Post #108 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler
Not that many people write multiple memoirs and even when they do, it is hard to line up the same reviewer for more than one memoir. Therefore, we are especially pleased to share Lanie Tankard’s book review with you. She reviewed Linda Leaming’s first memoir and now is back to review her second one. I always find Lanie’s reviews articulate, insightful, informative, and definitely worth reading.
Take it away, Lanie.
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“…happiness is the best thing in the world.”
—The Tin Woodman
The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)
“Coming back to Nashville from Bhutan is like jumping off a bicycle that’s still in motion,” declares Linda Leaming in her recent book, A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up. It’s a follow-up to her previous memoir, Married to Bhutan (which I reviewed on Women’s Memoirs in 2011). In the new book, Leaming fleshes out her personal tale of going to teach in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, marrying a Bhutanese artist, and raising a little girl with him—all the while offering time’s perspective since her first book with observations about how to “simulate Bhutan” in one’s own life.
Leaming picked up many guidelines in that country. For a decade, she was the only American residing there. Her guidebook offers tips ranging all the way from how to trap spiders to how to disengage from anger—and from how to live to how to die.
Tethered in the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan (which has never been colonized) is one of the most remote spots on earth, but it’s interesting to note that Google Maps recently began displaying Street View panoramic images.
Therein resides the dichotomy this constitutional monarchy faces while measuring the well-being of its citizens through Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP). Bhutan’s philosophy of GNH, first stated in the 1970s, has since set a powerful global example as other countries including the United States followed in its stead, and various groups spawned organizations such as the Commons Abundance Network (CAN) to work for the good of all.
Bhutan is a world role model in other ways as well, being one of the few nations with negative carbon emissions. In fact, last year it was the only one whose largest export was renewable energy. Bhutan’s biodiversity, architecture, and travel elements add to its unique profile.
Yet Bhutan is also the source of more than 80,000 displaced Lhotshampas who, since the United Nations began their resettlement from Tibetan refugee camps in 2007, have found new homes in eight other countries—70,000 in the United States alone. Their plight, detailed in a recent film, has led to the development of assistance groups such as the Hand Foundation. Acclimating to a vastly different culture in the United States has not come easy for these Bhutanese refugees, who exhibit a suicide rate higher than that of other resettled populations. Respected publications from coast to coast have chronicled their difficulties.
Linda Leaming’s Field Guide to Happiness, in my view then, fits tidily into the two areas of human need detailed by Martin E.P. Seligman in his 1999 presidential address to the American Psychological Association: “relieving ethnic conflict and making life more fulfilling.”
In her book, Leaming calls to our attention the contradictions between two cultures on opposite sides of the globe as both she (from Nashville, Tennessee) and her husband (from Thimphu, Bhutan) have experienced them over the years while traveling between one country and the other. Leaming has herself been a “stranger in a strange land,” as has her husband. She describes the fighting in Bhutan as she lived through it. Her husband had never left Bhutan, or even flown, before he came to meet her family. Jets, in fact, fascinated him. “No planes fly over Bhutan,” Leaming explains. She began to view her country through his eyes, “the sheer excess of it all,” after he discovered coupons. “He’d never been a visitor in the land of plenty.”
Nor could her husband grasp the concept of fiction. Leaming, who has an MFA in fiction, tried to explain it to him. Still he had difficulty with “stories that aren’t real.” She began to question her own understanding of what words such as unreal, magic, fantastic, or weird even meant. Such observations might help us realize the difficult situation in which the resettled Lhotshampas now find themselves, thus contributing insight to ethnic conflict.
Most importantly, Leaming’s distillation of the positive happiness principles she absorbed in Bhutan could go a long way toward “making life more fulfilling” for anyone. She describes circumstances in which she felt the fragility of life, while at the same time perceiving “so much effort in this part of the world.” She characterizes the “magic” of Bhutan—a place without pollution or noise—and the sheltering properties such an environment provides. Refuge there opens up the prospect of seeing in new ways, giving new meaning to the principle of prospect and refuge—the ability to see but not be seen. Leaming raises thought-provoking questions in her guidebook:
Leaming’s tone throughout her memoir is conversational. On several occasions, I noted slight repetitions, however. And I wish she had gone into her relationship with her daughter and her own mother more deeply.
In a wonderful chapter titled “Move to the Middle in All Things,” Leaming discusses the effects of communication on our society, concluding “it’s as if the whole of the U.S. is having a slow nervous breakdown.”
“In the West, we have everything we could possibly need or want—except for peace of mind.”
Maybe the Tin Woodman was right after all.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.