Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson

StonesIntoSchools coverStones into Schools
by Greg Mortenson
read by Atossa Leoni
2009

What is particularly wonderful about this book is the pervasive optimism. At a time when I often feel hopeless in the face of atrocities I can’t fight, this is a story about a guy who figured out how to fight. And by fight, I mean arrange the building of schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I may be the last person to know about this book since it’s a sequel to “Three Cups of Tea”, which I vaguely recall from that having been on the New York Times Best Seller list for a gazillion weeks some years back, but I never read. I now probably need to do so. But I picked up “Stones into Schools” kind of randomly as one of the few audiobooks at my local library that looked like an interesting read for my work commute. And it really was.

Apparently, in the first book, Mortenson talks about having been a mountain climber who got lost in Pakistan, winding up in a small rural village where a very goal-oriented young child wrangles a promise out of him that he will return and build her a school in her village. There’s some extreme mission creep, as happens, and he winds up with a nonprofit that builds a number of schools in a number of rural villages.

The second book, this one that I’ve just read (ie, listened to), starts with Mortenson checking in on one of these schools along the Pakistan-Afghan border, when horseriders come down from the Afghan mountains to meet him. They explain that they had heard he was in the area, and by area, they meant a mere six-day horseride away, and had come to ask him to build a school for their community of nomadic yak herders in the heights of the mountainous Wakhan Corridor. This was in 1998.

The book covers the next ten years of Mortenson’s attempt to get that school built, through the rise of Taliban and the complex series of relationships, favors given and owed, with all the people and communities along the way.

The book does an amazing job of introducing the people he meets and works with, in all their complexities of personal histories and motives, and how, in the end, they align in trying to bring literacy to rural girls. It also really introduced me for the first time to exactly how horrific the Taliban was to the people it claimed as its own, and how few they truly numbered for all their viciousness. The Taliban created an unsustainable society that hates its own women, but the women and the men who cared for them continued to strive for better.

This book makes me feel hopeful. And that is something I desperately need right now.

When I checked my library catalog to make sure they had “Three Cups of Tea” for my future reading/listening (they do), I discovered another book “Three Cups of Deceit” all about how Mortenson is a liar and a fraud and just the title felt like a slap in the face after such optimism. I looked up both that book and Mortenson on Wikipedia to figure out what the actual truth was and, as far as I can tell, the “Three Cups of Deceit” guy was angry that Mortenson isn’t perfect, nonprofits are always weird, rural schools for girls haven’t immediately created peace in the middle east, and decided to ride the coattails of fame with a clickbait title, while doing his best to turn optimism into cynicism and hope into despair. Mortenson promotes his successes and talks less about his failures and there’s no more financial shenanigans in his nonprofit than in many others. I think the ultimate lesson here is: you don’t have to be flawless to still be good. Find a quest, like-minded people will join you on the quest, and do as much good in the world as you possibly can.

 

The ABC Murders

By Agatha Christie

ABC_MurdersI was telling my mom, a big Agatha Christie reader, how disappointing the miniseries was, and she casually gave me a spoiler to the novel which made me want to read it immediately. I won’t pass along the spoiler, but I will say Christie sets up so many zigs and zags that I was surprised at almost every turn, even knowing a key part of the ending.

In the past, I’ve found Hercule Poirot just a bit too self-satisfied to be entertaining, but compared to the completely dour Malkovich portrayal, he’s an absolute delight. Like the miniseries, Poirot is older and has retired, but unlike the series, he is happy as a clam, traveling around, selecting only the very most interesting crimes to solve.

One particular scene stood out to me early on in contrast: John Malkovich shuffles around his threadbare apartment, dying his hair over a chipped and stained sink in a scene of utter pathos. Book Poirot, on the other hand, delightedly shows off his new blackening hair tonic to his friend, after being complimented on his youthful appearance. He is unapologetic and incorrigible, and I loved it!

Ordeal by Innocence

By Agatha Christie

Ordeal_By_InnocenceWe finally bit the bullet and got Amazon Prime in order to watch “Good Omens,” and since then I’ve also been diving into all the Agatha Christie I’d been pining after. I’d previously reviewed the novel Crooked House, and the movie lacks a fair amount of the charm of the novel, replacing the more familial relationships with additional drama. However, the casting is truly amazing: Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, and Christina Hendricks, all playing extreme personalities rubbing against each other in the titular crooked house. So, while I preferred the novel overall, the movie is well worth a watch.

After Crooked House, Amazon recommended “Ordeal by Innocence,” a three-part miniseries based on another stand-alone Agatha Christie novel I wasn’t familiar with. Well, I absolutely loved it! An authoritative matriarch has adopted five children from a variety of troubled backgrounds and raised them with dictatorial love. At the time of the book and miniseries’ start, she has been murdered 18 months ago, and the youngest son, with a history of delinquency, found guilty from overwhelming evidence. The son had insisted on his innocence until he died in prison, providing an alibi that couldn’t be confirmed.

The first character we meet is the man who could have proven the alibi, but has been incapacitated for the past 18 months, and is only coming forward now. This of course opens a whole can of worms, as the family had finally settled into some semblance of acceptance of the mother’s death and the son’s culpability, and now suspicion is everywhere again.

The miniseries takes some of the subtext from the book and makes it straight up text, leading to some deliciously shocking reveals along the way. Controversially, the series actually changes the ending, going with a different perpetrator and motive than the book. The revised ending maintains the spirit of the book, and gives a clear nod to a pivotal relationship in the original.

The book is much quieter, taking a more philosophical approach toward what it means to be innocent of a crime if no one can prove it (thus the title). Wikipedia cited that it was not one of Christie’s more popular novels, with reviewers wary of the psychological delving into motives and character. I wouldn’t normally have minded this, but 1950s psychology is rough. The women are portrayed especially uncharitably, which I would guess inspired the changed ending.

As Rebecca pointed out, the two books complement each other fairly well: both large, wealthy families consisting of conflicting strong personalities; in one, the troubled backgrounds of the family members lead naturally to conflict; in the other, the family seems to turn to conflict themselves just for the entertainment. For each, I preferred the version that included the most warmth in characters, and for one that was the novel and for the other the updated series.

As an aside, we also tried to watch “The ABC Murders” with John Malkovich as an aging and depressed Hercule Poirot, and it was such a depressing grind that we couldn’t get past the first episode.

eNewsletters

I promise that I’m going to review an actual book eventually, but in the meantime, here’s some more links!

We’ve all mourned the closing of The Toast on this blog (though thank god for the archive!), and before it closed, the editors tried multiple ways to make it financially sustainable but not exclusive without success. E-newsletters may be the answer! Both Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg, founding editors of The Toast, have ones that mirror their respective writing styles. Both newsletters are primarily for a paid subscription, though include periodic public posts for people who either cannot afford the subscription or want to read some samples first.

Nicole Cliffe’s daily newsletter, Nicole Knows, lists interesting reads from around the web, including long-form articles, YouTube videos, tweets, advice column letters, and my favorite, particularly juicy reddit posts. She also recently published an interview with Alanis Morissette in Self Magazine, and I’ve never been a huge fan of Morissette’s music, but reading these two smart and compassionate women talk about feminism and motherhood and individuality was a real inspiration.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, is not as regular as daily, but several times a week, and my best idea is that it spans whatever he happens to be thinking of that day. It is often very funny, often very insightful, and sometimes so educational on trans issues that I’m scrambling to keep up.

And finally, this isn’t really a newsletter in the same way as the above, but R. Eric Thomas, an incredibly funny writer for Elle.com, writes a weekly tinyletter, in which he collects his 3-4 articles for Elle.com with some additional commentary or personal anecdote. They are free to subscribe to, and I look forward to them every Sunday as the only thing making current politics even remotely bearable.

—Anna

Running from COPS

So, I’ve moved to Michigan! My life got increasingly frantic leading up to the move, and now I’m surrounded by boxes, but things are calmer. I’m currently reading Rewind, the fourth in the Pinx Video mystery series, which continues to be a delightful mix of noir-ish detachment and absurdist humor. It is a perfect counterbalance to the stress of packing all of one’s belongings up in boxes and then having to unpack them again.

Running_from_COPSHOWEVER, have I got a podcast recommendation for you! It is fascinating, intense, and disturbing, and I have to take it a little at a time. “Running from COPS” is a widespread look at the show COPS, which I was shocked to realize has been on for 30 years and has aired more than a thousand episodes.

I was never a huge fan of the show, but also didn’t think very hard about it, assuming it was just a normal look at law enforcement, and how you viewed the show depended on how you viewed law enforcement in general. Which, according to the podcast, is an entirely intentional impression created by the show and has had truly insidious effects on the evolution of law enforcement.

The podcast interviews the creators of the show, network producers, retired police, lawyers, and most importantly the “criminals,” who are often found not-guilty after the cameras have turned away but will forever be “the person on COPS”. The creators ask a lot of very good questions and then follow up with the people that can answer them, which is the very best of critical-thinking media these days.

I think, like a lot of complacent, middle-class, white people, I had generally bought the argument that while flawed, law enforcement was generally trying its best, and the last decade or so has been a continual waking up to a very different reality. This podcast, for me, has been yet another wake-up call on how methodically the institution of law enforcement has been normalizing and even celebrating human rights abuses. It is not always an easy listen (honestly, in this day and age, just listening to the audio from episodes is upsetting), but I highly recommend it, not only because it is an important eye-opener but it is just great podcasting!

More Fleabag

A few weeks ago I recommended some TV that I thought the Biblio-therapy readers would enjoy, since books have been a bit disappointing of late. (I did recently enjoy Normal People by Sally Rooney, but basically everyone else in the world has written a glowing review of it.) One of the shows I talked about was Fleabag, and I mentioned that the second season would be coming to Amazon soon. I have to admit that I was a little wary of this new season–the first season was such a beautifully complete story that I couldn’t imagine how a second season could measure up. But, you guys, Season 2 is BETTER. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are wonderful things happening with characters and with the narrative structure, and it was just a sort of a perfect season of TV. Everyone should watch it. Seriously, please go watch it, because I really need someone to talk about it with.

Great Literary Takedowns

HunterSThompsonI can’t remember what social media recommended this, but a while ago, someone linked to this truly incredible ‘eulogy’ that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Nixon on his death:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It is also shockingly reflective of the current president, as well. In these terrible times, I’ve been really missing the political writers like Molly Ivins, who could make me laugh while exposing the most outrageous politics, and we need more of them. I hope to God someone writes something similar about Trump on his demise (or sooner).

* * * * * * * * *

MarkTwainWhen I was relating this to my mom as perhaps the best literary take-down I’d ever read, she reminded me of Mark Twain’s savaging of Fenimore Cooper, which if you haven’t read, you need to go do right now:

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it.

Honestly, is there anything better than a truly skilled author using their gifts for maximum snark?

* * * * * * * * *

Unrelated, but since I’m linking to things, I’ve been obsessed with this tweet all week:

GarthGreenwell

Some good samaritan put together a spotify list that I’ve been listening to all week, and just mulling over how hard it is to feel vulnerable in your teens, trying to make meaningful connections with other people. And, of course, it is just a total shot of pure 90s teenage longing!

— Anna