Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book Review: "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I always do my best to be honest when people ask my opinion about a book. Even when it’s one that we’ve over-ordered, and I want more than anything to sell all 12 copies that are still sitting on our shelves, being dusted over and over. But when it comes to books, I can’t lie. After all, every reader knows after about 50 pages or so whether they are going to like a book or not. In fact, I always tell myself that if the author can’t grab me by the hundredth page, the book is a dud. 

Although Three Cups of Tea isn’t necessarily a dud, there are two major problems with it, the first being the author himself. He isn’t any good. It’s a helluva story; it’s just not told well.

The second problem is with the story itself, and the fact that there’s some controversy surrounding how much of it is actually true.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read the book, but since Greg Mortenson and his co-author David Oliver Relin have been making headlines lately, I thought I’d offer my two cents.

I’m usually a bit leery of memoirs, non fiction books or true crime stories to begin with. Memory is a tricky devil, so when you throw in the fact these memories are being written by another author (a poor one, to boot. Oh, did I mention that already?), you have the makings for an over-dramatized story with the possibility of imagined details that make what is supposed to be a true story … well, not true.

Three Cups of Tea chronicles mountaineer Greg Mortenson’s wrong turn down K2 and into the Pakistani village of Korphe. He is so moved by the villager’s kindness and the childrens' desire for an education that he returns years later to fulfill a promise to build a school.

The book details the hardships he endures, including being captured by the Taliban (one of the parts that is being disputed, which didn’t feel right as you’re reading it anyway), bringing in funding, materials and supplies and finding qualified teachers.

The book bounces you back and forth between Pakistan and San Francisco as Mortenson travels between the two, working to finance the job and bring materials and workers in to help with the construction. Although the transitions were a bit rough, perhaps they should be. They are truly completely different worlds, and Relin actually did a good job capturing that, detailing how Mortenson went from attending a fundraising gala in San Francisco, complete with all the glitz and glamor you would expect from a fundraising gala in San Francisco to a bouncy, sweaty jeep ride through a desert on the other side of the word a mere 24-hours later.

I don’t doubt that most of the book is, in fact, truthful and that Mortenson himself is a good guy. It’s just that when a story is good, you don’t need to embellish anything. Just tell it. 

It is definitely a story worth telling and perhaps even reading, I only wish Mortenson had chosen someone else to help him tell it.