Photo: girls studying Afghan refugee camp Pakistan

Girls study in an outdoor school located in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan.

Courtesy Central Asia Institute

By Don George

December 2009

Book of the Month:
Stones into Schools, by Greg Mortenson

The sense of place that resonates through Greg Mortenson’s astonishing new book, Stones into Schools, is a multi-layered creation: The landscapes of Afghanistan and Pakistan are there, with their mud-walled villages, terraced fields of wheat, potatoes and millet, apple and apricot orchards, poplar-lined canals, and snow-mantled peaks. And beneath that, depicted in exquisite and sometimes excruciating detail, is what we might call the psychic territory of the place.

In account after account of meetings with tribal elders and leaders, feisty local teachers and administrators, and impassioned everyday citizens from taxi drivers to horseback riders, Mortenson piercingly portrays the landscape of courtesies, traditions, impoverishments, expectations, bonds, fears, and dreams that is 21st-century Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Following up on his phenomenally best-selling Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson weaves threads of that earlier book into an artful narrative that focuses on the triumphs and setbacks in his subsequent efforts to build schools, especially girls' schools, in rural Afghanistan and regions of Pakistan that were devastated by an earthquake in October 2005. The complex social structures in urban Afghanistan are revealed as well when Mortenson's associate Sarfraz Khan initiates a women's vocational center in Kabul—an innovation that within a few years leads to the formation of 17 such centers in the capital alone, and numerous satellite centers in other urban areas.

Stones into Schools reminds us that every day in these fractured countries, people carry on their lives under unimaginably difficult circumstances with dignity, warmth, grace, faith, and hope. Given the indomitable will of these people to build schools for their children and the dramatic effects these efforts are already reaping, it seems self-evident that this movement is a sane and sustainable way to counter the Taliban and all regional extremists. Not so evident but equally critical is the fact that these efforts require an extraordinarily detailed and attuned appreciation of the nuances of life and landscape in these regions—the kind of appreciation that empowers every page of Mortenson's humble and inspiring account.

The Wild West

Three novels set in the American West draw on common themes of struggle, danger, and rugged individualism: In The Butterflies of Grand Canyon, Jane Merkle meets two botanists on a train trip from St. Louis, Missouri, to Flagstaff, Arizona; one of the botanists is headed to Arizona to investigate a murder, and as events unfold, author Margaret Erhart magnificently mingles mystery and the marvels of Mother Nature. Three Texas cowboys face the challenges of cattle-herding, love, a train derailment, and the hard winters of Montana in Johnny Boggs’s Hard Winter. Professional poker player and outlaw Joe finds himself impersonating a man at a Nevada trial, and before he can escape the mess he’s in, trouble finds him, in Terrell Bowers’s latest atmospheric, and often comedic, novel, Judgment at Gold Butte.

Reading Matchmaker

If you like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, check out Alexander McCall Smith's first foray into historical fiction, La's Orchestra Saves the World. The author of the best-selling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series places his latest work in England's countryside during World War II, where lonely divorcée Lavender (La) Ferguson seeks to bolster the war morale effort by establishing an amateur orchestra. With a flute, cello, and trumpet, her small-scale band ingratiates her with the local village of Suffolk, and helps her to realize that love may again come into her life.

One Last Thing: Endangered Treasures

Ever since my family made a transcendent trip there almost a decade ago, the Galápagos Islands have been an iconic destination for me, a place where we can connect with unbridled nature and usually off-limits regions of ourselves and our universe. The stunning new coffee-table book, Galápagos: Both Sides of the Coin, by Pete Oxford and Graham Watkins, sumptuously presents the wild treasures of the islands while at the same time imparting a sobering realization of the toll of human visitors—from early pirates and naturalists to latter-day entrepreneurs and tourists—on the islands' complex ecosystem. Informed and inspired by extended residence on the islands, Oxford and Watkins have produced a compelling call to preserve the irreplaceable riches of this singular place.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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