Saturday, October 11, 2008

Three Cups of Tea; One Man's Mission to Promote Peace by Greg Mortenson

I had picked up Three Cups of Tea multiple times at the bookstore. Then my mother-in-law sent me her copy and her recommendations. Book in hand, I placed it on my bookshelf with the greatest of intentions, but never actually picked it up and read it. Finally, my book group suggested this book for our next meeting. With the needed shove, I read Three Cups of Tea in the past couple of weeks.

I have varied opinions of this book. I liked it; I didn't love it. I learned a ton. It was a slow read and I was ready to put it down when I finally finished. I found it inspiring but equally frustrating at points too. I feel like I will be criticized for taking issue with anything about the book because of what an incredible humanitarian Greg Mortenson is - how could I not love every moment of this inspirational work? - but I do have a few issues. Let me see if I can explain myself more clearly.

First, and this is maybe pedantic, but Greg Mortenson is not actually the author of the book, he is the subject of the book. Journalist David Oliver Relin actually wrote Three Cups of Tea with the unwavering support of Mortenson and his family. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Mortenson. But, much of it is also written as hero worship (and I mean that in the most benign, literal sense) to the incredible feats that Mortenson accomplished. When I first began reading, I had flashbacks to Into the Wild, a book that I personally despised. There is a similar sense of awe around the choices of an anti-hero. And I must say the craziness of mountain climbers showed through as well. I am not suggesting that this fact detracts from the book, but I do feel that it is a slight misnomer when picking up the work.

Second, through much of the first half of the book I felt incredible empathy for Mortenson's wife. She is such a small figure in the book and yet as a spouse I cannot imagine taking not only second place but last place in my husband's life. I understand the greater good that Mortenson is accomplishing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the impact that his work can have on the war on terror, but shouldn't his actions start at home? As the book progresses I have to wonder if he thinks about his family at all. I spent too much time fretting for the life of the woman he continually leaves behind.

Third, the political nature of the book occasionally (and only very occasionally) gets a bit heavy-handed for me. I don't know any way around this as Mortenson's work comes into direct conflict with American governmental agenda in the region. But I don't know that the digs at the government strengthen his story in any way. To me they felt like necessary points to help cement his readership rather than effective tools to understanding Mortenson's work.

On the flip side, I was absolutely fascinated by the story of life in Pakistan. I know nothing about the region but find it has become a topic of discussion more and more. I feel like I am much better educated about the country, its history, and its current day issues than I have ever been. For that, I praise Mortenson and Relin.

In addition, because of Mortenson's unique perspective on rural Pakistan, I was pleased at his portrayal of Islam, madrassas, and the treatment of women in Islamic communities. The authors worked doggedly to remain honest and not revert to universalist descriptions of "all Muslim women" and "all Muslim faith." The authors very effectively portrayed the individualism of belief, of views of the United States, of treatment of women... I would like to use sections of the book in a classroom because I believe it effectively shows the diversity that is all too often lacking in American media portrayals of Central Asia.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Mortenson. But not to everyone. Because of the political statements I would hesitate to recommend it to certain people. Not that they couldn't benefit from learning about Mortenson's work, but I am afraid they would be turned off by the political descriptions and therefore not absorb the important messages that lay between that politicking.

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