wescoat, November 05, 2008
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Despite the fact Weiner (pronounced, "Why-ner," natch) writes prose that's about as sophisticated and artful as a nine-year-old's, he did have share some interesting things to say about happiness. Geography is essentially a travel book. Each chapter follows Weiner to a different country as he galavants about looking for "happy" places. He goes to Bhutan, Iceland, Switzerland, India, Thailand, and a few more, and finds varying degrees of happiness at each. I thought he did a good job of covering a diverse swath of places, and his depictions of some of the places I'd never even consider visiting were quite interesting. Qatar, for instance. Who would ever think to go to Qatar? But we forget that, thanks to its oil, it's one of the richest countries in the world. It's so rich, in fact, its government basically gives away free money to all citizens. It is a relatively new country that has come into its wealth relatively recently in world history, creating a sort of culture vacuum in which glittering buildings were erected and roads were paved with gold before any real culture had time to set in. The result is like a giant, really nice strip mall, populated by assholes in luxury automobiles who treat Starbucks baristas like their own personal slaves. Also, Weiner goes to Moldova, a neighbor of Russia that is, according to many "happiness indexes" and other bullshit studies and think tanks, one of the world's UN-happiest places. It pretty much lives up to its reputation, which makes for a pretty interesting chapter, since it is always fascinating to read about other peoples' misery.
So Weiner does a good job of sort of summing up the feel of most of his destinations, and of articulating the things that makes each one mostly happy or mostly not happy. America, for instance, is surprisingly low in the happiness index, because we have developed this incredible expectation regarding our own happiness. We expect large and constant amounts of happiness, and when we don't get it, our unhappiness is exacerbated by the fact that we feel entitled to it. Other, less-expectational countries, like India and Thailand, think we're crazy.
However, while Weiner's book is mostly entertaining, it also feels a little vapid. This is in part thanks to Weiner's simplistic writing style, and it is also in part thanks to the fact he only gives ONE, pretty brief chapter to each place. On his website he claims he spent two years researching this book, and yet each chapter feels like he stayed about three days in whatever the destination is, then inflated his truncated experiences into something meaningful. Bliss is ultimately pretty shallow, and Weiner's endless attempts at wisecracking are at best worthy of a mild chuckle, and at worst make him seem like an incurious, insensitive douchebag. He calls himself a "grump" in the book's title, but offers nothing about his life that might demonstrate such a claim. A correspondent for NPR, with a loving wife, a daughter, and a great career, it's hard to imagine him as unhappy, and he does little to convince us otherwise. He's a good reporter but not much of a writer.