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May 15, 2007

Book Reviews

Later, At the BarBy Rebecca Barry. Simon and Schuster; 225 pgs., $22.Rebecca Barry knows her way around a tavern, it would seem. This “novel in stories” is just what it claims to be: a series of short vignettes that in concert tell a coherent and detailed mini-epic about a time and a place and a group of misfits in rural America. Like a favorite watering hole, it is at once familiar and pregnant with the possibility of surprise.The book begins (like so many now) at the end, with the death of the beloved proprietor, Lucy, who freezes one winter night outside the bar. By book’s end, we have come to root for — and, yes, love — each of the motley regulars who squander their paychecks at Lucy’s Tavern. These people are cops and bus drivers, bowlers and construction workers, cigarette smokers and short-order cooks. They are the types of Midwesterners often heard lamenting the loss of honest labor, the folks who can’t find manufacturing jobs at the same time they can’t find any good new music. They are all characters remembering better days. The writer both cares deeply for them and knows them well.Barry has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine and Ploughshares, among others. She is relatively young, and if this is any indicator of the direction in which she intends to take her prose, then she is a writer worth watching closely. —Paul KopaszThree Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a TimeBy Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Penguin; 368 pgs., $15.This real-life story of drama, adventure, danger, romance and compassion captures one man’s effort to change the world. While not exceptionally wealthy or privileged, this person has tremendous passion and determination.In “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson’s story begins when he attempts to climb K2 in northeastern Pakistan and is separated from his guide. Lost and nearly dead, he stumbles into the remote village of Korphe. While the people have very little, they nurse him back to health. After weeks with them, he regains his strength and asks how to repay them. Their only wish is for their children to have education, as the village has no schools.Before returning to Berkeley, Calif., where he works as an emergency room nurse, Mortenson promises to return to build a school. He then lives in his car to save money and writes hundreds of letters to anyone he thinks might contribute, but gets almost no response. Finally, he hears from Dr. Jean Hoerni, a mountain climber and pioneer in the semiconductor industry. In the next few days, Mortenson receives a $12,000 check from Hoerni. But that is just the beginning. Transporting building materials up the mountains to the remote village proves a task more daunting than fundraising. The story describes the trip over tortuous roads and the severe weather that postpones construction. Additionally, he describes his constant fear of being kidnapped or killed in an area where Taliban extremists roam.In the end, Mortenson makes 27 trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, building 55 schools. —Pam Brooks