29 February 2016

Book review: Married to Bhutan (2011) by Linda Leaming, ****

Synopsis

Tucked away in the eastern end of the Himalayas lies Bhutan—a tiny, landlocked country bordering China and India. Impossibly remote and nearly inaccessible, Bhutan is rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, and crazy wisdom. It is a place where people are genuinely content with very few material possessions and the government embraces “Gross National Happiness” instead of Gross National Product.

In this funny, magical memoir, we accompany Linda Leaming on her travels through South Asia, sharing her experiences as she learns the language, customs, and religion; her surprising romance with a Buddhist artist; and her realizations about the unexpected path to happiness and accidental enlightenment.

As one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan, Leaming offers a rare glimpse into the quirky mountain kingdom so many have only dreamed of. For over ten years, Leaming has lived and worked in the town of Thimphu, where there are no traffic lights and fewer than 100,000 people. “If enlightenment is possible anywhere,” she writes, “I think it is particularly possible here.” (back cover of the book)

About the author


Linda Leaming is a writer whose work has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Mandala, The Guardian , A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. She regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay.

Linda first traveled to Bhutan in 1994, and moved there three years later. This tiny Buddhist country hidden away in the Himalayas is a very happy place for many. Its king believes in Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. Leaming writes about her life in Bhutan and how she learned to live more simply, how she laughs at herself instead of getting mad at others, and how she slows down to look for magic-- because it's everywhere. In Bhutan, she's known for using a salad spinner instead of a washing machine, and her village man makeovers.

Her writing has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Huffington Post, Mandala, Guardian UK, A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales, 2005), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his 2008 bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. Originally from Nashville, she has an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona, and she regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars, and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay. (from Amazon)

Review

This is a solid personal story that will help you understand much about the country of Bhutan. Her personal love story with the Bhutanese man who became her husband is captivating. Her myriad anecdotes are most informing and entertaining, she really makes it a pleasure to read through them.

She is on less firm footing when (and this happens a lot) she compares the way of life in Bhutan with that of Western countries, and especially the US. One can hardly think of two countries that are less comparable.

Throughout the book one gets that feeling, that is common when reading so many books about developing countries, that life before modernization was tough but happy. That before Western influence began to make its way through the valleys the local ways and culture were not "contaminated" and pure. I am not sure life was happy in Bhutan before the arrival of electricity, cars, antibiotics, education for everyone and not just for the clergy, etc. I don't think it was. As far as I could tell when visiting the country, no one wants to go back to the "good old ways". They are happier now as they embrace development, albeit at their own pace. Bhutan is a quintessentially Buddhist country, and Buddha was, in his time, "imported" from neighbouring India and Nepal.

You can read more about Linda Leaming and her work on her own website.

Linda Leaming

You can buy the book on these websites










17 February 2016

Book Review: Bhutan - Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (2009) by Françoise Pommaret, *****

Synopsis

Shoe-horned into the Grand Himalayas, Bhutan - Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon - is a fiercely independent kingdom that celebrated its centenary in 2008. Isolated, charming, peaceful, and religious, the Bhutanese are a pragmatic, sensitive people who take from the West what will benefit their country and leave the rest.

The countryside is pristine, the lifestyle and culture have been preserved for centuries, and the love of life is abundant among the people. Few outsiders know Bhutan as intimately as Francoise Pommaret. This title presents a passionate introduction to Bhutanese culture and history by resident author - the world's leading expert on Bhutan.

It features literary extracts with an historical perspective. It offers information about: trekking and mountaineering in this spectacular kingdom; national symbols of Bhutan, ceremonial scarves, the Dzongkha language, chortens and mandalas; and, archery and other national sports.


Review

Excellent primer on the country. Not a guidebook but a rich resource to deepen your understanding of Bhutan before and after a trip. Or if you never get a chance to go. There is a section on "Facts for the traveller" with practical info, but most of the book is devoted to the cultural and natural wealth of the country.

Special sections on Symbols, Chortens, Medicine, Ceremonies, Etiquette and much more will capture your interest depending on your personal preferences.

Beautiful pictures by a number of famous and less famous photographers make this a book one not to miss.


View a video on Bhutan by the author here



Here is another of her videos on cultural diversity in Bhutan



And here another on on tradition in the country



Finally on the biodiversity




In the UK buy it here



In the US buy it here



03 February 2016

Film review: Happy Times (2000) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is an ageing, unemployed bachelor who is desperate to get married, but has so far failed to meet the woman of his dreams. When he ends up on a date with an overweight divorcee (Qibin Leng) he proposes instantly, wanting a large lady "to keep him warm", and she agrees, thinking he is the rich owner of a large hotel. Needing 50,000 yuan to pay for the wedding, Zhao turns to his best friend Fu, who comes up with an idea to get hold of the money. The two men refurbish a derelict bus, name it the ‘Happy Times Hut’ and rent it out by the hour to young couples who are in need of privacy! The plan goes awry, however, when the council take the bus away during a clean-up of the area.

Meanwhile, Zhao’s intended introduces him to the son she dotes on and the blind stepdaughter she despises, Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Despite her pretences in front of Zhao, she mistreats Wu Ying, forcing her to do all the chores and making it clear she is considered an inconvenience. Zhao reluctantly agrees to give Wu Ying a job at his ‘hotel’ after pressure from his fiancée who wants her out of the flat. Hoping that Wu Ying’s blindness will fool both her and her stepmother, Zhao sets up a fake massage parlour in an abandoned warehouse for her to work in. Enlisting the help of his retired friends to pose as customers, he often gives them his own money to use as tips. Despite the fact that their relationship is based on deceit, a genuine bond develops between Zhao and Wu Ying, who appreciates the efforts her new father-figure has gone to in order to find her a job. Wu Ying is desperate to save up enough money to find her real father, who has promised to return one day and help her find a cure for her loss of sight. However, Zhao is fast running out of money to pay her, and Wu Ying may not be as naïve as he believes about the reality of her situation.


Review

This movie is not as flashy or stunning as some of the other ones for which Zhang Yimou is so famous. And while he launched the careers of several great actresses, Jie Dong is perhaps the least celebrated when compared to Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi.

But this is a very good movie in its own, more subtle, nouanced and delicate way. It is a story of the search of happiness, and of how one can be led off the beaten track to find it.

It is also a movie to be watched by foreigners to learn about daily life in China. Modernization of the cities and rapid growth of wild private enterprise, for one. But more interestingly, one learns how a single man in his fifties is a social basket case and must overcome impossible odds to find a wife. Which is odd, considering that China, because of the one-child policy, has a surplus of women. And especially a surplus of single women in their late twenties, thirties and forties: the women who, unlike their mothers, got an education and started a career, and did not rush to get married in their early twenties or ever earlier.

One also learns about some physical features the Chinese especially value: a man may look for a fat woman "to keep him warm". And both men and women pay a lot of attention to whether a potential partner has a single eye lid or a double one, which is highly prized (see picture).

The ending is a bit of a mystery: both Zhao and Wu Ying are posivite and energetic, and they could have accepted reality and build a father/daughter relationship and move forward together, but they don't. No one seems to have found their "happy times", and they don't have much hope ever to do so.

One or two eye lids?
Read other reviews of films on China here in this blog.

Watch a trailer here





Buy the DVD here: