by design or by chance, i have recently read a few books that have the theme of religion threaded throughout. all of them are worth a read, but my recommendations for each are for very different reasons. interesting that they are all non fiction reads.
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
it took me awhile before i decided if i liked greg or not, but his story is captivating regardless of how you feel about his values and focus. the short version of his rather long story is that he fails to climb k2, happens across a poor village in pakistan, makes a commitment to return one day to build a school, and that is the beginning of an ngo that builds schools in northern pakistan and afghanistan.
the book fascinated me as it challenged and confirmed some of the opinions i have about international development, but even more, it is a excellent and user-friendly historical account of pakistan and afghanistan in the 21st century.
i have never spent much time researching and studying that area of the world and have just assumed it is very complicated and an outsider would never be able to grasp the influence that ethnicity, religion, and clan-based governance systems. but this book puts a stop to that type of fatalist thinking and just gives you the story of a man who wanted to build schools for people who couldn't build them for themselves.
have you read it? i would love to know what other people think about how greg neglects his family and own health to achieve his goals. is it worth it? is he a martyr for an unwinnable cause? does his wife get enough credit in the book? i would love to have a book club-type conversation about this book!
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
the true story of a somali girl who lives in somalia, saudi arabia, ethiopia, kenya, and the netherlands is also fascinating. ayaan writes a book that challenges islam and those liberals and muslims who defend its values and practices (and has lived with death threats because of it). i have personally struggled with elements of islam and it was refreshing to read that someone else had done the dirty work of dissection and investigation and presented them for you to either accept or reject.
i also like her description of eastleigh in nairobi and of the smell of sukuma wiki. (fun fact - sukuma wiki is an inexpensive spinach dish in kenya and swahili literally translates to 'pushing the week' because it is what you eat when you are trying to stretch your shillings to the end of the week). ayaan's telling of her experience with unhcr and with the social welfare system of the netherlands also challenges what you thought you knew about refugees, social assistance, and the acceptance of foreign cultural values in western societies.
it's long, but it is worth it. and another book i would love to discuss with other people!
The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
i just finished this one and it was much more lighthearted than the previous two, but still interesting in its obvious religious subject matter. aj attempts to live as close to biblical scripture as possible for one year. as a secular jew, he focuses first (and most) on the old testament then moves to the new testament, consulting numerous self-proclaimed experts along the way.
i don't think that he digs too deep to get to the bottom of the different interpretations of the bible, but he does give a bible virgin like me a watered down version of the seemingly incomprehensible chapters and verses that are somehow supposed to tell you how to live. he provides a lot of background and information on various groups who interpret the bible throughout the scale of literalism and like the other books, it did challenge me to think about the bible and the ways it can enhance your life if you let it.
if i had one criticism of this book it would be his lack of organisation and slight self indulgence. i would have liked to see his thoughts and revelations throughout his year of eating the bible a little more coherent. and in the same vein, i think that some things he throws in are simply a self-indulgent documentation of his own actions and even though it was a memoir of sorts, it was a bit distracting after his 12 months.