Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Bookseller of Kabul The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

This is a fascinating look at life in Kabul, both during and after the Taliban. The author spent several years, off and on, with a bookseller and his family, and got to see a lot of the culture first-hand.

It was my first in-depth look at the repression of women by so-called "Islamists", and it's frightening and very sad. And almost impossible to believe that it's still going on, in the 21st century!

The sad lives these women lead, even after the overthrow of the Taliban is heart-breaking. One young woman wanted to be a teacher, but because she would have to go to school with men, she couldn't make herself go. She was free to do so, but she'd been brought up during the stringent separation of the sexes enforced by the Taliban, and she just couldn't mingle. It was heart-breaking. I wanted to go there and rescue her, somehow!

I highly recommend this for anyone interested in women's rights, religious fundamentalism or just plain cultural interest. It was well-written and fascinating to read.

Read This Book!

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

Rarely does one encounter someone who is really, actually, truly making the world a better place. And not just on a small scale. But in this book you meet one: Greg Mortenson.

This book is the saga of how a slacker mountain climber became involved in building schools for the remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how his efforts continue to make a difference in that part of the world.

After getting lost coming down off a mountain climb, he is taken in by a remote village in Pakistan. He becomes friends with the people, and, touched by their kindness and their need, promises to come back and build a school. And, with fits and starts, and many problems, he finally does.

From this humble beginning, Greg pulls together some friends and benefactors and starts building more schools. He encounters some "religious" objections at times (the schools admit girls), and he has to deal with some unsavory characters (even getting kidnapped by the Taliban). But as the people come to see that he is not trying to evangelize, and how respectful he is of their customs, he overcomes.

Greg is not a saint, however, and the book makes this very clear. He is a flawed human being, as are we all. Yet the same determination that drove him to scale the worlds highest mountain peaks serves him well here. He doggedly pursues his mission (often to the detriment of his health, safety and family obligations). But schools are being built.

After reading this book, I was struck by the simplicity (and low cost) of his efforts, which show those people that Americans do care, and do want to help, and we're not all interested in bombing them. Education is the best enemy of religious fanaticism - Al Qaida, the Taliban, etc, recruit the uneducated poor from these areas. And they tend to run the only schools around - which are hotbeds of anti-Western rhetoric and propaganda. By building independent schools, which teach only school subjects, Greg's efforts are doing more against Islamic-funded terrorism than all the military offenses we've ever undertaken. And educating girls, too!

The Central Asia Institute is the non-profit organization that arose from Greg's vision. It is one group I plan to support whole-heartedly!!

Another great read by Mieville!

Iron Council Iron Council by China Miéville

This is the 3rd book in the (very loose) trilogy started in Perdido Street Station. It is set in the same world, but, as in The Scar, it deals with people, places and situations much different from PDS.

In Mieville's usual vein, there are concepts and characters far more unique than anywhere else in current SF/Fantasy novels. This guy has an amazing imagination! The cultures he has created for this world, their ideologies, their politics, etc are very rich and believable. He creates a fascinating melange of people and situations!

Also, in his usual vein, this is not a "happy" book. Bad things happen. There are bad people. Life is hard. But this book seems to have a bit more hope than the first two in this series. But only a bit...

Mieville is rapidly becoming one of my very favorite authors. The depth, detail and sheer brilliance he puts into every book are very rare to find. And his books seem to be getting better and better, as he matures as a writer. I can't wait to keep reading his books, as long as he keeps writing like this!

The Sharing Knife Trilogy

The Sharing Knife Volume One: Beguilement (Sharing Knife) The Sharing Knife Volume One: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold

[This review is of the entire trilogy] This series was recommended to me by a friend, who had previously recommended books that I liked (including others by this author). He told me about the fantasy part of it, which sounded really, really good. Not your typical "fantasy" with elves, wizards, etc. Almost science-fiction, really - some of the humans(?) who live on this world have the ability to sense and use "ground" - much like 'the force' in the Star Wars universe. (It is basically a life-force.) They are the Lakewalkers. Think of them as half Native American and half Jedi knight (tho without the light sabers! :) They use their groundsense to heal and to hunt.

The non-lakewalkers are all referred to as 'farmers', tho not all of them actually farm. The level of technology is about 1700's earth - no power driven machines, other than water mills.

The really interesting thing about the Lakewalkers is WHAT they hunt: malices (called "blight-bogles" by the farmers). Malices consume 'ground' becoming more and more powerful, sucking the life out of everything around them. If they get too powerful, they can't be killed, and they will consume all the ground of the whole world and destroy the planet. (There's some interesting backstory about how they malices may have come into being).

The two societies are leery of each other, mingling hardly at all. The author does a very good job of portraying both societies, and the characters in each.

The main plot is a sort of "Romeo and Juliet" thing: a farm girl and a Lakewalker meet and fall in love. While the romance is a big part of the story, it's not overwhelming, and not what I would think of as your typical "romance" book plot. While I did enjoy the romance aspect, I really enjoyed the societies and characters. Our main characters are very interesting and well-drawn.

Once I started the first book, I didn't stop until I had read all 3 (over a 5 day period). They were that fun and compelling! A very good story!