Archive for June, 2011

Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

This is Jon Krakauer’s critique of Greg Mortenson’s biographical works and charity.  His claims are serious: that Mortenson made up significant parts of his books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones to Schools, and that he has misappropriated significant funds intended for his non-profit charity, the Central Asian Institute (CAI). Krakauer also believes that much of the work that CAI has done has been mismanaged, resulting in unused buildings rather than the functioning schools that the CAI claims.

The situation is ugly.  Mortenson has sold a lot of books and raised a lot of money for the wholly laudable goal of building schools in the disadvantaged world.  Until these allegations were raised by Krakauer and 60 Minutes, he was well respected.  It is difficult for a random reader to assess the veracity of either author’s claims.

And yet.

My gut feeling is that Krakauer is probably right about the inflated claims in Three Cups of Tea.  I said in my earlier review that Three Cups is breathless in places, and that’s an understatement.  Much of that book feels overwrought and the narrative just too overheated to be true. If that was the extent of the allegations, I would be disappointed, but a few white lies to build schools for the disadvantaged is not the worst sin.

Krakauer goes on to say that the CAI is basically being mismanaged to the point of fraud and that funds intended for those schools are not making it there.  Mortenson’s alleged mismanagement ranges from using CAI funds to advertise for his books (which do not directly benefit the CAI) to losing touch with the operations on the ground.  The latter manifests itself as not keeping the schools that have been built operating by training and supporting teachers.  Without them, the school is just another building.

As I say, I am not in a position to judge these claims – other than my literary assessment above.  However, Krakauer’s claims all seem testable, and I think that an audit of a multi-million dollar charity accused of such malfeasance is worthwhile.  One would hope that the CAI would be eager to use such an audit to clear their name.  With the attention this is getting, I suspect the audit is imminent.

I hope Krakauer’s wrong.  Mortenson’s story is compelling and inspiring, and I’d like to believe that he’s made people’s lives better.  I fear he’s right.

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of key years in Hitler’s rise to power from the eyes of a US ambassador to Germany and his adventurous daughter.  Larson has a keen eye for exploring seminal events from unlikely perspectives, and it serves him well here.

His protagonist is an unlikely choice for ambassador.  William Dodd was a history professor who was looking for a sleepy assignment that would give him time to work on a book. Unexpectedly, due to widespread distaste for the posting and Roosevelt’s whim, he became ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Hitler is in power but still consolidating it.  German rhetoric is full of bluster and racism, people are beaten on German streets, yet everyone wants to believe that this will all blow over.

Dodd is a strange man to find in the middle of this.  In a clubby world of career diplomats he is a principled academic.  He guides himself by Jeffersonian principles of everyman’s democracy (and frugality), but finds that his aristocratic brethren are more interested in Germany’s bond payments than its human rights record.  While that somewhat overstates the case – no one could be completely blind to the regime’s violent attitudes – it is remarkable to see the range of opinions that people held.

While Dodd is something of a fish out of water his daughter Martha takes to the Berlin scene like it was meant for her.  She rubs elbows (and other parts) with correspondents, underground opponents of Hitler, Russian spies, and Nazi officials.  Her personal observations round out her father’s ethical ones to construct a lively picture of a turbulent time.

Larson’s choice to frame his history from the views of these outsiders gives his readers a frame of reference that is informed but still apart from the world he is describing.  This helps put the reader in the frame of mind needed to enter into early 1930’s Europe.  The uncertainty and misplaced hope for Hitler’s government look like blindness and folly from the other side of World War II, but at the time rational, intelligent people held those views.  Understanding why they did and how they were disabused of them helps understand our world, too.

The best framework would not be worth much without Larson’s eye for the telling detail and narrative flow.  It is a powerful skill to not construct a telling detail, but to winnow it from the piles of from  this widely researched time.  Larson demonstrates that ability again and again without losing the main thread of the narrative.

Garden is not flawless.  The sharp focus on his characters recedes after the harrowing Night of the Long Knives, but the book lingers on them longer than I expected. Even the ends of even minor players are described in detail.  History is messy, but trailing off is less powerful than ending.

Still, Larson shows a fascinating time from an illuminating angle.

Strongly Recommended.