Rita Writes

February 17, 2010

Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea”

When first asked to read Three Cups (or Stones into Schools) I resisted since I don’t ordinarily like self-congratulatory literature. I was captivated immediately because the author described a world I did not own. He brought me closer to the mysteries of mountain climbers and their community; the people and places they meet along the way. I wonder that my own mountain climbing friends are not more changed from similar encounters. I also wondered who was telling the story.

The heroics described seemed logical and wonderful and the hazards confronted somewhat daunting.  I find it hard to fathom why someone would travel on the roads that are not roads and traverse yak-hair bridges not meant for size 14 shoes. I could not be so easily convinced the dangers were overlooked and permit sleep while atop a vehicle obviously destined to kill all aboard.

The dangers are handled in such cavalier fashion as to make them unbelievable. In order for me to identify with Greg I need to know more about how he managed what others would find to be deal-killer obstacles. Because I was not made privy to his internal dialog, I was jarred into disbelief. I simply needed more information on how he handled his fears and what prepared him for such courage beyond his most recent stumbling into survival on K2.

The writing, sometimes confusing but mostly compelling in its images, was distracting because of poor transitions. Greg is the co-author yet is quoted as though a mere interviewee. The POV was slippery, at best. Who was telling the story that they knew the details of the adventure, yet was forced to quote him? Do we know what Greg was thinking because of an omniscient observer? Many times we are told what others think and feel but lack the POV.

As is often the case, the story flow is interrupted with a lecture, backstory or references to other books. How is it that we are treated to a lecture about Ibex and quotes from authors who trekked to observe them in the middle of reading the villagers take Mortenson on a hunt? No literary editor would allow such disruption. Would the book have been made better as a simple autobiography?

The story itself is readable and the characters so well drawn I understood why things happened as they did. I don’t believe them to be cartoons, but they are nevertheless, almost cliche’. Part of me recognizes they seem that way since these people have been drawn on other canvasses with the same brush.

We are encouraged to have affection for Mortenson’s villagers but are offered nothing to distinguish its residents; neither physical distinctions nor behaviors. We only know they are diminutive in stature and that they smile hugely. The reader is not offered any information to distinguish one person from another other than perhaps clothing which is either clean, purloined or ceremonial.

I echo to Mortenson his own concern paraphrased as, “What price progress?” He judged the lives of the village by a western standard and gives little clue how their circumstance compares to others in their geography. Mortenson admits half way through the adventure that he intends to change the culture and uses the poverty of Pakistan as the vehicle. He insists girls go to school when it is not his place. When a Fatwah is issued because of his meddling, he uses his influence to have it removed.

In the end, who benefited most from the bridge and the schools, the work centers and the other charitable donations? And most important, why hadn’t wealthy locals provided schools, clean water and books? The materials were there and some of the residents had the money to build. In the end one is forced to consider, why didn’t he build a coalition or teach the locals to build a coalition instead of taking the risks he forced upon himself? I am inclined to wonder if Mortenson’s need for self aggrandizement got in the way of teaching the locals ‘how to fish.’

Would I recommend the book? One of my friends mentioned she read the book and made her annual Christmas donation to the charity Greg set up. If the reader is looking for a cause, this one is as good as any. As far as a literary effort, I don’t say it is especially strong. Had it not been a book club selection, I would have cast it aside after 50 pages. In fact it suffers greatly from lack of an editor. Not sure you agree? Take a look at Amazon’s reviewers for one and two stars. Many, besides me, blanch at the poor writing and see the message corrupted by the medium. That having been said, I doubt literary excellence was the intent.

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February 9, 2010

Bill Bryson and the Thunderbolt Kid hit the mark

Bryson’s works always cause massive upset for me. He writes in such an apparently easy-breezy style, I feel intimidated¬†and as a somewhat heavy-handed tyro by comparison. He has not yet written a book that disappoints or that is not noted by me as well written.

But the Thunderbolt Kid was especially threatening since he writes of things I hope to share in my own manuscript. Can I capture the mood as well? Will the reader conjure the smells and feel the nostalgia? Will my writing bring the compassion and head-nodding familiarity Thunderbolt evokes?

To be sure I am partly transfixed because he writes about a time and nearby place to my own personal history. But even if I had not walked similar streets and visited similar regal Egyptian-style movie theaters, the descriptions would resonate. And the antics he and his buddies survive made me want to be one of them, then and now. Not a small triumph for a writer.

Most of Thunderbolt’s tale is not remarkable. We have read often of pubescent males finding their way towards Playboy Magazine and their awakening lust for soon-to-be voluptuous classmates. What makes Bryson’s review of such familiar ground unique is how it fits with the whole; how he shares his search for female pulchritude, beer and cigarettes as part of a normal life with equally unremarkable friends who are in fact, quite remarkable.

How does Bryson do it? I can’t speak for him but I can speak of him as a reader. He engages me immediately. He makes me feel he is talking just to me and is glad I am listening. He does not indulge in overly written prose with conspicuous analogies or similes, and while he doesn’t insult the reader by writing down, he refrains from using a vocabulary that requires the reader to pause. He just lopes along telling a tale and brings the reader along by enticements to see what happens next.

And that’s the trick. I recall reading Joseph Heller’s Catch Twenty-Two with the same result. Try this experiment if you don’t believe me. Pick up the book and let it fall open to any page. Heller crafts each paragraph to force you to read the next. My guess is both Bryson and Heller edit mercilessly, removing any word or phrase or story line that does not give an immediate result to the reader. I am convinced this is the hardest part of writing and what makes books memorable and enduring.

And with Bryson, now that I finished his last contribution to my reading stack, I am similarly impatient for his next book. Now that’s a good story-teller.

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