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BOOK REVIEW

A personal journey in the ‘Happiest Kingdom’

By Nicole Cammorata
Globe Staff / February 26, 2011

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World travel can be a powerful thing. It can ignite a sense of immediacy, a feeling that life is finite and must be lived to its full potential, starting immediately. You don’t have time to wait to be happy. You have to make this life the one you want, right now.

In “Radio Shangri-La,’’ radio and print journalist Lisa Napoli, feels burnt out from chasing down sources and working under tight deadlines. She is, admittedly, in the throes of a midlife crisis, searching for greater meaning and a sense of acceptance after a failed marriage.

At the suggestion of an acquaintance she meets at a party, Napoli leaves the hustle of Los Angeles behind and travels to Bhutan to volunteer at the country’s nascent radio station Kuzoo FM. It is in this tiny South Asian country, while teaching the station’s young staff about reporting news, proper broadcast techniques, and basic media ethics, she reclaims her life.

The trajectory of “Radio Shangri-La’’ takes place over a span of a year and a half, but the bulk of the book involves the first six weeks Napoli spends in the country, and the two subsequent return trips that follow.

Both travelogue and personal journey, “Radio Shangri-La’’ is as much about Bhutan as it is about its author. The Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between China and India, has long stood in isolation from the rest of the world. The last decade or so has brought many changes to this tiny nation. Television arrived in 1999, and by 2006, the number of weekly newspapers tripled. While traditional forms of media may be downsizing practically everywhere else, there’s been a veritable media boom in Bhutan as the country prepped for its first democratic elections.

Like Bhutan, Napoli finds herself to be in transition, a work in progress. “Radio Shangri-La’’ is subtitled “What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.’’ While most countries track their gross domestic profit, the Bhutanese boast a different kind of metric: Gross National Happiness, a concept coined by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s.

“Quality of life was to take precedence over financial and material success,’’ Napoli writes. “Compassion toward and cooperation with your fellow citizens was fundamental, essential, rather than mowing down the other guy with abandon so you could succeed.’’

Napoli reveals to the readers that she arrives in Bhutan with no small amount of personal baggage. Shortly after college, a man broke into her apartment and raped her in the middle of the night. She’s carried the burden of this unspeakable act for years and remains fearful of being alone. She marries in her 20s after a whirlwind romance, but is overcome with a depression and malaise that leads ultimately to divorce.

After a series of adventures that teach her to become more mindful, Napoli experiences an aha! moment. “No longer was I some burnt-out career journalist with no idea how to escape the grind,’’ she writes. “No longer would I see myself as a failure as a woman, either, for not having had a successful long-term romantic partnership that yielded a happy home filled with children. This long-crafted definition of myself, of a nice gal who had made a mess of her life, started to melt away.’’

Comparisons to the wildly popular “Eat Pray Love,’’ Elizabeth Gilbert’s international travel romp through meals, meditation, and men, are easy to see. Both follow single women traversing the world in the hopes of finding themselves with the occasional romance along the way. In a refreshing twist on the female travel memoir, Napoli stands brilliantly apart from Gilbert in that, in the end, she chooses herself and not another man.

Nicole Cammorata can be reached at ncammorata@boston.com.

If You Go

RADIO SHANGRI-LA: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth By Lisa Napoli Crown, 277 pp., $25