Longtime BookPage interviewer Alden Mudge talked to Greg Mortenson for our December issue. Here, he shares his impressions of the best-selling author and a few of the more memorable quotes that didn't make it into the finished piece.
I am by temperament knee-jerk skeptical of heroes and hero worshipers. So for several years I resisted the Three-Cups-of-Tea fever that had infected a good number of my intelligent, well-read friends. Then I was assigned to interview Greg Mortenson about his new book Stones into Schools. Call me a believer.
During a long phone call, I was utterly convinced and charmed by Mortenson. He was both forceful and self-effacing, remarkably candid, completely dedicated to his cause, and very opinionated. Not all of his opinions fit in the BookPage print interview, so I thought I’d offer a few outtakes here:
“I love to talk with students around the country, and one of the main topics we end up talking about is failure. As a society we’re very loath to talk about failure. When I ask an adult audience ‘who can tell me what the first chapter of Three Cups of Tea is called?’ not one hand goes up. But if I ask college kids or high school kids, nearly all their hands go up. They know it’s called “Failure.” Kind of interesting. I think in order to succeed you need failure. If we could admit that we failed a little bit once in a while—especially our government—we’d be better off. I think the military actually gets this. They’re willing to admit that in many ways they failed originally in Afghanistan.”
“The Afghanistan government was set up at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Eighteen countries met and decided how to rebuild Afghanistan. The problem was that it was set up as a centralized, deprovincialized system, very U.S.-oriented, very bureaucratic. But Afghanistan is a feudal, multiethnic society. Power is really with the shura, the elders. I’ve studied the Marshall Plan extensively. It was quite a brilliant plan. The main component was that it was provincialized and decentralized, especially in Italy and Japan. In Afghanistan the U.S. completely flipped it around, made it exactly the opposite. Only in the last two or three years—ironically through the military—has this started to change.”
AFGHANISTAN, THE POSITIVE AND THE NEGATIVE
“What I try and tell the public is here’s what you have to look at, the positive things and then negative things in Afghanistan. The positive things are: In 2000, which was nine years ago at the height of the Taliban, there were 800,000 kids in school, ages 5 to 15, and 99 percent were boys. Today there are 8.4 million in school, including 3.5 [million] females. The goal is 13 million, so that is like 60 percent of the way there. The Afghan army is at 80,000 and the goal is 180,000, so that’s 40 percent of the way there. There is now a central banking system in the country, which started in 2006, which is huge. There’s an Eisenhower-era road building program; the road now from north to south is completely done and the road from the east to west is about half done, so the roads are about 70 percent finished—the main trunk roads. If you go into a district court, the amount of women and men, but especially women, filing titles and deeds for landownership is just skyrocketing. So those are the positive things.
And the negative things are: the U.S. is taking more hits. A lot of that is because starting two years ago—it was actually General McKiernan and now General McChrystal—have put a huge emphasis on cutting down on bombings. There have unfortunately been some deaths from bombings, very tragic. But the amount of bombings has gone down 70 percent in the last three years—the number of bombs and the frequency and the weight. Two years ago the U.S. started deploying forward operating bases out into the very rural areas. Their job was to embed with villagers or with the Afghan army and build relationships. Unfortunately what that does is exposes the U.S. so we’re going to take more hits, more casualties. But the alternative is to do more bombings. One thing that all the shura agree with—and they’re very vehement about it—is that the top priority is not to kill innocent civilians. And their message is being heard quite loud and clear in the military. The military kind of has a choice—pull back our troops, put them in garrisons or compounds— but if they do that they’re going to have to do more bombing and then the civilian casualties will go up and there will be public outcry both there and here at home. The other thing that I think the military and our government has done a very poor job at is telling the public that nearly half of these troops are trainer troops, or brainpower; they’re not firepower. Eight thousand of the 22,000 troops that the U.S. put into Afghanistan this year are dentists, engineers, agronomists, horticulturalists, civil engineers, nurses, doctors, trainers, police trainers, anti-mining personnel. Of these 40,000 new troops they’ve asked for, they want approximately 15,000 of them to be what I call brainpower or trainer troops. I don’t know if the public is aware of that.”
ON BOOKS THAT SHAPED HIM
“The first real relevant book I read—I was about eight—was called Reverence for Life by Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He was a medical missionary in the Congo. He talked about how all living things are sacred—animals, plants, and humans. It actually had a big impact on me. My first big book—I read it at about 11 or 12—was called The Territorial Imperative which looked at the animal kingdom and at how humans also are territorial. It was a pretty heavy read but it had quite a dramatic influence on me. So did Jonathan Livingston Seagull—remember that book?—about thinking out of the box. After I read those books I was really inspired.”
Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for BookPage for more than 15 years. He lives in Berkeley, California.
Hanukkah begins tonight at sundown. Whether your family celebrates the Festival of Lights or they’d like to learn more about the holiday, these books will be perfect to share with any child.
"Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah, by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, lives up to its subtitle. This new spin on Hanukkah is child-friendly, fun and educational: a rare mix. It is a dense little book that reads as light as my latkes should be. Facts galore—about history, religion, trivia, science, food and customs—are organized in manageable bites, including marginalia with fascinating tidbits. Charming, detailed pencil drawings invite young readers to actually read the thing, and young listeners to ask what it says."
"One Candle by Eve Bunting is the touching story of a young girl whose extended family gathers together each year to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. And every year her grandmother and Great Aunt Rose perform a ritual to recall their childhood, part of which was spent in a German concentration camp during the Holocaust. In those bleak days, despite unrelenting hardship and fear, they sought to maintain their religious faith by smuggling a potato and some margarine into camp—elements which they used to construct a makeshift candle so they could surreptitiously celebrate Hanukkah."
" 'Old man Scroogemacher was as sour as a pickle and had a tongue like horse-radish.' The first sentence of Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! gives a forshpice (appetizer) of the Yiddish flavors that follow—a hint that Dickens' A Christmas Carol has undergone a religious and cultural conversion. Yes, the most unloved character in the most beloved Christmas story has been appropriated for the other big holiday in December. As odd as it may seem, author Esmé Raji Codell pulls off the switcheroo with humor, history and heart.”
What does your family like to read during Hanukkah? Tell us in the comments.
Today Random House announced the April 13 publication of Beatrice & Virgil, a new novel from Canadian author Yann Martel—his first since the surprise 2002 hit Life of Pi. The book was previously scheduled for a summer release.
Few details are available, though Amazon has this description:
A famous author receives a mysterious letter from a man who is a struggling writer but also turns out to be a taxidermist, an eccentric and fascinating character who does not kill animals but preserves them as they lived, with skill and dedication — among them a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice.
Confession: I didn't read Life of Pi. Any fans want to tell me what I'm missing? Are you looking forward to the new book?
Related in BookPage: our review of Martel's story collection, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.
As an addendum to Tuesday’s “looking forward to March” post, here’s another book that I know many of you will be eager to read. Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, will release another memoir detailing her experience in Italy: Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life. The book goes on sale on March 9.
In college, I wrote a series of travel essays for a creative writing project. Mayes’ 2006 collection A Year in the World was a beloved companion as I formed my own stories.
A paragraph from the memoir's introduction stuck with me: “I asked an impulsive question, What if we did not go home, what if we kept traveling? Should you not listen well to the questions you ask out of nowhere? Only in looking back do you find those crumbs you dropped that marked your way forward.”
In reading the introduction from Every Day in Tuscany, it appears that Mayes is back in top form; vibrant imagery (delicious food! gorgeous landscapes!) and introspection abound. (An excerpt: “The journey itself is home. . . Transition feels sweet. I’m balanced between worlds and can roam forward and backward along the strada bianca, that white road of the innermost journey.”)
I don’t think Mayes is for everybody; her writing often feel like a series of vignettes, rather than a straight narrative, and I sometimes find myself reading sections of her books at random, rather than devouring the memoir from start to finish. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.) In any case, armchair travel in Tuscany is sounding pretty good right now as the temperature drops in Nashville.
Do you have a favorite travel writer? You may find a new one in our December feature, “A globetrotter’s delight: Experience the world’s treasures, real and imagined.” Mayes fans should check out Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town by Douglas Gayeton.
Related in BookPage: Read an interview with Mayes about A Year in the World. I think many travelers will understand her “perennial tug-of-war” between setting off on wild adventures and being pulled by the comfort of home.
Many of you will spend hours in the car as you journey to visit family and friends during the holidays. Why not make the most of your transit time and listen to an audio book? Our top 10 picks for 2009 span from tear-jerker novel to complex financial scrutiny, all chosen by BookPage audio columnist Sukey Howard.
Rain Gods by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster Audio)
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson (Random House Audio)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin Audio)
The Shawl and Rosa by Cynthia Ozick (HighBridge Audio)
The Women by T.C. Boyle (Blackstone Audio)
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Random House)
David Sedaris: Live for Your Listening Pleasure by David Sedaris (Hachette Audio) -- Review coming soon in the January issue of BookPage
Fool’s Gold by Gillian Tett (Tantor)
Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley (Hachette Audio)
Panic by Michael Lewis (Simon & Schuster Audio)
Do you have any audio books to add to this list? Tell us in the comments.
Americana buffs everywhere will have A New Literary History of America on their holiday wish lists. A compilation of more than 200 essays by writers like Jonathan Lethem and Sarah Vowell on pivotal pop cultural, literary and historical events from the Salem witch trials to Britney Spears, this book is a vibrant reminder of our rich history—and probably belongs under the tree of your favorite culture maven. Want to read more? Check out our full review or read a sample essay on the book's website.
Our 12 books of Christmas series continues with Phaidon's hefty survey of contemporary painting, Painting Today.
The modern painting fan in your life would be happy to find Painting Today under their tree. A comprehensive look at the paintings of the last 40 years—oils, watercolors, and more—this $75 behemoth is full of stunning images and knowledgeable commentary from Tony Godfrey, who works at Sotheby's Institute of Art and is a Fine Arts professor. The book is divided into sections by topic: neo-expressionism, pure abstraction, landscape art, the figure, post-feminism, and more, and the 500+ images are by artists of every background.
Do you have a favorite modern artist? Tell us in the comments before noon CST tomorrow, and you'll be entered to win a copy of Painting Today. Sorry, US residents only.
Read more reviews of art books on BookPage.com.
Other great gift ideas can be found in our holiday catalog.
OK, he's not exactly "live," but Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins is making a splash on the web these days. The occasion is the 150th anniversary of the serialization of his best-known work, The Woman in White. Fans can now read the story as it was originally published—in weekly installments. Collins enthusiast Paul Lewis is emailing PDFs of the text to subscribers around the world, on the same calendar date that readers of Dickens' popular paper All the Year Round read the story 150 years ago.
These PDF reproductions are authentic down to the errors, which Paul documents in each weekly email.
Readers can also view the John McLenan illustrations that accompanied the story when it was published Stateside, in Harper's Weekly.
The fourth installment will be released December 14, with the final section appearing on August 22. I'm signed up and pretty excited about experiencing the novel this way, since there's no way I could otherwise justify squeezing in a re-read of anything! If your "to-be-read" stack is similarly daunting, it might be a refreshing alternative. Want to read along? Email Paul, or visit the site to download the PDFs.
Via Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life blog, we learned yesterday that Queen of Romance Nora Roberts is expanding into the computer game market. Vision in White, her novel about four friends who run a wedding-planning business, will turn interactive as gamers play “nuptial-themed mini-games” and perform “hidden-object tasks” in its computer game equivalent.
Agatha Christie, James Patterson and Dan Brown have already inspired games, and Roberts – herself a gamer – is pleased to join their ranks. “I think it’s great that there are so many kinds of media to play with,” said Roberts in a press release. “And to have a story translated into a game like this, it’s tremendous fun for me.”
Besides the occasional Mario Kart or Guitar Hero, I’m not much of a gamer myself – but I can see the appeal of bringing a novel to life outside of the page. Do romance fans think Roberts’ stories will translate well in this medium? Will you be downloading the game?
Related in BookPage: Romance columnist and author Christie Ridgeway writes that Vision in White, the first of Roberts’ Bride Quartet, is “romantic and wistful, sexy and stylish...another winner for Roberts.”
Looking for gifts for the little ones on your list? Our top 10 picture books are full of engaging illustrations and text that will get young readers hooked.
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All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane/Atheneum)
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated Tom Lichtenheld (Chronicle)
John Brown by John Hendrix (Abrams)
One Giant Leap by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Mike Wimmer (Philomel)
Pouch by David Ezra Stein (Putnam)
Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas (Beach Lane/Atheneum)
Skippyjon Jones: Lost in Spice by Judith Byron Schachner (Dutton)
The Lion & The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (Little, Brown)
Trouble Gum by Matthew Cordell (Feiwel & Friends)
Willoughby & The Lion by Greg Foley (HarperCollins)
Wombat Walkabout by Carol Diggory Shields, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Dutton)