Sarah'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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Jan 19, 2008

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Read in December, 2007

Here are a few things I’m suspicious of:

1. A book with two authors. It’s kind of like having too many cooks in the kitchen.
2. A book in which one of the two authors is the main subject of the book.
3. A book in which even though one of the authors is the main subject of the book, the book is written in third person.
4. Cultural imperialism.

With these four suspicions in mind, I started in on Three Cups of Tea, which was my book club’s choice for this month. Mortenson is a quirky do-gooder who commits himself to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to educate the poor (especially the girls) who are so often lost in the rural mountains of these isolated areas. He started his quest after stopping in a small village after failing to climb K2 in the early 1990s and since then has built over 50 schools, health centers, and women’s centers.

There were lots of things I liked about this book. First off, I love reading adventure stories about far-away places, and learning more about the variety of cultures in Islamic Pakistan and various other -stans was enough to pull me all the way through the book. I also love reading about single-minded esoteric people with crazy missions who stop at nothing to accomplish their goals. Thirdly, I love the idea of fighting the war on terror through education instead of fighting - it seems like it will be more successful long-term and way less expensive, not to mention way, way, less violent.

I’m not sure I was so hot on the book itself - the writing wasn’t interesting (and it had so many chances to be) and, more importantly, the book was terribly skewed in Mortenson’s direction. He’s referred to as a hero at least a few times a chapter and praised non-stop by the people around him. Only smaller sub-prose hints clue you in to the real negative stuff - which I’m as interested in as the positive stuff: Mortenson is kind of crazy and obsessed, he has trouble with delegating jobs to people and handling money, he unapologetically spends months and months away from his family in Montana. He seems to be hurting his health in order to continue with his cause.

Now, I think these negatives could have been dealt with well by the authors - I don’t think any hero is all good or absolutely flawless. In fact, most people who have ever accomplished great things have more than his or her share of weirdo personal problems. I would have loved for the book to explore his flaws in light of his accomplishments instead of brushing his flaws to the side and dropping the Hero-bomb over and over again.

By the end of the book, I felt pretty good about his mission in general, thought. I haven’t taken any developmental studies classes and I don’t know much about rural development, but I can’t see how building schools and educating girls could possibly hurt anything. I was impressed by the way Mortenson adapted to the Islamic culture - learning the languages, dressing the part, and even learning to pray to Allah. He didn’t seem into forcing Western ideas onto the villages, beyond simple wants to educate and equalize.

More than that, though, I was interested in learning about how the Taliban is using the same tactics as Mortenson in order to win support in these rural areas - and they are winning. They have already established tons of schools called madrassas in these places, barring women and teaching only Islam and warfare. They also offer something that is rare in these isolated areas: paid employment. If Mortenson is right, giving these people options other than joining the Taliban, and giving them schools where you learn basic skills instead of extremist propaganda, might be the best step toward a long-term solution for everyone.
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02/22 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-36 of 36) (36 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa Nelson Great review! My bookclub is going to review this book tomorrow night and I will bring up a lot of the points that you made.


message 2: by Nikki (last edited Feb 25, 2008 01:23PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nikki oh how i do love sarah...
let me count the f***ing ways girlfriend

you are one righteous sister with a silver tongue!


Stacey Outstanding review, Sarah. I liked the book for many of the same reasons, but got very frustrated with it toward the end. You hit it on the head--he was obsessive and he neglected his family for his cause, yet he is continually heralded as a hero by the author. I really wanted the author to remove those rose-colored lenses and make Mortenson a more realistic character, more human, and ultimately more interesting. Nicely put.


message 4: by James (new)

James Johnson Thanks, Sarah, for your excellent review. I am currently reading this book for many of the same reasons you list. However, I'm also having some difficulty with the problems you list as well. At times the prose is so self serving and so unabashedly flattering that I find myself thinking more about the authors motivations than I do about the adventures being recounted. - Jim


Brett Cultural Imperalism? Were you going for shock value so people would pay attention to your review? It found me and, whereas others felt your review was "excellent", "outstanding", and "great", I felt it was poor.


Shawn I disagree with this review on so many points. The reviewer treats this as a work of fiction, it's documenting the birth of this organization and how it grew and Greg Mortensons commitment to his cause. Others call him a hero, he struggles with the exposure and his time away from his family which has the full support of his wife who is equally responsible for the success of this program. Never did I see any evidence of what you call "cultural imperialism." What he started by accident, literally, has apparently turned into something that has done more to promote the future security of this country than all the billions of dollars flushed down the bottomless drain of waste, incompetence and misery by our current leaders.


Lani If you read the review, she never accuses the author of cultural imperialism at all... Going into the book, it is entirely possible that this will turn out to be a shining example of cultural imperialism, and it is fair to be suspicious of that trend. White pseudo-hippy travels to foreign country and builds schools that teach the American way!

As the review mentions, the book shows the opposite - a man respectful of the culture he enters, and who trys to further these women as much as possible WITHIN the constraints of their religion and culture.

The reviewer's point is that Mr. Mortenson proves to be an exception to the American do-gooder tendency towards (usually) accidental cultural imperialism. I, like the reviewer, expected to be vaguely irritated by an American forcing his culture into somewhere it wouldn't fit, since many books about similar attempts praise these activists without realizing how naive and silly the projects end up being. As an example, have you read Kabul Beauty School? Or, to a lesser extent, Reading Lolita in Tehran?

I agreed with this review, though I gave it one more star than this reviewer. I was pleasantly surprised by this book's subject matter, though similarly frustrated with the constant hero worship and avoidance of Mortenson's flaws.


message 8: by Kazaan (last edited Jul 15, 2008 02:22PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kazaan I couldn't disagree more with the review.

Considering what this guy has accomplished, I see no reason why the praise that is showered upon him by the people whom he has helped should be eliminated from the book.

What the heck difference does it make if a book has two authors? If I'm not mistaken, some pretty fantastic work has been created by two people collaborating.

I found the writing style to be quite interesting and fluid.

This guy is about as far from cultural imperialism as you can get. He is at the other end of the spectrum, constantly making sure he is respecting local customs. He never once pushes an American point of view.

The book does mention Greg's neuroses, sleeplessness, excessive travel away from his family, etc. While reading it, I TOTALLY got a sense for how long he was away, how difficult it must have been for his wife, etc. Going into great detail about his flaws in managing his time, the foundation, etc would have been entirely beside the point.

I hardly think Greg was writing the book to pat himself on the back. If you got that from reading it, you didn't pay attention to a word. If he was willing to live in a storage unit to save money for these schools, I hardly think he's the type of guy who just wants to write a book to publicize the fact that all these people think of him as a hero.

Sometimes readers over analyze a piece of writing so much that they don't see the forest for the trees. I, for one, am happy to know that there are great souls out there like Mr. Mortenson who make such great sacrifices for others.




message 9: by Hayes (new)

Hayes At the risk of being repetitive, really good work, Sarah. I was going to read this, and I may still (if it falls out of heaven onto my to read pile), but I won't go running out to buy it. Thanks


Barbara The 'hero worship' comes from first-hand accounts for the literally THOUSANDS of Pakistanis and Afghanis that Mortenson's CAI has helped. What would you say to someone who turned your world around by giving you or your children an opportunity to be educated? You would worship the ground they walk on! And it was written (and experienced myself when I was in the country) that the Pakistani people are some of the most hospitable people on this earth! They would not be critical of anything he did, they would only praise him. The American's he worked with have valid complaints, which were transparent throughout the book, but without him nothing would have been accomplished.


message 11: by AJ (new) - added it

AJ I really enjoyed your review as well. I also get a little irked when someone does wonderful things, and are called a hero every other word. Not that they aren't, probably, a hero... but no need to aggrandize them.

If you like to read about heroic people, both the good and the bad in them, I'd like to recommend "There is No Me Without You" by Melissa Faye Green.


Angela Just wanted to add another "I really liked your review" : )


Carla Re: Sarah's review
What's there to be suspicious of it's a book that had Two authors sharing a story. There's a lot of books with 2 authors. I thought the book flowed quite well.
A book in which one of the two authors is the main subject of the book - I still don't understand the big deal sorry.

While I don't know whether I'd call this guy a hero by my standards but to people of Pakistan and Afghanistan he was. He built the schools, supplied books that the government approved of. He didn't send in the American Way. Of course these people felt he was a hero he gave them a chance to improve their way of life.
Would I risk my life to do what he did, no but I can admire him for what he did.

Our book club just finish this book and would recommend it to others. It gives you a different perspective of the Muslim world. All we see on TV is the chanting of "Death to Americans" or we tend to associate all Muslims with the idots of 9-11. Mortenson was consummed with the task of giving these people a school that the government chose to ignore. He was so consummed that he didn't sleep and ignored his friends and family. Eventually with some intervention I believe he was able to find some balance.






Noelle I had such high hopes for this book, but I was slightly disappointed in the writing. I turned to this website to see if I was the only one who wasn't amazed by the book. This review summed up my feelings exactly. Thank you, Sarah.


message 15: by Danna (new)

Danna Great review. Like Noelle said, I had high hopes for this book. Your review brought me down to earth.

I'd just like to point out ooooone teensy thing.

"They have already established tons of schools called madrassas in these places, barring women and teaching only Islam and warfare."

I don't know if this was in the book or if you got this off of the news or something, but "Madrassa" actually means "school" in Arabic. So this sentence would be the equivalent of "They have already established tons of schools called schools in these places."

It's a common misconception.


Dianne There are many comments about the two authors. The book is obviously written by one person, David Oliver Relin, a journalist. Greg Mortenson's name is on it to identify and promote the cause he is interested in - the CAI- and because it is his and his organisation's biography. One has to think back to Mortenson's problems with the typewriter and his begging letters. He will have read through the book and commented before publication. It is more honest than the usual celebrity autobiography, whose name fills the cover while a ghostwriter does the (often very poor) writing.

Yes I agree that the tome is at times cloyingly worshipful, but I think Greg's personality comes through well - a man with a great gift for friendship, who is impulsive, tenacious, stupidly brave and clearly quite incompetent when it comes to organisation. He has a gift for languages and an ability to live rough.

This is the oppostite of cultural imperialism. After the first three years he listened and talked to the people he was working with, and, to use an old colonial term, 'went native'.


Jasmine I would just like to highlight sth here; Madrassa is the arabic word for School!
So Greg Mortensen was building madrassas too =)

what Taliban built was extremist schools (madrassa wahhabi)


message 18: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen Tourney Shawn wrote: "I disagree with this review on so many points. The reviewer treats this as a work of fiction, it's documenting the birth of this organization and how it grew and Greg Mortensons commitment to his ..."

Great review of the review. Especially the part about how this is the best way to deal with U.S national security (if I remember it correctly). Great job


message 19: by Liz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Liz I'm afraid I have to agree with those who consider this review poor. While some of the points are well founded obviously you do not understand the nature of documentary writing. The book is not written by two authors, but written by a journalist portraying Mortensen's version of his story along with bits and pieces included from people involved in the birth of his foundation. Documentary's are typically one-sided and strongly express the opinion of those paying to have them written or filmed. If you understand the nature of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book then the story becomes much more moving.


message 20: by Anne (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Three stars is good. The book was good. The review seems right on to me. Good (not great)book book about a very human man doing great things. (I think that is where the inspiration comes in. We can each do great things despite our flaws.)


message 21: by Suzie (new)

Suzie wow, what a negative review of a book that documents something that has so positively changed the lives of many. a good reason to steer clear of critics and reveiwers


message 22: by Irene (new)

Irene Documents what??????


message 23: by Elesha (new) - added it

Elesha All I have to say is what may seem Disappointing to someone in a book could be very good in someone else's eyes. We all have different opinions about books, because we all like different things and believe in different things as well. I don't think anyone should bash eachother about what's right or wrong, just listens to eachother's opinion and learn from eachother as well as compare along the way if you do read the book if you haven't so. Actually I became good book buddies with someone who had a totally negative view of a book I loved.


message 24: by Irene (new)

Irene I don't consider my comment "...bash eachother about what's right or wrong.... In fact, I totally agree with you. We all have the right to express our opinions, and I was simply doing just that. I attempted to read this book at least three times, but it simply seemed implausible to me. In fact, a niggling thought about another book I deemed to deserve five stars still continues to bother me enough that I am removing one star from my original rating. Negative or Positive...just words we use to define how we feel about a book...or anything else. It certainly is not cause for discord.


message 25: by Elesha (new) - added it

Elesha Not saying you Irene. I'm just saying this in general for anyone. I've had many situations where I couldn't finish a book because it was horrible lol


message 26: by Irene (new)

Irene Thanks, Bookworm1110.. With soooooo many books to read, we often don't have the time to read the ones that really interest us. Have a great weekend!


message 27: by Elesha (new) - added it

Elesha You too Irene!


message 28: by Kyle (new)

Kyle Borland Another thing that should worry you? That it was all fabricated.


message 29: by Teresa (new)

Teresa http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entert...
I am not sure what to believe but this has definitely moved this book down my "To Read" list


message 30: by Teresa (new)

Teresa (Basically a lot of people think he's a fraud and uses the charity money badly)


Mycroft Heather, your Point 3 is great - I suspect Mortenson used 3rd person to distance himself from the lies he was telling. The mission seems sound, but it also doesn't sound like he's fulfilling it...


message 32: by Ella (new)

Ella Miller Do the authors both write in different styles of writing? Like does one author write better than the other?


message 33: by Viki (new) - rated it 4 stars

Viki I would just like to offer a different perspective as to why I think this book is important. Pehaps you know the tale:

“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said,
"It made a difference for that one.”
― Loren Eiseley


message 34: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed Mazen from my point of view,i think the alchemist is one of the best book i have ever read in my life.Seriously,I really recommend it


message 35: by John (new)

John I was surprised today (April 2015) that, even after the exposure of the author as a fraud, that this book seems still taken as a serious documentary work. For me, the author's veracity is now unreliable, and use of charitable funds for personal purposes is criminal, fraudulent.
I suppose you could still read this as a work of inspirational fiction. I would not choose to do so. The Kite Runner might be a better choice for that purpose.
Just my $0.02.


message 36: by Jan (new) - rated it 1 star

Jan Priddy The book is a lie, Mortenson has been revealed as a fraud, and you shouldn't fall for it.


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