"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stones into Schools

by Greg Mortenson

Back in September I raved about Mortenson's first book, Three Cups of Tea, which to this day is one of the most memorable and inspiring nonfiction books I have read.  This second book, which picks up where Three Cups left off is just as mesmerizing.

Three Cups of Tea tells of how Mortenson fails to climb K2 and ends up in a small village in Pakistan where they save his life and care for him.  It is there he discovers a group of children going to "school" out in the open, with no supplies.  He goes on to promise the leader of the small village that somehow he will build them a school.  From there the book details how he does his by starting the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and fulfills the promise and makes many more to many small villages in Pakistan.

Stones into Schools details the further adventures of this organization and man as they both grow, and as they move into working in the harsh conditions of remote Afghanistan.  The harrowing efforts so many people make, most of them local people who simply want education for their daughters, is truly amazing.  And I was equally appreciative that Mortenson covers his expanding relationship with members of the military, who are in support of his good work.  Even he admits it surprised him somewhat, but it gives a lot of hope to me that there are many good men and women who serve their country (my brother and brother-in-law included) and also want to help the people where they serve. 

If you've read Three Cups of Tea, this sequel is just as good if not better.  If you haven't read either of them, go do it now because it will change your view of the world for better.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick

I recently got the urge to read some good sci-fi, so went online and looked up a list of the top 100 books in the genre.  This book ranked high on a number of lists so I thought I'd give it a try.  My review is mixed.  While I was fascinated by the premise of the plot, as well as intrigued by the style of writing, overall it didn't always hold my attention, and the ending was a little too "post-modern" for my taste.  It just kind of ended, without really ending.  I've taken classes on Post-modern literature but I just prefer tradition story-lines.

The main idea of the book focuses on the United States in an alternate reality where Japan and Germany have won World War II.  The western half of the country is controlled by the Japanese, who are the conquerers but somewhat decent.  The eastern half is run by the Nazis, who have taken their "final solution" to greater lengths and have proceeded to wipe out most of Africa.  The Nazis are the real ones in control, with the Japanese under them, and the Americans on the bottom rung.  The way Dick simply and quietly introduces the reader to this society and fills it with believeable characters and characteristics is fascinating and quite impressive.  His attention to detail is exquisite and makes the reading of the book quite fascinating.

I also was intrigued by the language and word style of the book.  I'm not sure I can explain it very well, but it is as if Dick writes it like he is one of the conquered Americans who has been influenced heavily by an oriental way of thinking and writing.  The way the characters speak and think are in sentences that often don't have connecting words, so they feel somewhat like a foreigner speaking.  Let me give you a small example.  Instead of writing the sentence "It was essential to avoid politics."  he simply writes "Essential to avoid politics."  It seems simple enough, but when all these sentences are added up into a whole book, it gives a strong feeling of a foreign kind of presence upon these otherwise "normal" Americans.  It makes the reader wonder how we, as "conquerers" influence and change those that are the "conquered." 

It also makes you think about how fluid history is, and how changeable it is with even just one simple alteration.  And how history can be very different from various viewpoints. 

I can't really explain the ending, but suffice it to say I got to it and kept reading into the next book (I'm reading it from a compilation of his works) thinking that there was more to the story.  It just kind of leaves you hanging.  In fact, after doing some research, I found out that Dick had intended to write a sequel but could never get to it, partly because he was loathe to go back into the draining experience of having to research history about the Nazis.  So, maybe there's a reason for the strange ending but it was still disappointing.  An interesting literary read that I'm glad I picked up, but I can't say I really "enjoyed" it.