Book Review, Memoir

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I was at my sister’s house last month, staying with her for a while when I visited New York City. As I always do when I travel, I’d packed three paperback books, but as always happens when I travel, I finished two and realized I still had a long day’s travel ahead and only one book left in the bag to read. I browsed my sister’s bookshelves and found, much to my relief, that she shares some of my tastes in reading.  Three Cups of Tea beckoned.  I asked to borrow it, agreed to return it by mail, and happily took it back with me to Virginia to read.

I finished reading it last night and found myself strangely moved by the book.  I was moved, first of all, by the tale of a strange and unique man, Greg Mortenson, traveling through some of the most wild and rugged parts of Asia simply for his love of climbing.  If you’ve read Three Cups of Tea, you know that the story begins with Mortenson’s aborted climb of a mountain known as K2 in Pakistan.  He is separately from his local guide, who is also carrying his pack and supplies, and spends a night out on the mountain in what reads like the classic mystic’s journey.  He manages to find his way down the mountain and is reunited with his guide, but he is ill and exhausted.  He accidentally finds an isolated village called Korphe. The people take him in and help him recover, and he is moved to action when he finds the children have no place to attend school.  He leaves his vagabond climber’s life to begin a quest to bring a school to Korphe.  One school leads to another, and a generous endowment funds the Central Asia Institute.  The book chronicles his trials and tribulations building the schools, his whirlwind courtship to Tara Bishop, his marriage, and his adventures before and after 9/11 building schools in an area of poverty, violence and cultural misunderstanding.

My sister had warned me that there were some controversies surrounding the book, but I chose to ignore them before I read it so that I could just the book by itself, on its own merits. And I have to say — on its own, I loved the book.

The writing at the start was a bit bumpy, and seemed to meander until it found its voice.  Mortensen’s co-author hits his stride about a quarter of the way into the book. I found his tales of cultural exchanges, of learning the ways of Islam, of learning how to do business in Pakistan and Afghanistan absolutely fascinating.  I also liked how the author took great pains to help me see each of the villagers as individuals.  I learned more about the nuances of Islam by reading this book than I did by reading other books, and I felt I got to know all of the people who Mortensen met on his adventures as if I was right there with him.

But like a cup of tea made with too many lumps of sugar, there was an awkward, cloying sweetness to the book that ran like a syrupy undercurrent. What was this I sensed? The phrase that kept popping into my mind was “Saint Greg.”  Throughout the book, the author only talks about Mortensen’s saintly qualities…he is kind, benevolent, respectful to Islam, patient, loves children, is a good nurse (he was an ER nurse before founding his institute).  You get the picture.  I felt like I was only seeing a portion of the man.

After finishing the book last night, I did some quick online searches this morning to learn more about the controversies my sister casually mentioned. I was horrified to read that some idiots brought suit against Mortensen for “lies” in his book.  Hello, folks; you are reading a memoir. Memoirs are MEMORIES and memories are unreliable. Mortensen may very well have told the truth — as he remembers it.  That doesn’t mean it was factually accurate.  It’s a tricky distinction, but an important one.  I found it absolutely appalling that people would file suit against an author for such a reason. But I suppose once you are on Oprah, have had a feature in Parade magazine, and made money from a best-selling book, people come at you from all sides. Maybe there is something to laboring in obscurity for a while….

Others claim Mortensen mismanaged funds for the Institute, which to me, is a more serious charge. I cannot, however, find much evidence to support those claims.

I think that building schools in such chaotic regions of the world, you must run into a lot of problems. Building materials “disappear” and money must be spent in ways that to a Western business person would seem absurd.

Do I think he told the truth in his book? I have absolutely no way of knowing, and frankly, if he mis-remembered incidents, or they happened differently then he related, I’m okay with that.

It’s so sad that the co-author of the book committed suicide. If it was over the controversy about the book that erupted after 2011, then it is a real shame.  It is a good book, worth the read, and worth the price to buy it.

Four stars out of five.  I would have given this book 5 stars except for how the author painted Mortensen as too good to be true.



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