Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, but mostly Relin, I’d guess) – I read this because everywhere I went — muni, the doctor’s office, work, the gym — someone was carrying around a copy. Because so many people were reading it, I figured the circle on the front cover (not shown here) was for Oprah’s Book Club. But it turns out the circle is for the Kiriyama Prize (a $15,000 prize) recognizing “outstanding books about the Pacific Rim and South Asia…”
Basically, this is Mortenson’s story: He gets lost in the remote reaches of northern Pakistan after a failed attempt at K2 and because of the local hospitality promises to return to the village and build a school. He goes back to the States without a clue about how to do this, lives out of a car (called La Bamba) and a storage unit in Berkeley, and ends up starting his own non-profit and building all these schools (with an emphasis on girls’ education) in Muslim areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan that we (those of us who are dumb that is) associate with American-hating terrorists. Seriously, this is an uplifting, inspiring story. Mortenson for president! As long as he takes Relin as his speech writer.
My guess is award winning journalist, David Oliver Relin, did all of the writing. This is some high quality narrative nonfiction, a page-turner of a story complete with the contextual depth that comes from tying the story into current events (9/11 occurs during the span of the story) and the climbing history of the area. The landscape of northern Pakistan is described with such precision and beauty (who knew ice could be so magical?) it makes me want to risk life and limb and 3-4 days worth of travel to get there. Some of the writing about the area is forced (especially with climbing metaphors), but there are really only so many ways to describe the crags on the mountains and the endless snow fields. I also have some gripes about the story itself, which had all the elements of a summer movie blockbuster — romance, action, a happy ending – all tied up with a nice litle bow. But in a buyer’s market, this is what passes for good salable narrative.
Motherless Brooklyn (Jonathen Lethem) – I guess I was on an award kick, because this novel won the National Book Award in 1999. While I’m sure I missed half of Lethem’s brilliance, his play on the lineage of hard-boiled detective stories, I was impressed by the protaganist. The guy had Tourette’s. Can you imagine writing an entire book from the first-person perspective of someone with verbal and physical tics and not driving the reader nuts? With his words, Lethem can express more in one paragraph than I will ever ever be able to in my career as a writer.
Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama. Potentially with the help of a ghost writer?) I read this because I’d heard it was especially “literary,” and it is. The memoir is broken up into three parts — childhood with mother and grandparents and step-dad in Hawaii and Indonesia, post-collegiate community organizing in Chicago, soul searching visit to Kenya to meet his father’s side of the family. For the most part, the book reads as Obama’s story to reconcile his mulitracial, multiethnic, multicultural heritage; a quest for an identity that feels authentic, all-encompassing, and honest; and the search for a life purpose that takes identity, family, and community into consideration. All things that are universal human endeavors, and throughout most of the book, truly resonated with me.
One of my issues had to do with the remarkable amount of detail, and perhaps this is my issue with memoirs, in general. This memoir had hundreds of scenes. And in each one, the clothing, facial expresssions, haircuts of characters met only for seconds are perfectly rendered, as is the wallpaper of rooms, the trim of the buildings, and the number of steps on houses. Either Obama kept a damn good journal, or a bunch of researchers pulled pictures and found all sorts of facts for him, or he is like Augusten Burroughs, who claims to be able to relive his scenes as he writes them, capturing every element with factual accuracy.
Aside from reading this article and this one about Obama’s books, I don’t know much about his writing process, like how long it took, how much help did he have? Is he just one of those uber-smart individuals who can figure out how to write a book simply by calling upon a lifetime (or in his case, 30-something years) of reading. When I first picked up the book, I was naive enough to think Obama wrote it without presidential aspirations in mind. The official occasion for the book was that he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. But as the Obama article in the recent issue of the New Yorker (the one with the “satirical” cover) makes clear, he’s been thinking about his political prospects for a long time and a great deal of thought probably went into this memoir as far as building a future political platform, especially as sets in print, now and forever, his journey to a racial identity.
I must confess. I couldn’t read about 20-30 pages near the end of the memoir. He was in Kenya and went on and on and on about his brother’s father’s dad’s sister’s uncle, as told by his mother’s sister’s son. It reminded me of really bad creative nonfiction workshop. Someone always comes in and says she wants to record her family story for “posterity,” and it just means I’m going to be subjected to one long dinner conversation from Aunt Maggie’s. By the end of the book, Obama seems to have forgotten the most important point of a good memoir is not to tell your life story, but to make the story larger than your life. This memoir was mostly great, but did not have to be anywhere near 400+ pages. Less is more, buddy.