July 20, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Nonfiction - Current Affairs
2006 Penguin Books
Finished on 7/14/08
Rating: 2.5/5 (Average)

"If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else," Mortenson argued to Parade's readers, "then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs."

Publisher's Blurb:

In 1993 a mountaineer named Greg Mortenson drifted into an impoverished Pakistan village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed attempt to climb K2. Moved by the inhabitants' kindness, he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of Tea is a story of that promise and its extraordinary outcome. Over the next decade Mortenson built not just one but fifty-five schools -- especially for girls -- in the forbidding terrain that gave birth to the Taliban. His story is at once a riveting adventure and a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit.

I received this this book for my birthday last year and was excited when my face-to-face book group chose it for this month's selection. The friend who gave me the book loved it, so I couldn't wait for the opportunity to dive in. Well, as you can see from my rating, I can't say I share her enthusiasm for the book. Not only that, but from what I've heard from some of the women in my book group, it hasn't been their favorite either. I wouldn't be surprised if only a few of us actually finish it, which is a shame, since the last third is really the most interesting. I'm not sure where the problem with the book lies, whether it's my history/political/geographical ineptitude (thank goodness the authors provided two maps at the front of the book!), specifically pertaining to the Middle East region and the conflicts between various tribes and sects, or a lackluster writing style that failed to draw me into Mortenson's story.

And, yes, in spite of my overall reaction to the book, it's a marvelous story. As I finished the book, I realized I was glad to have read it, but what a shame it lacks any literary finesse. From the very first chapter, I found myself nodding off, quickly flipping to the table of contents to figure out how many chapters I'd need to read each night in order to finish in time for the book group discussion. I plodded along, marking pages with sticky notes (over two dozen), hoping that I wasn't the only member in the group struggling through the book. I enjoy reading nonfiction, as it never fails to teach me something, but at the same time it can be intimidating and can sometimes (especially when history and politics are involved) make me feel like a complete idiot.

So, I came away from this reading experience with a little more knowledge about the conflicts in the Middle East than I had going in, but I certainly wouldn't want to be quizzed on any of that information! I have a strong admiration for Greg Mortenson and all he's done as a humanitarian. His passion to help educate the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan is truly heroic. And I don't use this term loosely. The man sacrificed years with his wife and children, traveling alone to Pakistan at least 27 times for months at a time, taking only a meager annual salary of $28,000. But it wasn't just the financial burden and time away from family: Mortenson was kidnapped, probably by mujahadeen, and held captive for six days. He was also caught in the crossfire of a turf war between opium smugglers. I'd like to see a sports hero try to do accomplish all Mortenson has done, while facing life-and-death obstacles such as these. If you still aren't sure of his heroic worthiness, just take a look at all the awards he's won:

Humanitarian Awards:

1975 US Army Commendation medal
1998 American Alpine Club David Brower Conservation Award
2002 Peacemaker Award from Montana Community Mediation Center
2003 Climbing Magazine "Golden Piton Award" for humanitarian effort
2003 Vincent Lombardi Champion Award for humanitarian service
2003 Peacemaker of the Year" Benedictine Monks, Santa Fe , NM
2003 Outdoor Person of the Year - Outdoor Magazine
2003 Salzburg Seminar fellow, sponsored by Microsoft "Closing Gender Gap with Education"
2004 Freedom Forum "Free Spirit Award" - National Press Club, DC
2004 Jeanette Rankin Peace Award - Institute for Peace
2004 e-Town Achievement Award – NPR radio (Boulder 12/2004)
2005 Men's Journal 'Anti-Terror' Award by Senator John McCain
2005 Red Cross “Humanitarian of The Year” Montana
2006 University of South Dakota Alumni Achievement Award (Graduation Commencement Speaker)
2006 Golden Fleur-de-lis Award from Comune Firenze , Italy
2007 Medical Education Hall of Fame Award, Toledo , Ohio
2007 Brookdale Community College (NJ) - Global Humanitarian Award (Feb)
2007 Rotary International - Paul Harris Award
2007 Mountain Institute - Award for Excellence in Mountain Communities
2007 The Dayton Literary Peace Prize
2007 Kiriyama Award - Nonfiction book contributing to Pacific Rim peace and awareness
2007 Mountain Institute - Excellence in Mountain Community Service Award (Nov)
2008 Citizen Center for Diplomacy - National Award for Citizen Diplomacy
2008 Courage of Conscience Award
2008 Graven Award - Wartburg College, IA
2008 National Award for Citizen Diplomacy - Citizen Center for Diplomacy
2009 Academy of Achievement Award

Mortenson doesn't just build schools. He has also created Women's Vocational Centers, as well as working to bring clean water to the villages. It came as no surprise to read that Mother Teresa was one of his heroes.

I can't write about the wonderful aid Mortenson has provided without mentioning another hero, whom I happen to know personally. My uncle has been helping Guatemalan refugees in Belize for at least the past ten years. He has helped them build a complete village (Selena): church, school, houses, cook house, laundry and latrines. He and my aunt live in Southern California and during the summer they'll sit in the church parking lot on busy weekends and holidays and rent parking spaces to beach-goers to raise money for the Belize project*. They take people from their church and other churches down to help with the building, but my uncle will often go down on his own. He has built a soccer field, and this last trip in May took a big suitcase filled with soccer uniforms. They leave the suitcases there for the people to use as dressers.

It's people like Mortenson and my Uncle Brian that make me wonder what I've been doing for the past 46 years!

Mortenson lingered at the new dispensary, where Zuudkhan village's first health care worker had just returned from the six months of training 150 kilometers downside at the Bulmit Medical Clinic CAI had arranged for her. Aziza Hussain, twenty-eight, beamed as she displayed the medical supplies in the room CAI funds had paid to have added on to her home. Balancing her infant son on her lap, while her five-year-old daughter clung to her neck, she proudly pointed out the cases containing antibiotics, cough syrup, and rehydration salts that CAI donations had bought.

With the nearest medical facility two days' drive down often impassible jeep tracks, illness in Zuudkhan could quickly turn to crisis. In the year before Aziza took charge of her village's health, three women had died during the delivery of their children. "Also, many people died from the diarrhea," Aziza says. "After I got my training and Dr. Greg provided the medicines, we were able to control these things."

"After five years, with good water from the new pipes, and teaching the people how to clean their children, and use clean food, not a single person has died here from these problems. It's my great interest to continue to develop myself in this field," Aziza says. "And pass on my training to other women. Now that we have made such progress, not a single person in this area believes women should not be educated."

"Your money buys a lot in the hands of Greg Mortenson," McCown says. "I come from a world where corporations throw millions of dollars at problems and often nothing happens. For the price of a cheap car, he was able to turn all these people's lives around."

The women and children weren't the only ones learning valuable lessons:

When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time."

That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life," Mortenson says. "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Our leaders thought their 'shock and awe' campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them."

I found the following quotes from one of Mortenson's speeches especially powerful:

"I supported the war in Afghanistan," Mortenson said after he introduced himself. "I believed in it because I believed we were serious when we said we planned to rebuild Afghanistan. I'm here because I know that military victory is only the first phase of winning the war on terror and I'm afraid we're not willing to take the next steps."

I'm no military expert," Mortenson said, "And these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we've launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education of the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?"

This may not be a great work of literature, but it's an incredibly inspiring book. Thirteen-year-old Jake Greenberg of Philadelphia was just one of many inspired by Mortenson's efforts, after reading Parade magazine's April 6, 2003 cover story:

...was so fired up by reading about Mortenson's work that he donated more than one thousand dollars of his bar mitzvah money to the CAI and volunteered to come to Pakistan and help out himself. "When I heard about Greg's story," Greenberg says, "I realized that, unlike me, children in the Muslim world might not have educational opportunities. It makes no difference that I'm a Jew sending money to help Muslims. We all need to work together to plant the seeds of peace."

Maybe more young people will read this book (it happens to be one of five nominees for our One Book, One Lincoln this year) and feel compelled to volunteer, make a monetary contribution, or begin their own project to help the people in Central Asia.

Apparently, I got a lot more out of this book than I originally thought. I would even feel safe in saying that it's worth the effort. In spite of my strict reading schedule, I managed to read all 23 chapters (plus the introduction) in 14 days.

I make it a point to avoid reading reviews about the book I'm reviewing until after I've finished and posted on my blog. This time, however, I decided to see what others had to say about Three Cups of Tea. The majority of Amazon reviewers gave it high ratings, yet there were quite a few who thought it was lacking. Their comments ranged from "tedious," "poorly edited," "lacks focus," to "egocentric," "hagiography," and "hero worship." I had to laugh in agreement when I read one reviewer's statement that the biographer never met an adjective he didn't like. And many felt that Mortenson was selfish to leave his wife and children for such long periods of time, only to return home to hole up in his basement, talking on the phone with associates in Pakistan in the middle of the night. Mortenson may be a hero, but his wife is obviously a saint!

I agree with many that this would have been a fabulous magazine piece rather than a 300+ page book. Or maybe it should've been told by Mortenson in the first person, with a ghost writer like Rick Bragg or Anderson Cooper rather than Relin. It's too bad the poor writing (and lack of editing) detracts from the actual story, as I still believe what Mortenson has accomplished is worthy of recognition.

I'm looking forward to hearing what my book club has to say about Three Cups of Tea. Did any of you love it?

For further reading, check out these sites.

Mortenson's Blog

*4 the World Organization


  1. Yikes . . . 2.5/5. While I only skimmed your review (because I still am interested in reading it), I want to say that you did an excellent job in distinguishing between the life-changing efforts of Greg vs. the literary work of this book.

  2. Wow, that's quite a number of awards Mortenson has racked up. Sorry to hear the book isn't more readable.

  3. Oh, no. I'm sorry to hear this. My mother in law passed this on to me because she enjoyed it so much, and of course it's been featured at Barnes and Noble, which obviously you know, for some time. I'll have to try it for myself one day.

  4. I agree with you completely, Les. I wanted to like this book, but it just didn't happen. I wish Greg had told the story to a great writer (Tracy Kidder, maybe) and had the great writer tell the story.

    I saw Greg at the Texas Book Festival. He was a much better speaker than writer.

    I have great admiration for his work. I forgive him for his less-than-interesting writing skills.

  5. What a shame that this book wasn't better-written---this sounds like such a wonderful story!

  6. It's interesting that you rated this book so lowly. Most of the people I know who have read it loved it. I haven't read it myself. It has only just come into my local library but I will be reading it eventually.

  7. Apologies to all for my delayed response to your comments!! Shame on me! Where did the week go??

    Joy - Thank you! I struggled with the review particularly since I wanted to be sure that I didn't minimize Greg's incredible humanitarian efforts. What he's done is truly commendable. I'll be anxious to hear what you think of the book.

    Nancy - It is a lot, isn't it? And ya know, he probably couldn't care less about any of them. All he cares about is the people he's helping. He's not doing any of this for the fame, at least it doesn't appear to be he intent. I'd love to see Bill Gates give him a big chunk of change to continue with his efforts.

    Tara - Yes, do give it a try. Some people have absolutely loved it. I know that one of my book club members did, so it wasn't a complete bust amongst the small group!

    Debnance - You're the second person to mention Tracy Kidder. I may just have to read his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

    How cool to hear Greg speak. I'm glad he's a better speaker than writer! (Actually, I think most of the writing was done by his co-author.) He'll be at my cousin's school to speak to their freshman class. I'll bet he inspires some of those kids, but I would've thought speaking to the senior class would be better, don't you?

    Heather - Well, judging by Amazon's rating system, someone loved the book! Don't dismiss it just on my review. :)

    Marg - I've only known of two people who loved it, but as I said to Heather, there must be a lot of people who loved it based on the high rating at Amazon. Let me know what you think when you read it!

  8. I have this one coming up in my book club for next month. I'm sorry to hear it's not more readable, but it sounds like it will be good for me, like taking a vitamin!

    On another topic, would you be interested in writing a guest post about your book club for me series In Praise of Book CLubs? Let me know!

  9. LisaMM - We had a very low turnout the night of our discussion (only 4 of us) and only 1 of the members loved the book, so I'll be interested to hear how your group liked it.

    I'd love to write a guest post about my book club. I have your email from your blog, so I'll drop you a note to chat about the specifics. Thanks for asking!


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