Sunday, June 6, 2010

Stones into Schools Book Review

Stones into Schools
by Greg Mortenson
Viking Books November 2009
Three Cups of Tea Review

Stones into Schools picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003. This is the continuing story of the Central Asian Institute as they build schools for children in the remote mountainous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This book concentrates more on northern and eastern Afghanistan including the Wakhan Corridor.

Afghanistan as a country has fascinated me ever since I first read James Micheners novel CARAVANS way back in the early 1980s. It was first published in 1963. From there I studied maps and read up about Alexander the Great and how he was prevented from reaching India because of the people of Afghanistan. I read about the Nuristan people in eastern Afghanistan, who are descendents of the Greek soldiers who settled down in that area rather than travel all the way back to Europe.

As I studied and read more about Afghanistan I also learned about the Great Game and read about Francis Younghusband who was involved in the Great Game and who travelled all over Central Asia in the 1800s.

I read about how the Afghani royal family were forced to flee Afghanistan in 1974 leaving Afghanistan open for invasion. That void was filled when Russia invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.

During all this reading, I was fascinated by the Wakhan Corridor but could never find enough information on the culture and geography of that area, to satisfy my curiosity. Now I have and most of it is to be found in this book - Stones into Schools.

The Wakhan Corridor was created as a buffer between British India and the Russian Empire as the two expanded towards each other in the nineteenth century. To the south is modern Pakistan over the Hindu Kush mountains, and on the east and north the Great Pamir and the Small Pamir mountains lead up to the borders of China (east) and Tajikistan (north - formerly of the USSR).

In the mountains the people are assumed by the government to be illiterate and dumb, and not capable of doing anything more than herding sheep, goats and cattle and being nomads, just as their ancestors had been doing for thousands of years. Also under muslim tradition, girls and women are not expected to be educated to read and write. They were taught just enough to be able to cook, sew and run a household.

In the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greg Mortenson has discovered that there is a huge hunger for literacy and education - especially for girls education. The CAI has vowed to build secular schools for all children in the remote areas where government help usually does not go. In all of the schools, it is a requirement that at least half of all students are girls. More often than not, girls make up well over half the student body.

The school at the top of the world was built by the CAI in the village of Baza Gonbad in the far east of the Wakhan Corridor. Greg has tried to visit the village several times but has been prevented from doing so for various reasons. One reason was a major earthquake in northern Pakistan in 2005 which caused hundreds of landslides and roadblocks. Other reasons included urgent summons to Kabul to speak with various government departments. At the time of publication of this book, Greg still had not been able to visit that school, although he has seen pictures and videos of its construction and use. This photo of Mortenson was taken with students from the Sitara School in Sarhad Village in the Western Corridor.

A trek to the Wakhan Corridor is one of the most adventurous treks one can still do in this world. It takes four days to drive to the Wakhan from Kabul, and then a 10 to 12 day trek is required to reach the famed Small Pamirs where the nomadic Kyrgyz have their camping grounds.

The Wakhan is one of the last remaining locations where Siberian Ibex, Marco Polo Sheep and Snow Leopards can be found. One might also come across Brown bears, eagles, and many other forms of wildlife.

The Wakhan is surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains in the south and the Pamir mountains in the north, and is known as the "roof of the world." At the neck of the Wakhan is Afghanistan's highest peak, Noshaq (7492 meters).

This was an excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learnt so much about the culture, the geography and the society of Afganistan. This book shows how girls the world over (including me) have a right to an education. It also shows that there is a great hunger of education worldwide.

City College employees promote peace ‘one school at a time’
City College - San Francisco - 2009 - Three Cups of Tea

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Possession at 20

Interview by Nicolas Basbanes of A.S. Byatt about her novel Possession
Possession originally published 1990
Possession reviewed on this Blog 2007

Twenty years ago, A. S. Byatt published Possession, a novel that appealed to bibliophiles as much or more than Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose had ten years earlier. Possession follows two young academics as they uncover a secret affair between two nineteenth-century poets. The novel’s main subject heading in the Library of Congress catalogue is Manuscripts—Collectors and collecting—England—Fiction, which is telling. Old letters and manuscripts are found stuck in dusty old books and mysterious old houses, as the two scholars attempt to safeguard literary history from an unscrupulous American collector.

Possession won Britain’s Booker Prize in 1990 and was wildly acclaimed as the author’s breakthrough book. It also became a New York Times bestseller. Since then, Byatt has earned an international reputation for her erudite novels, including The Biographer’s Tale, Babel Tower, and, most recently, The Children’s Book. She was appointed a DBE (dame commander of the order of the British Empire) in 1999.

Nicholas Basbanes conducted the following interview with Byatt in Boston on May 31, 1996. A full transcript is included in Basbanes’ new book, About the Author: Inside the Creative Process.

Interview Source - Fine Books and Collections June 2010
Click here for Interview