The Geography of Bliss


NPR foreign correspondent and self-professed grump Eric Weiner takes a journey to nine global destinations, with one simple goal in mind -- to find happiness. From smoking hash in the Netherlands to enduring a caffeine fast in an ashram in India, Weiner's journey is filled with both the laughable and the deep. His quest to find if happiness is linked to geography and culture takes him to the usual happiness seeking destinations like Thailand, but also to the obscure, like Bhutan and Moldova. Don't go to Moldova, by the way. It's not a happy place.

His adventure begins at the World Database of Happiness, a place where there are actual researchers collecting real data on happiness in the world's population. Weiner questions the science but observes, "The contemplation of happiness, of course, is not new... Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, and others sweated over the eternal questions. What is the good life? Is pleasure the same as happiness? When are we going to invent indoor plumbing?" Some destinations seem happier, some seem sadder, and some are stranger. The parting gift bestowed to Weiner in Bhutan, for instance, could raise a few eyebrows. "In any other country, if my guide bought me a giant wooden phallus as a souvenir i would be concerned. In Bhutan, I am touched."

From the very rich to the very poor, the independent to the interdependent, the scope of the book is wide, and Weiner's observations are moving and astute. In contemplating relationships and our reliance on one another, he notes that at first we help each other for selfish reasons, we cooperate to get something in return. But eventually, we just cooperate. "We help because we can, or because it makes us feel good, not because we're counting on some future payback. There is a word for this. Love."

Light read and lighthearted banter are on the surface of this venture through happiness and misery. And just below that is a mild plea for more. For each of us to ask the same questions. Are we happy? What makes us truly happy? How far are we willing to go to find happiness? And, if we believe Weiner's conclusions, it seems it's not too far away.


One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
By Eric Weiner.
329 pp. Twelve. $25.99.

The Gathering

by Susana Fletcher

If you ever wanted to open a portal into someone's slightly sad, slightly scattered mind and live through grief and discovery, here's your chance. Anne Enright's novel "The Gathering" is at times oppressive, at other times uplifting, but at all times it is an open invitation to move in and help the protagonist Veronica work through memories, histories, and scars in search for the truth.

Veronica is a mother, a wife, and a member of the Hegarty clan, whose history and unity are tantamount to its dysfunction. Her closest brother and childhood friend, Liam, is dead, and with his passing she becomes the sole surviving keeper of an old family secret. This causes Veronica to slip into the recesses of her mind, processing memories and wounds insufficiently healed. "But though it hurt, I found that I was able to draw on more ancient hurts than that -- and that is how I survived. This is how we all survive. We default to the oldest scar."

Enveloped by her lamentable excuse for a mother, her loveless marriage, and her intense grief, Veronica sits at a crossroads for change and self-realization. "Sitting on a stool in a Shelbourne bar," she thinks, "I wondered what might happen if I just carried on as usual, told no one, changed nothing, and decided not to be married after all." She employs sensual fantasy and therapeutic fiction in this beautiful and tragic story of sorrow and coming to terms with the hardest of truths. "We are entirely free range. We are human beings in the raw. Some survive better than others, that is all."

A story brilliantly woven through three generations, Enright captures the rawest form of thought and the mind's ability to cope with trauma. Uncomfortable realizations, unflinching truths, and the undeniable consequences that grow from seeds of defilement and shame, "The Gathering" is a fearless look at the inside, probing the inner wounds that sometimes fester unawares.

By Anne Enright
261 pp. Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic, Inc. $14

The Gathering: A Novel

Black Dogs: The Possibly True Story of Classic Rock's Greatest Robbery

by Susana Fletcher

This part is true: In 1973, after Led Zeppelin played a three-night show at Madison Square Gardens, the band's $203,000 cash payment was stolen from their safety deposit box at the hotel. No one was arrested; the money was never recovered.

What editor of Inked magazine and debut novelist Jason Buhrmester weaves in Black Dogs is the story of a group of small town hoodlums and their fortuitous, if not preposterous, scheme to pull off the biggest heist of their parentless, criminal, moral-free lives. This is the story of how they're going to rob Led Zeppelin's $203,000 payoff from their hotel safety deposit box.

Patrick is a burglar, Alex is a recently released ex-con, Frenchy's a guitarist, and Keith is a stereo installer and weekend stereo "remover". The motley gang and their flimsy paper-thin characters definitely have some coolspeak, but the majority of their time is spent on crime, music, drugs and alcohol. They run into some trouble with the local pawn shop, and the Holy Ghosts, a "Christian" motorcycle gang, which lends for some fun moments and good conflict.

Not one of the characters has any remorse, or repentance, or any sympathetic quality, which is unfortunate, since their bad sides make for a good read. Black Dogs is mildly amusing, and no doubt rock-n-roll fans will dig it for the fun and entertaining theme, but in the end, it fails to hold water for it's underdeveloped characters, the myopic and unscrupulous team of young men that really just deserve to go to jail.

By Jason Buhrmester

The Road

by Susana Fletcher

If you’re like me, and you’ve somehow got this far in life without reading Cormac McCarthy, stop. McCarthy’s latest novel will change the road you’re on.

The Road is a story of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There have been fires, explosions, and wars, and most life has gone from the planet. Nearly every trace of food is gone. The ashen world has been ravaged for about ten years by those willing to do anything to survive. And walking on foot through the dismal leftovers is a father and son, headed toward the Gulf Coast for warmth. They are two of the few people who are still inexplicably alive. "Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire."

The characters are referred to as “he” and “the boy”, and theirs is a deeply moving story of a father balancing the dangerous scales of self-preservation and integrity and a boy who has never known anything but the atrocities of recent history. They live on small miracles and fortuitous discovery. A savage gang of survivors might be tracking them. And one more thing, the father is desperately sick.

McCarthy has woven his story in prose that reads like one’s dying last words: broken, beautiful, and packed with purpose. “Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone." A deeply engaging and heartbreaking journey that will give you goose bumps with each reading, The Road is emotionally challenging and lyrically masterful.

By Cormac McCarthy.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Susana Fletcher

I have a confession to make. Before I read this book, I had never heard the name Trujillo, and my "quick -- think fast" response to the Dominican Republic was "baseball". (Uh, Sammy Sosa, hello?) But along with the woven stories of Oscar, his sister Lola, their mother Beli and matriarch La Inca in Junot Diaz' cutting novel, there is a bitter love song to the Dominican. The irresistible draw of the land and the people, and the thorns of fear that the legacy of Rafael Trujillo's cruel dictatorship has yet to erase.

Oscar is a "ghetto nerd" of sorts, and through the eyes of Yunior, Lola's on-again-off-again, we get the unbridled tale of Oscar's woe, of his fuku (read: bad juju) brought on by the family's history, and of a boy caught between two worlds, the Dominicans who can't make sense of a Tolkien-loving Trekkie, and people in the States, who think he's a fat, nerdy Dominican. Self-aware and unapologetic, Oscar is surrounded by people who just want him to change. But who changes whom?

Diaz' language is not for the faint of heart. The fluidity of Spanish to English to cursing street speech is a bit overwhelming at times, but brilliantly woven. The lack of quotation marks, I know, is a style issue. So I guess Diaz made his point. But the accomplishment of language in this book, to span so many lives, so many attitudes, such range of emotion and experience, and all through a third party playboy like Yunior, is nothing less than awesome.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an important book. It is an immigrant family history with wonderment as big as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and with approachability as easy as hip-hop music. It is coarse, refined, lovely, heartbreaking, offensive, necessary and endearing all in the same breath.


By Junot Díaz

340 pages. Riverhead Books. $24.95.

Three Cups of Tea

by Susana Fletcher

I don’t think Mother Abbess was speaking literally when she sang to Maria, “Climb every mountain, ford every stream… ‘til you find your dream.” But ever since Greg Mortenson took her at her word, the world is the better for it. “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, tells Mortenson’s recent history: how he went from a homeless mountain climber to a revered and effective co-ed school builder in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson’s endearing character and Relin’s compelling narrative, although it reads a little rough in places, is an amazing story of conviction and determination.

Greg Mortenson was a nurse in California, and worked just long enough to pay bills and plan for his next climb. When his sister died in 1992, the devastated Mortenson made the decision to climb K2, the world’s second largest mountain in the Karakorams of Pakistan, in her honor. In heartbreaking defeat, he found himself lost, without his guide or supplies, and nearly dead. He stumbled into the remote Korphe village, where the frightened women covered their faces. He writes, “No foreigner had ever been to Korphe before.” After seven weeks in the care of the Korphe, he promised to build a school for the village, a school that Pakistani girls were allowed to attend.

Mortenson takes us through the painful and laborious first school building, and the lessons he learned about himself and the Pakistani people. “Sit down. And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali, the village leader said to a micromanaging Mortenson. “You’re making everyone crazy.” Mortenson’s humbled and persistent heart is rewarded. He trusts and empowers the locals, and they in turn, devote themselves to the task.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a page turner from the victorious and joyful moments to the most frightening and disappointing. He comes against some serious opposition, including two fatwas and a kidnapping, but through Mortenson’s generous donors, emotional support from his devoted wife, his commitment to education as means to promote peace, and his quirky local crew, he builds 58 schools by the time “Three Cups of Tea” went to print.

The world according to Greg Mortenson is one where people change their own destiny, where oppression and adversity means finding another way, and where one American with the right heart attitude can be a living legend in the footsteps of Johnny Appleseed, spreading seeds of tolerance and knowledge throughout the world, beginning with central Asia. If you appreciate efficiency and effectiveness in non-profit endeavors, you'll want to keep a checkbook on your nightstand, right next to your bookmark.

By Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
368 pp. Penguin. $15.00 paperback.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time

The Book Thief

by Susana Fletcher

Do we need another telling of lives affected by World War II? Yes. We do. As long as Marcus Zusak is doing the talking. “The Book Thief”, Zusak’s latest novel, isn’t like one you’ve read before. It’s as if C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape met up with Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” cast, of youth fiction fame. The result is a smart and endearing story of a preteen who, although she steals a few books, is thoughtful and selfless, and the alternating curt and empathetic narration of Death – yes, Death – who despite our preconceptions of the reaper, makes for a good tour guide, reassuringly stating, “I urge you – don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.”

Liesel Meminger is a foster child in Molching, Germany during the Third Reich. She is cared for by the Hubermans, empty nesters who can barely stand each other. Hans is a house painter and accordion player. Rosa takes in laundry, makes inedible pea soup, and calls Liesel mostly “saumensch”, a German insult relating to the word “pig”.

It’s a rough start for Liesel, with daily nightmares and foster mom Rosa’s cold demeanor, but the young girl finds friendship in the quiet and patient Hans, whom she calls Papa, and the delightfully deranged kid next door, Rudy Steiner, who thinks he’s Jesse Owens. Zusak uses the characters to pause the larger and more dismal picture and focus on small joys. In one such instance, Rudy and Liesel find a coin in the street and take it to do what kids do when they find money. “Mixed candy, please.” Being that the coin was only a pfennig, they end up sharing a single piece of hard candy, taking ten sucks each before passing it back to the other. They walk home, red mouths and all, smiling along the way. “The day had been a great one, and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.” The diametric theme drives the shaky graph-line of ups and downs. Death even delineates the book’s thematic quakes, “the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Circumstances soon bring “Papa” Hans face to face with a promise he made during the First World War. And so the Hubermans hide a Jew in their basement. “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.” The layers of friendship and family are made rich by Max’s arrival, and the range of life and death is deepened.

Zusak’s creative format and precise language provide interest and momentum. The narrator, with quick bites like, “A fire would be lit. A book would be stolen,” seemingly gives everything away, only to carry the reader to the next beautiful moment when nothing was actually spoiled but everything is realized and the rhythm of the book beats on in its steady, throbbing, idiosyncratic way.

Although the full effect of Nazi book burnings, the marches of emaciated Dachau Jews, and Hitler Youth rallies are not hidden from view, “The Book Thief” is not gratuitous; after all, it is a young adult fiction, albeit one that should be read by adults, too. It assumes the reader to fill in the blanks, and is as much a story about life as it is about death. Just as the characters all find their diversion somehow – Death in colors of the sky, Max in weather reports, and Liesel her solace in words – so the reader finds wonderment in the worthy hearts of those pictured in “The Book Thief”, if only to temporarily distract from the backdrop of atrocities that must also be told.

By Markus Zusak Illustrated.
552 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $16.95

The Book Thief

The Traveler's Gift

By Susana Fletcher

Remember in high school when each of us got “the speech” from our favorite teacher? You know the one: “You’ve got so much potential,” they’d plead. “If only you’d just apply yourself.” We’d inevitably roll our eyes, as teens do, and exit with coolness intact. But somehow the thin lecture reverberated, and we pushed forward toward betterment.

“The Traveler’s Gift,” an inspirational novel by motivational speaker Andy Andrews, has the same effect. The book’s simple narration and Sunday school advice doesn’t fail to tug at a few heartstrings.

Protagonist David Ponder is a man at his end. After being laid off from his corporate executive position and having no financial independence to show for it, he learns that his daughter needs surgery. He can’t afford it, and has nowhere to turn.

A predictable turn of events takes Ponder on a soul-seeking journey though time, where each encounter with a dead famous person generates a piece of advice. From King Solomon to Christopher Columbus, they bestow affirmations. “My destiny is assured,” Columbus passes along from behind the helm of the Santa Maria. “I have a decided heart.” Harry Truman gives the famous, “The buck stops here,” adding, “I am responsible for my success.”

Andrew’s narration is simple and rosy, reminiscent of Andy Taylor’s patient parables with Opie. The diversity of voice is thin, leaving Anne Frank and Abe Lincoln with virtually the same narrative inflections. None of the characters, as they read, has more or less humor than the next. Or grit. Or insight. The individual chapters would make great fodder for a daily inspirational calendar or the like, but as a novel they fall flat. One clear message, though, seems to penetrate unscathed through the layers: Be better.

Through rolling eyes I read “A Traveler’s Gift.” But just as a teenager, before I dared to leave my homework undone yet again, I let the message resonate, and decided to take Andrew’s advice anyway. Following Anne Frank’s, “I will greet this day with a forgiving spirit,” I forgave Andrews his lack of eloquence and originality, and let the good advice sink beneath the rebellious layers. If Andrews ever finds himself unemployed as did his character in “Traveler’s Gift”, I’m sure he’d make a fine guidance counselor.

THE TRAVELER’S GIFT: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success
By Andy Andrews
224 pp. Thomas Nelson. $19.99.

The Traveler's Gift: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success

Same Kind of Different as Me

By Susana Fletcher

A friend of mine just returned from a mission trip to Zambia. She told me how God was clearer in a place where there were fewer distractions. She had witnessed some pretty intense events, even the casting out of demons. Hearing about these amazing wonders God performs in Africa, Asia, and around the world, I begin to wonder sometimes if God bothers with this country at all. And then I hear a story like Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s, “Same Kind of Different as Me.” Suddenly, things don’t look so grim.

This true life story is one that reaffirms belief in things unseen and may even bring one closer to God, by telling the tale of a few changed lives.

Denver Moore was born and raised into a sharecropping family in Alabama, although there didn’t seem to be any actual "sharing". This “modern-day slave” life consisted of working cotton fields day and night, receiving barely enough supplies and shelter to stay alive, and being eternally in debt to “the man”, or owner of the plantation. Denver left Alabama in his late twenties, only to spend the next 30 years in jail and on the streets, ending up homeless in Fort Worth, Texas. He became hardened with layers of distrust and anger. "You get a spirit in you, a spirit makes you feel like nobody in the world cares nothin about you," Moore writes. "People with that spirit get mean, dangerous. They play by the rules of the jungle."

Ron Hall, the other narrator in this two-lives-become-one story, first tells us of his early life in East Texas. It’s not all that interesting until you meet Deborah, his girlfriend-turned-wife, and we begin to hear about his million dollar art sales. As his career as an art dealer rises, his relationship with his wife declines. A midlife crisis moment jolts things back into place, Ron starts paying more attention to his wife’s life, and they end up serving dinner at a homeless shelter every Tuesday in their hometown of Fort Worth. Deborah was, Hall writes, "propelled by her passion to help the broken and I [was] propelled by a love for my wife."

And so Ron and Denver take us through, step by step, the years that connected their lives, the struggles they faced when Deborah was diagnosed with cancer, and the faith in God and man that carried them through.

Especially poignant is Hall’s section on evangelism. It is a microcosm of the story itself, which isn’t a how-to on Christianity. He writes, “I have learned that even with my $500 European-designer bifocals, I cannot see into a person’s heart to know his spiritual condition. All I can do is tell the jagged tale of my own spiritual journey.”

The dual voice narration is refreshing and honest. Moore is honest about who he is, and Hall is honest about who he is not. Although the depiction of Hall’s wife Deborah might as well have come with its own textual halo – she never once smacked one of her kids or even cooked a bad meal – the love that the two men have for her is enough to let it slide.
Ron, Deborah (“Miss Debbie”), and Denver prove that true friendship and selfless investment in another’s life is better than the finest gold or sleekest luxury car. “Same Kind of Different as Me” is an inspiring and sobering reminder of the power of God in the lives of people whose hearts are open.

By Ron Hall & Denver Moore.
235 pp. Thomas Nelson. $14.99.

Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

By Susana Fletcher

I love it when ideas get turned upside down. Organic bananas and hormone-free milk in the grocery store is a good thing, right? As it turns out, not as good of a deal as I thought. "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", by Barbara Kingsolver is responsible for overturning my food table.

Kingsolver and her family take a one year promise: only eat what they can grow themselves or buy from local farmers. It is the original “independently wealthy” concept of our forefathers, and Kingsolver means to reclaim it. The family plants a magnificent garden in their 40-acre Virginia plot and takes us through their year of gardening, cooking, and preserving.

The cynic in me, from page one, was waiting and waiting for the undoing. A year with no outside food? What about the Cheetos? What about the soda? What about the CHOCOLATE?! I needed to read about the breakdown that they had, gnawing on a Snickers through the wrapper in the fetal position at the Stop-n-Go. Because that’s where I’d end up. What actually ensues are mouth-watering stories of pumpkin soup baked in the pumpkin itself, of homemade bread and cheese and of the heartwarming moments in the kitchen with the whole family. After one tantilizing tale of bread pudding with asparagus and wild morel mushrooms, Kingsolver writes, "Had I been worried that cutting the industrial umbilicus would leave us to starve? Give me this deprivation, any old day of the week."

Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, contributes to the book with his witty and informative sidebars, addressing anything from the Farm Bill to how to please your wife with a machine (bread machine). Camille, Kingsolver’s 18-year old daughter, offers her youthful and culinary spin on the experience, gifting the recipes that highlighted the year and emanating the family-instilled values and life education.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, though containing many a soapbox (you’ll never look at a banana the same way), is never preachy. Kingsolver sifts in moments that will change your life, one step at a time. For example, you may just have a bit more appreciation for the home-canned tomatoes from your coworker's garden this holiday.

One of the many issues Kingsolver addresses is the problem of a diet-crazed nation who has come to see food as the enemy. Protein shakes replace meals, and yet nobody can identify the ingredients. Kingsolver is passionate about knowing what foods are in season, appreciating them for the joy they are, the flavor they give, and the satisfaction of having grown them yourself. The family looks food in the eye (literally with turkeys, chickens and potatoes, figuratively with the other foods). "You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened,” she writes, “or you can look it in the eye and know it.”

America has outsmarted itself in the food department by trying to adapt and grow into a fast-paced, streamlined-processed nation. Kingsolver proves that when things are stripped away – convenience, technology, “forward” thinking – and we revert back to some of our most primal tasks – herding, growing, communicating – the connections which we are so desperate to achieve in our wheel-spinning mayhem are found only when we simplify. That perhaps “backward” thinking is the answer. That maybe smaller is better. Local rather than global. That simplicity, rather than decadence, should be the new American dream. Farmers market, anyone?

By Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.
370 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.

Animal Vegetable Miracle 1ST Edition

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Susana Fletcher

Let's re-title this book: A Thousand Wrenching Heartbreaks. If it had taken longer than the three days I spent reading this book, I might have needed a Cymbalta prescription. I felt beaten up after each reading. With each new blow, each gut wrench, I groaned and wept and waited for more. Like an emotional masochist I soaked up the raw, chilling pain and paper thin emotion. But I was not defeated; I just knew the payoff was going to be rich.

Khaled Hosseini's second novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns", is so beautiful a misery it is worth the bearing. The story's main character, not Mariam or Laila, but the wounded and beaten Afghanistan, is a woman who has borne too many undelicate suitors. With the coming and passing of each new abuser from the Soviet occupation to the most recent Taliban, the country bears the scars and yet endures. So apropos a backdrop is this weakened capital of Kabul and the surrounding areas for the stories of Mariam and Laila, and so beautifully painted by Hosseini, that my heart broke equally for Afghanistan's woes.

"Like a compass needle that points north," Miriam's mother tells her as a child, "a man's accusing finger always finds a woman." The women of "Splendid Suns" are too strong and too delicate to have been written by the hand of a man. Hosseini's wife must have written this book. But, alas, Khaled Hosseini has worked wonders. He mentions twice "the sacrifices a mother had to make", one being virtue and the other decency. The irony is, not only did the women fail to sacrifice either, but Hosseini didn't feel the need to spell out the zillion maternal sacrifices that actually did come to pass, such as unanaesthetized caesarean surgery. His perfect descriptions of one selfless event after another do not need a delineating mark on the sacrifice list to be remembered. Truly graphic and gripping is the description of Laila, grasping the poles on either side of the caesarean operating table, her mouth gaped open for the moments before she could process the entirety of her pain.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" captivated my reading life, and I was happy to surrender. I shouted. I wept aloud. I groaned. I laughed. I sucked in my breath. And at the end, I sighed with the same painful joy that beswept Laila at the end of the book. The disbelief at all that had taken place. The wounds that would take time to heal. The relief that life was now and forever different. And those were just my emotions.

By Khaled Hosseini.
372 pp. Riverhead Books. $25.95.

A Thousand Splendid Suns