Wednesday, June 25, 2008

3 Cups of Tea and Murakami

Hallellujah! I have finished marking the last exams, writing the last reports. I have oral exams looming and conseils de classe, but really, the school year is over.

So now it is time to do that reading thing. Finished two books recently, neither fully satisfying. The first was Three Cups of Tea, the story of Greg Mortenson, a nurse and mountaineer who has in the past 15 years built 60 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and it seems to me, done more to improve Central Asian-American relations on his own initiative of bottom-up, community based development projects than billions of dollars handed over by the CIA and others to crazy-ass warlords. And it has taken him around $12,000 per school, with now, increasing sums for maintenance and staff salaries needed to support the operation. The deal is, a community has to ask for a school, they have to agree that compulsory attendance for all primary age kids in the area includes the girls, and local people help build the school and operate it. Mortenson's Central Asia Institute seems to have spent a few million dollars over the past 15 years, probably not even $5m. Chicken feed. But the villages where schools have been built have seen child mortality drop and skills increase, with women's centres opening up where women can earn money. Gently, quietly and calmly, in remote villages in the Karakorum, community based development is making a genuine improvement to people's lives and positioning children with no opportunities to get scholarships and make the most of themselves.

The downside of reading the book is that it was written by an American journalist, David Oliver Relin, who is unfortunately a master of the nauseating adulatory style that is the common currency of US Sunday magazines. There isn't enough practical detail of the operation of the schools, and the book essentially covers the early period of building the first couple of schools, rather than the more recent expansion of schools, which would also have been interesting. So, although Mortenson's story is fascinating and important, the book is marred by Relin's oleaginous maunderings.

Second recent book is Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I have friends whose taste and judgement I trust who rave about Murakami, but H-bW&TEOFW didn't do it for me. I will try Norwegian Wood in a while, but I need a rest from the weird stuff. It is an interesting book in that it raises issues of the nature of the mind and consciousness but there was something about reading it that made me feel detached. It's cleverly constructed, and I suspect that Murakami was influenced by Calvino and went on to influence David Mitchell, but my current reading tastes are not for the 'clever-clever', so perhaps that was the major issue. I'm looking for heroes I can love, stories I can be swept up by and interesting places to visit. Nameless individuals identified only by their job function, choppy narratives and Tokyo just didn't fit the bill this time.


Amy said...

I've had 3 Cups of Tea on my TBR...thanks for the review.

Madeleine Conway said...

I found the book quite frustrating - I am really interested in Mortenson's activities (it's the kind of thing I'd like to do myself) but Relin's voice was intrusive and irritating and I felt that the emphasis was on the wrong things. Still, definitely worth reading to see how the whole movement got off the ground.