Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nonfiction Review: Stones Into Schools

I recently read Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for my library’s monthly discussion group.  I previously read Three Cups of Tea, his first book, and although I was fascinated by the subject matter, I didn’t think it was very well written.  That first book had been written with a co-author, a journalist, while Stones Into Schools is written solely by Mortenson and is a much better book, as everyone in the book group agreed.

Here’s some more insight into why this book is better, in Greg’s own words:

In addition to being a profoundly bewildered man, I am an incorrigible introvert.  I am awkward, soft-spoken, ineloquent, and intensely shy.  I do not enjoy speaking in public, posing for photographs, or asking other people for money.  I dream of privacy, I revere silence, and I loathe any action that involves drawing attention to myself.  (Even creating these pages was painful: It took a supreme effort on the part of my wife, Tara, and my editor, Paul Slovak, to force me to agree to write it in the first-person – an approach that is emphatically not my cup of tea.)  In the Christmas pageant of life, the characters I admire most – and the only roles for which I would ever consider auditioning – are the ox and the donkey.

As this single paragraph showcases, Mortenson writes with intimacy, warmth, and wit, and the decision to write from the first-person was absolutely the right one (nice job, Tara and Paul!).  As with Three Cups of Tea, the subject matter of the book is riveting and enlightening.

Mortenson describes his continuing efforts to build schools for children, especially girls, in the most remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan through his non-profit group, Central Asia Institute (CAI).  He tells of their efforts in a very engaging way, focusing on stories of individual people who have been involved with or helped by CAI, as well as the often-fascinating paths that led to building schools in the most remote regions.  His tales are heartwarming (sometimes heart-breaking) and inspirational, especially the lengths that he and his colleagues are willing to go to provide education to children that have long been forgotten by the rest of the world.

This wonderful book provided excellent fodder for discussion among the diverse attendees at my library’s book discussion.  Its stories are enhanced by many maps and photographs (I especially enjoyed the photos of schools and children).  Stones Into Schools is engaging and instructive, illuminating a world that is completely different from our own but is linked by the same human longings for education, wellness, and a better future for our children.

379 pages, Viking Penguin

NOTE:  Interestingly, at the same time I was reading Stones Into Schools, I was also listening to a fictional teen/YA book set in rural Afghanistan about two young girls attending a new school built for them by an American non-profit.  I highly recommend Thunder Over Kandahar for a fictional perspective of the same region.

To learn more about CAI or to donate, you can visit the CAI website.

Where Are You Reading 2011:  Although CAI has built schools all over Pakistan and Afghanistan, I chose to put my pin on Bozai Gumbaz, Afghanistan, site of the most remote school built to date (what they had to go through just to get building materials there is awe-inspiring!) and a story thread that flows throughout the book.


  1. Hi! I've been wanting to read Stones Into Schools, too! I just couldn't get myself a copy for now. I've read Greg's first book and I truly admire him as a person and for what he's doing.

    Thanks for sharing your insights about the book. :-)

  2. i've been meaning to read this one son.

  3. For some reason, I've been resisting reading both Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. I'm not sure why, but I'm just not all that interested. Which makes me sound like a really bad person. I read a similar book in a similar topic called Mountains Beyond Mountains, and it just didn't grab me. I fear I would feel the same way about these two. Hence, the avoidance. Now after reading your review, if I ever do decide to read one of Mortenson's books, I'll read the second one!

  4. Pam -

    I also read Mountains Beyond Mountains for one of my book groups a few years ago and didn't like it as well as Mortenson's books...which is odd because Tracy Kidder is highly acclaimed author! But just my two cents...


  5. I have not read this one but have read the first one. I agree, the story is amazing - the writing not so much. :)