Asne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul: 5/20/2010

Bookseller of KabulMany in the group found ourselves thinking, “not another book about Afghanistan!” as we approached this month’s selection.  After reading it, we were glad to have read Seierstad’s journalistic book about a place that is so unfamiliar to us, yet so familiar to thousands of American troops.

We had some discussion about how non-judgmental the author really was (or wasn’t), how satisfying such episodic storytelling is (or isn’t), and how much license Seierstad must have taken in reporting the thoughts of participants in such incidents as Mansur’s pilgrimage.  Several readers were impressed with Seierstad’s vivid descriptions of of Kabul, down to the dust in the houses and the intimate smells within a burka.

We struggled to understand the tribal nature of life for the bookseller’s family, and found ourselves angered by the effects of such a strongly hierarchical and patriarchal society.  Leila’s thwarted efforts to establish a place for herself as a teacher, away from the constant demands of her family, were heartbreaking to read.  It was painful to read of Sultan’s mercilessness toward the impoverished man who stole some of his postcards.  The report of the girl killed by her brothers with her mother’s consent, for sitting with a man on a park bench, was enraging and unfathomable.

We talked about the difference between Islam and fundamentalist tribal culture, considering that patriarchal religious fundamentalism and extremism appears in connection with Christianity and other religions as well.

Some readers found the book a reminder of their doubts that our country’s involvement in Afghanistan can have a positive outcome for either nation.  One mother of an Iraq war veteran spoke up about her need to believe that the military effort is making some difference for the better.

Members suggested a few other titles:

James Michener, Caravans
David Baldacci, The Camel Club
Rory Stewart, The Places In Between
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

Three Cups of Tea by Mortenson & Relin: 4/16/09

Three Cups of Tea

We agreed this was not great literature, but a story worth reading about a complex charismatic with an important lesson for anyone interested in international relations. I was struck by the thought that if Greg Mortenson had appeared in my library during the days he was living out of his car and writing fundraising letters to famous people one by one, I probably would have figured he was a well-meaning dreamer with a very loose hold on sanity and no chance of succeeding with his “project.” Another reminder that appearances can be profoundly deceiving.

Members expressed admiration for Mortenson’s courage and perseverance, and appreciation for some insight into life in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the tone of the book was very flattering of Mortenson in many respects, there was also enough revealed about his setbacks and weaknesses that many questions came up in discussion. Will his organization be able to continue its work once he’s not there to lead it? DJ noticed that when he had the chance to speak with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon back home, Mortenson was not able to bring the open-hearted attitude of respectful listening he so notably offered when traveling abroad. She observed that tends to be a challenge for all of us…

We talked about the familiar profile of a powerful progressive leader who is far less than ideal to those he or she lives and works with. All the same, DV praised Mortenson as a great example of “why nerds are so wonderful!”

B suggested that we need a similar champion for schools in distressed communities in our own country.

W gave us sobering food for thought with a brief outline of the story of Afghanistan’s last 100 years, including the expulsion of the British – twice – then the defeat of the Russians, followed not long after by the arrival of United States troops.

Other titles suggested by book club members: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World;Michener’s Caravans.