REVIEWED BY MARIA SPEIDEL
In the summer of 1993, Mortenson, a strapping emergency-room nurse from San Francisco, became separated from his group during a chaotic descent from Pakistan's K2, the world's second-highest peak. He wandered in a glacier-studded wasteland for a week before a tribesman found him and brought him to the Muslim village of Korphe.
It was a day that changed Mortenson's life, as well as the villagers', and Three Cups of Tea is an inspiring chronicle of their relationship. Recuperating over three days, Mortenson, then 35, was astonished to learn that the village had no teacher. Vowing to help the people who'd saved him, he began an epic push to fund a school. He pecked out 580 letters asking luminaries for money (only Tom Brokaw sent a check); lived in a car and accepted donations in pennies. Ten years later his project had blossomed into the Central Asia Institute, which has built 55 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Though the coauthor sometimes tries too hard to milk the drama in Mortenson's story, he doesn't have to; this is one protagonist who clearly deserves to be called a hero.
by Elizabeth Gilbert
REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DURBIN
In her early 30s, journalist Gilbert was battered by an acrimonious divorce and found herself on a search for spirituality that led her across the world. Eat, Pray, Love, her sprawling memoir, re-creates her pilgrimages to Italy, India and Indonesia, spending four months in each. (Gilbert calls it an "auspicious sign" that all three begin with an "I.") In Italy she learns the joys of eating; in India, at an Ashram, she learns the art of meditation; and in Indonesia, befriending a local healer, she practices balancing the life of the mind with the desires of the body. Gilbert's writing is sharp, humorous and self-deprecating, but though her insights are rewarding, her description of how shattered she was after her marriage breakup and her total lack of self-esteem are tiresome and slightly pathetic. Readers will recognize that Gilbert needed help; they'll just be unclear as to why she's writing about it.
by Deborah Eisenberg
REVIEWED BY VICK BOUGHTON
Plenty of writers have tackled 9/11 and its immediate impact on New York City's culture. Few, though, have offered observations as insightful as this writer's in her title story about four friends finding their way after college: "In restaurants and cafes all over the city, people seemed to have changed. The good-hearted, casually wasteful festival was over. In some places the diners were sullen and dogged, as if they felt accused of getting away with something." In another poignant story, a couple fail to connect during what could have been a romantic trip to Italy. Eisenberg, a short-story superstar whose work ranks with that of Alice Munro, gives us glimpses of lives that may be no more interesting than our own. Her rare gift is the ability to make them completely absorbing. If you haven't read her six earlier collections, you've missed out.
by Marilyn Johnson
REVIEWED BY FRANCINE PROSE
According to Johnson's witty new book The Dead Beat, the father of poet Billy Collins used to refer to the newspaper obituary section as "the Irish sports page." If that's true, Johnson must be the Howard Cosell of the obits, and her book is a play-by-play guide to the telling and often unexpectedly amusing manner in which we mark in print the passing of the famous and infamous, the lifelong oddball and the most ordinary of our neighbors. Intrigued by the obituary as an art form, Johnson seeks out the reporters who research them and the faithful fans who read them with passionate ardor. She visits conventions of obituary writers, studies the changing fashions in literary approach and style and quotes favorite obituaries that read like brilliantly miniaturized and occasionally scandalous character portraits. (Some are slightly too racy to quote here.)
Noting that "understatement and mock-delicacy" are frequently used to set up mild jokes, Johnson quotes The Daily Telegraph on the British actress Hermione Gingold: "Miss Gingold had an endearingly individual approach to life. In New York she was regularly seen rummaging through other people's dustbins." As the author illuminates this essential but under-recognized aspect of journalism, she persuades us that the obituary column is not only the place to find out who died, but also a source of information—and wisdom—about the world of the living.
White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway In delicate prose, first novelist Greenway suggests the political and personal turmoil of two sisters coming of age in Hong Kong in the late '60s. A surprise ending has the stunning impact of a grenade.
The People's Act of Love by James Meek A Russian revolutionary epic, set in 1919, in which Solzhenitsyn fans will find that familiarly Eastern Bloc sense of absurd humor. Meek's writing is heavy but his fluid storytelling allows him to craft a complex novel that reads like a literary thriller.
Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland A fast-paced psychological drama told from the point of view of a troubled Irish boy, Hyland's novel is a fresh yet troubling reminder of the pain of lost innocence and the price of pursuing the truth.
The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne A cheeky romp through upper-crust London in which our high-born heroine turns into a kind of super nanny for single men, finding plenty of adventure along the way. Like its heroine, it's funny and original.
by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin