Sunday, March 11, 2007

Book Review: So Close to Heaven; Barbara Crossette, 1995

Subtitled "The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas," So Close to Heaven doesn't quite live up to its billing. About three quarters of the book focuses on the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, with perfunctory chapters on Sikkim, Ladakh and Nepal, and nothing at all on Tibet, the region's former center of scholarship and religious authority. Nor is there more than passing reference to Dharmasala, seat of the Tibetan exile government headed by the Dalai Lama.

Even so this is a readable introduction to the people and history of the Buddhist cultures of the Himalayas. A first-person account of her travels through the region organized topically, former New York Times correspondent Barbara Crosette never ventures into the territory of modern travel writers to describe how the journey changes the writer. She writes instead as she would for her newspaper, with great attention to the facts of history and details of her surroundings, allowing the reader to feel immersed in this often exotic corner of the world, one that has over the last half century been slowly disappearing as development encroaches on traditional culture and as powerful neighbors usurp political independence. Unfortunately, for a reporter from such a prestigious news organization she makes little effort to investigate claims of human rights abuses against the Bhutanese monarchy, with which she admits having cordial and cozy relations.

First published in 1995, this volume remains in 2007 an interesting introduction to the region, a place slow to change and still experiencing many of the pressures and conflicts Crosette recorded a decade ago.



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