Book of the Month:
The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner
The first time I visited Thailand, the quality that impressed me most was not the temples or the pad thai or the palm-fringed beaches, it was the smiles. As I traveled around the country, I came to understand that in Thailand (as in many places) smiles don't always equal happiness, but at the same time, I came away with the feeling that on balance, the often-smiling Thais are among the happiest people on earth, and that this is one of the prime reasons why visiting Thailand is such bliss.
Eric Weiner comes to the same conclusion in his winning new book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Leaving behind a career as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, Weiner embarks on a year-long search to find the happiest country on earth. He starts his journey in the Netherlands, home to the World Database of Happiness, whose humorless statistics point him in the direction of nine more countries, wonderfully ranging from Iceland to India, Qatar to Bhutan. (The other countries are Switzerland, the U.K., the U.S., Thailand, and Moldova—the last, for contrast purposes, being the unhappiest place on the planet at the time of writing.)
With happiness as filter and focus, Weiner paints incisive portraits of each place he visits. He is especially profound on Bhutan, whose official policy of Gross National Happiness seems to cultivate, or mirror—or both—an admirable attitude he encounters around the country. He is also transporting on Thailand and on India, whose seemingly effortless embrace of extremes both confuses and awes him, as it does me.
Weiner is a perceptive traveler, and he enlivens and deepens his narrative quest by seeking out knowledgeable locals and expats wherever he goes, allowing him to create an illuminating anecdotal topo map of each country's psychographic landscape.
I finished The Geography of Bliss feeling like I had just taken a whirlwind tour of the world with an engaging and well-informed guide, utilizing an important and too often overlooked compass: happiness.
As I was reading this book, I was also undergoing a life transformation of my own: My dad was taken critically ill, and was on a journey to a swift and blessedly pain-free death. This put the big questions underpinning the book—What is happiness? What is the meaning of life?—in a new and urgent perspective, and I found myself thinking that, in the end, happiness may well be the most telling measure of a country and of a person.
But finally I concluded—as Weiner intimates near the end of his moving journey—that one quality trumps even happiness: love. Give me the country that inculcates and embodies love—as my dad did in his life—and I'll show you the truly happiest place on Earth.
Short List: Stocking Stuffers
A Day in Tuscany, in which Dario Castagno rescues the region from clichés by taking us on an intimate tour of his Tuscan village.
The Sword of Venice, the second novel in Thomas Quinn's planned Venice trilogy about two families in the Renaissance era.
Prayer of the Dragon, Eliot Pattison's latest crime novel set in Tibet, with local color and memorable characters.
New Book Roundups
Latin American Mysteries
Part detective story, part memoir, and part travelogue, Dead Man in Paradise recounts author J. B. MacKinnon's attempt to unravel the mystery of the murder of his uncle, an outspoken Catholic priest who was shot in 1965 outside the small Dominican Republic town where he had been living for four years. Sylvia Sellers-Garcia's notable debut novel When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep also deals with a mystery, involving a rural Guatemalan village where personal and political secrets surface after a newcomer from the U.S. arrives.
Japan Mon Amour
In Aiko Kitahara's The Budding Tree (translated from the Japanese by Ian MacDonald), six fictional stories of love (and not-love) play out in Edo-period Japan, each tale focused on an enterprising woman finding her independent way in a changing society. Love's mettle is tested against implacable centuries of Japanese tradition in John Burnham Schwartz's novel The Commoner, set in post-war Japan and inspired by the life of Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the imperial family.
Holiday Gift Ideas
National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita's handsome and anecdote-studded photo book The Great Wall: From Beginning to End would make a fine present for anyone heading to China for next year's Summer Olympics in Beijing. Chuck Fischer's extravagant pop-up book Christmas Around the World looks at Christmas traditions from Germany to Latin America and not only includes pop-ups that are wonders of paper engineering but also pullouts, information-packed booklets, and a stand-alone Santa's sleigh. They Called Me Mayer July is a hefty memoir illustrated with over 200 witty and sweet portraits of daily Jewish life in a small Polish town before 1934, by artist Mayer Kirshenblatt, who taught himself to paint at 73.
One Last Thing: The Ultimate Gift Book Suggestion
One weighty book tops my gift list this holiday season. But first, a full disclosure: Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Trips is a National Geographic Book, with an introduction by National Geographic Traveler magazine's editor-in-chief Keith Bellows. That being said, I can't think of another book that can single-handedly lighten the winter doldrums like this one can. Check out New Zealand's Central Otago Wine Trail on page 251, or the Botswana safari on page 326, before wrapping it up. Your friends and family will thank you.