Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

March 19, 2010

This book sat atop the NY Times Bestseller list in the Nonfiction category for weeks and weeks and weeks, so I decided to pick it up and see what the fuss was all about. It turns out the book is a biography about Greg Mortenson, a climbing aficionado who was once rescued after a disastrous attempt at K2 by the Balti people living in very poor, harsh conditions near the Karakoram range in Pakistan (my geography might be a bit off here). Greg is so grateful for the rescue and is so moved by seeing Balti children kneeling on frozen ground to scratch out their multiplication tables in the dirt that he promises to come back and build a school for the village.

This becomes Greg’s mission in life, so he spends the next few months trying to scrape together the $12,000 necessary to make good on his promise (this was back in the early 1990s). He sent out hundreds of letters soliciting donations from various celebs and business leaders — and received exactly one reply: $100 from Tom Brokaw, just because the two have the same alma mater.

Then Greg gets a lucky break when he hooks up with some silicon valley bigwig who gets wind of his project. The man bankrolls the enterprise, and Greg returns to Pakistan to start buying supplies and overseeing construction of the school.

That took me to approximately the halfway point of the book, whereupon I put it down in frustration and boredom. I’m sure Mortenson is a nice guy and decent person and all, but his life was extremely boring and building one school with someone else’s money doesn’t seem like that big a deal, ya know? I wanted to read something more substantial than those extremely dull anecdotes about past climbing “adventures”, his problems with an ex-girlfriend, or how he met his wife. None of that was even remotely interesting. Seriously, a biography of jan marini would probably be more exciting.

Another problem with this book was the writing style. It was overly descriptive, to the point where the writing got in the way of the story. I mean, the ghostwriter was using descriptions that he couldn’t possibly have seen (like the way soft morning light “crept” in through the cracked shutters of a particular hut Greg was in 10 years ago, and many, many more instances) and attributing thoughts and feelings to people he never even met. I should have come up with a better example here, but I have no desire to pick up the book again.

I put the thing aside for good when the narrative turned to one cliché after another: the old Balti man who has never ventured outside his village but is “wiser” than any other person Greg has ever met; Greg “going native” with his clothing and manners (praying five times per day even though he wasn’t Muslim); talking about how other countries in their simplicity are so much better than America, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and I love how Greg accepted a $20,000 “salary” (almost twice what it cost to build a whole damn school) just to oversee the project. Whatever.

Anyway, I don’t understand the appeal of this book. I went to the halfway point, after Greg married Tara and after the Balti guy took him to the top of the mountain and told him to step back because everyone was sick of him. But then I couldn’t take any more of the drivel. Just tell the main story and forget about all the other b.s.!!! I give this book 0 stars out of 5.

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