Sunday, June 30, 2013

Crannaí agus Sliabh Maolín

Is cuimhne liom an radharc chomh seo. Rúgadh mé in aice leis anseo. Chuir an grianghraf i gCovina nuair ag fásadh úlloird go leor fadó.

Thóg Clarence Tucker seo. Measaim go raibh séisean féin is óige ansin. Bhí amharc seo i 1900. Ar ndóigh, fuair sé bás i 1970.

Ar feadh an bliain sin, bhí mé óg freisin. Bhí mé i gcónaí i Claremont, D'imirt mé leis mo chairde ina h-úlloird na crannaí líomóide ar chúl mó thí.

Chonaic mé an sliabh ceanna leis sneachta. Tá Sliabh Naomh Antoine go hoifigúil ann. Ach, glaoch gach duine áitúil leis an leasainm é "Sliabh Maolín."

Tá sé thart ar deich míle míle ard ansiud. Tá sé ina sainchomhartha ag imeall an Cathair na hÁingeal ann, go deo. Is féidir liom a fheiceáil go fóill ar an lá glan daichead míle ar shiúl ina ghemreidh anois.

"Trees and Mt. Baldy"

I remember a panorama like this here. I grew up near here. The photograph was taken in Covina when many orchards grew long ago.

Clarence Tucker took this. I reckon he himself was very young then. This view's in 1900. However, he died in 1970.

During that year, I too was young. I was living in Claremont. I played with my friends in the orchard of lemon trees the back of my house.

I saw this same mountain with snow. It's Mt. San Antonio officially. But, everyone locally calls it "Mt. Baldy."

It's about ten thousand miles high up there. It's a landmark around Los Angeles, always. I'm able to see it still on a clear day forty miles away in winter now.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad": Book Review

Nearly 500 reviewers already weighed in on this ambitious novel's wide range of settings, diverse characters, and sprawling, time-leaping plot. Everything from a oddly appealing if annoying kleptomaniac in a fine opening vignette to an Asian dictatorship to an African safari, with lots of New York City, even after climate change, terrorist fears, and more economic collapse, where people keep having babies. Music plays a key role, if not as much as I thought it would (seeing the title cribs from Elvis Costello), and the plot shifts more to fame, fear, and longing, more universal concerns among its unsettled cast of urban and suburban yearners, obsessed with gadgets, social networking exponentially amped into "parrots," and with a familiar litany of angst and dreams, conveyed best of all if unexpectedly in one decaying, parched California high-desert exurb in a poignant chapter related through a girl's Power Point.

The plot's all over the place, literally. Latch on to an appealing young woman on the make and a chapter later, it's another time and another generation. Jennifer Egan manages to keep all her storylines folding into each other, but readers lacking patience may wonder at her intricacy. For me, it worked as entertainment, with the attempted rapist, a journalist in eerie thrall to a despot, and the foibles of journalism best succeeding. However, the African interlude failed to keep my interest, even if I understood why it had its place in character development. For all its range, you can still see the seams showing now and then within the construction. Egan puts a lot of energy into juggling a lot of balls in the air at once.

I chose to hear this with Roxana Ortega's dramatization. (The Power Point's via a click-through slide-show with a quaint projector sound on the tape.) Her often ironic, sneering, blustery, or fragile voice captures effectively the brash attitude of the passel of these often snobbish, insecure, and/or privileged folks, scrabbling their way up the social ladder in cities and exurbs, as the planet weakens under global warming and the media-driven frenzies escalate. Underneath it all, it's a comedy of manners two hundred years after Jane Austen, perhaps. (Amazon US 7-31-12)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

George Saunders' "Tenth of December": Book Review

Any story George Saunders writes, I'll read. This fourth collection begins with typical toughness mixed with sadness. Mortality and fright return over and over, in landscapes familiar and laboratories unrecognizable--for now. "Victory Lap" gets it off to a stern start with a sassy ballerina-teen and a geode. "Sticks" is much shorter than some in this volume, nearly a vignette about Dad leaving a Santa suit draped "over a kind of crucifix." The next, "Puppy" gives you a sense, if you know Saunders, that it will not end well by its very title. "The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick," as one mother's summed up. This shows Saunders, doggedly watching how his neighbors might act, around his native upstate downscale New York.

 "Escape from Spiderhead" terrifies more than amuses. A shame reducer and verbal stimulant get tested on lab-rat humans, as sex and what seems like love unfold at nearly novella length for the understandably confused narrator. As with many of George Saunders' eerie reports from a near-future corporate realm, neologisms and innovation combine with poignancy and satire. As he's matured, his daring approach has blended into a subtler shift towards tenderness beneath. He hasn't lost his imagination, but he improves upon even the talent of his first collections when he mixes emotion into the ingredients, more than lesser writers who heap on the what-ifs too thickly. Speculative fiction meets domestic anxiety, from a deadpan satirist increasingly skilled at evoking tenderness amidst death and hallucination.

"Sometimes science sucks," as one character concludes. As a geological engineer turned writer, certainly Saunders possesses a knowledge of business and know-how other MFA-schooled products may lack. (See my review of "In Persuasion Nation") He has always mingled the bureaucratic-speak with pop-psych bromides deftly. "Exhortation" sends up the managerial memo lapsing into tell-all e-mail, appropriately. "Al Roosten" about to be introduced by a MC cheerleader too old for braids who in turn promotes herself "as someone who does feng shui for a living" contains its own ready-made humor, "LaffKidsOffCrack" the charity du jour that makes the protagonist feel, amidst bumps and grinds, that he was "deaf to the charity in this." Saunders shows the awkward, forced conviviality of such events, inflated just right. It reminds me of Babbitt meets Pynchon, somehow.

"Home" follows the decay of a relationship, complicated by baby. Court-martial proves a lesser infraction for a returned veteran compared to what life at home and under the sheriff's eye--and Ma--has for him. The more deadpan, mind-numbed, demotic phrasing of everyday downscale folks again finds Saunders applying his ear to the way people talk when tired out and unable to process, full of proverbs, the obvious observations, the phrases from TV: "Not on my watch," or "People tend to focus on the negative."

With "My Chivalric Fiasco," TorchLightNight starts with a "voluntary fling" admission and moves to a pigpen with fake pigs and a tilting bed, with the narrator "the only currently working person in our family." A fake-medieval tone intervenes thanks to a 100 mg of KnightLyfe, and this allows Saunders to enjoy the Renaissance Faire scenario and diction that giddily and disturbingly ensues for "Improv."

Appropriately, the first sentence of "Tenth of December" has a "pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms" hulking about in Dad's white coat. Beavers are to be scrutinized. But, strangeness from the woods ensues, of course. It's more of an action-oriented, psychologically concerned story for Saunders, and in its length it extends into a family saga in miniature, pushing his direction homeward away from the managerial blather and drugged predicaments of his previous characters. Slightly more conventional in intent for all its oddness, it may signal Saunders' desire to leave the lab and cubicle behind for nature's homeland insecurities, with its own terror. (Amazon US 10-24-12; my ARC differs from the published version, apparently. See NYT 1-6-13:  "George Saunders Just Wrote the Best Book You'll Read This Year")

Monday, June 24, 2013

"Thomas Merton + James Laughlin: Selected Letters": Review

"One begins to wonder about this realm, then. What is being prepared for it?": so reflects Merton amidst the death of many prominent figures, on 12/7/63. The gradual shift of this Trappist monk towards re-engagement with the world's suffering, by one who in his mid-twenties sought to flee the secular temptations and to devote himself to seclusion needs no introduction; it's well-known and a fascinating study in itself. Twenty-two years had passed between his entrance into the monastery and the time he wrote these sentences to his agent and friend, the well-off, well-educated James Laughlin. He shared and furthered Merton's connections with the New York literary realm and worldwide intellectual currents that a cloister could not block off. Laughlin founded New Directions, publisher of avant-garde novelists and the modernist poets whom Merton reflected in his own verse. Merton grew increasingly confident by the mid-1950s, taking on the Cold War's military-industrial complex.

So did his essays. As this collection edited well by David D. Cooper frames, in about one-fourth of the extant correspondence between 1945 and Merton's odd, premature death in 1968, we see the independent streak in Merton endure. The initial immersion into asceticism and denial understandably shook Merton up: he fears in early letters that being on the same roster as Henry Miller (whom he resembled and later struck up a friendship with) and Jean Genet might shake up Catholics. He wondered if his own inclusion in an anthology aside Genet or such might indirectly lead some young man into homosexuality; Merton scrupulously asked Laughlin if his own works for New Directions that funded the publication of less successful authors could make him (a term I employ but he does not) what used to be called a near occasion of sin.

However, by 1956, a change comes. As the Beats and rock stimulated the culture, so Merton might have been jolted. He begins to read Buddhism and ask about Zen. He no longer signs his monastic name in the very same letter where first he raises this interest, intriguingly. Laughlin must have labored well to assist Merton in obtaining books; consider this is but one of a series of volumes where Laughlin writes at length and in depth to such as W.C. Williams, Rexroth, Schwartz, Pound, and Miller at the same time. There's an affection on the page, even as the contents tend as the years go on to fill with worries over censorship by Merton's Order, the tensions of the superpowers, the war in Vietnam, and the pull of a nurse with whom Merton fell in love in 1966 (discreetly and sensitively handled by the editor and both correspondents; an afterword includes Laughlin's letter to her, tracked down over a year after Merton's death), and Laughlin's nimble recollections of his friend.

I agree with Laughlin that once one reads Merton, however imperfect some of his verse could be, one keeps on. His voice, approachable, ironic, sensitive, intellectual, compassionate, admonitory: it expresses insight and acuity. He's intellectual without posing as an academic, a committed priest who learned to let go of the narrowness of his call in its remote setting, so as to embrace the wider community. He gently early on encourages Laughlin towards faith, reminding him how a ritual rewards the body, which needs its own satisfaction along with the tug of the mind or pull of the soul.

Ultimately, the message Merton by the mid-50s articulates places him in the progressive movement's vanguard. His list of what he reads, who he writes to, what he knows, shows his curiosity and his drive to not cut any ties with society even as he seeks a hermitage to retreat to within the monastery's expanse. This energy, as he burrows down there in Kentucky even as he travels now and then before his final journey to Asia, compels him, and the need to resort to a mimeographed form of transmitting what the Order feared when they stopped him from publishing in print political anti-war, anti-nuclear content demonstrates his decision to address the "pestilence" of a dark time as a priest who had to act.

One passage stands out. On 11/26/63, Merton tells of the reaction in the monastery to JFK's murder. While he sympathizes with his family, he feels "more sorry for the national dance of death." That is, he reminds Laughlin of what I have never before seen publicized. The speech to have been delivered by Kennedy in Dallas was read in the monastic refectory. It's a "symptom of our whole condition," and revealing. "Strange thing: he lists all the increase in our weapons, missiles, bombs, polaris submarines etc. etc., and after doing so says that this would put a stop to any sinister plans of aggressors and.  .  . assassins. With all those missiles and submarines, all it took to do him in was a rifle and two bullets--one extra for the Governor of Texas." (234) Merton suggests this "angle" has "unconsciously unnerved people" and it unsettled me when I read his take on this mythic event. As far removed as he was from the non-stop media coverage that blanketed the nation then, he pinpoints the larger problem, and he refuses to idolize one who after all was responsible for some of the violence. One again sees the boldness of Merton's vision, and why he remained outspoken in his wisdom in a confusing age: he helped some of us react to it differently than did more popular media.

The contents show Laughlin's support and Merton's quest as it unfolds over more than twenty years. True, it's necessarily bogged down sometimes with details about what to print next, what needs editing, who wrote what, but this shows the passion with which Merton and Laughlin sustained their mutual support to connect him with a readership that at New Directions might not otherwise be open (then or now) to reading a Catholic convert's works. I also noticed how publications did not accept all of his articles or poems after his fame; you do get the sense Merton produced an enormous amount, and he seems to have an eye on practically publishing it all, even if not all of it during his lifetime.

Merton grows up to accept his burdens that he thought once might be relieved of him as a monk. He takes on more, willingly, and while he chafes at some of his adopted home's strictures, he loves the place and you read this collection understanding how he depended upon Laughlin to negotiate his intellectual journey as his mediator and yearly visitor, who enabled Merton to find us as his audience. Navigating between solitude and engagement, isolation and intimacy, Merton's again worth reading.
(Amazon US 5-18-13)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg + Gary Snyder": Review

Having finished "The Gary Snyder Reader" last month, I wondered how this collection might illuminate some of the contexts as Snyder's wanderings across Beat San Francisco, early-'60s Japan, and back to settle in first Marin County and then the Sierras connect with Ginsberg's New York (city and then upstate) and West Coast residences. Both, furthermore, roam far as they become countercultural spokesmen. Early on, both found success, Ginsberg in the spotlight of course, and then, after his Asian travels, Snyder's poetry finding more recognition.

While Ginsberg's reputation earned him the headline role, Snyder's influence as this series 1956-1991 documents reveals him as the guide. Ginsberg's attraction to Buddhism appears more gradual, as Snyder had preceded him and nearly every other young (non-Asian or a few academics excepted) American. I looked for a pivotal shift to acceptance of Buddhism by Ginsberg in the letters, but it's occluded. Perhaps an early-'60s trip to Asia and extended visit with Snyder in Japan can be credited.

Yet the pull of the possibilities that expanded consciousness exerted on these eager seekers tugs early. 8/10/60, Snyder expresses disgust with American politics and foreign policy. "Bread and Circuses. No longer a problem of helping out American workers, but of giving up for the whole world welfare...will America ever choose to be a bodhisattva? and wear blue jeans and sandals before the world and give up her property? The 'orgy' has political and metaphysical significance." (31) I guess he got the fashion trend right, at least. Anticipating often this decade the inevitable triumph of socialism if not communism, Snyder fears its "one pair of glasses" as well as the capitalist insanity, and expresses nascent fears of climate collapse and economic inequality.

From Kyoto, writing to Allen and Peter Orlovsky in Calcutta 5/30/62, Gary notes that his Japanese buddies have turned hemp farmers. His future neighbor and rival for Sierra land control, Don Allen (soon to be Swami Kriyananda) appears: "Extremely interested in Buddhism" and the interest starts to spread among their circles. Snyder notes "two things going: 1. The individual working out his path by lonely self-enquiry and meditation. 2. A kind of social-sexual communal breakthrough, aided by drugs, dance, music, (meditation), etc. Now if we can reconcile these two and use them we can remake society utterly. (Cosmo-political project #1)" (55)

How close did these comrades come? By 4/29/66, Snyder maps out four steps to a "bodhisatva path": Zen's samadhi power to apply to love (-making) and turning energy into art as "one's work or craft" and through that into "Action politically" to make "the social happen, correcting and reforming, revolution, so that people will be good to each other and to nature, and come to have enough stock of good-humor, curiosity, faith, and bodhi to try" Zen. (80) It's as simple--or complex--as that.

On 1/7/73, Snyder--worried about the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam--quotes from a Chinese text to Ginsberg, by now trying to go back to the land himself near Cherry Valley in upstate New York: "After Niu-t'ou heard the teaching of Zen he gave up sitting all day in his cave and carried 300 bushels of rice to feed people thru a famine." (148-149). The engagements of both Snyder and Ginsberg with activism remain more as undercurrent, as they roam the milieu where campuses, writers' or monastic retreats, awards ceremonies, and media appearances especially for Ginsberg take precedence. There's a guardedness about some of this period, as with Ginsberg's asides more than details debates over Trungpa and also Tim Leary's 1970s activities. Between confidants, it's odd to me that there's not more to reveal here. The 70s on find both men settled into teaching and traveling.

I expected much more herein about Buddhism as a radical force for transformation, given the prominence of both men in the literary and cultural realms. Ginsberg does betray at one point midway a sense of weariness with lineages, lamas, and the Naropa disembodied poetics scene in the 1970s. Yet, despite the publisher's claim that this volume, edited by Ginsberg's archivist and chosen biographer Bill Morgan, it's much more filled with asides about such as controversial lama Chogyam Trungpa, lots of itineraries as both poets flew around the world to give lectures, attend conferences, and hob-nob with A-listers. Increasingly, the pages by the 70s demonstrate a telling alteration. The spiritual issues fade, and while Ginsberg does three times over the decades weigh in with critiques about Snyder's verse drafts, poetry itself occupies not much space. Instead, we follow disputes with the Swami, the building of the zendo, like-minded neighbors coming in to join Snyder, tax concerns over what became the Ring of Bone in the San Juan Ridge of the Sierras, and the more mundane negotiations of the two writers as they bought property and as Snyder established a "village-temple."

The "real work" as Snyder sums up this stage marks change. Ideas and fantasies took root in concrete and a community. While I continue to wonder why the two and their allies did not buy an old summer camp and convert that rather than move themselves (and this leads to hundreds more as the Swami's foundation and the zendo both drew more to settle in the region) into unoccupied space, Kitkitdizze does represent the fruition of their hopes for (one hopes a small-scale) return to nature and renewal.

The collection closes suddenly in 1995; no idea why the correspondence ceases nearly two years before Ginsberg's death. Morgan provides no editorial conclusion; his footnotes tend to be sporadic, explaining some concepts and people referred to but leaving a few misspellings of proper names in the letters and a few references stay too vague for a likely reader. The editor's light touch lets Ginsberg and especially Snyder converse without much interference; there's an index of those named.

Snyder and Ginsberg met in the "strong but reticent Bay Area poetic culture" in the fall of 1955. They, along with Jack Kerouac, managed to move that scene "into public light, with a deliberate intention for some sort of transformation, first literary and then social." In over 350 letters, it's intriguing to find how much of a legacy both young men, dropping out of grad school, left over the next half-century. Snyder typically sums up in his prefatory note their relationship of "mutual respect": "I made him walk more and he made me talk more." (ix) (Amazon US 5-16-13)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gary Snyder's "The Real Work": Book Review

After reviewing Gary Snyder's "Reader" and his letters to and from Allen Ginsberg recently, I wanted to learn more about Snyder's relationship to his adopted Nevada County and Northern Californian bioregion during the 1970s. This collection compiles conversations mainly from that decade with the counterculture press, his "East West" in-depth interview which delves deeper into his past and his vision, and an elaboration of his model of the ecological system reaching its climax and sustaining itself by 40% recycling at its steady state of flourishing.

Towards the end he applies this to a restoration of our "inner potential" as our own "sense-detritus" finds liberation by art, work, and creativity. This "fruiting" happens for Snyder throughout this anthology. Editor Scott McLean adds a preface and endnotes to supplement some of Snyder's observations.

Notable is his ability to see within the planet its capacity for our emotional rather than economic enrichment. "It's a problem of love: not the humanistic love of the West--but a love that extends to animals, rocks, dirt, all of it. Without this love, we can end, even without war, with an uninhabitable place." (4) This 1964 Gene Fowler interview captures his "power-vision in solitude."

Yet, he cannot sustain such alone. He returns from a Japanese monastic stint to California, and he eventually joins Gov. Jerry Brown's Arts Council to disburse funds. He believes in the public commitment of the poet and the need to work one's craft and employ one's hands to create.

He even envisions culture, therefore, with fresh eyes. He compares a university's English department to "a cardboard box that everybody throws every poetry magazine that comes in the mail into and says, 'Well, we'll look at that later. I haven't got time to read it now.'" The retrospective perspective of English, "looping backward as they go, and trying to connect" the present to tradition, to rediscover a Blake or a Melville, represents its own function and "truly tribal work," he adds. (63, Fall 1977 to Paul Geneson in "The Ohio Review.")

Such observations reverberate in a period where fewer praise the humanities: he warns of the difficulty that more and more we face as the liberal arts get jettisoned. Practicality, all the same, gets to be its own necessity, for Snyder compares in the five-day April 1977 "East West" interview the contemporary reality for a practitioner as contrasted with the state of monastic Tibet, a quarter of its population meditating, its class structure demonstrating "a byproduct of exploitation"--if someone else grows your food, this cannot be kept on "for a whole lifetime without somebody else having to give up their meditation so that 'you' can meditate." (96)

Therefore, Snyder insists on the poet's grounding in the real and the engaged. Yet I found the same distancing here as elsewhere from the impact of his entry into the Sierras and the attraction this sparked for his followers and friends to join him. "Tracking Down the Natural Man" with carpenter Colin Kowal, whom is to be assumed as one of those who moved there--expresses little worry about the population increase. I suppose Snyder figures he and his colleagues weigh less heavy upon the land.

Similarly, he harbors in these reflections about the nuclear threats and ecological breakdown less tension than in the essays he included in the "Reader" but this unease certainly persists in the interviews during the aftermath of the 1960s. Peter Barry Chowka continues in the "East West" interview to ask about Snyder's "Buddhist Anarchism" essay originally 1961, revised 1969. He reminds us how Buddhism as with Asia did not discover until the last century what the West had earlier: "that history is arbitrary and that societies are human." (101) Not being divine or natural creations, changes and choices can be made. For Eastern systems, compromises with power diminished critiques of state or nation. He elaborates how "World Religions" tend to prop up their societies, and even if they posit liberation, they give in to protect their sub-cultural enclave. Celibacy deepens this institution: it's renewed from the outside each generation, so a tribal accumulation of transformational energy passed down does not build up and threaten the social construct. A fascinating insight.

One final point merits notice in a talk that three-dozen or so years later demands attention. Responding to Chowka's question whether Snyder plays the disconnected muse, Snyder boasts that he worked "nine months on a tanker at sea and nobody once ever guessed I had been in college." (111) This sort of reverse snobbery, arguably logical, does enter parts of this as it has his other writings. Snyder's lucky to have lived his long life so applauded by so many, and he's labored to build on the land his dream. Whether this sort of stance makes him more admirable than his MFA counterparts in the seminar room and his acolytes in the academy remains, perhaps, open to debate.

The appeal of Snyder is that he comes across directly, a bit prickly but usually openhearted. He's eager to express his ecological philosophy and his poetic calling, but he's also mindful to place his vocation within his setting and his respect for nature. Without being sentimental or coy, he helps us to listen to and see our world better. (5-25-13 Amazon US)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"The Gary Snyder Reader": Book Review

Over six hundred pages, two-thirds of these essays, articles, journals, and interviews, the rest original poetry and Asian translations, this anthology 1999 offers a deep introduction and thorough investigation of a writer I regard as a thinker but also as a worker. As a poem about Japanese loggers ends: "the pain/ of the work/ of wrecking the world" infuses his perspective. He's freer of the usual academic traps, even though he lectures at UC Davis, and his residence in the Sierras and his forestry, logging, and Zen monk training provide richer material for him to excavate, sift, ponder, and return to for half a century.

Early on, he stayed wary of temptation: "(Beware of anything that promises freedom or enlightenment-- traps for eager and clever fools-- a dog has a keener nose-- every creature in a cave can justify itself. Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering.)" [24:X (1956, Kyoto) p. 29]

This may let off of a whiff of an air that many well-schooled and meditatively "cool" Beats to me possessed, a dash at least of reverse snobbery by a 1951 graduate of Reed, as in a revealing 1977 East-West Journal interview. "I can pride myself on the fact I've worked nine months on a tanker at sea and nobody once ever guessed I had been to college." (105) Still, on the hundred acres he and Allen Ginsberg bought around 1969 and he named Kitkitdizze after the Nisenan word for an aromatic shrub, Snyder reified his back-to-nature convictions. He never explains why he chose to build on open space (if logged generations before) rather than, say, settle on already occupied land in his native Northwest, but he surely provides better care for his Shasta Nation Yuba River watershed than those who, attracted as he and then early-1970s hippies to the same terrain nearby, have torn it up for golf courses, tract homes, and retirement communities. The tension between development and sustainability underlies many essays here, as Snyder labors to improve the quality of his residence and to educate his neighbors on this small ridge of Turtle Island.

In it for the long haul, as a native Californian I understand Snyder's appeal to all of us who live here. No matter where we've come from, or our ancestors, he encourages us to recognize this fragile series of bioregions as a wonderful and lovely new home. The price paid for this settling (no matter how ecologically educated or real-estate flipping?) is very apparent. He cites a "friend who still gets emotional when he recalls how the avocado orchards of his southern Californian youth landscape were transformed into hillside after hillside of suburbs." (184) He avers that between the ages of about six and ten, a childhood place enters us. For me, it was between eight and eleven, and lemons instead of avocados, but I suffer the same enduring impact as a local witness to what replaced my memories.

These excerpts from 1990's The Practice of the Wild alert one to the sensitivity needed to hear our locale's presence. Rocks as well as trees can speak if the imprint of humans is not too heavy, even for those of us who live in the city. Bioregionalism, for those in the "flat crowded lowlands" as well as the fewer lucky enough to make a living in the less hectic highlands or on the cooler, pricier coasts, can recognize how our political and social structures fight against the place we wish to settle down in. Digging in, for Snyder in the Sierra Nevada foothills, represents a stand. True republicanism, he reminds us, means not distancing squabbles to be arbitrated by monied or judicial entities. It means working out differences with adversaries.

This ties to the "Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture" principles, the 1969 version reprinted here of his 1961 manifesto for a principled anarcho-pacifism. Utopian as it may sound then or now, it remains a prescient call for resisting, anticipating what the Occupy Movement tried to replace forty/fifty years later. As he expands his stance in The Practice of the Wild: "People fear the small society and the critique of the State. It is difficult to see, when one has been raised under it, that it is the State itself which is inherently greedy, destabilizing, entropic, disorderly, and illegitimate." (195) Critics throw back "parochialism, regional strife, 'unacceptable' expressions of cultural diversity," but Snyder ripostes: "Our philosophies, world religions, and histories are biased towards uniformity, universality, and centralization-- in a word, the ideology of monotheism." (195) As a Buddhist, Snyder counters with small-scale economics of a householder, eco-activist, and cultivator.

He finds this "earth house hold" in the swoop from Big Sur up through his place of birth on a dairy farm north of Seattle that came up against second-growth woods, and then into British Columbia, and over Alaska down to Hokkaido across the Japanese islands where he studied as a monk, and over to China. This, his chosen Pacific Rim regional affiliation, draws him in many journals and essays excerpted here into its past (he evokes the largest city of medieval times, Hang-chou, marvelously as he shows us its archived chronicles down to where to find the tastiest pig roasted in coals) and its present traces of its ancient, indigenous mindset.

Alert to contradictions beneath the surface we see and tread, Snyder's earth never sleeps. "Life in the wild is not just eating berries in sunlight," he warns. (209) Depth ecology demands scrutiny of what's fermenting and digesting in the dark. This may require him to open up his Sierra home to bugs and deer, squirrels and ticks. In threat, decay, and migration, life's rhythms also pulse. Insights may emerge for those bold enough to look inside. "The other side of the 'sacred' is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots." (210) In this spirit world, he seeks communication. Poetry, myth, lore amassed to be critiqued not only in seminars but in the field: Snyder takes the reader out into the wilderness, and unlike all but a few scholars, he practices what he preaches as he leaves trails behind, and literally crawls where bears do to figure out what they do do.

In one such lair, where the rock art left thousands of years ago in caves of the Dordogne and the Pyrenees beckons, Snyder demonstrates the wonder of what our ancestors knew and left even as their language faded. He quotes T.S. Eliot on the Magdalenian discoveries of his own decade: "art never improves." (393) Instead of assuming progress, Snyder counters that primitive creators already had found their truths.  "The deep past confounds the future by suggesting how little we are agreed upon on what is good." The humans were not depicted; aurochs were. Men and women did not need to paint themselves into their environment, not long after they emerged to portray it 35,000 years ago.

Similarly, the verses Snyder follows his prose with, opening with seven strong selections from Riprap (1959), depict his self-assurance as he climbs mountains and looks down on his own traces there. The first one, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," returns to the first pages, with his 1952 journal as a Forestry Surface lookout for fires (before he fell foul of McCarthyism and had to take the side of the loggers to make his living). It scans the space he has chosen to explore ever since his teens: "I cannot remember things I once read/ A few friends, but they are in cities./ Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup/ Looking down for miles/ Through high still air." (399)

Two hundred-plus pages follow but already the path is clear in his poems. That first inclusion as lodestar or compass directs us. He aligns the precise suggestion of Asian approaches, which diverge from the symbolic weight of Western contemporary verse, while he lengthens the suggestive lines of simpler spoken predecessors such as Williams. (See more on this in the letters with Allen Ginsberg here reviewed by me.) Snyder edges past the natural settings of the Golden State familiar if made more looming and ominous to Jeffers, and skates over the gnomic density of Pound, Yet he shares Pound's knack for dangling the reader within a suddenly visual suspension. Analyzing natural (are any truly inorganic?) components within the environs he passes through, Snyder reveals by his long crunchy or mulchy march across the world's surface its gaps and its seams. He distances himself from his own footfall; he waits for us to join him--as he listens to the echoes. (Amazon US 4-24-13)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ag lorg Virginia Dare

Nuair bhí mé níos óg, chonaic mé an grianghraf chomh seo ó Fhíonghoirt Virginia Dare ina leabhar faoi an réigúin dúiche agam. Níos mó ná céad bliain ó shin, chuir sé 2500 bairillí fíona in aghaidh na bliana. Bhí sé ag an gcoirnéal ó Foothill agus Haven i gCucamonga.

Bhí mé ag gcónaí cúpla míle siar i gClaremont ansin. Is cuimhne liom ag fhéiceail bhfíongoirt ag imeall an cheantair thoir. Ith mé uair amháin ag Ósta Seiceamar d'aois ag bunaoídh ag bhlian 1848, in aice leis an fhíonghoirt síos an príomh-bhóthar sin of Foothill; is breá ag ithe ar an sean-"barbeque" Fraincis ag ainmithe Robaire leis an boladh deathaithe an-iontach.

Mar sin, rúg mé is luaithe leis an grá le oidhreacht áitiúil ó Impireacht Intíre. Bhí maith liom ag dul a imirt leis spraoi ina úlloird taobh thiar do mo theach. Bhí crannaí agus fhíonghoirt i mó blianta múnlaitheachaí.

Anois, níl beagnach aon láithreacht talmhaíochta ann. Tá an-áit seo ag insint scéal seo. Is é seo an túr mar chuid oifig pháirc.

Ar ndóigh, tú ábalta chuir cuairt cúpla bhfíonghort seo caite. Maireachtáil siad ach faoi línte leichtreachais. Timpeall orthu, líonann an talamh lom agus tirim an stórais agus títhe.

Searching for Virginia Dare.

When I was very young, I saw a photograph like this of Virginia Dare Winery [vineyards] in a book about my native region. Over a century ago, it produced 2500 barrels of wine annually. It was at the corner of Foothill and Haven in Cucamonga.

I was living a few miles west in Claremont then. I remember seeing the vineyards around the eastern district. I ate once at the Sycamore Inn founded in 1848, near the vineyard down that main road of Foothill; I loved eating at an old French barbeque called Robaire's with a wonderful smoky smell.

Therefore, I grew up at the earliest with a love for the local heritage of the Inland Empire. I liked to go to play in orchards. There were trees and vineyards in my formative years.

Now, there's almost no agricultural presence there. This very place tells this story. This tower is part of an office park.

However, you're able to visit a couple of the last vineyards. They survive only under electric powerlines. Around them, the dry barren land fills with warehouses and houses.

Friday, June 14, 2013

J.G. Farrell's "The Singapore Grip" Book Review

As the Japanese invade, the British in the colony of Singapore cluster. "Between the pudding, which was prunes and custard, and the cheese, things continued to go wrong at a comfortable rate." So the colonists hear as their troops give way and the enemy advances.

J.G. Farrell follows "The Siege of Krishnapur" and "Troubles" with the last in what has been called his Empire Trilogy. Similar to Paul Scott's Raj Quartet composed around the same time, in the 1970s, Farrell shares a fascination with the intrigue of imperialism as felt and furthered by the middle management ranks--unlike Scott, there's less of an attempt to dramatize a native reaction to the overlords. Scott sifts in satirical touches, while Farrell delights in them. This suits Farrell fine, for his predilection remains to analyze the rationalizations of capitalists, here Walter heading a rubber firm, and do-gooder Matthew, the son of his recently deceased rival. They encounter enough difficulties as it is. Natives might only complicate matters more, as WWII breaks out.

As Matthew lands, he shrinks. "The heat was suddenly stifling: he was clad in it from head to toe, as if wrapped in steaming towels." (102) Farrell describes a place he knew first by study and the draft of his novel (works consulted are appended) before he visited there for confirming his research. Matthew will get used to what Walter has grown up with, "listening to the tropical night which like some great machine had begun its humming, whirring and clicking, steadily growing in volume as the darkness deepened." (51)

Matthew falls for Walter's daughter Joan, a wonderfully manipulative beauty whose sheer cynicism and calculation seems to her hapless set-up suitor (the Blacketts want to unite their firm with the one which Matthew Webb looks set to inherit) so unmatched. Her ministrations find competition with another enigmatic woman, Vera Chiang, whose verisimilitude, half-Russian "princess," half-Chinese, we never figure out, and out of such lacunae, Farrell places us within Matthew's confusion neatly.  Names are often suitable for characters, as two of the surnames above indicate.

This third installment has been downplayed by comparison with the Booker Prize-winning pair by Farrell preceding it, but I found it far more enjoyable than the dour even by (Anglo-)Irish standards Troubles. In its doomed verve and witty dialogue, it recalls Siege much more, to their mutual advantage. As disaster hits yet another outpost of the Crown, we see the same fate that befell India in the Sepoy Mutiny or Ireland in the War of Independence. "In front of the temple, like an offering, a dead man lay in the gutter under a buzzing, seething black shroud." (552)

Derek Mahon in his brief introduction alludes to Farrell's increasing adoption of a Buddhist pose of sorts before his sudden death (a polio victim early on, he was swept into Bantry Bay in 1979 while fishing on the rocks in a gust). The sentence above demonstrates such a stance, but most of the book throws off this attitude: as you read, you look forward to a dramatic climax.

Yet, it refuses to follow the conventional buildup to a big pay-off, and this veering away from the expected pattern of a narrative, heightened by the stance of its teller, may frustrate readers. It's more nuanced, and while I liked this decision to downplay the love-war genre, it may feel a limper ending for some. Similarly, Walter and Vera may succumb to resignation or a very subtle form of sensible endurance, as a too-short coda rushes past what befell the future of Farrell's characters, seen now and then by an omniscient, wry narrator.

A flying boat manages to escape just in time, "leaving the chaos and destruction of Singapore as nothing but a tiny smudge on the horizon , insignificant compared with the vast, shining sea below them." (522) Out of such wondrous scenes, the fruitless folly of Walter's attempt to profit from the wartime rubber demand, as it rots on the docks under Japanese bombardment, diminishes. What we find instead, closing this ambitious novel, becomes less fixed and more ambiguous, not to be clung to but to be let go of. Perhaps this is a Buddhist novel after all, Farrell's prematurely last fiction. (Amazon US, 10-23-12)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Paul Scott's "A Division of the Spoils": Book Review

This closes the great Raj Quartet.  Six hundred closely printed pages of the Everyman's Library edition with "The Towers of Silence" close the saga of the terrible, enigmatic, yet not to be unpitied Ronald Merrick's entry into the lives of Hari Kumar, the Laytons, and most of all two new characters, Nigel Rowan and Guy Perron, both serving in the military in India at the end of WWII. The war's conclusion means Perron will finagle an escape from service back to England, but he will return, and his story, sometimes conveyed through first-person narration, once in a while by diaries, dominates this novel.

Early on, Perron after four years enlisted "had learned to look upon the entire war as an under-rehearsed and over-directed amateur production badly in need of cutting." (415, Everyman ed.)  The fears of having to attack the Japanese fade as the news of the atom bomb, heard first in "Towers" as Barbie Batchelor's crumbling sanity reflects the breakdown of the old order of the British Raj, ebb for Guy and Nigel and their comrades, although one, in a powerful character study, cannot cope.

Captain Purvis suffers from an intestinal ailment that in "Towers" was posited by a keen observer to account for the short tempers and long lassitude endemic to many British who served in India. Purvis may be a bit of welcome if typically for Scott acerbic comic relief (there are few laughs in this entry). But he also makes a plaintive lament: "Six years! Six years' criminal waste of the world's natural resources and human skills. History, you said?" (431) The unreality of the war he and Guy have just survived, as the mission to invade the Japanese redoubts in Malaya is called off, sinks in.

So, too, is the unreality of the Raj, the sense that now the British will have to leave India after hundreds of years of their own invasion, and their own occupying force takes on an awkward role as Indian independence must be negotiated and Pakistani separation must be established. These efforts serve as the setting for most of "Division."

Merrick, elevated to Lt-Colonel, must take on the vexed situation of how to deal with the Indian National Army, which had fought along with the Japanese against the British Army's sepoys, as its defeated ranks return--to a heroes' welcome among some and a traitors' sentence among others. This divided reaction foreshadows the fate of India, as it too will be split among those who sided with the Crown for so long and those who comprise a Hindu or Muslim majority bent on leaving the Raj behind. Mirat, symbolically and practically as partition looms, faces its own demise, the princely state the center of much of the action of "The Jewel in the Crown" and "The Day of the Scorpion."

The Colonel in his own complicated (this being a British novel as well as a colonial one) class status finds in his nemesis Hari Kumar a like-minded individual determined to advance his own chances in the power structure. Kumar is off-stage this novel, as he has been in "Towers," but the continuing effects his police case set in motion linger for a bitter, wounded, and clever Merrick as well. In Perron's view (he aspires to be an academic analyst of Indian policy earlier in the Raj preceding the Great Mutiny) Merrick "lacked entirely the liberal instinct which is so dear to historians that they lay it out like a guideline through the unmapped forests of prejudice and self-interest as though this line, and not the forest, is our history." (715) A nice summation of the Whig view of history as progress?

Late in this long stretch into the last days of the British hegemony over the jewel in the crown, Perron goes "through a narrow Moghul arch into a dark stone corridor--the kind in which you feel the weight of India: a heavy darkness which is a protection from glare and heat but reminiscent of tombs and dungeons." (931) Mirat's palace stands for more than itself, naturally.

This novel demands close attention. Using Guy (we also find Sarah Layton in one chapter telling her side) as the key witness, in both indirect and direct narration, proves a smart choice, for as an outsider, he takes us deeper into Merrick's power over those around him. Some events turn out to be momentous, others anti-climactic and offhand, truer to life perhaps than fiction, come to think of it.

While Paul Scott's measured, crafted prose is never difficult yet often beautifully conveyed, you do return to material in previous novels via other people that keeps getting re-interpreted, and layers of accretion continue to slowly rise, inexorably, as Hari Kumar's predicament (does he now understand the difference between karma and dharma?) never leaves any behind who've heard of it. Scott combines this gradual accumulation of detail intricately, as in a splendid comparison to a political cartoonist's depiction of a great sale clearance of India as if some grand department store and bazaar with disparate customers lining up and entering or exiting. Even a fish souffle takes on, in his careful detail, a sectarian as well as culinary resonance in one scene.

Over the considerable time I have invested in the Quartet, I wondered if the subject matter needed such Proustian evocation and Tolstoyan scope. I leave that to critics, but the four installments allow us a marvelous way for the patient reader to delve into the impact of sectarianism, politics, war, imperialism, and ambition within a convoluted study of manners, as if the English novel in the mode of Jane Austen's characters meets Thackeray's social commentary, mixed moreover with historiography and analysis. It ends movingly, as one climactic scene reverberates as a harbinger of what India and Pakistan will contend over in the summer of 1947, and in the decades to come. (Amazon US 7-21-12; see also a brief review of the Everyman's Library ed. of vols. 1-2.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Paul Scott's "The Towers of Silence": Book Review

In this third installment of the "Raj Quartet," we witness through the perspective largely of Barbie Batchelor the reaction to the incidents which comprised the core of "The Jewel in the Crown." Daphne Manners has died and her mother and her child are off-stage for all but a glimpse or two here; Susan Layton marries Teddie Bingham and we learn more about their courtship and brief marriage. Similarly, we find her sister Sarah becoming friends with Barbie when she moves in Rose Cottage with the Layton step-grandmother-in-law Mabel, in the hill station of Pankot, sister encampment to Ranpur where the unrest over the trial of Hari Kumar and his compatriots accused of raping Daphne had not spread to Pankot.

Instead, we get the slow transfer of rumors and gossip, along with Barbie's prominence in relating what she knows from her fellow missionary, Edwina Crane. Her fate will parallel that of Barbie, perhaps, a decline from confidence in the mission and its evangelical rationale to an encounter with a less comforting, existential resignation to the loneliness of the British who choose to defend the spiritual campaign in India alongside the military and civil functionaries who populate Pankot. Scott gradually draws Barbie's situation parallel to that of the Second World War, and the struggles felt from the battle zone, while they do not reach the hills, echo with the fate of Robert Merrick, who had persecuted Hari and his comrades so relentlessly.

After his tragic attempt to rescue Teddie during the fighting in Burma, Merrick confides in Barbie. His role here is gentler, tempered by his own gallantry, and Scott excels in their conversation as it reveals the unease at the heart of the British civilizing enterprise. The book moves slowly. I think Scott for once overtipped his hand at the coda, in linking too tightly world events to Barbie's decline, but he may have done this to forge an imperial analogy of one Englishwoman's fall to that of the empire and its crown jewel. Most of the narrative stays subtler. Much of it takes place at Rose Cottage, with an almost Jane Austen-like attention to conversational shifts and character revelations barely perceived without intense scrutiny to tone and intent and what's said or unsaid.

Teddie's reaction to Merrick's talk about the Indian National Army which allies against the British with the Japanese reminds me of the book's structure. "Formless, almost shapeless, the beauty consisted in the subtle cohesion of what seemed like disparate parts and in the extraordinary flexibility of each arrangement made to bring them together." (Everyman's Library ed. 2007, p. 126) Scott features no high drama as in "Jewel" or especially its sequel which delved into Captain Merrick's interrogation of Hari, "The Day of the Scorpion," but we learn how both titular symbols endure here. The picture of Queen Victoria receiving homage of the world's peoples lacks, Barbie notes, an unknown Indian. The scorpion bites itself when surrounded by fire only due to its sensitivity to the heat, the sun, the light.

This book will unsettle you. Four hundred pages show Scott's narrative control, but it's grim much more than droll. It's to be read after the first two, naturally. It advances their timeline forward through the war, but those events remain dim and distant. While Scott characteristically filters the disintegrating coherence of Barbie powerfully, it's not pleasant: "the vision was shut off again by barriers of fleshy faces, arms, bosoms, chins and epaulettes, the bark and chirrup of the human voice manufacturing the words which created the illusion of intelligent existence." (195) Barbie looks at a swain for Sarah and sees "the enthusiastic expression of mediocrity which Barbie had learned to recognize from years of looking in a mirror." Unsparing in its glances at sex, birth, marriage, faith, and death, Scott provides in Barbie a disturbing depiction of the breakdown of belief and of order. (P.S. I also briefly reviewed the Everyman's Library ed. of vols. 1-2 combined. This review above was under a listing for "Towers" itself on Amazon US 6-29-12)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

"The Mongoliad: Book Three": Review

I reviewed Part One in March and Part Two last week, so you can tell I raced through this. It sustains the authors' characteristic love for choreographed, blow-by-blow marathon fight scenes, adding lethal archery showdowns in the rocky ravines of Mongolia and continuing--as two of the four subplots finally begin to converge--equestrian chases across the steppes. It also incorporates real-life figures into the sprawling plot, which prefers combat to talk.

The tale of the Shield-Brethren venturing into the Mongolian heartlands to exact revenge--while stars Cnán and Percival from Part One are barely heard from, and newcomers from Part Two Raphael and Benjamin (of Tudela, a real-life figure I expected they'd make more use of) hunker down too low-profile--still has enough suspense with Vera and comrades outrunning Mongol hordes to continue the story as expected. The climactic showdown among rival archers remains vivid and well-staged. The authors late on excel at a couple of death scenes, and make them into truly moving moments.

A feature I liked was that you get a fair hearing for the Mongols, represented by Gansukh as always, and the power struggles based on true chronicles resonate, even if as I suppose in history they take their good time to come to fruition. This can bog down the pace, but it's necessary for verisimilitude. A compromise between action that dominates much of the book and background?

As for the Hünern struggle, it too is well-staged. Zug, Kim, and their Malaysian ally Lakshaman rally the valiant underdogs, and the conflicts between Livonian and other knights play out in the way one expects for an epic of intrigue. The long battle at the Mongolian fortress occupies much of the middle of the book, and it allows the tellers to expand their scope beyond the Circus of Skulls hand-to-hand combat of the earlier chapters and installments. Again, alternating between fighters makes for a more engaging way to see into the strategies and mindsets employed by rivals.

Finally, the plot based on the ascension and short reign of Pope Celestine V (before Pope Benedict XVI the only pontiff to resign--as opposed to one who abdicated) as the cardinals break the impasse to elect a successor to Gregory IX amidst the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick's Roman threat makes for another long depiction of intrigue under diplomatic rather than martial cover. Fr. Rodrigo's visions get worse, the Grail may make a cameo, and the Binders show how they deliver their messages. All this skullduggery does drag, but the wonderful performance of foul-mouthed (he sounds like a rags-to-riches street-smart "reality-t.v. CEO") Frederick as "stupor mundi" makes him the "wonder of the world" indeed to those who deal with him. A bonus: the authors have imagined a wonderful scene to show how a man who's told he's now pope appears to take on a confident aura and a rhetorical skill that dazzles those who try to foil him.

As one patient character reflects as she leaves Rome, she takes the "unknown road forward." I wonder if another installment will appear? A few are left standing on the "enemy's" side at the conclusion, so plenty of ambiguity remains--as in the side-story appended to the Kindle version, "Seer" with Andreas in the French Pyrenees as the Albigensian heretics are hemmed in--also shows. (5-9-13 to Amazon US)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

"The Mongoliad: Book Two": Kindle Book Review

Compared to Book One, it's as lively, needing less plot exposition to set the Binders, Shield-Brethren and their Livonian foes, the Mongol horde, and the capitulation of Rus into medieval context. Book Two will diverge considerably. Little overlap concerning protagonists: it's mostly new figures stepping on stage to ride on, scheme, drink, skulk beneath the streets of Rome, parry in the revived Circus of Swords, and advance the Brethren eastward over the Don into the steppes.

There's almost no Cnan and in her place Ocyrhoe in Rome conspires with knight Raphael (who gets in the Kindle edition a nicely handled "Dreamer" novella where he tells the story of the Fifth Crusade's siege of Damietta to Brother Leo, tied into Francis of Assisi's real-life meeting with the Sultan Al-Kamir in 1219 mingled into an account of the saint's stigmata on LaVerna a few years later). Raphael and comrades venture east for revenge on the Mongols.

Meanwhile, Raphael's struggle in Egypt and after between compassion and anger is echoed by Fr. Rodrigo, who has found Ferenc on the graphically, mystically, nightmarishly rendered battlefield after the apocalyptic Magyar defeat at Mohi. "Crushing them between two lines, like a blacksmith crushing a fly between calloused palms" is how Rodrigo recalls the bloody effect of the Mongol invasion. It's still unclear as to why Rodrigo has gone to Rome, but he meets the cardinals imprisoned to vote for the successor to Gregory XI, who are in a deadlock as to his successor. There, the story of Ocyrhoe will intersect, although as much here, it's open-ended at the end.

Likewise, Lian and Gansukh come into their own from the first book as they try to evade the Mongol leaders while a Chinese guerrilla attack interrupts, or advances, their plans to escape. The night flight of lit arrows makes a great set-piece, and the tellers enjoy the dappled canvas they paint on. I admit that characterization may give way to action, but reading about archers, swordplay (we meet Kim from Korea at the Circus; the back-and-forth battle between him and Shield-Bearer Andreas is handled well to increase tension), and clerically driven backstabbing makes for entertainment.

The story lines in Rome, the steppes and Brethren, the Mongol-occupied Lignica in Rus, and the Mongol push itself all move along the second installment. It's no surprise that they are unresolved. For after all, this is the transition between the start and the finish of this epic. (Amazon US 5-2-13)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"The Mongoliad, Part One": Kindle Book Review

With a background studying medieval literature and a liking for such epic adventures in modern guise, I figured this might entertain. I didn't read any of the hundreds of {Amazon, where this was #250} reviews, preferring to judge for myself. The results after part one on my Kindle? I'll check out part two.

It's difficult to evaluate the impact of what's a third of a saga. This may cause impatience, but it's akin to the start of a long multi-season series on cable. So, I'm flexible and forgiving, knowing it takes a while to warm up and get the action rolling. There's action, don't worry, but there's also lots of exposition and cultural contexts that must be integrated.

Similar to a first panel of a triptych, or the first installment of a wartime saga, I find that the characters of Cnan the Binder, Zug the Japanese warrior, Percival the inspired knight, Lian the Chinese slave-girl, and Gansukh the restive Mongolian all add depth to the telling. But, it's challenging to weigh in on the impact of this as it's obviously a third (or less with the subplots and spinoffs of the Foreworld Saga in the making). You won't know a lot about them and their comrades so far, but that adds to the interest of the plot, as it lures you deeper ca. 1250 CE.

There's some tonal difference as this is written by committee, but no more than a series directed and written by different hands that you may watch on a network. No real poetry ("Sinner" had a lovely lunar metaphor one eerie early night, but the efficiently told, no-nonsense if sometimes effusively brawling and blustering main text never pauses for much elegance), but lots of martial play. You can tell that experts contribute to these portions. They provide blow-by-blow commentary. Zug and Haakon grapple for pages at the Circus of Swords, and you can follow every parry and thrust. Gansukh's fight a few pages on, by comparison, feels rushed and anticlimactic. Showdowns may wear down one's patience, even if the norm for a 500 pp. medieval epic.

Sufficient mystery awaits, as in Cnan's mindset and Percival's mysticism, for suspense. These people gradually emerge, but true to a medieval setting, they tend not to gush or emote. They hold back their feelings as they do their conversations: to remain watchful, wary, and cautious in an era when too much worn on one's sleeve results in that arm being severed, or one's helmeted head.

I find it intriguing this comprises a corporate-owned "secret history transmedia franchise"; certainly the Kindle version with a prequel, "Sinner," about the Shield-Brethren amidst the German arm of the Inquisition, and the map, cast of characters appended, and handsome line drawings all enhance the text on my Touch. It's a model likely to prove more common as people read on Kindles, smartphones, and PCs, and one to which fans can add content and comment on a story's creation. Let's hope quality control--as Neal Stephenson's editing skills were needed--continues. (Amazon US 3/29/13)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Just Walk Into That Cloud:" Bhutan in Books & Film

North of India, south of Tibet, with fewer than a million people, this landlocked Swiss-sized monarchy, “sandwiched between Methuselahs,” Russ and Blyth Carpenter aver in a memorable if odd metaphor, “seems like a printer’s error.”  Most accounts nod to its historical impenetrability, its vast vistas, and its mix of colorful folk tradition and impassive sophistication. Its Buddhist ethos encourages the personal touch: there’s a lack of any “impersonal” stoplights in its capital, Thimphu, even as it exceeds a hundred thousand residents-- where Michel Peissel found in 1968 but three small buildings next to its dzong or monastery-fortress. No cities existed in Bhutan until recently. Rapidly modernizing while directing its Gross National Happiness strategy, the region’s last independent Buddhist enclave aims to balance economic opportunities and educational progress in what many Westerners mistake as still a semi-feudal, isolated Shangri-La. With diverse ecosystems and regional cultures, the nation hunkers in below the jagged Himalayas. A central expanse of rugged mountain valleys separate linguistically and culturally diverse Buddhists, who have evolved to farm and herd two miles or more high. They are unsuited to live in the tropical lowlands, where Nepali and Hindu-dominant peoples raise crops on terraces and fields.

It will be expensive to explore: a daily tariff imposed of $250 keeps tourism low and requires guides and itineraries approved in advance. However, lodging and food will be covered; a third of this fee funds sustainable development.  The fear of becoming another Nepal, with a degraded ecology and sullied infrastructure, impels Bhutan to enforce “high value, low volume” on its visitors, by jeep or on trek. It discourages settlement by foreigners and it commands national dress to be worn by guides, those in schools and public service, and those visiting the center of any district, the dzong, on official business. 

For those who have not seen Bhutan firsthand, this review article surveys the books and media available. I compiled this after not finding an equivalent resource on the Internet or in print. The reading lists in guidebooks, while helpful, left me wondering what else lay on the shelves. By investigating histories, travel narratives, novels, photo-journalism, film, and guidebooks, you can learn a lot from an armchair—which will likely encourage you to begin to save up and plan your own excursion.


The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet by Kate Teltscher (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

Bhutan, through the middle of the last century, had only received thirteen Western expeditions. George Bogle reports on the first, in 1774-1775. He wished to connect the East India Company with China, via Tibet. In between lay Bhutan. In The High Road to China, Kate Teltscher retells in 2006 the young Scotsman Bogle’s journey. Out of cleverly chosen samples of British-made and Indian-exported goods, this first trade mission lobbied to sway the Panchen Lama. "How else to seduce a nation than with a tempting display of luxury goods, scientific instruments and mechanical toys?"

Views of Medieval Bhutan by Michael Aris (London: Serindia and Washington: Smithsonian, 1982)

However, Bhutan managed to dissuade the eager empires, Chinese, Tibetan, or British. Most Westerners further comparisons to "feudal" dzongs and "medieval" customs such as archery (the national sport, originally to repel Tibetan invaders) or unquestioned fealty when they encounter Bhutan. Its never-colonized, semi-feudal period under an absolute monarch lasted past when men landed on the moon. A handsome 1982 edition of Views of Medieval Bhutan features an introduction by Michael Aris, who tutored the Wangchuck royal family for six years when the nation was opening up to modernization. Aris (who would marry Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi) presents the meticulous observations of Samuel Davis. A surveyor and draftsman for the Bengal Army, he accompanied the second British embassy, in 1783, to Druk Yul, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

These elegant depictions attest to the only foreign artist "of distinction" to show Bhutan, and the first outsider to paint scenes from these mountains. Aris notes that his fellow Englishman's "legacy played no part in the development of those imaginary utopias which the west continues to locate in the trans-Himalayan region." Aris annotates and excerpts Davis' journal, and nods to its secular, and largely un-Romantic tone, also a part of the naturalistic art Davis brings to the plates reproduced here. "If sublime and romantic qualities are sometimes found expressed in his art this is surely because Davis, like most of us, was constitutionally incapable of reacting otherwise to certain combinations of mountains, light, fortresses and forests."

Travel Narratives:

Lands of the Thunderbolt: Sikhim, Chumbi & Bhutan by the Earl of Ronaldshay (1923; Berkeley: Snow Lion Graphics, 1987)

The thunderbolt is the "dorje," the bell-like scepter wielded by lamas in the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition, the lands those of Sikkim, Chumbi, and Bhutan, the time, 1920. The Earl of Ronaldshay’s 1923 account, Lands of the Thunderbolt, while not free of its era’s imperial tone, given this "practicing Presbyterian" author, remains lively. In the footsteps of Bogle and Davis, the Earl shares their enthusiasm for leaving the humid plains of Bengal behind. He begins his ascent at Darjeeling into what at that time was a series of Buddhist-ruled principalities separate from the rest of patchwork British India's jurisdictions. One of the first visitors to the Eastern Himalayas who articulates a modern Western understanding of the unusual mindsets he analyzes, he combines wit with wonder, drollery with description.

Lords and Lamas: A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan by Michel Peissel (London: Heinemann, 1970)

Subtitled "A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan," Michel Peissel’s 1970 account, Lords and Lamas, of his September 1968 trek over four hundred miles of footpaths reveals a crucial moment of transition from a feudal, medieval fastness to a nation finishing the first span of an east-west highway that will change Bhutan irrevocably. India's fear, in the Cold War, of Chinese threats south of Tibet spurred them to fund a paved road to connect the shorter ones coming up steep valleys from the Gangetic Plain. Peissel, after six failed attempts to get royal and bureaucratic approval, finally is allowed in the country. Bhutan admits its first traveler to carry in foreign currency, and he resolves once inside to follow Captain Robert Boileau Pemberton's 1838 route across the six ranges and passes dividing the core of the corrugated and unstable realm.

Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Ashi Dorje Wangmo Wangchuck (New Delhi: Penguin, 2006) 

One of four sisters married to the fourth Dragon King, Ashi (an honorific for a royal woman) Dorje Wangmo Wangchuck takes us down paths Peissel yearned to follow, in what is now a constitutional monarchy. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon deftly introduces facts about its 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, all in twenty pages. This prefaces a necessarily "elevated" perspective, but a cogent 2006 overview. She then blends her family’s history with tales from treks to care for those neglected in its remote hamlets (see: Tarayana Foundation).

So Close to Heaven: the Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas by Barbara Crossette (New York: Vintage, 1996)

So Close to Heaven: the Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas focuses on the Wangchuck dynasty in its Bhutanese coverage. As a New York Times journalist based in India, Crossette favors a style akin to the Gray Lady. The 1996 book unfolds as if feature articles in a tone mixing personal encounters with interviews with diplomats, royalty, and, via translators at times, everyday folks. There's a distance between her and her interlocutors which is expected, given her position and strategy.

Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon: A Journey through Bhutan by Katie Hickman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988)

One of the first accounts by a Westerner who visited (as of the mid-1980s, although this is not specified) the then-less accessible eastern reaches, Katie Hickman's Dreams of the Peaceful  Dragon 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 by horseback. Oxford-educated, from a diplomatic family, with an international upbringing and dynastic sponsorship to cut red tape, she exudes the air of privilege.

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa (New York: Riverhead-Penguin, 2000)

Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan by Ken Haigh (Edmonton: U. of Alberta P, 2008)

For longer tales from about the same relatively "early-modern" (the road paved, but not yet electricity, TV, phones, or the internet) period in the eastern region, the most popular remains Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan . Ken Haigh's Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan complements it well and deserves equal acclaim.   Both teachers of English from Canada, Zeppa and Haigh nearly overlap in place and time with Hickman, but their extended stints allow them a deeper insight into these districts. Their honest, unadorned reflections better the brief glimpses of many Westerners, on limited budgets and itineraries. Enriched by hindsight, Haigh and Zeppa apply literary sensibilities with precision to evoke wisdom and ponder lessons.

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."

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.

Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on My Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli (New York: Random House, 2011)

The Blessings of Bhutan by Russ and Blyth Carpenter (Honolulu: U. of Hawai'i P., 1999)

A decade or two later, Western narratives feature consultants who land in Thimphu and remain for assigned periods, as the royal civil service expands and foreign aid flows in to assist the Gross National Happiness program. Just before the introduction of television, The Blessings of Bhutan features rural Oregonians Russ and Blyth Carpenter. They arrived in the late 1990s to become freelance advisers and eloquent if agnostic analysts of its GNH mindset. Brooklyn-born L.A. transplant Lisa Napoli’s 2011 Radio Shangri-La presents a media-savvy journalist’s efforts to jumpstart a fledgling station in the capital. Her big-city hustle and mid-life ennui meet a slowdown, and impel reorientation. Yet, most memoirs arrive from guests chosen to work from outside the United States; Bhutan favors European, Canadian, or Down Under expertise.

Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Martin Uitz (2006; London: Haus, 2008)

In a hundred pages of Hidden Bhutan, Austrian ex-pat Martin Uitz explores its off-road, off-beat side. Although he works in its Ministry of Finance, one of a hundred foreigners in its booming capital, Thimphu, he nods to the bureaucratic morass and civil service's perks only in the opening chapter. Rather, about the same time in the same place-- halfway through the past decade-- as Lisa Napoli’s radio endeavor, Uitz roams out of the city to explore scenery as close as a few hours walk up slopes to yak herders and a takin reserve.

Episodes on the Snowman Trek comprise a fast-paced chapter. Finding three recent accounts of “the toughest trek in the world” over twenty-five days and crossing many Himalayan passes over three miles high, I welcomed Trish Nicholson's Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson (Collca e-books, 2012). She traveled there long before the other two writers I read--although she does not reveal this until an afterword. While Nicholson did not take the full Snowman Trek reported in diary form by Mark Horrell (Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Snowmen Trek, 2011 e-book), or at book length by Kevin Grange as Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World  (Lincoln: U. of Nebraska P., 2009), this New Zealand-based anthropologist in her shorter, 100-mile expedition (with other Westerners and a few guides, ponies, and yaks) allows more coverage of the less secluded countryside seen before and after the trek than that witnessed by her two male counterparts twenty-odd years later.

For those not wanting to read a whole book about a two-hundred mile trek, Uitz’s chapter conveys the gist of this difficult journey. Uitz loves the "tsachu" hot springs which entice the traveler to Gasa and ease the burdens of a summer trek--the exception to the narrative rule as the three accounts above take place in the fall, hastening before the snows set in.

Dragon Bones: Two Years Beneath the Skin of a Himalayan Kingdom by Murray Gunn (Hong Kong: Blacksmith, 2011)

Seasons matter. Summers plague trekkers and hikers with leeches and monsoons. Winters close mountain passes. Spring has less rain, but more visitors. Likewise with autumn, but the roads may not be repaired from the landslides that constantly threaten to close off the lone lateral highway. Meanwhile, experts keep trying to assist Bhutan with its logistical challenges. In Dragon Bones (2011), Australian IT engineer Murray Gunn 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 Taudevin's "With a Dzong in My Heart" (1994; CreateSpace e-book 2011) 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 awe at the kingdom's beauty, Buddhist traditions, and courtly atmosphere. While Gunn repeats many of the trekking adventures others do in his account, 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."

So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan by James W. Gould (Amazon Kindle, 2012)

Reports by Gunn or Uitz should be chosen over the holiday taken in James W. Gould’s So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan. At 8400 words, this 2012 e-book relates too casually the history, religion, and culture of a bit of Bhutan as seen by the author over a week. Even if this duration must endure as most likely for a less affluent traveler, given the per diem tariff increase, choose longer books by those lucky enough to stay longer in Bhutan. I have not covered two popular, New Age-filtered, memoirs in print, all the same; both of their authors achieved a permanence few Westerners can, by marrying Bhutanese men so as to stay there forever.


Cressida's Bed by Desmond Barry (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004)

Almost all who enter Bhutan must leave. Based on a 1931 British expedition to award a knighthood to the King of Bhutan, Desmond Barry’s 2004 novel Cressida’s Bed features as its protagonist a character taken from a real-life doctor’s expedition, that of half-Irish expatriate Christina Devenish. In her early thirties in Calcutta, a free-love advocate, a Theosophist who finds no contradiction with the practice of medicine, she possesses her spirituality and her sexuality confidently. While Barry's depiction of her entry into a Bhutan divided between monarchy and theocracy 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 enraptured presence embarking there. "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."

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (New Delhi: Penguin, 2005)

Kunzang Choden’s 2005 novel The Circle of Karma, the first in English by a Bhutanese woman, tells over forty years the story of Tsomo. At fifteen, in the remote region of Kurtai, she soon falls in love with another woman's husband. This leads soon to pregnancy, but the results spur her not to a happy marriage, but family strife. She flees to pound stones to pave the first roads across the kingdom, putting this section somewhere about ten years after the Chinese suppression of Tibet. Years aren't mentioned; the novel unfolds in an indirect narration by Tsomo, who finds unhappiness often, and exiles herself to India.

The Heart of the Buddha: A Novel by Elsie Sze (Austin: Emerald, 2009)

Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based Elsie Sze integrates information into The Heart of the Buddha (2009) to situate Marian and Ruthie within the admittedly challenging scenario they find as their paths intersect in Bhutan. Sisters and twins, the two protagonists reflect upon their Chinese Catholic upbringing, their Canadian identity, and their position in a realm where Buddhism is the state religion, where a benign monarchy and compliant press rule.

Photojournalism + Film: 

The Dragon Kingdom: Images of Bhutan by Blanche Christine Olschak with photography by Ursula Markus-Gansser and Augusto Gansser (Boston: Shambhala, 1984)

Since Tantric Buddhism dominates, until very recently as the state religion, it merits attention. A Swiss-based trio of scholars in The Dragon Kingdom reports from nascent stages of the kingdom's connections with the West. The Buddhist-based analysis is therefore very light on modernization, which had just begun in the period they visited in the early 1980s. It can be perused in a sitting, as a quick introduction to Bhutan’s traditions and panoramas.

Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods by Christian Schicklgruber and Françoise Pommaret (Boston: Shambhala, 1998)

A folio-format study, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods commemorates a Viennese exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in 1997-1998. While scholarly, and hefty in size and substance, it endures as a corrective to romance or brevity in Western accounts. As co-editor Christian Schicklgruber introduces the collection, it mirrors how a visitor would approach Bhutan. Visual impressions, "the lay of the land," flora and fauna, architecture, history, art, politics, and regional peoples and their distinctive dress unfold.

Not an exhibition catalogue in the usual sense, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods instead presents an in-depth examination of the nation. While very factual in tone and heavily academic, the contributors serve as a cross-section of native and European scholars best able to explain this kingdom seriously to an audience for which fantasy and effusion seem to suffice given its dominant portrayal in certain media as a happy hideaway. (This book reincarnated as an award-winning 2001 Austrian website, but that's long defunct.)

Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert Dompnier (Hong Kong: Living Colour, 1999)

Robert Dompnier in Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon offers photography taken in the 1990s, emphasizing tradition, “tsechu” dances which enliven vivid rituals through the year at many a dzong, and crafts such as weaving, costumes, and intricate architecture which persist not as folklore for tourists but as organic expressions of Buddhist perceptions in everyday settings. While short on text, the presentation is handsomely arranged. The bright textiles, dresses, and painted facades leap out. The size allows a map far larger than in most books on Bhutan--but a tiny caption warns: "The borders as shown on this map are neither authentic or [sic] correct."

Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom by Michael Hawley (Cambridge MA: Friendly Planet, 2004) fact sheet from MIT and Friendly Planet

As for size, "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom" as the younger sibling to the world's biggest book continued raising funds for medical and educational projects. Friendly Planet, Friendly Planet, a charity spinoff of M.I.T., generated income in an innovative fashion, as digital photography and bookbinding skill combined with high-tech expertise under a team led by Professor Michael Hawley, who ran the campus Media Lab's special projects division. The big brother book, 5' by 7' and weighing 150 lbs., dwarfed the two Bhutanese schoolchildren the team "adopted" on their initial November 2001 visit, when displayed at Harry Winston's gallery in Manhattan. This 2003 book symbolized the meeting of high rollers with a worthy cause, and demonstrated how a $15,000 volume could support other schoolchildren and families in the remote areas of this region, reached only by trails, far from the touristy areas the book documents.

For the smaller companion, itself considerable at a foot by two feet and 15 lbs., this expands the original. It reproduces the immense photos and doubles their number, if in less stupendous manner, by explaining how the original was assembled, and how the team returned to Bhutan in 2003 to bring aid to villages and schools from the moneys raised by the big book. Now out-of-print, this follow-up 2004 volume also contributed its profits to Friendly Planet, and Hawley's text and captions, garnered from a cooperative of eleven photographers, conveys the appeal—if in rather soft-focus moods despite the digital accuracy--of the Buddhist kingdom and people.

Bhutan Heartland  by Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld (Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle, 2010)

Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld report in 2010 from spring times on the Lateral Road, the east-west connection across the vertiginous valleys and high passes that furrow between the Himalayas and the subtropical plantations. As these Australian-based photographers and social workers explain early on in Bhutan Heartland, the choice they faced, to move from west to east, is repeated, if perhaps in reverse, by the natives of this kingdom daily. That road, and increasingly the feeder routes paved along what have been yak trails and footpaths, represents for this constitutional monarchy's Gross National Happiness plan a way to increase access to within a day's hike of most of its still largely rural citizens.

The authors efficiently intersperse a lot of background (a glossary and too-short reading list are appended, and a link to van Koesveld's photo archive website) that some earlier authors have struggled to include. It's the right amount for a newcomer: less footnoted and less weighty than the Fortress study but more in-depth than Dompnier, and less-dated than Dragon Kingdom. For handsomely reproduced photographs and accessible text, it’s a great place to begin a virtual visit.

Dreaming Bhutan: Journey in the Land of the Thunder Dragon  by Nicole Grace (Santa Fe: Mani Press, 2011)

Nicole Grace’s Dreaming Bhutan presents in "a brief glimpse" over forty photos on the right side, and a spare text which could fit on a postcard on the left, leaving lots of blank space. Perhaps the slightly blurred resolution of some of the photographs fits the title, as she in promotional material for this 2011 book explains how she wants to show "dreaming" not "of" but "Bhutan" itself--as a portal to enlightenment. A romanticized approach directs Grace's gaze. It prefers "a world of enchantment, ancient rituals and dress that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years."

Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth by Mary Peck (Santa Fe: Merlin Press, 2011)

From visits totaling seven months from 1999 to 2005 to this Himalayan kingdom, Mary Peck's fifty-six black-and-white photographs in Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth, each on its own right-hand page facing a blank left, command attention. Many have captions as endnotes; a few do not. This 2011 removal of words from image (except four brief poems, one by Gary Snyder, another by W.S. Merwin, and a pair of his translations from Muso Soseki) allows the reader to look at the landscapes, people, ceremonies, and architecture as if witnessed first-hand. Grace’s captions inspire curiosity as to their short length; Peck’s pages suggest a trust in unpredictability ahead.

In her afterword, "Bhutan's Curve of Time," Peck relates how directions were given by Bhutanese. Each of her inquiries led to a local range of instructions--by a resident. "Just walk into that cloud." one man told her. Beyond circumscribed limits, hemmed in by gorges or peaks, paths or landmarks, the estimates faded, and new ones emerged with the next encounter, the next person down the trail.

Karma Ura situates his nation within these same furrowed contours. As a distinguished leader of  the monarchy’s think tank implementing the nation's evolving Gross National Happiness policy, Ura explains in his thoughtful forward the scope of GNH. He sums up the country, full of micro-climates dividing one valley from the next. He notes how "the food chain is more or less completed within one's own valley." Therefore, the mythology, community, and the land are integrated over generations to support the people in an intimate, in-depth knowledge-- differing from the fragmented skills promoted today as a solution to education and modernization.

Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness by John Wehrheim (Chicago: Serindia, 2nd ed. 2011)

John Wehrheim’s Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness gazes, through words and via a camera. While limited of course to his choice, the combination invites the reader to become a viewer. This Chicago-born, Kaua’i-based hydrologist who mingles narrative journeys with black-and-white silver gelatin photography between 1991 and 2006 in his afterword warns: "The words and events are true but not always in the order and sequence implied."

Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness (DVD Vendetti Productions, directed by Tom Vendetti, produced by Robert C. Stone and John Wehrheim, 2009)

Under the direction of its fifth king and such experts as Karma Ura, "Gross National Happiness" increasingly grows familiar as a catchphrase to sum up Bhutan's ambitions to orient itself within harmonious precepts as taught by Buddhism and shared equitably among its peoples to assure mutual comfort, educational advancement, and spiritual progress. Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness, a one-hour 2009 video produced by Thomas Vendetti and John Wehrheim, introduces GNH. This kingdom's initiative under its watchful monarchy seeks to promote wise globalization while nourishing traditional lifestyles, as Bhutan perches between a covetous China and a teeming India.

Bhutan: Land of Serenity by Matthieu Ricard (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008)

Unlike some photo-narratives on this often-mythologized kingdom, Matthieu Ricard’s Bhutan: Land of Serenity takes a sober, almost detached approach that reveals this monk’s calm. After a decade in the company of the Dalai Lama's tutor there (Tibetan refugee Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche), and now the Dalai Lama's French translator himself, French-born Ricard brings the same considered evaluation of Buddhist practice and culture that his sponsorship and appearance in the films Brilliant Moon and The Spirit of Tibet demonstrate about his devotion to his exiled mentors. What this has to do with Bhutan as a larger entity comes across more gradually. Three pages introducing each of these eight sections of his brilliantly reproduced color photography, 1980-2007, convey this more vividly than the miniscule font (too small, let alone the captions even smaller) do in this admittedly handsome, compact text, translated by Ruth Sharman.

Travellers and Magicians (feature film directed by Khyentse Norbu, 2003. DVD Zeitgeist Films, 2005)

As the first feature-length film from Bhutan, reincarnate lama-director Khyentse Norbu's 2003 follow-up to his festival success of soccer-mad Tibetan monks in 1999’s The Cup generates attention-- by that statement alone.

Travelers and Magicians nestles in a familiar frame: the varied cast hiking or hitching on the road hears a story along the way. The plot unfolds genially and gently. It's not fast-paced, and reflects the steady, shrewd sensibility of its makers and actors. Norbu wishes to offer the world and his own homeland a reflection of how Buddhist themes might enrich people, as if painting a traditional tapestry by the light of cinema. The bonus feature elucidates this philosophy as it underlies the film. For more backstory on the director, consult Lesley Ann Patten's nearly concurrent (if unevenly directed) documentary "Words of My Perfect Teacher" (2003, Festival Media 2008 DVD) about Norbu, under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

(To link more interdependence in a small kingdom, while the cast of Travelers and Magicians--the first film in Dzongkha, the native language taught in schools there along with English--is billed as non-professionals, I understand that the lead character of Dondup is the exception. Played by Tshewang Dendup, a Thimphu-based radio actor, he appears in Jamie Zeppa's memoir, for Dondup in real life was the genial student with whom she as a young Canadian teacher fell in love. In turn, Martin Uitz discusses the reception of this and more low-budget films in Dzongkha during the past decade.)


The Rough Guide to First-Time Asia by Leslie Reader and Lucy Ridout (London: Rough Guide-Penguin, 5th ed. 2010){This is helpful for planning, checklists, advice, warnings, websites, and reading lists, even if Bhutan gets the same rapid coverage as two-dozen of its continental neighbors.}

Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (Odyssey Guide) by Françoise Pommaret (Hong Kong: Airphoto, 6th ed. 2009)

Bhutan Handbook (Footprint) by Gyurme Dorje (Bath: Footprint, 2nd ed. 2010)

Bhutan (Country Travel Guide) by Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra  (Oakland: Lonely Planet, 4th ed. 2011)

For those who want to see more of Bhutan than a film depicts, three guidebooks mediate between the armchair and the adventure. Gyurme Dorje, as a Himalayan expert, offers in Footprint’s Bhutan Handbook practicalities similar to Lonely Planet's Bhutan (Country Travel Guide) by Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra. The Footprint guidebook in format and layout resembles Lonely Planet, but Dorje’s background coverage in a separate chapter of religious, artistic, and literary contexts does not match the scope of Odyssey’s Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom by fellow Tibetologist (and Bhutan-based scholar) Françoise Pommaret, who authored the first such guidebook, and co-edited Fortress. Rather, like Lonely Planet, Footprint provides a concise introduction; both in turn examine the capital Thimphu, followed by the western, central, and eastern regions.

Lonely Planet tallies nearly 300 pages; Footprint adds about 80 pages in a slightly larger font. Color photos are about equal; seven (blue-hued) Lonely Planet 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 PDFs, a Kindle font cannot be matched to their format neatly or very legibly. On a PC, in color, the PDF files scan better; the maps hang together with the text, sidebars, and illustrations.

Footprint lacks Lonely Planet's verve and Odyssey's anthropological bent, but it instructs. Its background chapter delves into Buddhist contexts such as the auspicious symbols and prayer flags. Dorje explains: "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."

Bhutan: A Trekker's Guide by Bart Jordans (Milnthorpe, Cumbria: Cicerone, 2nd. rev. ed. 2012)

For those leaving its lateral highway behind, Bart Jordan’s Bhutan: A Trekker’s Guide (Cicerone; 2nd. rev. ed. 2012) details twenty-seven yak trails and footpaths across this vertically-biased kingdom. Jordans' "Dutch-English" describes affectionately and carefully (one drawback, if minor: a few glitches remain in his idiom, or the proofreading) many remote sights and dramatically situated sacred landscapes infused by belief. This same guidebook was taken along on the Snowman Trek by Kevin Grange; the practical itineraries and mythical lore it shares will reward anybody planning a few days--or weeks--in the unpaved northern or central regions.

Wrapping It Up

Leaving this short shelf, I wonder how Bhutan can welcome those of us who peer or edge in—through books, through videos, the authors and filmmakers introduce change-- without too many gatecrashers. Few Bhutanese deny themselves their new television, internet, or cellphones. The New York Times featured the kingdom as one of this year’s top destinations: luxury eco-resorts proliferate. Pico Iyer surmises how Bhutanese with formidable etiquette mingled with skillful deference-- inherited over centuries of civil service, monastic preferment, and feudal hierarchies--enforce customs which admit visitors at a polite distance. Traversing the east-west highway, one follows the ancient routes past the formidable dzong guarding each district. Housing monks and officials, these monastery-fortresses force any approaching along a single path through the vertiginous terrain of steep slopes and sudden ravines to reveal themselves. Travelers have to trudge through or ride by the dzong. Passes can be patrolled, and roads checked to monitor jeeps and tourists-- just as trails have always been, to protect princesses or to patrol among pilgrims.

Perhaps Bhutan will survive so both visitors and natives will coexist happily. In John Wehrheim's last chapter, at a bar in Thimphu, he tells an ambitious Indian who wishes to push Bhutan twenty years forward that such a jolt will leave it like Sikkim: invaded by immigrants, overrun by India. Forty years behind its neighboring fellow (ex-)Buddhist principality Bhutan may lag, but better that than the fate of tiny Sikkim--let alone giant Tibet during the past half-century. In a parallel conversation with a Tibetan-descended man, whose family in part escaped Chinese decimation, Wehrheim sums up his subject slyly. "Happy peasants in bountiful fields. A King who's too good to be true. The usual. I'm making photos, shooting video and collecting stories. Everybody in Bhutan's got a story--some of them might even be true."

(P.S. My budget and the limits of my local libraries narrowed what I could evaluate. Detailed reviews of each title above appear on my blog and Amazon US. This article in slightly edited form, different headings, and without hyperlinks appeared in Pop Matters as Just Walk Into That Cloud: Bhutan in Books & Film on March 19, 2013.)

P.P.S. For assistance, thanks to: Cathie Crooks (Alberta); Eliza Ferrier (Footprint); Harry Hall (Haus); Steve Hirashima (Hawai'i); Leah Koontz (Norton); Claire Miller (Fremantle) and Meaghan Miller (IPG); Patrick Rosca (Mani); Sarah Spencer (Cicerone); Pete Spurrier (Blacksmith); Britney VanBurkleo (Lonely Planet); Naomi Weinstein (Penguin). Veteran travelers to Bhutan, Kai von Hirschfeld and John Wehrheim, suggested superb selections. (Photo: #48 of 50 by John Wehrheim from the Bhutan book via Serindia.)