Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.  ~ Margaret Mead

In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time — Greg Mortenson’s one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban.

Award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin has collaborated on this spellbinding account of Mortenson’s incredible accomplishments in a region where Americans are often feared and hated. In pursuit of his goal, Mortenson has survived kidnapping, fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, repeated death threats, and wrenching separations from his wife and children. But his success speaks for itself. At last count, his Central Asia Institute had built fifty-five schools.  Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world — one school at a time.

(From the publisher, cribbed from the Powell’s Books page)

I received this book twice for Christmas in 2007, once from my friend Neva, who had Greg Mortenson as a keynote speaker at a conference on Epilepsy (she is the Executive Director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Northern California.  His sister had Epilepsy.), and once from my step-mother.  I don’t remember her connection to the story…if it was just that she read it and loved it, or if there was more.  That was sickmas, and memories are dim.  Anyway, receiving it twice, I figured I should read it, though non-fiction normally isn’t my bag, baby.

I’m not sure how much of the writing is Relin’s, and how much is Mortenson’s, but I found it clunky and sometimes difficult to get through.  But the story is such a hopeful one of doggedness and faith in humanity, that you forgive the writing and want to find out what is coming next.  I mean, you know to an extent, but as the story goes from the mid-90s, with Mortenson alone and living in his car, selling his possessions to save money for that first school, to September 11th and beyond, I found I wanted to know how he got from point A to point Z, and the steps in between.  While I don’t recommend this book for the writing necessarily, I highly recommend it for the story, and for the hope it puts in your heart about what is possible, and what a difference one person can make in the lives of others.

It’s also really interesting to read about Mortenson’s understanding of the sometimes extreme Muslim culture of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, how he understands these people far more than most westerners.  He sees the mistakes we are making in our handling of the wars in the region, and has some interesting ideas on solutions.  This is the part of the book that most gripped me, so I’m interested to read the follow-up book, Stones Into Schools.

Greg Mortenson is the founder of the nonprofit organization, Central Asia Institute, which funds the building of the schools.  He also founded Pennies for Peace, which is a charity allowing children to donate their pennies to help build schools for schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Here’s a very interesting interview he did for Bill Moyers Journal.   It’s not short, but it’s worth viewing.  Especially his views on why it is especially important toward bringing peace to the world, that girls receive an education.  Rather than fighting terrorism, his view is to promote peace.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

When my mom died back in June, our friends Jeff and Leah sent me a book full of stories of death, full of stories of people’s experiences when their loved ones died, full of stories of compassion and hope.  That book was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by Studs Terkel.  I had never heard of Mr.. Terkel before, but he’s a very well known interviewer and used to have a famous radio show in Chicago.  He is well known for his interviewing skills, for the honesty and candor he is able to elicit.  Perhaps what is most remarkable about Mr. Terkel’s interviews is that the subjects are mainly average people, men and women like you and me, not actors or politicians or famous authors (though he does interview them as well).

The book is divided into sections, and covers everything from the physical descriptions of someone dying, to speculations about what might come after this life.  Some of his interviewees are very religious, and talk of the comfort that they feel in knowing that their loved ones are in Heaven, and that they will be together again.  Others are atheists, and talk of the peace of knowing that their loved ones are no longer in pain.  There are those who believe in reincarnation, and those who believe in no such thing.  There are mothers talking about losing their sons, daughters talking about losing their mothers, husbands and wives who have lost their lover, people who have considered suicide, people who survive the suicide of a loved one.

The honesty and words of these people is a wonderful thing.  For example, the story of a Viet Nam vet, talking about the horrors of war and of killing, and seeing his friends die.  The way he copes is through alcohol, and he suffers from episodes of rage.  His section ends with a quote, something he wrote just that morning, in preparation for his interview.

Judge me not by the number of times I have failed, but by the number of times I have succeeded, which is in direct proportion to the number of times I’ve failed and kept on trying. ~ Victor Israel Marquez

Then there is the story of Peggy Terry, a southern woman involved in the civil rights movement, though she came from Klan parentage. She doesn’t believe in God, because she feels there is too much suffering right here on Earth.

I’d love to believe in reincarnation – that would be such a sop. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we could believe that? I think one reason people are so desperate about dying is that they haven’t lived yet. All we do here is we try to see who can get a little higher up the ladder than the neighbor. That’s what we spend our time doing, that and driving to work and back, polluting the air and all of that…I think life is so miserable for most people. All the time they’re racing around like mad, drunken ants, they’re fearing dying. That’s the way it got this way, that’s what keeps it this way, is greed. To teach people from the time their little to have respect for each other, maybe not love, but at least respect and kindness toward each other, care more about each other than you do about getting a new car. Then we might have a different attitude toward death. ~ Peggy Terry

The stories in this book were moving, and I found a strange comfort in the universality of the death experience. Of course we will all die someday, but few of us consider that thought very often. More immediate is the loss of those we love, and our ways of dealing with that loss. Thank you, Jeff and Leah, for a really interesting read.

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is Michael Pollan’s follow up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His goal this time out is to answer the question of how to eat in an increasingly hostile landscape, one in which food is becoming more and more processed, and thus less and less healthy, all while nutritionists and food scientists try to make it more healthful.

You don’t need to read the entire book to figure out the answer of how to eat. Look at the cover. It says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The rest of the book goes on to describe why this is the best way to go, with the majority being spent on ‘eat food’. Pollan goes on to describe food to us, vs. the ‘food-like’ substances that line our supermarket shelves. He advises that we not purchase or eat anything that our great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and even then, be careful. Because your great-great grandmother would probably recognize a loaf of bread, but the majority of the bread in our grocery stores is over-processed and filled with unhealthy ingredients, like high-fructose corn syrup. So, he says, keep it simple. If your product contains more than 5 ingredients, don’t buy it. He also mentions yogurt…think all yogurts are made alike? Think again. I peeked at the labels of a few different brands the other day, and some of them had 10 – 15 ingredients, most of which I couldn’t pronounce, and had no idea what they might add to the mix. A few had simple ingredients…milk, cultures, sugar, vanilla, something like that. If you’re willing to eat plain yogurt with fresh fruit and/or honey, you can get even healthier.

He spends quite a bit of time talking about food science, and how it has confused the hell out of us, so that we no longer know what’s good for us. No matter where our ancestors came from, they had a traditional way of feeding themselves that was healthy enough that they thrived, passed on their genes and diets, and survived. They didn’t worry about the anti-oxidants in berries or the fat content of their milk. They didn’t try to find ways to get more omega-3s into their diets. They just ate what was available to them, and made it a part of their culture. Today, food scientists and the food industry are focused on figuring out which nutrients are the magic ones that will help us to thrive. He goes on to argue that quite often you cannot take the nutrient out of the food and isolate it, and expect it to be as healthy as it was in its original form. So if you try to take the nutrients that one would find in a plate full of broccoli and transfer them to a vitamin, it doesn’t work. There’s something about that whole food that synthesizes with our system, and delivers the nutrients in a much more efficient and effective manner. He also says to beware of claims of nutrition in suspect places. Clearly, you shouldn’t trust that just because Lucky Charms claims to be whole grain, it’s going to mean that they’re actually good for you.

OK, eat food. Not fake food, not fast food, real food. Got it. What about his suggestion of “Not too much”? In that one, he discusses how most traditional cultures sit down and eat meals together, don’t have seconds, don’t snack. He suggests that if we were to do this, if we were all to sit down to meals together as a family (I don’t know what you’re supposed to do if you live alone, like so many people do), if we take the time and effort to cook our own food, rather than stopping at KFC or making a casserole with Cream of Mushroom Soup, if we don’t go back for 2nds and 3rds, if we stop the snacking in front of the computer or TV (my personal favorite times to snack), we would do less mindless eating, and we wouldn’t end up eating so many empty calories, or so much junk. He’s probably right on that one. He comes back several times in his book to the “French Paradox”, where the French famously eat a lot of high fat foods, drink wine with their meals, and stay comparatively thin. They don’t snack, he says, nor do they take seconds. They generally don’t eat fast food. Instead, they take the time to buy really good ingredients, cook them in a way that they will enjoy, and then sit down and enjoy their food. Is eating this way expensive? Surely, yes. Pollan argues that this is actually a good thing, and that American spending on food has gone from about 15% of our budget to just over 9%, and a large part of that savings is in highly processed food, because it is cheaper. So, he says, spend a bit more, eat a bit less, and we’ll get much better quality. Better quality means being more satisfied, and that means we need to eat less to be happy.

Now, “Mostly plants”. He doesn’t really push this one so much. He concedes that traditional cultures with populations subsisting almost entirely on meat, milk, and the blood of the animals that became the meat and produced the milk, are as free of cancer, stroke, and heart disease as those people who subsist on the famous “Mediterranean diet.” But he does say that the highly industrialized food chain we participate in doesn’t produce healthy meat. If we ate wild meat, meat that came from animals that had a great variety of foods themselves, that got plenty of sunshine and exercise, that didn’t require antibiotics and so on to be healthy enough to eat, we might be OK. But given the meat that we can reasonably find and afford, it’s best to limit the consumption of it. So, eat some meat if you wish, and then buy the best quality you can reasonably afford. And when it comes to plants, aim for leafy plants rather than seeds, and you’ll be getting better nutrients, and live a healthier life.

He also talks about how the plants we eat today aren’t as healthy as the plant our grandparents, or even our parents, ate in their youth. In the interest of producing large quantities of food, we have bred out some nutrients. Also, some of the properties that are useful in fighting pests turn out to be healthy for plant eaters, so if we help our plants along in that regard, giving them pesticides to fight that battle for them, they lose those nutrients, and in turn, we lose those nutrients. So, what’s a person to do? Well, if you have the time and energy, you can have your own garden. The next best thing is to go to the farmers’ market, because small farms, the types that can make a living at a farmers’ market, usually grow many different crops, and thus the soil is healthier, and they need fewer pesticides, so the food not only tastes better, it’s healthier.

Perhaps the most interesting advice he gives, aside from trying to eat whole foods?  “Be the kind of person who takes supplements.”  Huh?  Don’t you mean, take supplements?  No, actually, he doesn’t.  Pollan states that no real proof has come that taking vitamins helps anyone.  This probably comes back to the fact that we haven’t yet found a way to make a pill as healthy as a serving of broccoli.  Or spinach.  Or beef.  Or salmon.   We can try, but we can’t do it.  The biggest proof is in breast milk.   For decades, scientists have been trying to make formulas as healthy as breast milk, and though what they come up with is pretty darned good, and kids on formula do indeed thrive, they haven’t been able to reproduce the same exact benefits.  So what does he mean, then?  He means that people who take the time and effort, and spend the money, to buy vitamins, are usually the type who exercise and eat well and do things the way they should.   So, even though there’s no real proof that vitamins help, people who take vitamins are generally healthier.  So, he says, eat well, move your body, be strong, but save your money and don’t bother with the vitamins.  Wow, interesting.

My only problem with this book was the undercurrent of consuming fewer calories, losing weight. I think Americans are too obsessed already with our weight and calories. I would have preferred the book if it had stuck with its themes of how our food chain is broken, and how we can fix it, and kept the whole weight issue out of it.

(p.s….to my more gossipy type friends, did you know that Michael Pollan is Tracy Pollan’s brother? You know, Tracy Pollan, who played Alex’s girlfriend, Ellen, on Family Ties (and I always wanted him to end up with her…sorry, Courtney Cox!), and ended up marrying Michael J. Fox? Cool, huh?)

Reading in Grief

V-Grrrl mentioned in her comment that when her parents died (within 6 weeks of each other!  God, Dad, be careful!), she had to put all photos of them away, couldn’t drive past their house, couldn’t bear to be reminded.  Not that doing these things helped her to forget, I don’t think anything could do that…but she was too raw to cope otherwise.

Which made me think of the different ways that people grieve.  My uncle made me a lovely collage of photos of my mom, and I find comfort in looking at it.  None of the pictures are of her when she was sick, they’re all of her in her prime, and it comforts me to think of her like that, of her without the burden of an aching back, clogged arteries, damaged lungs, diabetes, sleep disorders, etc.

And now I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.  It’s the story of the first year after her husband unexpectedly died from a heart attack while she was tossing the salad for their dinner.  It’s the story of her daughter’s illness and eventual death (I think…actually, it may be that her daughter died after she completed the writing of the book…I’ll let you know later.)  Does it make me cry to read a book about someone else’s grief, while I’m so freshly consumed by my own?  Of course.  But somehow, I can’t look away.  It’s like when you’re pregnant, and you want to read books about pregnancy.  Or when we were trying to sell our house, I was obsessed with home makeover/real estate shows.  I no longer have any interest in these things, because they’re not current for me.  But this book, this woman’s grief, is speaking to me in a sad way, in a way that I guess I kind of need right now.

My friends Leah and Jeff sent me a book when they heard about my mom’s death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, by Studs Terkel.  I’ve never heard of Studs, but it’s fun to say his name, and I’m thinking I might want to read this book next.  I’m going to substitute it for another book in my non-fiction challenge, I’m thinking.

This whole thing has been so hard.  Knowing what to do has been so hard.  I will admit that a lot of the stress left my life when she died.  That sounds horrible, I know, but really, those last weeks were so difficult, and I was trying everything I could think of to get her better.  Writing letters to her psychologist about her depression, writing letters to her physical therapist about her PT, writing letters to her doctor about her medications.  Visiting her and trying to be encouraging, bringing her things she might eat.  All while watching none of it work.  None of it.  I felt so helpless, and like maybe, if I could just get it right, something might help.  And of course, nothing did.  It made her feel loved, I hope, but nothing made her better.  Looking back, I think that she just had too many factors stacked up against her, and a recovery was practically impossible.  I know other people who have had bypass surgery and recovered nicely, of course, but none with as many factors as she had.  I think it was just too much.  And I think at some level, she might have known that.  But maybe not. She really wanted to get out of that care facility.  She wanted to go to the farmers’ market with Kate.  She wanted to visit us and tell stories and write on her blog.  She still had a lot of living to do.  Some people will remind me that often people are ready to die, and they let go.  I believe this can be the case.  I do not believe it is always the case.  My friend Rosemary told me, as her father was dying from cancer, that he cried to her that he was NOT ready to die, didn’t want to in any way or form.  And yet, he did.  That’s what I think of with my mom.  I don’t think she wanted to die.  I do think she wanted to be out of pain, and away from the care facility, but not that way.  Not that way.

So now, the stress of trying to fix things has gone.  I’m left with the process of grief, and trying to get her things in order, that sort of thing.  Things with no real importance, it feels like.  (Grief is important, but it’s not like if I get it wrong, something horrible will happen.)  I mean, if I don’t send a death certificate to a creditor in time, who cares?  I don’t.  So there’s been a real shift in my perspective, from stress and frustration, to regret and grieving.  I regret that she’s gone.  I grieve for her.  But at least I know that my actions don’t have dire consequences for her anymore.  That, in and of itself, is a big relief.

My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes

So, I’ve been talking about this book off and on since I first heard of it on NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. I had it in mind for awhile, and then decided to wait to read it until I was ready to take on the Non Fiction Five reading challenge. Since Non-Fiction and I don’t get along that well, I thought this would be a good one to keep until I was ready for it.

My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes is a collection of essays by contemporary Iranian writers, discussing everything from feminism to photography, from film-making to reading Exodus. Collectively, these essays confront our stereotypes of modern Iran head on. We tend to think of Iran as a country repressed by its extreme government, a country of free-thinking intellectuals, mixed in with ultra-right fundamentalists, and these two sides constantly clashing under the paranoid eye of a repressive government. And perhaps this is part of Iran, but it is not by any means ALL of Iran. That’s as simplistic as saying America is gay weddings vs. semi trucks with Playboy girls on the mud flaps. Sure, those things occur here, but they don’t define us, they don’t define our history or our cultural identity. The same can be said of Iran, especially since our current ideas of that culture are practically one dimensional.

I can’t say that I loved every essay in the book. The essays on film making pretty much went over my head, partially because I’m not that interested in the process of film making, and I don’t know the artists or the films that were being discussed.

The essay that struck me the most was the first, titled The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of , by Azar Nafisi. It is the first essay in the collection, and talks about the author’s own experience in leaving and returning to Iran. She brings in the history of modern Iran, and discusses the relevance of American literature to such a ‘foreign’ land. Anyone who quotes Huckleberry Finn in the same essay they reference Zora Neal Hurston, Henry James, Toni Morrison, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, is OK in my book. This particular paragraph struck me:

As Saul Bellow reminds us in The Dean’s December, a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as an enemy but as a friend. To mistake sound bites for deep thought, politics for ethics, reality shows for creative entertainment; to forget the value of dreams; to lose the ability to imagine a violent death in Darfur, Afghanistan, or Iraq; to contemplate murder as passing news: are these not indications that now – more than ever – we need the courage and integrity, the faith, vision, and dreams that these books instilled in us? Is this not a good time to worry with Bellow’s hero about what will happen if our country loses its poetry and soul?

Another chapter that I found interesting (though not the only one, there were many) was about the art culture in Tehran, specifically that of photography. It mentioned a few websites where Iranian artists can go to get their art exposure outside of their country, no mean feat. The essay is titled Don’t Cry For Me, America, and mentions a few interesting websites, such as Parking Gallery, TehranAvenue, and Fanoos Photo. Check them out, and you’ll find an art culture to rival those in freer countries like the United States, France, Germany, etc. Really great stuff.

Why Do I Love These People?

Back in February, my dad sent my sisters and me copies of this book, Why Do I Love These People, by Po Bronson.  He had read it, and thought it was a valuable collection of stories that we might all enjoy, and perhaps gain something from.  The stories are those of families, and how they overcome difficulties in their lives, and come out of hard times closer together than they were before.  Some of the stories related to dealing with parents, others to spouses, and still others, children or siblings. Some to all of the above.

What struck me the most about the stories in this book was a theme that Bronson reiterated over and over again, that none of us have the perfect family.  That no such family exists.  My wise friend Dorothy once told me that she had realized that she had a perfect family, at least a picture of one, in her head…and that her family in real life was never going to measure up, and the best thing she could do was to accept that.  Well, Bronson pretty much says the same thing, except that he goes on to say that while we will never have a perfect family, we can usually have a better relationship than we do have, with our current family.  We can do this through a combination of honesty and clarity.  In his words:

“…the tools we have are ancient ones.  They are these: taking responsibility and granting forgiveness; discernment and awareness; willingness to change and acceptance that things won’t change; honesty and tact; perception and empathy; compromise; listening; communication.  That’s really it.  What we expect from family is changing, but the means to get us there aren’t.”

What does he mean when he says that what we expect from family is changing?  There’s a chapter in the middle of all of these stories, Halftime, where Bronson talks about how the myth of the perfect family leads us to believe that if our family isn’t perfect, we’re somehow alone in this, and that other families out there have it so much better than we do.

Let’s consider some of the fears that come from comparing ourselves to presumed sociological norms:

  • That stepfamilies and ‘alternative’ families are a new phenomenon to deal with.
  • That we have lost the traditional nuclear family.
  • That we have lost stability in general.
  • That divorces are so common.
  • That the elderly are neglected.
  • That we don’t spend as much time with our kids.
  • That children are exposed to too much these days.

He goes on to say that while these are real issues in some families, overall our society is doing much better than we see.   He gives examples comparing modern times to our past, such as the number of step-families in Colonial America, where 1/2 of all children would lose at least one parent by the time they were 13, and almost 1/2 of those would go on to lose the other parent.  Regarding divorce, before divorce became easier to get, did families live happier lives?  No.  Desertion and separation were the answers then.  Not a pretty thought, and suddenly, divorce doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

In fact, most of the statistics that make our society look so bad are actually indicators of good things emerging-that women and children have rights, that we value some privacy and independence, and that we hold the quality of marriages to a higher standard.

We’ve got it pretty good.  The golden era for family is not in our past, it’s in our future.

This isn’t my favorite genre of reading, and I doubt that I would jump in and get a lot more books in this same vain.  But the stories included  were moving tales of people with real faults, real problems, and how they dealt with those issues, and came out happier and healthier on the other side.  I would recommend checking this book out, or at least peeking at the sample chapters included on Bronson’s website, to anyone who has looked at their family and wondered if the pain and troubles can be fixed, and if they have any power to bring about change in their own lives.  Thanks, Dad. 🙂

Non-Fiction Five

Yay! The Non Fiction Five Challenge, hosted by Joy, is almost here.

I’ve been looking forward to joining this challenge for awhile now, thought my reading seems to have stalled a bit lately, so I’m not sure how I’ll do. I’m a fiction reader by preference, and the number of non-fiction books that actually make it onto any reading list of mine are few and far between. What better way than a challenge to get me motivated and reading, right? Here are her rules, which are pretty basic:

1. Read 5 non-fiction books during the months of May – September, 2008

2. Read at least one non-fiction book that is different from your other choices (i.e.: 4 memoirs and 1 self-help)

3. If interested, please sign up below with the link to your NFF Challenge post (all choices need not be posted and may change at any time)

Pretty good, huh? I’m looking forward to the challenge of being forced out of the comfort zone of my beloved fiction. Here are my choices:

My Sister, Guard Your Veil, My Brother, Guard Your Eyes
I wrote about this book back in September, and I think the time has finally come to get it from the library and read it. I posted the description then, but I’ll post it again. From powells.com.

In the first anthology of its kind, Lila Azam Zanganeh argues that although Iran looms large in the American imagination, it is grossly misunderstood—seen either as the third pillar of Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” or as a nation teeming with youths clamoring for revolution.This collection showcases the real scope and complexity of Iran through the work of a stellar group of contributors—including Azar Nafisi and with original art by Marjane Satrapi. Their collective goal is to counter the many existing cultural and political clichés about Iran. Some of the pieces concern feminism, sexuality, or eroticism under the Islamic Republic; others are unorthodox political testimonies or about race and religion. Almost all these contributors have broken artistic and cultural taboos in their work.

Journalist Reza Aslan, author of No God But God, explains why Iran is not a theocracy but, rather, a “mullahcracy.” Mehrangiz Kar, a lawyer and human rights activist who was jailed in Iran and is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, argues that the Iranian Revolution actually engendered the birth of feminism in Iran. Journalist Azadeh Moaveni reveals the underground parties and sex culture in Tehran, while Gelareh Asayesh, author of Saffron Sky, writes poignantly on why Iranians are not considered white in America, even though they think they are. Poet and writer Naghmeh Zarbafian expounds on the surreal experience of reading censored books in Iran, while Roya Hakakian, author of Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, recalls the happy days of Iranian Jews. With a sharp, incisive introduction by Lila Azam Zanganeh, this diverse collection will alter what you thought you knew about Iran.

Three Cups of Tea
My friend Neva gave me this book. The author, Greg Mortenson, was the keynote speaker at a fund raising event for the Epilepsy Foundation, which she directs. She was really impressed by him, and thought I had to have the book. Then, a few weeks later, we went to Oregon for Sickmas, and my stepmom gave me the same book! So, with two such wonderful people highly recommending it, I have to read it! From the back of the book:

In 1993 a mountaineer named Greg Mortenson drifted into an impoverished Pakistan village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed attempt to climb K2. Moved by the inhabitants’ kindness, he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of Tea is the story of that promise and its extraordinary outcome. Over the next decade Mortenson built not just one but fifty-five schools – especially for girls – in the forbidding terrain that gave birth to the Taliban. His story is at once riveting adventure and a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit.

In Defense of Food
I had been considering reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma for awhile now, but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to it. Probably because it’s non-fiction. I bought this book a little while ago, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. The author, Michael Pollan, is defending real food against the onslaught of crap and junk that has become such a large part of our modern diet.

Why Do I Love These People
I’ve never heard of this book before, but my dad sent a copy to my sisters and me back in February. It might actually have been a good book to have with me when I was in Alaska, but I didn’t think to bring it. From the back cover:

Not one of us has a perfect family, and many of us wish we could repair our relationships with our parents, siblings, or spouses. With uncommon honesty, “Why Do I Love These People?” shows us how real people have transformed their relationships and created new families while struggling with considerable challenges. In each chapter we meet a different person and watch his or her life unfold in complicated, surprising, and redeeming ways, and we are left with compassion, empathy, and understanding.They say we can’t choose our family, but increasingly, we do. This unique book will enlighten how we view these choices, and influence how we live with those decisions.

Not sure…never really read a ‘self help’ book before, which seems to be the genre here, but I’m game to give it a shot.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Py read this awhile ago, and recommended it to me. While my family didn’t come over on the Mayflower, some of my ancestors came to America not long after, and it might be pretty interesting to read about their experience. I’m looking forward to reading this. From Powells.com:

From the perilous ocean crossing to the shared bounty of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim settlement of New England has become enshrined as our most sacred national myth. Yet, as bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick reveals in his spellbinding new book, the true story of the Pilgrims is much more than the well-known tale of piety and sacrifice; it is a fifty-five-year epic that is at once tragic, heroic, exhilarating, and profound.

The Mayflower’s religious refugees arrived in Plymouth Harbor during a period of crisis for Native Americans as disease spread by European fishermen devastated their populations. Initially the two groups — the Wampanoags, under the charismatic and calculating chief Massasoit, and the Pilgrims, whose pugnacious military officer Miles Standish was barely five feet tall — maintained a fragile working relationship. But within decades, New England would erupt into King Philip’s War, a savagely bloody conflict that nearly wiped out English colonists and natives alike and forever altered the face of the fledgling colonies and the country that would grow from them.

With towering figures like William Bradford and the distinctly American hero Benjamin Church at the center of his narrative, Philbrick has fashioned a fresh and compelling portrait of the dawn of American history — a history dominated right from the start by issues of race, violence, and religion.

And one alternate, in case one of these doesn’t hook me, or in case I get so hooked that I want to read more more more (like I did with the graphic novel challenge).

Year of Magical Thinking
I’ve been intrigued by this book since I heard of it, and since then I’ve heard so many wonderful things about it. It’s the story of the year following the death of Ms. Didion’s husband, during which time, their only daughter lay dying in a nearby hospital. From the New Yorker:

Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack, just after they had returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, was lying in a coma. This book is a memoir of Dunne’s death, Quintana’s illness, and Didion’s efforts to make sense of a time when nothing made sense. “She’s a pretty cool customer,” one hospital worker says of her, and, certainly, coolness was always part of the addictive appeal of Didion’s writing. The other part was the dark side of cool, the hyper-nervous awareness of the tendency of things to go bad. In 2004, Didion had her own disasters to deal with, and she did not, she feels, deal with them coolly, or even sanely. This book is about getting a grip and getting on; it’s also a tribute to an extraordinary marriage.

Wish me luck everyone! This is truly a challenge for me.