Book review: ‘Three Cups of Deceit’ pours a tale of betrayal in education and charity

Jon Krakaeur is one of my favorite writers. I came upon his writings after the age of 25-years, wherein his sense of adventure and independent idealism struck me as honest and relatable. It is through this lens that the betrayal of trust exposed in Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way resonated within me a sense of disappointment and anger after reading the detail of possibility lost.

Greg Mortenson is shown in Three Cups of Deceit to be a cheat, a swindler, a and a dishonest profiteer with little management skill or integrity. Mortenson had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize based on his work in building schools and funding the operation of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan as director and chief fundraiser for the Central Asia Institute.  The idea and potential of this organization is unique in its ability to bring literacy to a population not adequately educated.

Three Cups of Deceit 2(Greg Mortenson)

Quoting from a New Yorker article published at the time Three Cups of Deceit was published:

“[Krakaeur] quotes former C.A.I. employees who are scathing in their criticism of Mortenson, including board members who resigned in disgust. According to Krakaeur, in 2009, C.A.I. spent 1.7 million dollars to promote Mortenson’s books, taking out full-page ads in publications like the New York Times, and chartering private planes for him to attend speaking events.”

Mortenson had published the books Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time and Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan with ghost-writers, pocketing the profits from the book sales. In Three Cups of Deceit, Krakauer argues with testimony that many of the reported facts in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools are untrue fabrications that never occurred. The program Pennies for Peace is debunked in Three Cups of Deceit after having raised much money through the efforts of educated children in the United States and elsewhere.

Like with many of books written by Jon Krakaeur, Three Cups of Deceit includes Greg Mortenson as a central heroic figure first fighting for an idealistic pursuit and then going astray. The degree of nobility within the character has varied from one Krakaeur book to another, with Mortenson showing us a noble idea while never coming across as honest or particularly leader-like. The details here were distinct enough from other Krakauer books to hold my interest for the length of the work.

Three Cups of Deceit 3(Jon Krakaeur)

I was not overwhelmingly impressed by new journalism in this piece, though I acknowledge wholeheartedly the newsworthiness of the material. I feel the betrayal that underpinned the subject matter in the book. That Mortenson chose not to respond within the framework of the book was disappointing to me. My overall rating lands at a 3.0-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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Book review: ‘The City of Falling Angels’ falls short of John Berendt’s earlier work

I was first introduced to John Berendt‘s work as an author when I saw the movie based on based on his earlier book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). The book that forms prompted the screenplay for that movie was Berendt‘s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story. Based on the eccentric characters of the movie Midnight, along with the suspense of the underlying mystery with the city as a strong central character, I was intrigued to get to know a different story as observed and told by John Berendt that would have me as intrigued.

Walking the shelves of a local independent bookseller last fall, I struck upon Berendt‘s The City of Falling Angels, which came out roughly 11-years after the first. This book reflects not a case of suspected murder with different classes of the city of Savannah, Georgia, but instead it focused on the fire that gutted the opera house Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. The city, its people, the stage that the city is for people that live here and visit were all put under a review that in part felt like tabloid tale and part investigative travelogue.

Falling Angels 3(Teatro La Fenice)

The concept of Venice, its history, and efforts that many have undertaken to maintain the antiquities of the city was a large theme underpinning the story of Midnight. Additionally there was the story of the fire and the assignment of cause and culpability. There too was the story of the papers of expatriate authors that lived in Venice, including the intrigue surrounding possession of the papers once he had died. Tales of property holders, conservators of fundraising organizations intent of preserving art and architecture in Venice, and even the death of a homosexual poet in the city all were scrutinized into a large focal point on the character of Venice as tied together by an American that visited, interviewed, and observed over a period of months extending into parts of multiple years.

Berendt worked at his craft not so much as a police detective, an art historian, or a mystery writer as much as he aimed to tell the story of a city from a few interesting mysteries tied together to show the mask and intrigue underlying how the city of Venice functioned with eccentricities and eccentrics. The basic formula that applied in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story were applied to The City of Falling Angels, but for the mystery being a question of arson, who benefited, and why. Add a similarly strong sense of local color and random unrelated history.

Falling Angels 2(John Berendt)

In all honesty, I never read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story while having only seen the movie that was later based on it. I found much of the conjecture in The City of Falling Angels interesting, though I do not find a great desire to go back and read the first book after having read the second. The City of Falling Angels follows a similar formula and premise as the first movie (and presumably book). It feels like the second suffers from using the same premises again.

Another way of saying the last paragraph is that the problem of sequels applies. You lose your audience when you perform the same notion more than once, even if the story deals with different subject matter. For The City of Falling Angels, my rating is 3.0-stars out of 5.0-stars.

Matt – Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book review: Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad found a way

We as readers of Diana Nyad‘s book Find a Way learn that a boldly lived life offers much in terms of striving, sacrifice, and perseverance. While the recently begun 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics reminds us that the life-questing championships sometimes engender disappointments like not competing in an Olympics, the life lessons Nyad teaches us with Find a Way fundamentally get outweighed for Nyad in showing us that life often is about our responses to setbacks.

The Goodreads book review service introduces Find a Way with three life lessons that Diana Nyad carries through much of her determined steps to endurance swim 111-miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida. Those lessons are quoted here:

1.   Never, ever give up.
2.   You’re never too old to chase your dreams.
3.   It looks like a solitary sport, but  it’s a Team.

It did take a team of dedicated support and professional support to finally succeed in crossing the Atlantic Ocean between Cuba and Florida in September 2013. The book that chronicles the five attempts to cross the shark infested waters along with an overwhelming childhood of sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her stepfather and a high school swim coach were dramatic and compelling of their own accord.

Find a Way 2 (Diana Nyad)

In the October 2015 interview with ABC News when Find A Way was first published, Nyad reflects on some of her fuller life lessons in overcoming that abuse as well as having the tenacity to cross the Atlantic Ocean at age 64. In addition to the endurance of the 111-miles of crossing without stages or sleep, Nyad gets into the pain and mortal fear of death from being stung by jelly fish, the “playlist” of songs that Nyad recalled in her head for timing, and the things that motivate her now that the dream of swimming from Cuba to Key West is behind her. From the ABC News interview:

“Life is short. It is fleeting,” [Nyad] said. “This life that we’re living here on earth has an end, we’re all on a one way street. Why not live it big? Why not live it with dreams and aspirations and be everything you can be? Tap every ounce of potential and courage that’s in you.”

Find a Way becomes a contemplation of a strong will, intelligent support, and strong will in boldly living the hopes rather than the tragedies of life. The narrative style of the book is straightforward and engaging. Diana Nyad offers many life affirmations in ways that make a lot of sense. My rating is 4.0-stars out of a potential 5.0-stars account for much of that uplift.

Matt – Sunday, February 11, 2018.

The X-Men movie ‘Logan’ entertained this reviewer

Logan (2017) is the latest foray into the X-Men movie universe, having been released in March of 2017. The movie is as emotionally mature as any movie in the franchise, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, surpassing the original X-Men (2000) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) in this regard. Rating well among critics and audiences alike, if you enjoy action movies coupled with a compelling story that tells a compelling conclusion to compelling characters, you could do much worse than the story offered by Logan.

Logan 2(Hugh Jackman)

Hugh Jackman reprises his role as Wolverine, or Logan, as the namesake of the movie Logan. We encounter an aged Logan in Mexico as a limousine driver and caretaker to the mentally and physically deteriorating Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart. Logan and Charles are clearly suffering from health issues. Charles has Alzheimer’s Disease, though we never learn of the illness of Logan. Both took medicine to keep their symptoms under what semblance of control can be had.

Logan 3(Patrick Stewart)

Feeling morally corrupted for hunting mutants before the beginning of Logan, the character Caliban has taken to supporting and hiding out with the very mutants he once pursued. Portrayed by Stephen Merchant, Caliban tries to confront Logan on the source of his disease. He (Caliban) had aimed to help Logan, if only Logan would trust in the friendship that Caliban attempts to offer.

Logan 4(Stephen Merchant)

Boyd Holbrook plays the antagonist pursuing the three mutants we’ve met already in this review, namely Logan, Charles Xavier, and Caliban. As Pierce, Holbrook forwards the agenda of ridding the world of mutants while a cabal of his friends assist him in this work and other dastardly plans. Part of those plans include the continued experimentation on the child Logan never knew he had, namely Laura.

Logan 5(Boyd Holbrook)

Laura is played by Dafne Keen, a child less than 13-years-old in the movie who appears to Logan in Mexico seeking safe travel with Logan to North Dakota and then on to Canada. It was Keen’s fluency in Spanish and English that helped land her a role as Laura. Charles Xavier knows of Laura being Logan’s child. Charles finds a way to communicate with the apparently mute Laura. It isn’t until after much traveling, and some unfortunate circumstances befalling Caliban and Charles that we learn Keen can talk.

Logan 6(Dafne Keen)

The film Logan is filled with action and the kind of fighting scenes that would attract many action film fans. Much of the action bears away from the traditional X-Men fighting into territories of intense hand-to-hand combat. That there is the expected X-Men flare of Wolverine-style action from Laura, Logan, and younger variants of Logan do not disappoint.

There were thoughts of Terminator 2 that came to mind with the Spanish language dialogue, the Mexican border action, and the prolonged indestructibility of Logan. This part struck true to much of the Logan / Wolverine character  that we came to know throughout the series of X-Men movies. This is also true of much of the self-loathing and ambivalent dysfunction between Logan, Charles, and Laura.

The terminal outcome for characters who were critical to the X-Men series in Logan provided a degree of satisfying finality and closure; mostly the outcomes for the characters of Professor Charles Xavier and Logan are the ones I mean.

The movie Logan felt like a parting chapter in a way that was true to their larger narrative while not compromising the story that preceded it. In a sense, a fitting tribute for carrying on their legacy with another generation of characters was a seed we’re also planted.

I came away satisfied with the story told by Logan. If you had some doubt about watching a movie series based on comic book characters, let me say that there are plenty of choices of lesser caliber than X-Men. Consider the X-Men series, with Logan last, if ever you would be so inclined.

My appreciation here for the direction and writing for James Mangold. I further appreciated the added writing efforts of Scott Frank.

Matt – Friday, February 9, 2018

Grieving as Literacy from San Diego

We at Matt Lynn Digital sometimes aim to discuss childhood literacy here with our blog. Many times this takes the form of discussing books that we like, authors that have inspired us, or trends in the profession. Today, we are inspired by the notion of a second-grader from southern California that has something to offer about coping with loss.

Today’s story is that of grieving for 7-year-old Noah Orion from Del Mar Hills Academy near San Diego, California. Thanks to this piece from The San Diego Tribune in California, we are introduced to a primary-aged child who, thanks to an idea with his father (Harley Orion) had taken to writing and drawing pictures of his thoughts after losing his mother to cancer.

As reporter Pam Kragen and photographer Nelvin C. Cepeda looked to tell us in their piece from February 2, 2018, the original notion of this journal was to serve as a positive means of channeling positive memories of mother Sandy Orion for 7-year-old Noah and his 5-year-old sister, Naomi Orion. Sandy Orion had died of cancer, and the remaining Orions still had living to do.

Grieving 2(Harley Orion with Noah and Naomi)

The family came up with the idea of finding a way to pay that thought process forward. As indicated by Kragen in her news piece:

“Now, Noah and his father, Harley Orion of Carmel Valley, are planning to turn that germ of an idea into a professionally printed booklet that can be used by other children going through hard times. They’ve lined up more than 100 investors through an Indiegogo.com campaign and half of all profits will go toward cancer research.”

Harley and Sandy Orion first chose not to share details of the cancer diagnosis with their children until the physical symptoms of the disease manifested itself in ways that could not be concealed. Their choice was to share the prognosis honestly, which in theory would allow the kids to cope on terms that were age appropriate.

The publishing of the journal from the hand of Noah will take the name Noah’s Good Days, Bad Days Journal. More than 100 investors are supporting the publishing project, with half of all profits said to go toward cancer research.

Grieving 3(Noah Orion looking at a journal entry from when his mother, Sandy Orion, was in poor health).

According to the news account, the plan is to sell paperback books to the public for $12 sometime in March. Our point at Matt Lynn Digital in sharing this story is that literacy is not only about reading and writing, which this book promotes. The idea is that reading literacy also promotes an emotional literacy and resiliency. Again, from the news piece:

“People have a lot of opinions about the effects of grief on children, but most agree that the first few years after a loss like this are critical to the trajectory of their lives,” [Harley Orion] said. “Losing a parent is always going to be a major event in your life, but it doesn’t have to change who you are or prevent you from having a wonderful life.”

Matt – Sunday, February 4, 2018

A slightly passing grade for the action movie ‘The Commuter’

The Commuter (2018) is a foray for the new year into a high stakes action thriller taking place on a moving train. The film stars Liam Neeson in the lead role of manipulated hero figure pitted against time and an unknown, unconscionable choice to act after getting laid off with college bills for a son and two mortgages during his commute home from the job he just lost.

The Commuter 2(Liam Neeson)

Neeson, portraying Michael MacCauley, clearly has a set of deductive and defensive skills along with the skills of a former police detective. MacCauley is revealed as a former policeman shortly after he is fired from a long-term insurance sales job when MacCauley meets former police partner Alex Murphy. Murphy, played by Patrick Wilson, mentions a beef with his captain about politics since MacCauley has left the police force. Captain Hawthorne, as portrayed by Sam Neill, provides confirmation of the same. MacCauley then departs for his commute home on the train, wherein the stage for the remainder of the movie has been set.

The Commuter 3(Patrick Wilson)

With the special skills of a movie character played by Liam Neeson, the narrative of The Commuter feels a little bit like the trio of Taken movies that began in 2008, though based in New York City. The movie further feels like the movie Speed (1994), wherein the unfolding drama has a specific set of all-knowing rules following the construct of an external force dangling a bunch of would-be actions in front of a would-be detective.

The Commuter 4(Sam Neill)

The intrigue of the film was legitimate. Largely, the character of MacCauley is asked to carry the film, though I walked into the film knowing much of the things intriguing points that we were likely to see. The adversaries for MacCauley were a number of regular helpers to the mastermind of the larger scheme. The roles of Joanna, played by Vera Farmiga, Alexa Murphy, and Captain Hawthorne were important for the film’s outcome, though to say exactly how is not one that I am inclined to share with a would be viewer of this film.

The Commuter 5(Vera Farmiga)

My assessment of The Commuter is that the advice given by the Rotten Tomatoes fresh meter of 58% fresh based on the 154-reviews presented at this moment is a fair rating. That I paid matinee pricing to see the movie feels appropriate to the entertainment value that I enjoyed. While my estimation would not be to add The Commuter to a top ten movies listing for 2018, allow me a year of movie watching before I make that a firm statement.

Matt – Monday, January 29, 2018

A playful swim and dance for the film ‘The Shape of Water’

The Guillermo Del Toro-directed movie The Shape of Water (2017) is showing in a theater near you. The tale is a playful, generous of spirit fantasy film that offers a generous outlooks toward disability, sexual expression, and a manner of storytelling that asks many to lighten up about taboos of American culture that were present during the time period covered in the film.

The story take place somewhere in the mid-1950s to early 1960s in and around Baltimore, Maryland. The Shape of Music‘s soundtrack reflects a charmingly playful tribute to these time periods, as does the storytelling of the tale. Soundtrack pieces that help set a sense of time include 1962’s A Summer Place by Andy Williams, 1955’s Babalu by Caterina Valente, 1941’s Chica Chica Boom Chic by Carmen Miranda, and 1941’s I Know Why (And So Do You) by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. The feeling is very jazz, upbeat, and playful.

Vanessa Taylor joined the director, Guillermo Del Toro, in garnering writing credit for a screenplay for a 13-time Oscar nominated fantasy film. The film aims to look back to an earlier time in Hollywood and popular culture, with dance, musical, popular culture, and other references from a previous era. (For plagiarism allegations appearing after the Academy Award nominations last week, see this Rolling Stone magazine piece written by Joyce Chen from January 26th, 2018).

The Shape of Water 2(Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito)

The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor at Occam’s Aerospace Research Center. Mild-mannered artist Giles as played by Richard Jenkins enjoys conversation and artistry as he struggles for companionship, physical and/or interpersonal intimacy, and a stable income for his artistry at a time where his artistry is losing ground to photography. Some ugly realities of Jim Crow and homophobia are expressed at the restaurant Dixie Doug’s Pie, the first subject receiving fuller treatment in the experiences of Zelda Fuller, as played by Octavia Spencer.

The Shape of Water 5(Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller)

Michael Shannon stars in the film as Richard Strickland. It is Strickland that one-dimensionally injectsa tamer sense of intrigue and conflict into The Shape of Water with an obsession towards tracking The Cold War asset of a male ampibious human through South America. Strickland is focused on being a decent soldier and a single-minded military discipline aimed at succeeding in his mission rather than any kind of human decency towards the amphibious man. Actor Doug Jones plays the amphibious human hybrid.

The Shape of Water 3(Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland)

The Shape of Water first and foremost seeks to share a love for the place and time it inhabits with a certain sense of nostalgia to time-period. I felt a directorial sense of love for place and time that also aims to wrap its conscience around the larger questions of injustice of the time period. The injustices were expressed for consideration as a gentle nudge towards recognizing wrong where it exists and trying to do better. There was additional asks to lighten up on private matters of intimacy.

The Shape of Water 6(Director and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro)

The entertainment in the film, beyond the appealing visual and auditory style reminiscent of a time roughly 55 to 60 years ago, was The Cold War tension that underpinned a central piece to the larger narrative of The Shape of Water. The central questions that grew beyond nostalgia were in telling the universal feelings of love, communication, and connection in relationships. A central motif was in advocating for a basic decency in matters of interpersonal relationships, whether those relationships be human to human, feline to human, fantastic amphibious creature to human, or self-directed.

The Shape of Water 4(Richard Jenkins, left, as Giles and Doug Jones, right, as Amphibious Man)

There were many explored relationships dealing with the central question of decency that provoke thought and follow-up. The raising of these questions in The Shape of Water were in some ways profound; perhaps the biggest subject to consider would be how the two characters who had the biggest difficulty communicating and advocating for themselves, most pronounced being Elisa Esposito and Amphibious Man with strong support from Giles, Zelda Fuller, and even Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (as played by Michael Stuhlberg).

The Shape of Water 7(Sally Hawkins, left, as Elisa Esposito and Doug Jones, right, as Amphibious Man)

The most important story in the film combined the nostalgia of the past with actual voice with dance. We see Elisa Esposito sharing dance with both Amphibious Man and Giles. The framing of the speaker who introduces and closes the movie’s narration also brings the central messaging for The Shape of Water, with how the effect of water shaped the central reality for the experiences of the characters, should be well received in this film.

Matt – Sunday, January 28, 2018.