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.

 

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore

yourblackfriendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers
by Ben Passmore
2018

I saw Ben Passmore speak on a panel discussion at the Small Press Expo this year. And he was one of the better speakers about doing nonfiction journalism in graphic novel format. I definitely wanted to read his book, which is twenty short stories in graphic novel format – between 1 and 21 pages each. All twenty combined are 120 pages.

The first story, the titular “Your Black Friend”, was remarkably hard to get through. It was fabulous, but it was also deeply uncomfortable because it pointed out my own problems and how none of us get to opt out of a racist society. We can do our best to try to improve society and make it less racist, but we’re all impacted. Black people don’t get to opt out of being oppressed and white people don’t get to opt out of being the oppressors. And here’s a constant struggle with stereotypes in both directions and from all sides.

When reading it, I could feel myself becoming defensive (“I don’t mean it that way!” the white person’s version of “not all men!” etc.) and that itself was an important realization to have, and a reaction I know to guard against.

Once I got through that one though, the rest were (relatively) smooth sailing. Some of them were more impactful than others, and they tended to deal with just different issues that Passmore had run into during his life and travels, many of them about racial inequality but certainly not all of them, and a few that were pure navel-gazing philosophy.

All the stories are good, but a couple of that I want to call out in particular are:

“It’s Not About You”, which does a hilarious and fantastical job of addressing the fact that we’re all dealing with our own issues and struggles and yet that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging other people’s issues and struggles.

and

Ally I Need is Love”, which is a hilarious and biographical story from his past as a pedicab driver dealing with intersectionality issues, generational changes, and stereotyping.

Anyway, the art isn’t my usual style preference but it carries the stories well and is distinctly his Passmore’s own style, which I can now semi-reliably recognize in other contexts (such as on The Nib, which I follow on Instgram.)

I definitely recommend this book.

In writing this review and checking some links, I also discovered that “Your Black Friend” (the short story, rather than the whole book) got turned into a 3-minute youtube video available here.)

An Age of Barns by Eric Sloane

ageofbarnsAn Age of Barns
by Eric Sloane
1967

It probably says a lot about my general reading habits that my first thought about seeing this was that it was like a fantasy world guide except that what it describes and shows detailed pencil sketches of is all real. It starts with pictures of different tools and then moves on to show different types of boards and logs and different ways of making a wall and the different layouts for the structures and the different purposes for the different structures. (And I have now learned that there are cellars vs ground cellars and dry cellars vs wet cellars; not to mention that those crescent moon cut-outs on out-houses mark those as being women’s privies – they’d be sun cut-outs for men’s privies.)

My second reaction, after I’d actually started to read it, was really thinking about how smart and skilled those early farmers were. They would cut down and then carve these trees into interlinking logs. They really are like Lincoln Logs(TM) except more detailed, more individualistic, and a gazillion times more heavy. They knew how they wanted these logs to connect and then they carved them to slot together just so, all while using a medium that can’t be manipulated by one man on his own. It has to be a massive group project.

My third reaction, after having gone to see a barn that I’d previously seen several times, was that once I started to have an understanding of how a barn was put together, I started to see things that I had completely overlooked before because it didn’t previously hold any meaning for me. Before I had thought, huh, that log has an odd wavy texture to it; now I look at it and go: that was hand hewn using a broad ax. Before I hadn’t even noticed some notches on a banister, and now I look at it and go: that is repurposed wood from a different section because the notches on it were intended for something different.

And a final thought: this was written well-before Wikipedia existed but it is still this deep-dive into an esoteric research rabbit hole and it’s amazing. I love getting to see someone else’s passion about something that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to me as a thing to even really think about.

Anyway, the whole book is only about 90 pages, most of it images and diagrams, and it’s not really intended to be read through the way I did, but it’s still fascinating and I liked it.

art history from The Met

I wasn’t particularly aware that The Met (aka The Metropolitan Museum of Art) had its own publishing house, but I’m certainly not surprised. It focuses on art history books.

What does amaze and delight me is that they’ve apparently decided to put their out-of-print books online for free, available to read online or download.

Sweet!

As of writing this, there are 569 books available in their entirety. From just a random pass, they include:

The Academy of the Sword: Illustrated Fencing Books 1500-1800

Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Precolumbian Era

Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting

I haven’t read any of them yet, but having discovered this small archive of amazing books, I figured I needed to spread the word. Cheers!

Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman

freedomhospitalFreedom Hospital: A Syrian Story
written and drawn by Hamid Sulaiman, 2016
translated by Francesca Barrie, 2017

This is a gorgeous graphic novel, with stark images that carry a lot of impact. The style matches the story too, in its stark contrast that still manages complex characters in a confusing state of social collapse.

There’s a cast of twelve main characters in and around the underground hospital Yasmine has set up to provide medical treatment to the resistance of the current regime. It’s not strictly non-fiction — Sulaiman took liberties with combining characters and stories, but it’s not really fiction either. It starts in spring 2012, and covers the year in four seasons with a short epilog set in spring 2013.

It’s not particularly long or technically hard to read, but it’s a hard subject and the characters are all complex and the situation even more so. And I keep on thinking about days later. One of the things that really struck me about it was the way Sulaiman created a background by the simple matter of, when there was a time cut between scenes, there’s a small line saying how many hours or days later it was, and how many people had died in that time.

“six days later: another 731 killed.”
“ten hours later: another 69 killed.”
“two weeks later: another 2,157 killed.”
“twelve days later: another 793 killed.”

And the people who survive carry on trying to do something: to win, to get noticed, to be saved, to survive…

Some of them do and some of them don’t, and everyone just keeps on trying to find some right thing to do, whether it’s to stay or leave or join one of the militias.

It’s heart breaking and wearying and shows just how easy it is to become accustomed to truly horrifying circumstances.