jess's Reviews > Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
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Mar 11, 2010

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bookshelves: 2010, audiobook-d
Read in March, 2010

I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It gets about 5 stars for the story, the work that Greg Mortenson's doing, and how totally righteous that is. And it gets (-5) stars for the painfully terribly bad writing and the awful reading performance (on the audiobook). I'll try to frontload this with the good stuff so in retrospect maybe I can grow to feel more positively about this book.

The premise is that Greg Mortenson is a mountain climber. He's sort of restless and aimless, working as a nurse to save up money, then leaving the US for a while to climb a mountain, then coming back to work to save up again, etc. When he fails at summiting a mountain in the Karakoram range in Baltistan, he meets some people in a very poor village. They take care of him. He notices the children of the village study on the ground outside with no school building, no regular instruction, and inadequate school supplies and books. He takes it upon himself to build them a school. There are a lot of hurdles, but eventually he gets good at building schools & gets a decent revenue stream going, so he starts building a lot of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 9/11 happens and he becomes a sort of mouthpiece for interrupting the cycle of terrorism and poverty through education and opportunity, instead of racist xenophobic ignorant destructive ameri-centric indiscriminate bombing. It's kind of a "white hero" story, and that hero-worship is part of what irritated me so badly about this writing. He's really doing work that no one else gives a shit about and empowering a great many people at the same time, so I mostly just take issue with the presentation of this angle.

For the first 75% of this book they are like, "yeah ! building schools for those poor kids in the middle east! yeah! and girls too, because there's some conservative idea about not educating girls! no biggie!" Then, suddenly everything shifts and the entire focus becomes educating girls. Greg even says, at one point, "I build schools for girls," in response to someone asking what he does in Pakistan. This shift felt forced, was strongly linked to the event of 9/11/01, and it was difficult for me to accept that it was sincere. Either educating girls is important, or it's not. 9/11 didn't change that.

This can probably be credited to the terrible writing. Maybe it suddenly became critically important to develop another "human interest" angle to provide some focus and urgency. It's not necessarily an insincere or shallow shift in Greg's work. I did appreciate the few moments that seemed to sincerely address issues of girls' education - when the religious leaders pass down approval for Greg's work because the Koran doesn't actually ban the education of women, or when Greg himself talks about education of girls - if you educate boys, they become men who leave the village and nothing changes in the village, but women stay and actually improve the quality of life. Maybe that's a little bit of an exaggeration but a lot of research has shown that investing in girls in poverty provides significant returns.

From a fundraising perspective, I really enjoyed Greg's journey into learning about philanthropy. I mean, he starts out writing 580 heartfelt letters on a typewriter and sending them to a random list of famous and rich people. If you raise money professionally, that makes you smile, right? Also, his fundraising strategy is to try to find singular wealthy donors to serve as patrons of his work. This is also funny. Finding those donors is often a lot more work than cultivating and developing smaller gifts. Also, most people don't like to write a giant check when they meet you, even if they have the capacity. Regardless, I did enjoy and appreciate this awkward process, and I'm certain that Greg's organization is much better at fundraising now, and I'm certainly grateful for the few, very wealthy people who jump-started his work.

Also, the audiobook performance involved a lot of "accents" and "character voices" on behalf of the reader(s), and I have to tell you, it was hard to separate out how bad the accents were from how demeaning and weirdly xenophobic the "character voices" seemed. I mean, middle eastern accents, southern accents, the voices of women, old men, actually, old people in general, and so on. It was all like, ok why can't these people talk normally? Why do they have weirdly affected voices? It was a really ineffective way to present the story. Okay, clearly I really like audiobooks and this has not really ever bothered me before about any other book. The bad voices did, however, distract me from the bad writing.

So, the bad writing. It's painful. It's so "writerly" it hurt as I gnashed my teeth through the whole thing. Overwrought metaphors, "deep" insights, "dramatic" crescendos of crap. When there are direct quotes from real people, you can see the diamonds of this story sparkle through. But all of the filler, all the narrative and storytelling and majority of words are PAINFUL. Example: "Mortensen sat on a boulder and drank from his water bottle until it was empty. But he couldn't drink in enough of this setting." Multiply that by 11 audiodiscs. Slit wrists. Someone needs to drag the editor of this book out into the streets and provide some public humiliation.

Overall, I was left with a positive feeling about this story, even though I complained about it constantly while I was reading it. I even complained about it to my boss, who was like "I can't believe you are going to listen to 11 discs of what sounds like the most boring and awful story in the history of the world," but I am glad I soldiered through. I am going to cautiously read the next book (Stones into Schools) in hopes that's better, but it would be hard for me to recommend this to someone, unless I hated them.
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message 1: by Hillary (new)

Hillary Thanks for reading this, so I don't have to! This is another one that's crazy popular at the library, which always makes me skeptical.

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