male dress, the "gho," to a Christmas tree in a pair of buckets. He tells of his growing discomfort with the built-in resistance to work by Western standards among Bhutanese who expect to start up call centers and infrastructures comparable to India, and he laments how the evasive, blame-karma-and-others mentality stunts change. However, an encounter late in his stay at a roundabout serves as a surprising if apt analogy for his own lesson.

He relates his two years in the standard style of many immersed abroad: the initial plunge and the adjustment take up much of the narrative, and the second year comes near the end of his book. His difficulties with Dominique come across in suitably muted but honest exchanges which must have been not easy to reconstruct, and while characterizations and scenery may remain less vivid than in accounts told by others who have visited Bhutan, Gunn strives for a more episodic, fragmented representation of what "two years beneath the skin of a Himalayan kingdom" reveals, beneath the colors and facades. (Amazon US 12-12-12)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Rompu coitanta

Tá mé ag shíleadh faoi dhaoine cruitheachtaí éagsúlaí le deanaí. D'fhoghlaim mé faoi bhlag nua, suíomh gréasáin eile, agus smaointe úr. Mar sin, beidh mé libhsa ag insint an triur seo anois.

Ar dtús, thosaigh an scriobhneoir agus muinteoir (agus mo meantóir) Dónal Nussbaum [Crann cnó as Gaeilge!] leis a bhlag nua. Rinne sé Roinnt Smaointe Dharma. Treoracha sé slí a macnaimh; mar sin féin, múineann sé ar bhealach fuascailliú.

I 2001, bhí agallamh an scríobhneoir eile, Antoine Bállie, leis Seán Ó Múircheartaigh. Nuair bhí mé ag lorg eolas faoi Moriarty agus miotas na hÉireann anuas agus faoi láthair, fuair mé sin. Sibh ábalta léamh aisteannaí go leor ar bhlag le Antoine, Ecopunks; tá sé og obair tionscadal ó.

Ag labhairt na saoirse agus faoin tuatha, leamh Aisling Ní Néill ar mo bhlag agus sin le Antoine faoi Ó Muircheartaigh féin. Peinteanna sí in iarthar na hÉireann. Féic anseo chun níos mó a fhéicéail.

Roinnt na ceithre a mhian ar lorg lasmuigh de theoreannachaí gnáth. Tá siad i gcónaí trí in Éireann agus ach céann in aice leis mise ina gCathair na hÁingeal. Mar sin féin, aontaiónn muid a léir leis leas i rompu coitanta.

A common quest

I've been mulling over various creative people lately. I learned about a new blog, another website, and new ideas. Therefore, I will be telling you about this trio now.

To start, the writer and teacher (and my mentor) Dan Nussbaum ['nut-tree' rendered above in Irish!] began a new blog. He created Some Dharma Thoughts. He guides a way to meditate; all the same, he teaches by a liberating path.

In 2001, Tony Bailie interviewed another writer, John Moriarty. When I was searching about Moriarty and Irish myth past and present, I found that. You're able to read many more entries on Tony's blog Ecopunks; he's working on many projects since. 

Speaking of freedom and the countryside, Ashley O'Neal read on my blog and that of Tony about Moriarty himself. She paints in the Irish West. Look here to see more.

The four desire to search outside the usual limits. Three live[d] in Ireland, and but one near myself in Los Angeles. All the same, we all agree as to an interest in a common quest.

Grianghraf: Bhean ar an droichead [Shráid Ui Chonaill i mBaile átha Cliath], 27 Marta/ The Lady on the Bridge [O'Connell St in Dublin], 27 March 1956)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Desmond Berry's "Cressida's Bed": Book Review

Based on a 1931 British expedition to award a knighthood to the King of Bhutan, this 2004 novel continues this Welsh writer's exploration of the impact of violence, power, and corruption upon cynical leaders and eager followers seeking meaning within or despite relentless machinations of empire and greed. This is an area that Barry has already shown he knows well. He delved into the impacts of a similar story of Jesse James and Robert Ford in his 2000 epic "The Chivalry of Crime". 

Here, a character taken from a real-life doctor, half-Irish expat Christina Devenish, begins dramatically. In her early thirties, a free-love advocate, a Theosophist who finds no contradiction with the practice of medicine, she possesses her spirituality and her sexuality confidently. She and her Indian comrade find themselves barricaded and then set on fire as their birth control clinic in Calcutta is attacked by mobs seeing their feminist cause as an insult to Muslims and Hindus alike. Christina, recuperating, decides to answer her father's appeal to see him in Bhutan, where he advises the revered religious figure of the Shabdrung, who's caught up in the Great Game between China, Russia, and Britain for control of Tibet and the larger Himalayan region. Opposed by what Barry calls the "Maharaja," the King resents competition and Britain sides with him against what the Shabdrung has entered as a Chinese and Gandhi-allied counterforce to Raj-friendly geopolitics. 

While Barry's depiction of Bhutan lacks the sensual and visual evocations of many other writers who've visited this kingdom, it's refreshing to have a more physically rendered, less New Age enraptured presence within this often romanticized realm. "She set foot on the soil of Bhutan, Alice through the looking glass racked with menstrual cramps, the sweat cooling on her forehead and her back under her sticky frock, and she was desperate to empty her bladder in the shadows of the luxuriant rainforest." (112)  She falls in love with her escort, the Welsh-born Political Officer Owen Davies. He has reconciled his status from a lowly class and a resented principality with his service to the Crown, and he steers Christina's visit to her father--with its own challenge to the Raj--with his own desires, sexually and diplomatically.

These emerge convincingly. Sex happens naturally and in appropriately related if graphic detail, and the drives impelling Owen and Christina entangle with the Bhutanese mission to the competing rulers that the Raj must please, appease, and tease into submission. However, the Bhutanese, who have resisted occupation by any foreign regime, manage their own forces. These fight back via first a mystic medium and then the Shabdrung. Here, Barry faces a difficulty. How to create on the page as vivid a sensation of the spiritual as the temporal and sexual powers contending for Christina and Owen's allegiance? 

Her father interprets the Shabdrung's teachings of the cosmological present, our Iron Age, when the "dregs of time" overwhelm humans, and "devoured the physical body and clarity of mind." (213) These dramatize what the author heard from Vajrayana teachers himself, and Christina filters these through an increasingly tilted sensibility. I liked these scenes, and the novel concludes with a very haunting change in the protagonist that accelerates this shape-shifting that begins in Bhutan. However, the later chapters of this novel, as with his preceding one, prove less gripping. 

The shifts in tone and mood appear more erratic than "The Chivalry of Crime," and the promise of this novel's entry into a place where psychic battles within Christina and Owen erupt as their political and spiritual forces swirl remain half-realized. It's frustrating as the clash of the ethereal with the practical, the exotic and the vicious within historical material suggests such rich possibilities, which Barry keeps at a distance amidst the politicking that overtakes the passions of the two main characters. Furthermore, Bhutan doesn't come as alive as I expected on the page, and the slow pace before the conclusion diminishes the impact of the innovative final scene. Still, given few novelizations set in pre-Independence, guerrilla-threatened India not to mention the usually soft-focus depictions of neighboring Bhutan, it's worthwhile for adventuresome readers. (Amazon US 12-31-12)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Russ + Blyth Carpenter's "The Blessings of Bhutan": Book Review

Previous reviews (Amazon) have been brief if enthusiastic; here's mine with more detail. Russ and Blyth Carpenter offer short "sketches" about eight cultural aspects of this Himalayan kingdom. Coming in 1996 to visit and then do community improvement work there, this 1999 book comes quickly given their recent immersion. However, as with Martin Uitz's similarly pitched Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (reviewed by me Dec. 2012) from a decade later in this rapidly modernizing nation, the Carpenters provide a thoughtful Western p-o-v that avoids romanticizing or ethnocentrism. This rural Oregonian couple diminishes the personal touch and entertaining or dramatic anecdote common to others who report from this realm often seen from afar and close in soft focus. Instead, they accentuate the mindset that Bhutan tries to perpetuate by Gross National Happiness and its nuanced adaptation of global technologies and expectations. They remind readers of wisdom, in balanced, ecological perspectives.

They begin with a geographical and historical overview, then move into archery (in more depth than any other book I've read on Bhutan); Tantric Buddhism (more commonsense and demystifying, refreshingly); art and medicine (same applied to a more agnostic, balanced East-West perspective on traditional Tibetan remedies and the attitudes that they instill); reincarnation's impact on environmental policy (subtle: how does "you only live once" clash with "what goes around, comes around"?); Drukpa Kunley (given the rarity of this source material available in English, welcome excerpts from the "Divine Madman"); sexuality and women (an honest appraisal of the cost-benefit of matriarchal inheritance of the land vs. education and careers for girls); and the GNH policy (with comments from its proponent Karma Ura--see Mary Peck's
Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth photo collection with Ura's essay, reviewed by me Dec. 2012).

Just a couple of highlights of this unpretentious, casually presented but accessible essay collection: comparing and contrasting Dante's "Inferno" with the Buddhist Wheel of Life to show the differences between a linear and cyclical, ends-based and care-based, eternal vs. reincarnated worldview. Distinguishing the left-right brain with the folk Bon practices and the "intellectual polish" of formal Buddhism to show how Bhutanese beliefs integrate these approaches sensibly.

Commonsense is crucial. Ice can break, water can flow; colors in a rainbow or prism show the evanescence of what appears so tangible: this is the teaching transmitted by Khyentse Rinpoche (see reviews Dec. 2012 of the films
Brilliant Moon and Words of My Perfect Teacher for more). The book in earlier sections can feel uneven--probably as it's a joint effort--and tonal shifts and sudden transitions in some portions slow the pace. The Carpenters deepen their appreciation of the circularity of life, as the book progresses. The study of Bhutan's attempts to live in a delicate, harsh, and rugged "Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs" (to use an old Chinese placename) ethically and spiritually, while moving towards more justice and equality, gains traction.

The Carpenters show how in a fir forest in Oregon, lessons learned in Bhutan reverberate, and how stewardship within the ecosystem can challenge those in Bhutan as they try to protect their fragile heartland while accepting--in an overly bureaucratic and civil-servant dominated system--the need for progress, however controlled and gradual. "Sacred paint" can show sexual liberation and psychological understanding; they look at a depiction of "yab-yum" male-female union with fresh eyes and find meanings that work for themselves, not what a prominent if over-indulgent scholar or New Age website might peddle. This honesty speaks well for this unassuming, but well-illustrated (snapshots try to express some of the colors that can overload the senses) and welcome introduction to this too-often idealized, but still appealingly idealistic, realm that few of us will be able to afford to explore outside the pages of such books. (Amazon US 1-11-13)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Martin Uitz' "Hidden Bhutan": Book Review

In a hundred pages, Austrian ex-pat Martin Uitz explores the off-road, off-beat side of Bhutan. Although he works in its Ministry of Finance, one of a hundred foreigners in its booming capital, Thimphu (which as of 2006  had about 70k residents--now it's near 100k), he nods to the bureaucratic morass and civil service's perks only in the opening chapter. Compared to other accounts by those from abroad stationed in Bhutan, such as Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by rural teacher Jamie Zeppa, or With a Dzong in My Heart by Thimphu consultant Lansell Taudevin, Uitz does not reveal much about himself or his family's experiences.

Rather, about the same time as when Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on My Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli takes place, Uitz roams out of the city to explore a countryside even there as close as a few hours walk up mountains to yak herders and a takin reserve. Most of his narrative riffs off of two themes. Episodes on the Snowman Trek (see Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World by Kevin Grange; Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek by Mark Horrell; Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson) comprise a fast-paced chapter. For those not wanting to read a whole book--or the three above--this chapter conveys the gist of this difficult journey well. Uitz loves the "tsachu" ("hot water"--that is, hot springs) which entice the traveler to Gasa and ease the burdens of a summer trek--the exception to the rule as the other accounts take place in the fall.

He also goes on a "Thousand Lake" trek in Dugala, and this is refreshing as an example of an excursion not discussed by others. The challenges on the narrow paths and steep inclines, amid yaks, bears, and leopards, demonstrate the rigors of life for many in Bhutan who don't live in its capital or near the highways, even as these stretch deeper, along with electricity, medical centers, and schools, into the furrowed heartlands of the kingdom. He even runs into a royal entourage, as one of the land's four sister queens, Ashi Sangay Choden, makes her way to visit those in the steep central highlands. 

Another theme is that of the supernatural attractions, as well as the natural wonders. His tale of a "tsechu" holy dance festival at Jambay in Bumthang appeals for its wry look at his fellow Westerners, tourists bent on the long road there and the "dance of the naked monks." This turns out anticlimactic. He gets hit up as a "rich" chilip ("foreigner") at his home by an importuning self-styled "enlightened one" scavenging for grub and cash. He roams around the healers claiming powers, and speculates.

What's intriguing, after I've read Dragon Bones: Two Years Beneath the Skin of a Himalayan Kingdom by Murray Gunn, is an overlapping perspective. The two worked around the same time in the capital, and Gunn's pal Mike beat the author out for the "chilip" part in a locally made film. He dyed his hair blond but left his beard black, as the director directed. Uitz notes he suspected "the young man walked into the role by chance"--which is, according to Gunn's version, the truth. Uitz also enjoyed the uneven, if more ambitious, film exhibited abroad, Travellers and Magicians, although it's not the "three-hour epic" but half that length, at least in the version I reviewed. Again, overlaps occur, as its star, Tsewang, is the ex-husband of Jamie Zeppa.

Other connections extend. The hydroelectricification of the nation, to supply India with power and Bhutan with funds, was engineered with the advice of such as John Wehrheim, whose photo-narrative Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness documents the changing and unchanging landscapes. Author and intellectual Karma Ura explains the nation's transition from a feudalism where "Lords and slaves ate from the same plates" until recently (see Michel Peissel's 1968 visit across a then-unpaved hinterland in Lords and Lamas: A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan) to a constitutional monarchy integrating democracy in its striving for Gross National Happiness.

Finally, the temptations abound. As Laudevin and Gunn noted in their stay, the Bhutanese army funds its pensioners by the sale of whisky. Hunting is outlawed, but to meet the demand for dried yak meat in a land where farming crops can be a problem, they tend to "fall off cliffs" and wind up butchered. Plastic bags banned helps reduce pollution, but trash often litters the place. Tobacco apparently (as in the "Travelers and Magicians" star's role) entices many but its presence, Uitz reports, diminishes. Marijuana, grown wild, however, as media enter the realm, is starting to be experimented with by the young. The betel-leaf snack, "the national drug" as he glosses "doma," remains cheap and universal.

I recommend this as an educational and entertaining overview. It sums up efficiently much that is in other media and books (all above reviewed by me Nov.-Dec. 2012) on Bhutan, yet Uitz conveys his information clearly and without pretense or elaboration. Translated by Nathaniel McBride (2008; 2006 German original) smoothly, this can be perused in a sitting or two; its easygoing pace expresses information in a straightforward, but thoughtful, often self-effacing manner. While his sources, frustratingly, are not always credited precisely, and while the lack of a map may frustrate readers unfamiliar with the region, he bridges the gap between guidebooks, histories, and travel narratives in this little entry in the fittingly named Armchair Traveller series. (Amazon US 12-16-12)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Katie Hickman's "Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon": Book Review

One of the first accounts by a Westerner who visited (as of the mid-80s, although this is not specified) the then-less accessible eastern reaches, Katie Hickman's travelogue proceeds in expected fashion. That is, she's a competent travel writer and her integration of the remarks of earlier visitors helps give background for her own Raj-reminiscent trek. Oxford educated, from a diplomatic family, with an international upbringing, she does exude the air of privilege. She and her companion, photographer Tom Owen Edmunds (with 250 rolls of film), gain quickly via Calcutta connections the sponsorship of the Bhutanese royal clan that allows them all the time they need and lots of horses to make the arduous trip.

The lateral east-west road, due to landslides and construction, is out between Jakar and Mongar. The pair and their guides must go by horse over a long stretch. However, this crucial part of the itinerary lacks excitement. Perhaps those more enamored of horses may find it more enticing, but for me, it did not keep my interest.

Also, the tone Hickman adopts can grate. She twice puts down the annoyingly brusque Westerners on a group tour who cross their path. While their "unmistakable plumage" of garish windbreakers and their rude insistence on taking photos of monks where it is not allowed may merit critique, she seems oblivious to her own entitlement and the professional and social connections she and Tom enjoy, compared to the everyday tourist consigned to a package tour--besides, any tourist in Bhutan must go in the company of guides and and an approved itinerary--which only the royal intervention overruled and extended without limits in Katie and Tom's case.

Late in this tale, all the same, two incidents enliven it. One horribly, as leeches infest the pair and one bite makes her bleed profusely from the back of her head as she attempts, in a memorably graphic scene, to sit at the foot of a beady-eyed lama in a dramatically situated temple. Trying, damp and twitchy with imagined or real leech bites to sleep near him that night, musicians and chanters blare. Tom says: "It's like sleeping inside a grand piano."

A bit later, as they find the Bragpa (aka Brokpa) yak-herders of Mera and Sakteng, lots of inebriation and celebration reward them off-road. Like many travelers, the chronology and scenery seem to take the viewer out of now. "Mera had the easy earthy intimacy of a medieval tavern. But Sakteng was a Childe Harold's tower, a darkling place, deep and mysterious as legend." (186)

Hickman to her credit differentiates between a traveller's reveries of anticipation, the possibility ahead of enchantment that drives one on, and the "grumblings of the camel men" (60) who must accompany and cater to the romantic and testy whims of those who hire the locals. You don't get much sense of the Bhutanese who wait on her and meet her, and this report relies much more on the perspective of an intelligent Englishwoman and her wry companion who seek to get under their own skin, to hear the heartbeat that isolation and endurance intensify.

For longer reports from about the same relatively "pre-modern" (the road connected, but not yet electricity, TV, phones, or the internet) period in the eastern region, see Jamie Zeppa's
Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (reviewed by me May 2012) and Ken Haigh's Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan (reviewed Dec. 2012). Both teachers of English from Canada, Zeppa and Haigh nearly overlap in place and time with Hickman, but their stints allow them a deeper insight into this area. This counters the brief glimpses and the few photos Edmunds includes here that can't offer much depth or context.

Hickman's (first published in 1988) book ends very suddenly. Almost as quickly as the pair and their retinue burst into the Bragpa's villages, they realize that they must return. At that moment, Hickman concludes. (Amazon US 1-4-13)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck's "Treasures of the Thunder Dragon": Book Review

Now one of four sisters married to the fourth Dragon King, Ashi (an honorific for a royal woman), takes us around her realm, now a constitutional monarchy. She deftly introduces facts about the land and people, topography in the three zones (humid foothills, temperate valleys, and alpine highlands) as one follows the main lateral road west to east, history, monarchy, and modernity, in twenty pages. This serves as a necessarily "elevated" p-o-v, but a cogent overview for a reader new to the subject.

As a subject herself, now a queen, she tells her own story in part one. Born in 1955 in a house near Punakha high atop a ridge sheltering a village, from a distinguished family, she was among the first students to be sent off to India as the kingdom began to prepare leaders for the modernization needed. China's invasion of Tibet cut off that land from its southern partner in trade and affinity; India pushed into the Himalayas to counter Pakistani and Communist pressure, but appeared a more benign host by comparison. She reflects: "It was hard to imagine that we had grown up in a world without cars and without cars and motor roads, electricity, banks, postal services or currency notes." (60) Her husband spearheaded the changes, which have accelerated markedly in the period she wrote her 2006 account. (If you have studied other materials on Bhutan, you will also sense a diplomatic reserve or careful non-inclusion of any controversial topics or situations in the land of her reign.)

She then follows her fellow citizens down some of the rugged trails where (as of 2006 in rapidly altering infrastructure bent on more networks electronic and paved) most Bhutanese still live, eking out a living as farmers, traders, or herders. I particularly liked her account of how her rheumatism was cured by the hot springs at Dunmang, and the culture around these unsurprisingly popular attractions, for a few trekkers and many locals.

The sacred landscapes beloved by those Buddhists who live within them gain insight. The region near her place of birth, where the Divine Madman Drukpa Kinlay lived, represents with the path to Hokotsho Lake a holy, now untouched place. Rangtse Ney in the south hosts pristine caves; Gom Kora to the east has a "tsechu" (three day on the tenth day of the month) festival in honor of the founding guru of the national faith, Guru Padmasambhava. "Dapa" wooden bowls are prized from this Tashi Yangtse district. In the Royal Manas national park (24% of the country is protected), old forests survive on the Indian border (about two-thirds of Bhutan will be sustained as arboreal cover).

Two apparent testimonies to reincarnation follow, and then a tour of the strategic "dzong" monastic fortresses, and the "chorten" stupas that sadly, she reports, are increasingly vandalized for their relics. She rallied her Tarayana Foundation to coordinate civilian assistance to aid the successful 2003 victory of the national army, with the participation in battle of her husband and son, to oust Indian separatist rebels from their guerrilla bases in Bhutan. Eleven soldiers in the royal ranks were killed, and few on the opposing side in a careful conflict that minimized bloodshed. Under her impetus, a memorial series of 108 chortens were erected in tribute--to all lives lost--atop the pass at Dochu La.

Previously, a pilgrimage to a few of the many temples around the rich soil of Paro engages her lively descriptions; she also spends two tough weeks in the isolated Kheng central region. The hardships she witnesses--harelips or cleft palates caused by inbreeding, lack of tools or seeds, or the sufferings of the weak--motivate her to set up her Foundation's outreach to "especially vulnerable people." She learns how for many unmarried women and their offspring there--abandoned soon after romance--paternity attributed to a far-off "doctor in Thimphu" has entered the language as a euphemism.

In the highlands of Laya and Lunana, she finds more of her countrywomen, but there, some enter polyandrous marriages to more than one yak herder, as many men in that harsh terrain herd yaks. Glacial melting already (as of 1994) unleashes death and devastation on the terrain there and far down the rivers, and one wonders how Bhutan will cope. Yusena is so isolated even adult cattle cannot navigate its trail in. She suffers from altitude sickness, and in passes over three miles high, she realizes she will not be able to return to the land of heavenly lakes despite Diamox. These Tibetan-bordering places open only to trekkers are cut off (smugglers aside) from their ancient routes north.

For those herders in the east, the Brokpas, and those centrally indigenous Monpas and Lhopas towards the south, the queen finds other less accessible settlements (a map shows her journeys) to explore. Her feet, as she crosses one river twenty-four times in plastic sandals, get terribly blistered. The Monpas appear more animist, tied to the Bon and folk traditions, caring for the forests in which they live and from which they craft baskets, make remedies, and eat crops such as the pinkish-olive fruit the "yikashing." Even copper mining had been halted by the government, to preserve ecology.

She listens to the villagers as she goes: as in Dagana, so elsewhere in the hinterlands. Access to roads and electricity top the wish list. As settlers prefer locally to stay scattered over their home turf, solar panels have been installed as the kingdom's rural improvement project expands. This also sparks feuds as locations for basic health and school facilities must be constructed--in one chosen location.

Additional material comes from the brushes of Kama and Rinchen Wangmi, from the "Voluntary Artists' Studio of Thimphu." As an aside, you don't get the queen's insights into her bustling capital city. The pictures mingle classic iconographic with more perspective-based illustrations well, and their soft colors and pastoral style enhance the plates, along with a few royal family snapshots. A glossary of Dzongkha terms and an index append the nearly two-hundred pages of text.

This survey's drawback? I wanted more details about the off-road places, especially in the south and central mountains. Other books tell of meetings with the Lunap and Layap, the Brokpa and Monpa. But not the others, not by a Bhutanese. Also, it ends too suddenly. One closes this handsome book wishing more information could be told by the queen. Still, it's a fine place to start one's armchair excursion to Bhutan, as it's one of the to-date comparatively few reports in English told by a native. 
(Amazon US 12-18-12)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bart Jordans' "Bhutan: A Trekker's Guide": Book Review

While the justified standard reference from the respected Cicerone guidebooks for venturesome trekkers, this also informs the rest of us who wish to learn about what lies off the highways increasingly linking what were yak trails and footpaths across this largely vertically-biased kingdom. The Himalayas to the north, the tropics to the south, in between up and down over gorges and into the highland passes and pastures lie many of the 27 treks featured here.

They straddle the rugged terrain. Jordans' "Dutch-English" describes affectionately and carefully (the one drawback, if minor: a few glitches remain in his idiom, or the proofreading) the sights on the famous Snowman Trek. This same guidebook was taken along by Kevin Grange (see his Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World), and I bet Mark Horrell (Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek) consulted it too. While it preceded in its 2005 original ed. the 1984 venture partially along that trek detailed in Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson, the lore it shares will reward anybody planning a few days--or weeks--in the northern region.

Mastiffs guard yak herders' tents. Guides must push on ahead of trekkers--all must gain prior clearance for routes--and get to camp ahead of the visitors. Bears and leopards still roam the slopes. The flora and the fauna, given attention in the prefatory sections, both beckon. Similarly, Jordans packs a lot of information about altitude sickness, etiquette, geology, natural features, folklore, legends, and what to take along on both the day portions of the hikes and the trekking luggage carried by yaks or horses.

The maps look far too generalized given the topography, but as no trekker can go it alone, they seem more like sketches for groups to get a general lay of the land than they are orientation charts. You find a summation of the elevation gains or losses each day's section, but some treks are cursorily explained while others get much more coverage. This supplements, therefore, what a guide will provide, rather than serving to direct or inform a solo trekker, given Bhutan's restrictions for tours.

What adds value is the attention to adventures in the national parks. The Yeti have their own reserve, as does the Apeman: each have a trek to their name here. These creatures may remain hidden, but you find out about the yaks, takins, and those in Lunana who care for the herds. Sidebars update in the 2012 printing of the second 2008 ed. with summarized changes in roads due to weather, construction, and policy. (There's also an Adobe pdf format, unseen by me.)

As Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck in her foreward notes, the "reorientation" of traffic as feet and beast give way to jeeps and pavement threatens the viability of networks that have been used for centuries by villagers, farmers, and traders. However, "appreciative trekkers" may seek out "these near forgotten routes." This handy guide, with a water-resistant cover, colored maps, and an attractive array of photographs, is a must for anyone leaving the great lateral road for the heartlands of Bhutan.  (Amazon US 12-16-12)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gyurme Dorje's "Bhutan: Footprint Guide": Book Review

Compared to Lonely Planet and Odyssey Bhutan travel guides, how does Footprint measure up?  Gyurme Dorje, as a Himalayan expert, offers the practicalities similar to LP, while he, as a scholar of Tibetan Studies, delves into cultural issues which Odyssey features, if in a briefer fashion. The format and layout's very similar to Lonely Planet's Bhutan (Country Travel Guide) by Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra, so the background coverage in a separate chapter of religious, artistic, and literary contexts does not match the scope of Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (Odyssey) by Françoise Pommaret, the pioneer in guides for visitors. Rather, like LP, the Footprint provides a more concise introduction, and then in turn examines the capital Thimphu, followed by the western, central, and eastern regions.

LP tallies just under 300 pages; Footprint's about 80 pp. more but the font's a bit larger. Color photos are about equal; seven (blue-hued) LP and nine (pink-shaded) Footprint chapters can be downloaded separately or together. I've sampled both guides in their pdf versions--they did not convert legibly to my Kindle Touch. Also, even kept as pdf's, a Kindle's font cannot be matched to their format neatly. On a PC, in color, the files scan fine; the maps hang together with the text, sidebars, and illustrations.

A couple of differences in the print versions. Odyssey's far more colorful, on nearly every page. LP + Footprint open with a few vivid photos. However, that section in the latter book had its pages sewn on the top, so I could not open them correctly. The atlas maps in Footprint are in the middle of the guide, with very good road, village, and path detail, but they aren't as quick to access due to placement. But, unlike the other two guides, Footprint is in a durable hardcover.

In the Essentials opening section, Dorje's knowledge of the intricate calendar enhances the festival listings for "tsechu" timing (even if these were for only 2010-12, this being published in late 2010). He tells of the long code of conduct that residents follow, and how visitors need to know etiquette accordingly: "You should remain polite and courteous in social relationships regardless of any difficulties that arise. Your loss of self-control will not bring about the desired response." (39) This tone characterizes, again, the insider's perspective that distinguishes Footprint's chosen author.

Bus schedules intersperse with sights, accommodations, eateries, roads, events, festivals, and commentary on sights. This mixture of specifics and topics continues in each geographical portion. It lacks LP's verve and Odyssey's anthropological bent, but it instructs. For instance, its Background chapter delves into Buddhist contexts well, such as the auspicious symbols and prayer flags. "The sparse population, the slow, measured pace of daily life and, in some sectors, an almost anarchical disdain for political involvement have encouraged the spiritual cultivation of Buddhism to such an extent that it has come to permeate the entire culture." (301-2)

Its chart of treks ranks some by duration, difficulty, and destination. It adds a thorough list of guides and websites necessary for planners to book in advance, as required. As for the off-road itineraries, his data come in under each regional chapter (LP segregates the information), but you get a hint of what an first-time adventurer might then learn about in Bart Jordan's Bhutan: A Trekker's Guide. 

While recommended reading of more depth than LP's list remains welcome, I caught three errors on a single page (310). A series of line drawings in the Footnotes gives an iconographical caption to 114 deities depicted--quite a helpful touch for sightseers or researchers. A concordance of Romanized Cho-ke (from the script) and transliterated place names (as these in Dzongkha may vary), a glossary, and small phrasebook (even with a few common verbs and tenses) shows the added features of this helpful guide. It may not be as visually snappy as LP or as culturally investigative as Odyssey, but it balances those guides with history and data about where to go, what to see, and how to stay in compact form. (12-21-12 to Amazon US)