Not my three cups of tea

Pakistani CAI convertsI remember a time, not so long ago really, perhaps last month, when I was blissfully unaware of a wayward mountaineer named Greg Mortenson. After nearly reaching the summit of K2, and having lost his porter and his way on the descent, he limped, hungry and cold, into a tiny town in northeast Pakistan called Korphe. After several days spent recovering from his misadventure, Greg Mortenson stumbled from the village leader’s hut into the rarefied Himalayan air.

I am only halfway through the book Three Cups of Tea, One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time which attempts to tell of Mortenson’s journey through Pakistan and Afghanistan, and his quest to build schools for impoverished children. A brave and noble mission no doubt.

I must say, however, that the book is the most poorly written of any I’ve read since my Fabio days. I imagine Mortenson’s adventure was dangerous and thrilling, likely rivaling fellow climber Jon Krakauer’s Everest adventure. Krakauer’s tale was a positively riveting account of the experience, and Into Thin Air remains one of my all-time favorite adventure stories. Three Cups of Tea, on the other hand, well, sucks. I say this not to be unkind, but because I am wondering how on earth it ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.

Here is but a small sample of the creamy pablum co-author David Oliver Relin dishes out:

…Why couldn’t the flag of crescent and star lead these children such a small distance toward “progress and perfection”?

After the last note of the anthem had faded, the children sat in a neat circle and began copying their multiplication tables. Most scratched in the dirt with sticks they’d brought for that purpose. The more fortunate…had slate boards they wrote on with sticks dipped in a mixture of mud and water. “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?” Mortenson asks. “I felt like my heart was being torn out. There was a fierceness in their desire to learn, despite how mightily everything was stacked against them….I knew I had to do something.”

That something became a big something, and Greg Mortenson will share his story at Shove Chapel on January 15.

In Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson, besides being of impressive stature, a point made on every page of the book, is portrayed as little more than a socially stunted somewhat incompetent drifter. So how did this guy, who couldn’t find a decent ghost writer, suddenly become a master of self-promotion? A book tour, magazine covers, even promotional materials sent home in my child’s school backpack. It’s pretty amazing.

I am, as I said, only halfway through the book but I’ve not read anything about Mortenson’s mission of peace. Korphe’s village leader confided to him that, although he ran his fingers reverently over its pages, he couldn’t actually read his treasured Koran, and did not wish the same terrible fate on his children. Mortenson’s mission appears one of education and literacy. I found a copy of the book with a previous title, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time. Vanquishing terrorism and nation building are the pet projects of neocons, aren’t they? I guess peace promotion is easier to market.

A final note. Greg Mortenson’s lecture at Shove Chapel is sponsored by the UCCS Center for Homeland Security. I really don’t get the connection. I feel like this guy is an unwitting pawn in some greater game. What that game is I don’t know. So I’ll finish the book, go to the lecture, and see if I can connect the dots.

25 thoughts on “Not my three cups of tea

  1. Krakauer spoke at a CAI fundraiser for Mortenson in Seattle two months following 9/11, and read this passage from Yeats:

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”

    Of course I take issue with misapplying literature to fear-monger about 9/11. But THREE CUPS OF TEA lauded the passage’s aptness. Then Krakauer did something characteristic of twits. He had the poet’s cake and wanted to second guess it too. Quoted Mortenson: “Krakauer took issue with one of Yeats’s observations. ‘Though the worst may indeed be full of passionate intensity,’ he said, ‘I’m certain that the best most definitely do not lack conviction.'”

    My aunt once took issue with Thomas Wolfe. She said “you can too go home again. I did.” And she had.

  2. Phew! I’m not the ONLY one who thought the book stank. This from Amazon:

    You decide for yourself what you think about Mortenson. I think the subtitle of the book should be “How One Man Became a Dhimmi.”

    What I will say is that the writing of the co-writer is nauseating. It is the most frantically hysterical hagiography you’ll ever see. “The crystalline daggers of the mountain ranges scratched their way like deranged fingernails into the howling wind of the overarching midnight blue ocean of the sky–the same sky that hung over the head of the ancient, proud, morally superior, but so horribly vulnerable people that Mortenson had left the despicable excesses of the United States and crossed the earth pennilessly to save before it was too late.”

    I made that sentence up but it is better than a lot of the sentences in the book. Read at your own peril.

    Definitely at your own peril.

  3. If that person is accusing Mortenson of being a “dhimmi,” then it’s probably somebody who thinks U.S. Citizens should be blowing up those villages rather than building schools in them. The radical right has taken the concept of “dhimmi,” a non-Muslim living in a state dominated by Islam, and used to to refer to anybody who doesn’t want to nuke Mecca. Google the phrase and you’ll see what I mean. I haven’t read the book myself, but you certainly make it sound nauseating. It’s interesting that people on the opposite side of so many issues would feel the same way.

  4. The ideology of the above book review is obvious. We need neither the zealot of the left nor the zealot of the right. The sophists of the world understand sophistry. You will create your dots and connect them instinctually. Existence is elsewhere.

  5. I dont know how i feel about this book. however i am surprised that many did like this book, yet i am surprised so many didnt. i dont feel this book should be on the new york times best sellers list. however it was an interesting read.

    not to be an ass or anything. but the “to fight terrorism” was put on the hard cover by the publisher. this was changed becuase of a lack of sales and the constant fight by david and greg to change it to “promote peace”.

    i also do not know if that is true, but i heard it straight from the mouth of the author of the book as i was told to go to his speech or else i get to fail a class.

    however, i hope everyone takes this with a grain of salt, as this was a book that i had to read for a class so there will always be a bit of cynicism in my writings.

    And, thank you for having an open blog on your webpage, it makes every website more insightful to the views of others and i think that more people need to incorporate it.

  6. That’s what I was thinking, when Eric, who I have met, said that Greg is a fairly decent fellow.

    Of course, the Bushiite Regime has to have its influence on everything.

    That sounds about right, that the publisher turns it into a “Crusade”…

    I would write better on this but right now I have something really heavy weighing on my mind.

    Completely unrelated.

  7. I stumbled on this site by accident and was so happy to learn of others who found this book excruciatingly painful to read. While I applaud Greg Mortenson’s commitment and obvious genuine concern for the children of Pakiston, this book is very poorly written. Enough already about his height! And honestly, whatever made him think that the full-lipped (apparently her most endearing quality)Marina with her two children would ever want to build a life with him. And what was the point when he apparently found his real soulmate in Tara. I realize I am ranting, but Marie’s comments just hit a nerve.

  8. Even though the book could have used lots of editing the story itself is pretty remarkable.
    You can see Mortenson as a lost bumbling guy or a guy who commits himself to a people who take commitment seriously themselves. It’s rare to read of such devotion. This is a book not about the writing but the story.

  9. I just finished reading “Three Cups of Tea”. While I am not a scholar or a critic, I believe Greg Mortenson is an incredible human being, in the league of Mother Teresa and the Dali Llama, and their lives and their contributions to peace speak for the themselves.
    What have all these critics done to promote peace? I just lost a precious son in a most horrible accident and I have committed to do an act of kindness every day in his memory. Mortenson’s acts of kindness will live in the memories of thousands of young students for the rest of their lives.

  10. I am neither overly intellectual or an expert on anything literary. But I do believe this book tells a great story. Ever since 9/11 I have felt that the U.S. should do more in trying to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic community instead of simply waging a war that incites others to join up against us.

    There is a place for war, defense and offense but we also need to win the understanding of those a world away from us. If all they know of America is arrogance and destruction they will never know the peace that the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens desire. It is a desire that we share with poor people a world away.

    I believe Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute are doing good work. They are demonstrating through action what America is about. We are nothing more than our actions. IF those ACTIONS are to bomb and detain and march our forces while we SPEAK of peace it makes these speeches very hard to believe.

  11. If the Bu’ushites wanted to keep their hands and propaganda off of it, that would be great.

    I can see peaceful missions, easily enough, but this one topic has been tainted.

    We do get quite a lot of comments from people who found this site just by googling for any mention of TCOT that’s not flattering or overwhelmingly positive.

    It has a really disturbing smell of Karl Rove about it.

    Not that I go sniffing for Rovian influences, it’s just they’re insinuated so much into the political scene, and especially here in the Springs.

  12. The point of the book isn’t in the way its written but the story it tells. I’m not a critic, but i found it extremely interesting and i agree that Mortenson is in the same league as Mother Teresa. Mortenson is winning the hearts of children in Pakistan. Children that now have a slightly more positive attitude towards the U.S. because of one man. If his work keeps a few more young boys from turning to terrorism, then he’s done more than any book critic I’ve heard of.
    You’re entitled to your opinion about how the book is written, but the story is the same even if its badly written.

  13. The author started out building a school and suddenly he’s the only force against terrorism in the region. I think there is something unseemly about the author mentioning himself as deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize several times in this book. I also don’t see why he should have been privileged to be alone with the remains of Mother Teresa. Quite a sense of entitlement here. I also think there may be unintended consequences to his actions. Amazingly non-clumsy about respecting Islam, unlike the missionaries in “Things Fall Apart”, especially considering how clumsy he is in his most intimate relationships, but I’m not persuaded that he is doing nothing but good. Okay, Greg, you are a good man doing good things and we all admire you, feel better now?

  14. Mary Ellen, well put! That’s exactly the feeling I had when I read the book: Greg Mortenson is a man larger than life; wonderful, visionary and kind beyond measure. As he mingles unprotected with the Taliban — intimidated into restraint by Greg’s physical stature and gentle countenance — he sets about his noble mission, changing the region’s history one cup of yak butter tea at a time. Wowza.

  15. I just finished listening to Three Cups of Tea on tape. It was suggested for a class I teach. I decided that it was not appropriate. I am an anthropologist and I have read many accounts of attempted culture change throughout the world. Somehow, there are too many unverifiable “facts” and daring adventures in this book. It also promotes the kind of culture change which is accomplished at the expense of a supportive woman and relatively unquestioning donors. While I am sure that some of Mortenson’s success is due to ignoring conventional channels, I would not want to encourage a student in applied anthropology to approach closed borders in war zones alone, ignore the U.S. State department and intelligence services, or fail to respect the opinions of his own NGO’s board. Mortenson is clearly not a team player. Most significantly, I believe Mortenson has put many people in Pakistan in danger. It makes a good story but there are thousands of people in the world doing equally important development tasks more cooperatively and more responsibly. I have a feeling that this is one of those instances where many will be surprised when the whole story comes out.

  16. Wow, so many bitter people! Really, you can’t just enjoy the fact that a fellow human would devote themselves to helping people? You have to tear him down over editorial decisions probably not made by him?

    Seriously, folks, go help out at a homeless shelter for a few days and get over yourselves.

  17. I have read both Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. I will agree that Three Cups of Tea is not the most well-written book I’ve ever read, however the story is incredible. If you would have read the entire book before posting, I think you’d have a better understanding of how Greg is promoting peace. Stones into schools is easier to read and a great continuation of Greg’s mission to promote peace one school at a time. In case you didn’t catch this in the book – there is extensive poverty in rural areas and people in these communities often cannot afford to send their children to school or have a teacher come to their community to teach, never mind build an actual structure for teaching. Extremist groups, funded by extremist leaders and Saudi Arabia, build Madrassas and go into communities and offer to pay to send children to school for free, or force them to go. The Madrassas are little more than school-like camps where young boys are brainwashed into supporting extremist views and becoming extremist enthusiests who then go on to fight in support of those views. By providing children with education, Greg is helping to stop this cycle of brainwashing youth that become a religious extremist army.
    I would recommend you grit your teeth and make it through Three Cups of Tea and then read Stones into Schools. The second book talks more about Greg’s relationship with the US Military and how the US military meets with him. Three cups of Tea is actually a required reading for all US Military special forces troops being deployed into Afghanistan. That’s incredible!! The US military taking tips from an not so average, average joe citizen! The books are an incredible story of how one man is changing the world for the better. That is why the book is on the New York Times best seller list. Books aren’t just writing, they are stories!! What good would a well-written book be if it didn’t have an interesting or inspiring story?

  18. Dear readers. While reading three cups of tea and stones into schools, you will find a name “Ghulam Parvi” an important character supporting Greg Mortenson. Greg has done a lot for education in the mountains, but on the other hand he had damaged the culture of Baltistan seriously by telling false stories to attract the book and his work. One should think over the remarks of Jennifer (IP David and Greg have included many false stories about religion, culture. He has made false blames on many individuals, who were his best supporters. After having come to know his mission, now people hate Greg Mortenson and his NGO activities. Can any reader ask Greg, why he included those false stories without permission…

  19. I came across your comments regarding Three Cups of Tea as I’m preparing to introduce the Young Reader’s Version to this year’s sixth graders in our school. I ordered 75 copies as soon as I read the book last year when it came out. It’s a staple in sixth grade already. I introduced it and was part of each book group. I also had several book groups of fourth graders; I read the picture book to all of my K-6 kiddos as the teacher-librarian; I loaned books to teachers, parents, principals, and school board members. Sadly you missed the fact that this book is about the message. The message is far more important than the dissection of the literature. Great literature, like most everything in our society, should be more about the intent of the law (or the literature) than the letter of the law (or the literature). I will say I have not read the original version, but I know the message is the same. I will also tell you I didn’t have time to read the comments that followed, or search for another post from you. I apologize if you covered this earlier. Hopefully you have since appreciated the value of the book in its pure form. It speaks to those who choose to listen, and it can speak on many different levels. Check with my K-6 students and the caring adults in their lives.

  20. I found Janet’s comments quite interesting, Marie, since, as you know, I have a young ‘product tester’ in my household.

    Janet said… ‘I’m preparing to introduce the Young Reader’s Version to this year’s sixth graders in our school. I ordered 75 copies as soon as I read the book last year when it came out. It’s a staple in sixth grade already. I introduced it and was part of each book group. I also had several book groups of fourth graders; I read the picture book to all of my K-6 kiddos as the teacher-librarian; I loaned books to teachers, parents, principals, and school board members.’

    So just how did my own ‘product tester’ respond to the introduction of Three Cups of Tea in her 7th grade classroom last year, Janet and Marie? Care to hazard any guesses here?

    And for the info of all, I had not mentioned anything about this book before it was introduced at school, and did not say anything about it- Negative or Positive- until way after my ‘product tester’ had told me several times her own opinion about the book and how the school discussion had gone.

    What did the ‘product tester’ say about Three Cups of Tea?

  21. This book has created headaches for me, as several readers have decided they are going to plop down some kind of improvement in the beautiful second-world locales at which they spent their vacations. These mostly well-meaning folks believe they do not have to do any initial planning or input gathering with the community. Or ask them what they want and are willing to maintain. They really just want me to help them design, fund and build an improvement, in this case a composting toilet, that will allow them to brag about this. They assume that the improvement will so impress the locals and, more importantly, funders, that the solution will be replicated. The NY Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, notable for his sometimes lack of deeper investigation, will note it in his column and perhaps write a book about it. And another NY Times bestseller will be in the works.

  22. I just read this review after reading that 60 minutes is disputing, mortensens story…I never got through the 1/2 point but so many folks kept telling me what a great man he is/was – I wanted to believe the story (though it was too hard to actually sit through for a read – now I understand why)…Anyway, I admire your courage to speak your truth, in the face of so much praise for the book and man – at the time.

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