December Books

I read three interesting books in December.  All three of these books actually made me think, which doesn’t always happen.  The first two books were an amazing contrast and I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed them as much if I had not read them back to back.  Here’s my thoughts on my December books, Infidel, Three Cups of Tea and Soccernomics.

InfidelAyaan Hirsi Ali.  Infidel is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.  It is about Ali’s path from Somalia to the United States, with time spent living in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Germany and the Netherlands in between.  Without giving away too much of the book, Ali was born into the Somali clan system and was raised as a devout, conservative Muslim.  She faced incredible hardship during her life including living multiple war zones, abusive parents, female circumcision, forced marriage, an internal struggle with her religious beliefs, death threats and so much more.  Her story is so incredible that if it were written for Hollywood, you would think it was fake.

A little background.  When the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was butchered by an Islamic extremist in broad daylight in the Netherlands, the terrorist stabbed a 5 page note to Van Gogh’s chest.  The note was addressed to Ali and included a fatwa, or holy order, calling on Muslims to kill her.  The books tells Ali’s life story that lead to this horrific conclusion.

While reading the book, I found myself questioning how anyone could believe in cultural relativism, especially if they read Ali’s story.  I see cultural relativism as a continuum.  On one end is the people who say “our values are right, other values are wrong.” The other end is people who say “all cultures are equal, we must respect their practices, as their values are as good as ours.” I’ve gone back and forth along the cultural relativism continuum for a long time now, but after reading Ali’s book, I am falling much farther toward the first end of the spectrum.  I think that my reading of cultural relativism is now something like this: I can understand why people have the values that they do in different countries, but I believe that there are universal human rights and truths that everyone should adhere to.  For example, I can understand how someone born in the rural, tribal hinterlands of Somalia could believe that female circumcision is the right thing to do, but I don’t believe it’s wrong to try to stop the practice.

I’m probably not doing a good job of explaining myself here, but I believe that Infidel is one of the most interesting books of the 21st century and potentially one of the most important.  I highly recommend Infidel.

Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  After reading Infidel, I dove right into Three Cups of Tea.  I had never heard this story, but after reading the book, came away inspired.  Three Cups of Tea is about Greg Mortenson’s quest to build schools and improve the quality of life for children, especially girls, in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 1993, Mortenson, an American, failed at summiting K2, arguably the world’s most difficult mountain to climb.  Mortenson got lost climbing back down to civilization and wandered into Korphe, a tiny mountain village in Northern Pakistan.  He was sick, tired and lost, yet the impoverished Muslim villagers nursed him back to health and gave him amazing hospitality.  After living with the villagers for about seven weeks, Mortenson was able to go back home ot the United States.  But before he left, he agreed to return and build the villagers a school to educate their kids, especially their girls.

Fast forward to 2009, Mortenson has built over 130 schools and countless clean water projects, women’s centers and self improvement facilities in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.  His schools have educated over 55,000 children in an area where America is not all that well liked.  Mortenson has succeeded in helping these children by sheer personal grit, determination and amazing perseverance.  He has spent years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, braving some of the most dangerous places in the world, in order to help children get an education.  He believes that books, not bombs, will make the world a safer place in the future.

Mortenson is now one of my personal heroes because he has done so much good, without any official mandate.  Mortenson is a charity entrepreneur.  He has gone into an area that had a huge need and filled it as best as he could.  I truly believe that Mortenson deserves a Nobel Peace Prize and believe he will get one within my lifetime.  If you want to be inspired and read about one of the most amazing people on this Earth, read Three Cups of Tea.  I can’t recommend a book any more highly.

SPOILERS: After reading Infidel and Three Cups of Tea back to back, I really wanted to hear what Ali and Mortenson would think about each other.  By the end of Infidel, Ali believes that Islam needs to have a reformation because many of the core tenants of Islam advocate violence, oppression of women and a “backward” outlook toward the word.  She does not seem to believe that there are moderate Muslims, only religious Muslims and secularized Muslims.  The does not seem to believe in the concept of the “silent majority.” These ideas are completely understandable if you lived in her shoes and lived the life that she did.  They may even be completely correct, but I am not so sure.

Mortenson’s story seems to prove otherwise and provides signs of hope.  Although he is kidnapped by the Taliban and threatened by some religious Mullahs, the vast majority of people he meets are devout Muslims that are good people.  They are clearly not secular and are very religious, but do not have any problem with an infidel like Mortenson.  In fact, many of them are willing to put their life on the line to protect him.  Additionally, these rural Pakistani and Afghani Muslims are willing to educate their girls and the girls are willing to learn.  Mortenson’s example of how education can help people break free of poverty is incredibly powerful and I think Ali would agree that what he is doing is amazingly important.  I would love to be a fly on the wall if the two of them would ever have a candid conversation.

Soccernomics – Simon Kuper and & Stefan Szymanski.  Soccernomics is nowhere near as heavy as the previous two books, but is still very interesting.  Kuper is the author of Soccer Against the World, another book I read this summer, and is back at it again.  Soccernomics is the Moneyball of soccer.  The authors try to bring statistical analysis to the pitch, just like Michael Lewis did in Moneyball.  The authors tackle why England always seems to fail at major tournaments, which countries overachieve and underachieve and who will be successful in the future.

My favorite part of the book is the section about Olympic Lyon, currently one of the most successful clubs in Europe.  Just like Moneyball, the authors show why Lyon can be such a good club with limited resources.  Lyon goes against conventional wisdom and is incredibly active in the transfer market.  They have a stable front office and only buy players who are between 20 and 22 and are among the top 2-3 players in their country or are Brazilian.  Once the players sign with Lyon, the club spares no expense to help the players adjust to living in Lyon and French culture.  I found it amazing that other clubs, even the richest in the world (Chelsea, Man U, Real Madrid etc) don’t do this.  They simply sign the player and hope he is able to adjust.  Third, Lyon sell players as soon as they show any sign of deterioration and never try to sign center forwards, as they are the most over valued players in the transfer market.  If you liked Moneyball or like European soccer, Soccernomics is the book for you.

Note: If you are interested in donating to Greg Mortenson’s charity to build schools in Central Asia, check out the Three Cups of Tea website.

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