You’d better think twice before slapping a fatwa on Greg Mortenson. Try to deny this dude his dream of educating Pakistani children and he will be all over your sorry terrorist-abiding ass. Oh sure, he’ll sit down with you, all civilized-like. But as soon as you’ve poured the tea, he’ll overturn the table and scald you with the requisite three cups, all the while screaming, “I’m gonna build you a school, mother****er!”
Oh, if only. Maybe that’s how the movie version will turn out.
Three Cups of Tea is a fine book. A fine book that could have used just a little spice. Journalist David Oliver Relin ably tells the story of unwitting hero Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber who gets lost during a K2 expedition and discovers not only a remote Pakistani village but his life’s purpose. Three Cups chronicles Mortenson’s efforts to build schools for the Middle East’s poorest children, thus fighting what he believes are the root causes of terrorism and religious extremism. Risking his life countless times, devoting himself in a way unimaginable to most of us, Mortenson is a remarkable and inspiring man who deserves every royalty he gets from this raging bestseller.
And yet this book didn’t quite grab me the way Reading Lolita in Tehran—to which it is frequently compared—did. I’m sure that’s partially because Lolita is about the transformative power of literature, and Three Cups is more vaguely about education—I dunno, math and crap. (I’m joking. I love math. But it doesn’t get me all misty.) It’s also, I think, because Three Cups is kind of a one-note inspirational experience, a reeeeaaaallly long Chicken Soup for the Soul selection. Mortenson is awesome. I believe it. But I believed it by page 10 and at that point there were still 320 pages to go.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot. I learned about mountain climbing and construction and the Middle Eastern way of life (don’t rush it, man—the Pakistani chiefs are rather like the chilled-out surfers in my native Santa Cruz, though probably not as stoned). I learned that most Americans are into helping Buddhists but tend to shun the Muslims. And I learned that that’s just silly, because Muslims are poorer and will thus love you more when you lend a hand.
Okay, that’s not really the message of Three Cups, though the book says in no uncertain terms that Mortenson’s beneficent, education-bestowing presence in the Middle East combats terrorism and anti-American sentiment better than any military approach ever could. Passionate testimonials from all and sundry confirm the lasting dividends of both secular education and American lovingkindness, making the book positively pulse with a heartwarming (if heavy-handed) glow.
So: if you’re looking for an interesting plunge into another culture, a well-written chronicle of a real-life hero, Three Cups of Tea is the book for you. But if you’re looking for whoop-ass, even one cup of it, you’ll have to drink something besides Mortenson’s inspirational tea.