Sunday, July 17, 2011

Not Exactly My Cup of Tea

Book Reviewed:  Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

The danger of book clubs is that they sometimes require you to read books you really would rather not.  This is one of those times.  I had no real interest in reading Three Cups of Tea.  But our club decided to try some nonfiction, and it came between this and Eat, Pray, Love.  Since I absolutely refuse to read Elizabeth Gilbert's super-famous, self-indulgent book, we went with the tale of Greg Mortenson.  For those of you who haven't already been exposed to Mortenson's story, it's pretty simple.  Greg Mortenson, an avid climber with an unsettled but interesting life, decides to start building schools in Pakistan in order to improve the lives of poor villagers through education.  It's a noble goal, and you can't help but be inspired by it.  But Three Cups of Tea - written by journalist David Oliver Relin - isn't interesting enough to make me care that much.

In the last year, there's been a lot of controversy surrounding Mortenson's charity work (just take a look at the guy's Wikipedia page), so it's a little hard to judge the contents of the book.  But overall, I mostly felt bored by the whole thing.  There is some interesting information here; I was glad I read the book if only to get a much fuller understanding of Pakistan and its people, a subject of which I'm largely ignorant.  And Mortenson's work is definitely inspiring.  Even if his Central Asia Institute charity has been mishandled over the years, you can't deny that his heart was in the right place at the beginning.  Also, you can't argue that his belief that a proper, free education fights terrorism is wrong.  In fact, it's probably one of the smartest arguments to come out of the how-to-stop-terrorism debates.

But Relin, while a very capable writer, isn't a particulary good storyteller.  The book has some nice scenes, but since it's all secondhand stories, the moments never quite feel like parts of a whole.  Also, while we do get a glimpse at some of Mortenson's faults, we mostly get a portrait of Mortenson as a saint.  He has some deep flaws, but Relin only skims the surface of them.  It's okay to portray a hero as someone riddled with problems.  If anything, it makes the good they do seem that much more important.  Mortenson's work is worth hearing about, and I think this book makes some good points about how to help the Middle East, but overall, I was mostly bored.  Which is never a feeling you want to have after reading about inspiriting charity work. 

1 comment:

  1. I should also add that in the wake of controversy over this book, Mortenson gets too much blame and Relin not enough. The man's a journalist. How could he report some of these things without getting a secondhand acknowledgment of events? I find that a little troublesome, and it made the book harder for me to read.