A Door in the Earth

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 27 Nov 2019

Member Reviews

Parveen is like most young women her age—graduating college, but not sure what she wants to do with her degree in medical anthropology. Until she reads a memoir, written by a man who goes to Afghanistan and after a traumatic incident that left a woman dead from giving birth, founds and funds a women’s health center in a small isolated village. Parveen is Afghan-American and Gideon Crane’s story captures her imagination and her desire to better understand her birth country. She reaches out to Crane’s foundation, gets their blessing to study the clinic and the impact it’s made on the women of the area, and even to stay with the family of the woman who inspired Crane to build the clinic. This is where Amy Waldman’s new novel, A Door in the Earth, begins.

Almost immediately, Parveen’s idealism and literal belief in Crane’s memoir is challenged. Now of the people she meets, from the Afghan man who helped Crane get the clinic built to the local elders to Fereshta’s husband, Waheed, are as described. The clinic is a marvel—new, clean, stocked with the latest technology to facilitate safe pregnancies and births, but electricity is an iffy situation in the small village and the only staff allowed to see women must a be a woman, which means one female doctor drives hours from Kabul once a week to see any female patient who shows up. Parveen is left spending days hanging around Waheed and his family of two wives and nine children. The help they need she is incapable of giving as she’s never worked on a farm in her life. That, plus her Western views and attitudes, make her an uncomfortable, useless presence.

I loved Waldman’s debut, The Submission, but A Door in the Earth fell flat and fell short. The premise is a compelling one—an Afghan-American young woman goes back to her birthplace to learn more about her culture and to help in the clinic. In this aspect, Waldman has lasered in on a hot topic—the American need to feel good about invading countries by later creating half-assed projects with little or no understanding of the underlying culture or its needs. This is exacerbated in the novel when American military shows up to build a road from the village to a larger city. I didn’t read any interviews with Waldman about the book, but there is also a strong sense of corrupted philanthropy. I was reminded of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea—a book I and almost everyone I knew read and was enthralled by. Later, there were questions as to how much of it was real and what happened after he left.

Political and cultural overtones aside, A Door in the Earth confused me. Mainly because of Parveen. I thought the novel was meant to be about one young woman’s return to her birthplace and the accompanying loss of her ideals about her homeland, her adopted country and her heroes. Instead, early on Parveen thinks

This wasn’t the reception she’d expected. She knew she was lucky to have been raised as an American…But in return, she had chosen—chosen!—to come back, to give back. She had assumed that this generosity—her sacrifice—would be, if not celebrated, at least welcomed.

What sacrifice?! She’s visiting to do research, not moving there.

Then there are her feelings about Waheed’s family:

Her conversations felt earthbound, transactional, and she despaired of the family ever truly knowing her.

I don’t know how to process this. It comes across as juvenile and woefully out of touch. These people are starving. Is she there to do research and try and improve these women’s lives or is she looking for new friends?

Maybe Waldman’s choices in portraying Parveen are meant to be reflective of what it’s like being a 21-year-old, but she is exasperating. The novel reads with all the contradicting emotions and intermittent flat affect of a stereotypical millennial but none of what you’d expect from someone striving to learn. At times she is woefully ignorant of even the most basic understanding of consequences and at others she knows why military vehicles can’t navigate sandy terrain.

I went into A Door in the Earth expecting a nuanced, serious novel but, try as I might I was never able to get into the novel’s rhythm. Parts of it do convey the realities of life in a country that has been at war for decades, but others feel tone deaf. I finished this novel, but was not sure what I was supposed to think or feel.
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Though Waldman has a firm grip on telling the story, I felt it was a long-winded (no pun intended) boring one. But thanks to the publisher for the ARC nonetheless.
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A Door in the Earth is a compelling, interesting, and honest novel. A young American-Afghani woman, with good intentions visits a remote village in Afghanistan, following a best seller novel as her guide. Slowly, as relationships build and she becomes integrated in the culture and community, she uncovers many untruths, and is faced with a huge challenge in how to best help. This book was unusual and wonderful. Thank you NetGalley for the e-copy for review. All opinions are my own.
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Berkley educated Parveen is an idealistic American of Afghan heritage who decides to do research in a remote Afghan village that has become famous because of a memoir written by an American doctor who had spent time in the area and had funded a hospital in the village. Parveen is certain that her presence will do the locals some good, but nothing is as it seems. The doctor's memoir is mostly fabricated, the hospital is unstaffed, and Parveen's presence sets off deep and unexpected ripples. Masterfully written with a nuanced cast of characters and attention to the contradictory and layered nature of the American presence in Afghanistan, this book is a must-read.
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Nearly ten years ago I read Amy Waldman’s book The Submission, in which a Muslim woman submits a blind entry in a contest for a post-9/11 memorial, and the selection of her design sets off a complicated series of events. Ms. Waldman’s latest book, A Door in the Earth, revolves around an Afghan-American woman named Parveen Shams who finds herself searching for her life’s purpose as she prepares to graduate from college. Having grown up in an Afghan-American community in the Bay Area of Northern California, she understands the pull of Afghan culture, and has developed a relationship with an anthropology professor. Reading a bestselling book called Mother Afghanistan, she is so inspired by the author Gideon Crane that she decides to pick up and move to a remote village Afghanistan to join the work of his charitable foundation and its maternity clinic, dedicated to helping Afghan women.

When she arrives, she is surprised to find that the local villagers don’t exhibit the level of gratitude she expected. Then she starts to realize that the book seems to be filled with mistakes, and perhaps stories that aren’t even true. The U.S. military shows up to pave the road to the village where the clinic is located, and suddenly the war is all around her. Parveen feels she has to decide whether her loyalties are with the villagers or the military. (It’s sort of Three Cups of Tea on steroids). I love books that teach me some history, make me think about the world beyond my own little bubble, and provide entertainment by bringing characters to life to the point that I feel I KNOW them.

Ms. Waldman was a journalist who reported from Afghanistan for the New York Times, so she has a unique perspective on the war and its effect on both the Afghani people and the Afghan-Americans who are deeply affected. Thanks to Little, Brown & Co. and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four stars.
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I thoroughly enjoyed this thought-provoking story of a young idealistic Afghan-American girl, a remote village in rural Afghanistan, and their interactions with each other and with US army officials. It is the story of well intentioned motives, of cultural misunderstandings, and unforeseen consequences. 
Parveen, the protagonist, is the child of Afghan parents who emigrated to the United States when she was two.  Her family continues to speak their language and practice their cultural beliefs while trying to fit in with their new country, so she is familiar with Afghan ways.  She is much more like her American friends, but has a foot in both worlds.  
Parveen is a college student studying medical anthropology, idealistic, looking for a purpose in life, and touchingly naive.  She reads a book that purports to be nonfiction, about an American named Crane, who travels to a small village in the mountains of Afghanistan, where he sees a great injustice and decides to try to right this wrong. By the time Parveen is reading this, Crane has left Afghanistan and is on the lecture circuit raising funds for this village.  She goes to hear him and is inspired to travel to this same village herself to continue this work.  
She does have some understanding of Afghani culture, and she does speak the language of the villagers, but she greatly overestimates her limited understanding. She finds that things are not quite as they seem in Crane’s book and tries to make sense of it while she attempts to find her place in this village.  
At one point, officials of the U. S. Army come to visit and say they plan to build a road to the village. It seems like a generous offer at first, but as the villagers fear, this gesture has unintended consequences. 
I highly recommend this book. It brings to light in a new way how cultures clash, how things are not always as they seem, and how good intentions can lead to disaster.  The ideas are complex, well developed and worthy of discussion.  

Note:  I received an advance copy of the ebook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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I spent a good couple of weeks pushing through this book (an unusually long length of time for me) and I just feel dissatisfied with it. I don't think it lives up to the hype spouted by review outlets such as Kirkus. Bina's narrative was so cold, distant, dispassionate... even emotionless. I could see what the author was shooting for-- a critique of the way Americans portray Afghans and their need to be a "savior": an attitute that reeks of modern imperialism. Important concepts, but I think Waldman barely takes it past Postcolonial Theory 101. I was back in college learning about Edward Said's Orientalism and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's famous "White men saving brown women from brown men" as I read. Maybe this works better for readers completely unfamiliar with such concepts.
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Just yesterday as I finished this book, I read an article that a meeting between the United States, the Afghan President and Taliban leaders was canceled. The continued presence of the US in Afghanistan is obviously a current issue. I can’t say that I’ve ever really had a good understanding of what happened there and what is happening today. It’s always seemed so complex to me. Any Waldman, formerly a New York Times reporter who covered Afghanistan sheds some light, because she illustrates in this novel how complex it really is. Sometimes there is information that doesn’t  quite coincide with the reality of the situation, shaping people’s perspective. 

Parveen Shamsa, a naive Afghan-American woman is taken by a book called “Mother Afghanistan”, a memoir by Dr. Gideon Crane, telling of the awful situation of poor medical help for pregnant women in a small village in the mountains of Afghanistan. He relates how he did everything to save a woman, and when he couldn’t, he built a clinic. Parveen is blindly accepting of all that Gideon Crane wrote in his book, even when warned by her professor. She decides to go there with an idealistic desire to be a part of what Crane has started. She finds that things are not as she expected, gradually finding out that not every thing in Crane’s book is the truth. It’s also quite a cultural shock to her to see the place of women, the child marriages, the illiteracy and she’s shocked that although Crane’s clinic is there, it is meagerly staffed by one doctor on a part time basis, a picture quite at odds to Crane’s memoir. It takes her a long time to recognize  and accept that Crane has lied as the intimate look at the people of the village and the family she stays with unfolds, as the US military arrive to build a road and as tragedy occurs. 

It’s well written and the descriptions take us to this mountain village. The things that happen are heartbreaking, eye opening, but I still feel that there is a complexity to the situation that for me is hard to understand. It’s an intellectual as well as an emotional read and I’m glad I read it.


I received an advanced copy of this book from Little, Brown and Company through NetGalley
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A DOOR IN THE EARTH by Amy Waldman (The Submission) is a complex text. In this novel, a recent Berkeley college grad and Afghan-American named Parveen is inspired by the earlier efforts of Dr. Gideon Crane to bring medical care to women in Afghanistan.  She decides to take a risk and retrace his steps, to live in a remote village for a few months in order to better document changes in attitudes and experiences for these women. Of course, the changes and observations which Parveen makes about the contrasts between her earlier life and current circumstances are fascinating, too, such as when she reflects on the items in her suitcase or on returning to a pre-digital life. Thinking about the absence of the written word, Parveen muses, "reading was perhaps the only learned behavior that became as involuntary as breathing. It couldn't be unlearned, couldn't be switched off, ... Only now did she feel ... how much work, how much filtering, her brain had been doing to withstand it." And flashbacks allow for incorporating provocative comments by her professor: "Might opens the door for mission, which in turn justifies might. Controlling land and bodies paves the way for saving souls, and saving souls solidifies control over land." 

If there is any criticism of this novel it is that Parveen seems unwilling or unable to trust the evidence of her own eyes and, as a result, parts of the novel move slowly. However, Waldman is masterful at helping readers to appreciate the Afghan culture, particularly the role of women. While reading, many will recall the popularity and subsequent controversy associated with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea – I was surprised to learn that Jon Krakauer had written Three Cups of Deceit, one of the many texts that Waldman consulted when writing this. Her references to media portrayal by "usual prominent white men (Charlie Rose, Tom Friedman, Tom Brokaw, David Brooks)," the military, and America's use of "kind power" are certainly thought-provoking and Waldman's latest novel is a title worth considering as an addition to our Global Voices class' syllabus.  A DOOR IN THE EARTH received starred reviews from both Booklist and Kirkus.
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Inspired by a book she has read, Mother Afghanistan, an Afghan-American Berkeley student travels to a small village in that country ostensibly to further her anthropological studies.  Reality crashes in on the romanticized view she has formed from the book.  

A fascinating story, with a good depiction of the life and culture of an isolated Afghan village as well as the American military role there.  I highly recommend this book.
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Parveen is an Afghan-American anthropology student in California. Her progressive ideas are influenced by a driven and dynamic professor, but she becomes intrigued after reading a book by an equally charismatic American humanitarian, Gideon Crane.

In Mother Afghanistan, Crane tells a redemptive tale of how his self-indulgent life travelling was turned around by the death of a woman while he was in Afghanistan. Fereshta died because she did not have adequate maternity care. He has devoted his life since to providing a clinic and raising funds to maintain it.

Ignoring the scepticism of her professor, Parveen decides to combine her interest in Afghanistan with her academic studies. She contacts Crane’s NGO, asking if she can travel to his clinic and study the women in the community. Predictably, when she arrives in the village it isn’t quite as painted in Crane’s book and media appearances.

A Door in the Earth is beautifully observed and shows life in Afghanistan in all its complexity. It shows the shock that Parveen experiences in a world so different from her own. She speaks Dari but the world of her urban, educated family is far removed from that of the village. I particularly like the detail about the absence of the written word, how reading is the only learned activity we do involuntarily, and in the West we constantly find ourselves reading without meaning to – signs, billboards, cereal packets, all of which are absent.

Parveen lives with the dead Fereshta’s husband, Waheed, his two wives and many children, and explores the complicated dynamics of the household and the village. She learns that the relationships aren’t always as we imagine, and perhaps the only implausibility, given her background and academic interests, is that she continues to accept Crane’s version of events far longer than is credible.

We are often given an image of rural Afghanistan which suggests a static society, impervious to outside influence, progressive or otherwise. What Parveen learns is that this is a society in flux. For example, the women have only been completely covering themselves outdoors since the war brought an influx of outsiders. The equilibrium shifts again when the US Army arrives, apparently bearing gifts, along with the same translator who worked with Crane.

Parveen observes, and at times confronts, many different types of power imbalance, between genders, between people of different wealth and status, and most powerfully between the US and Afghanistan. Her odd status in the village gives her freedoms and at times power – she is able to speak to senior army officers for example, in a way that no one else in the village, male or female, can. But it also means she is an outsider.

A Door in the Earth beautifully illustrates the contingent nature of truth. When Parveen meets the translator working with the troops, she initially mistrusts the way he speaks to the villagers, feeling he is misleading them about what the army officer has said. He explains that the framing of the situation, the concepts, the worldview of the US Army and the villagers are so different it is impossible to offer them a literal translation. He is trying to create a perspective that will lead to some kind of consensus. Most of all, he is trying to survive.

The contact between the US Army and the village has consequences for a number of the characters. Even those who have apparently powerful roles in the community  find themselves forced, by the constraints upon them, to act in a particular way.

Parveen’s changing understanding of the place where she is living, the oblique nature of the conversations she has, the different discourses of the various characters, each with their own interests, are brilliantly portrayed. The decisions she takes show the journey she has taken, but the book offers no easy answers, no happy ever after, just a hint of a potential future.
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A stunning book about American foreign policy, in this particular case Afghanistan. America is generous in so many ways, but we seem to consistently make the same mistakes over and over.
1 We don't listen to the people we want to help.
2 We expect gratitude for everything we do, even when it's not wanted (see #1).
Both of these problems occur throughout this story, in small and large scale. My one problem with the book is how long it takes the protagonist to recognize what is going on (again see #1).

Great book. Well-written and very interesting.
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Just wow!  This book had me thinking from page one. Parveen seems so young to be headed into a country that is at war. Could I send my daughter?  Especially to Afghanistan, a country that treats women like second rate citizens. But the bigger question is how much are we as Americans helping the citizens of Afghanistan and how much of our help is what they really need. It was a constant dilemma for Parveen.  I grew to love so many of the people she met. You cannot help but to want more for all of the people of Afghanistan.
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4.5 Stars

Born in Afghanistan, Parveen Shamsa left her country of birth when she was not yet two, along with her family. So young that she had little chance to be able to recall the place where she was born. They settled in the Bay Area of California, where her father took a series of demeaning jobs, and gradually their life improved to the point where Parveen was able to attend, and graduate from UC Berkeley.

While at Berkeley, Parveen read a memoir written by a Dr. Gideon Crane, Mother Afghanistan, his story relaying his experience in a post-9/11 Afghanistan, building a maternity hospital / clinic to care for the local people in this poverty-stricken isolated location. She wants desperately to help the people and to bask in the light of Dr. Crane, walk the halls of the hospital he built with the funds sent to him, donations made by Americans whose hearts may be in the right place. Donations made to assuage their guilt. Despite her professor and her family advising her not to attempt this, she eventually goes to the village where she is politely, if not enthusiastically, welcomed.

”The sun, descending, reached into the canyon to daub rocks gold and paint the river emerald. Twilight, violet-blue, seeped in before night snuffed it. She’d never seen a darkness so thick of a driver so tense: he and Fawad stopped talking.”

Once there, and settling in among a village of men and women who seem somewhat distrustful of her in this place, little by little Parveen realizes that the pedestal she’s put Dr. Gideon Crane on is one created by fiction. The gilded image presented through his pages painted a picture that was very different from the reality. The American soldiers try, through their limited perspective, to do what they believe will be helpful to the town and the people, to further advance their cause, and bring progress to this isolated place. Progress with roads, by providing work for these people, but not understanding the cost to these people – or what will happen to them when these soldiers are gone.

Power, idealism, the manipulation of a story / news to change the perspective, or inflate the story / news in order to garner favour, or funds, or followers, this is an unforgettable read.



Pub Date: 27 Aug 2019

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Little, Brown and Company
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This lovely book is one of those instant-classic, both-timely-and-timeless works that crop up all too seldom. A Door in the Earth is timely because, as of 2019, the U.S. is still in Afghanistan (18 years on), still doing great harm with the best of intentions.

It is timeless because my favorite of the book's various themes is the ongoing arrogance of Americans as we've visited long-lasting disasters on countless "simpler" cultures over the decades. In this case it is Afghanistan, and the main character Parveen comes to see that she, too, wanted to "help" the villagers in one Afghan outpost regardless of what they, themselves, had to say about it.

Parveen is of Afghan descent, but she is quintessentially American in her enthusiasm, naivete and impulsiveness. She comes of age during her sojourn in the remote Afghan village, losing both her worship of her literary hero and her hubris, as she gains insight into and appreciation of a very foreign culture.

This is a very good book, but it seemed to me quite long, and in many spots bordered on educational rather than novelistic. Well worth reading, though! Thanks to NetGalley for an advance readers copy.
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What happens when Americans go to an Afghan mountain village. Politics, history, and war. Well written, interesting novel.
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I loved this book. Parveen is a young Afghan/American who travels to Afghanistan after becoming absorbed in a book written by Crane and  A Door in the Earth is the story of her travels and the people she meets. More than that it's a story about the shades of grey in each of us and in each person's story. No characters are all good or all bad and nothing is ever as it seems. I smiled at Parveen's American young adult behavior and attitudes and came to admire her growth and ability to challenge herself and her motivations. Her interactions with the US military provide additional material for reflection as did the realities faced by the people of Afghanistan.

This would be a wonderful book club book as it's rich with discussion opportunities and is well written. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Raganathan said “every book it’s reader.”  I’m sorry that I was not it for this book; I could not read more than about one-third.  It is written well, but it portrays an Afghani-American woman, a recent college graduate, casting about for her life’s trajectory when she has an opportunity to travel to a small and remote Afghani village that had been portrayed in a book written by an American doctor who established a clinic named for a woman who died in childbirth.  Parveen is unbelievably naive and the villagers too stereotypical for my liking.  I’m sure the book will find its enthusiastic readers.
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A poignant & important story. I really enjoyed the writing & the characters. I was invested in the character's as soon as I started reading this book. I look forward to reading & discussing with one of my book clubs later this year or early next year. There's so much to discuss about this book that it would make an ideal book club selection.
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Parveen is a young Afghan-American who takes it into her head to go to Afghanistan to help the women in a rural community there.  She’s inspired by a best seller, a memoir of a male American doctor who starts a women’s clinic in this same village.  With no training, she is not met with the enthusiasm she expected.  It’s immediately apparent how different life is here, from the most basic things to huge philosophical differences.  

At the beginning, I had trouble finding Parveen a sympathetic character.  She’s an idealist, and a stupid one at that.  What was enlightening was listening to the female doctor. She pointed out how stupid and idealistic most Americans are.  What good is an operating room without anesthesiologists, follow up care, etc.?   “Perhaps idealism was an experiment whose variables couldn’t be controlled.”

This book took awhile to grow on me.  Parveen took a while to grow on me.  She gives Crane, the author of the book, the benefit of the doubt for much longer than I would.  But when the Americans arrive and want to pave the road leading into the village, she alone has the value of insight into each culture.  

The book shines a huge spotlight on our naivety when it comes to wanting to impose our standards on other cultures.  I envision this book being a big favorite for book clubs.  In fact, I would recommend it to anyone looking for something different to discuss.  

My thanks to netgalley and Little, Brown for an advance copy of this book.
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