Review: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time

So let me save all of you a few precious hours of your life and just give you the condensed version of Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School At A Time by Greg Mortenson and David Relin. I wish someone had done that for me!

There’s this big dorky American who climbs mountains, but not that well. He attempts to climb K-2 but doesn’t summit because he stops to help someone (there is no doubt that the man is a GOOD GUY- yes I meant to put that in all CAPS- this book is practically hero worship). So he helps somebody out, but then he gets lost on the mountain for a day or two. Through his super duper climbing instincts, he manages to find his way back to his guide, but then loses him again, walks right past a bridge he’s supposed to cross and into the remote mountain village of Korphe in Pakistan all weak and cold. The man is lost but he finds his life’s purpose.

Korphe is an isolated place. There’s not much food, there’s not much anything really, but the people there are kind and take care of Mortenson. They treat him like an honored guest, feed him and nurse him back to health. He gets to know these people and has a powerful desire to give back to them, so he (a nurse) tends to their ailments. They are grateful and call him Dr. Greg. One day he sees some kids scratching out lessons in the dirt and suddenly he realizes these kids need a school. He vows to come back and build them one.

SO the big dorky American goes home, obsessed. He lives in his car to save money for his school. He lands a job as a night nurse and by day he writes letters to potential benefactors about this school he wants to build in Pakistan. He even writes to Oprah. He painstakingly types out 300 letters or so on a typewriter before he discovers this would all go much faster if he used a computer (DOH!) After sending a few hundred more letters, he gets one response, for $100. In the meantime he meets a girl, who doesn’t seem to mind that he’s dorky and lives in his car. It’s all good, apparently, but his fundraising efforts are tanking, big time, until he gets a little free press in a climbing newsletter and soon he’s got the funding he needs to go back to Korphe.

Ok, so are you still with me? Stay awake, people! Focus! Mortenson goes back to Pakistan, buys a bunch of supplies, gets the runaround, loses a bunch of supplies, does a whole bunch of things wrong- which could have possibly been amusing, but wasn’t- finally gets to the little mountain village only to be told that the supplies can’t get there unless a bridge is built. Hmmm. Why didn’t he think of that? How the heck was he planning to get all that wood and concrete and all those tools up the treacherous mountain footpaths that pass for roads? How was he going to cross the raging Braldu River (slaps hand on forehead)? Mortenson stays two months longer than expected, because he really has no concept of time. He’s not much of a planner. He’s a “put the cart before the horse” type, a “leap before you look” kind of guy. Anyway, when the money runs out, he goes back home to raise funds for the bridge.

Mortenson is surprised and sad to learn that his girlfriend, who he didn’t contact for weeks, has moved on. So he finds a really gross cheap apartment that smells like smoke and booze in a bad neighborhood (to save money, I guess-plus he’d sold his former abode-the car), sleeps on the floor, starts working again, and calls his benefactor to see about more money. The money man invites him to this event where he meets Tara, and 6 days later they get married. Again, he jumps in before thinking things through, although I guess this style sort of works for him.

Some other stuff happens with the Taliban and al Queda, and some schools get built. There is the yak dung incident. There is an ibex hunt. Some feasting. A baby is born. Everybody has tea. More schools. There are about a dozen pictures in the middle of the book.

Ok, so.. why did I not like this book? First of all- I feel bad. I wanted to like it. I certainly liked the message- that one person can make a difference. Greg Mortenson’s accomplishments are inspiring and I’m glad he didn’t give up even after many setbacks. But- throughout the book they use the 3rd person point of view for Greg, which really bugged me. A first person account would have been so much more effective and interesting, but the 3rd person made me feel very removed from it all. The writing is dry; so, SO dry. Even when writing about something like a kidnapping at gunpoint, the delivery was flat and boring. Boring! I had to force myself to keep reading, setting a timer and sitting down with it for 15 minutes at a crack. It’s a book club pick, so it carries an obligation, but if it had not been I would have pitched it.

I admire Mortenson and what he was able to accomplish; I’m impressed by how he was able to overcome literal and figurative roadblocks to reach his goals. But man, couldn’t he have found a writer to make Three Cups of Tea a little more appealing to the reader? It sort of felt like a newspaper article that went on and on for 300+ pages. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, then that. The end.

I recommend that if you’re interested in the story, read about it on the website- at least the pictures are in color, unlike the ones in the book. Check it out HERE.

Many people have read and reviewed this book in the last couple of years. I will need to find all those and round them up for you, but in the meantime you can check out this review from Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books.

64 Responses

  1. OH MY GOD! I’m am laughing hysterically… out loud… to myself… with nobody in the room! Was it really that bad?

    My life really isn’t so awful anymore!


    • Yea, I would gotta agree with you.
      But I came across for assistance while reading the book and it’s really not that bad unless you can’t stand boring books…(which I recommend you don’t read non-fiction at all) Other than that I think Greg Mortenson is heroic and I’m glad he is still alive!! I followed him on Twitter Lmao. (:

  2. Ha! I had the same impression as you, and your review is much more entertaining than the book was! The thing is, it’s a great story, a fascinating story, one that ought to be told, but it should be told well, with humor or some narrative punch or something.

  3. Three Cups of Tea falls into my category of Should Have Been a Great Book.

  4. So, it sounds like you had the same reaction as I did. Loved this review! I’m off to send the link to my book group friends so they can get a laugh out of it, too.

  5. I’ve not read this one, but I have read many books that would have made excellent magazine articles. There are so many true stories that would be terrific 5000 word articles but are deadly dull at book length.

  6. Had the exact same feeling about this book — and about many others that climb, meteoric-fashion, to bestseller lists. Most people I’ve talked to don’t like this book, and yet — it keeps selling.

    A conundrum.

  7. Ah nuts. Everyone is raving about this book, and I’m in the queue for it at the library, but from your description I KNOW I’m going to hate it. Which doesn’t mean I won’t read it, because I succumb to peer pressure like that. But ah jeez.

  8. Sounds like this guy has some really good intentions, but is not at all organized. I’m surprised he actually finished his project.

  9. I’ve had this on hold at the library forever, received it, read about 100 pages and now haven’t even opened it for at least 4 weeks. It’s now overdue and I can’t renew it anymore. I would like to at least finish it but it’s not going to be for a while. The way it is written though, really bothers me.

  10. Well I’m THRILLED to hear it’s not just me!! Thanks for all your comments.

    Teresa, you hit the nail on the head- it’s a great story but needs humor or narrative punch or something. Yes. Something!

    Debbie Nance, you are so right- it does fall into that category. This should have been a great book. It has all the elements.

    CB- so true! It would have made a terrific article, but just is not right for book length.

    Beth, I do find it odd that this book is still selling like crazy. You’d think the word of mouth would have killed it by now.

    Raych- people are raving about it? Really? I did not know that. Well, read it if you must. If that’s how you want to spend your time, I won’t stop ya. Just remember that you have been warned.

    Jeane, it IS a surprise that he could finish his project. It’s a wonder he could take care of himself let alone other people.

    Natasha, that was my problem too! I would put it down and then would not want to pick it back up again. I’d love to know what bothers you about it. Was it the same kinds of things that bothered me?

  11. Lisa, you’re killing me here! I have to read this book and now I’m looking forward to it even less than I already was, which was minimal excitement at best. At least I have this quick summary to help me out if I don’t manage to get through it (or open it at all).

  12. Ahahahaha….that’s hilarous! I have this book on my shelf to read but haven’t yet. I’m still going to give it a try but I am disappointed that it’s written in third person…how weird. Maybe Greg can’t write well and that’s why. Hmm. If you want a better book but on similar lines, check out The Places In Between by Rory Stewart. It’s very fascinating and I almost cried at the end. I reviewed it on my blog here:

  13. I haven’t read this book yet. The gals in my book club seemed to like it enough but it just doesn’t do it for me. I can see it didn’t do it for you either. Bwhahaha. What a funny review.. this happened, then that happened and then there was some stuff with so and so. Too funny but you know what, it tells me what I need to know.

  14. I think I’ve already traded “great concept, poor execution” stories with you about this one. I felt *guilty* about not liking it because, let’s face it, the end result of his work is quite admirable!

    Would have been much better: 1. in the first person (at least ghost-written in the 1st person), 2. without the hero-worshop of Oliver Relin, the actual author (by the way, why is Mortensen’s name listed on the book cover as *author*?!)

    my review is here. While not as LOL funny as Lisa’s, I like the examples of HIDEOUS SIMILES AND METAPHORS that I pulled 🙂

  15. Dawn you are so right! Hey your linky thingy isn’t working right. I’ll link to your review in my post.

  16. Dude, I’m so glad I haven’t picked up this book. People ARE raving about this book (that’s how I heard about it…people IRL telling me I need to read this book), but I see I would have hated it. So thanks for summary. 🙂

  17. Oh, I’m sorry to be so obnoxious! To not only link back to my own post, but to give a broken link! (really the food metaphor quotes are worth it.)

    Hanging my head in shame … thanks, Lisa, for linking to my review!

  18. I haven’t wanted to read this at all, in spite of all the raves. I’ve had enough of this kind of subject. Like reality television, this new Pakistan/Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran subgenre has become tired and redundant. Move on, people!

  19. Sorry the book was disappointing, but I certainly enjoyed reading your review!!

  20. Oh dear! Hilarious review, and I kept wondering WHY you continued to read it – and then had that answered. My mother in law gave this to me, she loved it, and it has been sitting on the shelf ever since. The last couple of reviews I’ve read have not sent me towards it. Oh, well. It’s too bad really, since as you said it could have been a great story.

  21. Oh, my. I think I’ll skip this one.

    Married after knowing her for six days? Yikes!

    Very entertaining review Lisa 🙂 Too bad the book wasn’t the same, huh?

  22. […] I love, love, love Books on the Brain and TLC Book Tours.  Lisa is not only my mentor, but a wonderful and talented writer.  There are many blog posts that she makes that make me laugh aloud… or flip on over to Amazon.Com to buy them.  Recently, I was laughing, at midnight, in the dark facing a glowing screen, at her Book Review of Three Cups of Tea.  […]

  23. I’m midway through the audiobook and I’m really struggling. I’m reading it because yes, it is the rage. My mother, for example, told me it was a must read for everyone. I don’t know what she was thinking.

    The audiobook adds something even more annoying: a narrator who keeps imitating accents whenever the speaker is foreign.

    I suspect I will finish listening to it, despite all that, simply because I feel I must justify my critique of it by finishing it. Someone told me it gets “interesting” after 9-11. I guess we’ll see.

    • Oh…but it does NOT get “more interesting” after 9/11. People just say that to feel better about the whole thing.

  24. […] Rating: 2 Balance of Opinion: Books on the Brain, Semicolon, Lesley’s Book Nook, Leafing Through […]

  25. Well, I liked it.
    A lot!
    A very lot, actually…
    Greg didn’t write the book himself…it was co-written by David Oliver Relin.

    No idea why there is so much to-ing and fro-ing about the book…either you love it or hate it, I think.

    I’ve chosen it for my book club and we are meeting on the 21st of October. If they string me up and shoot me at dawn for picking it, I’ll try to get back from the great unknown and let you know that they all hated it…

    I had also chosen it for my online book club on my travel site, Slowtrav. People were divided. Most liked it, some didn’t. I also asked one of our members to join the book club in the chat room on Slowtrav for the discussion, because she taught Greg in Tansania when he was living there with his family. An interesting perspective from her and she gave us a lot to think about.

    Why did I like it?
    Because there are some kids living in mountain villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan who will have a better life because he chose to help.
    Anyone who makes life easier and better for kids gets my vote. In a world where so many people treat children as disposable rather than as human beings in progress, I think anyone doing what he’s doing rates an ‘atta-boy’ from me!

    Interesting to read your comments…makes me think about why I liked it, and that’s a good thing.

    • Hi Brenda, I think what Greg DID was good. Good for humanity, good for Afghanis and Pakistanis, good for children. I think what David/Greg WROTE was boring as hell. A good story wrapped in a very dull package. Just my opinion, of course.

      BTW my book club had an EXCELLENT discussion of 3 Cups of Tea. I don’t think there was even one person who loved the book, or even liked it a lot, but the discussion about education, and America’s role in the world, and politics, and the Taliban, etc. etc. was lively, worthwhile, and memorable. I hope your book club has an equally wonderful discussion.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • We had the BEST book discussion…but not about the wonderful work of )god with a little g) Greg Mortinson, but because of the horrible writing style and the way the book should really have just been a 500 work Parade article and that would have been more than enough. But if your liberal white guilt is getting in the way, just send him money. Here is another thing I thought was so funny! I found a first edition, hardcover of this book when it was subtitled “one Man’s fights against Terrorism one school at a time” signed by BOTH authors (including Greg~god~Mortinson himself!) and the new paperback copies were selling at $14 each while this collectible first, signed edition was going for $7.00. I do not disagree with the work GM is doing. I disagree with the level of pedantic junk that masquerades as a book…. Your book group will have a blast tearing the language apart if any of you care about fine writing. And now I have to get off this discussion board because I hate being even reminded of the time I wasted reading this piece of rancid yak butter.

  26. I finally got around to reading this book and wanted to leave a link to my review:

    I agree with Brenda in that I enjoyed the book. Also, I liked to your review… hope that is okay.

  27. One of the few books I put down without finishing in the last 10 years–I had such a big problem with his name on the cover as the writer (with a co-author, of course) and then reading about his glorious attempts to save the world–I wanted to like it, but it never got any better–the writing is awful and the story is just dull. Mortenson’s motives are admirable, but I though he though a little too much of himself! It was just weird.

    I don’t usually “hate” books–I am not a black or white person, but this book was just not well written. Too bad, though. I didn’t hate it, I just found it to be a poorly executed project that deserved better.

  28. Thank you thank you thank you! I was so bummed when my book club voted for this. It is simply awful and it could have been wonderful. It has sold about 20 million books, so hopefully that should take care of GM’s need to raise funds. My MAJOR quibble with the book is that GM’s ghost writer has a bad case of hero-worshipping (to the point of putting GM in the same classification as Jesus and Buddha and Ghandi) AND the authors claim that educating people will be the end of terrorism? Osama Bin Laden is highly educated and so were all of the 9/11 hijackers. So the book fails completely on that level. I agree that schools and education are good things and GM is a good guy, blah blah blah blah. Three Cups of Tea is so poorly written that it is actually funny. I would never have picked it up if it weren’t for my book club. (damn them!). I would rather read a beautifully written book about nothing (Stone Diary comes to mind, here) than a poorly written book that has a great story. A huge miss for me. I am so glad I am not alone in my opinion. Thank you for your hilarious review. I feel so much better!

    • Thanks for your comment, Melinda. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    • I don’t think you understood the point. The book said that education such as the kind that Mortenson provided would help against terrorism, the kind that involves only pure education. There was another kind of education the book mentioned, the kind which the schools had the best students have many wives, in which education somewhat served as a “support the country” idea.

  29. Book sucked no one read it. This review could have been shorter and covered more than the book that’s how unecessary the 300 pages were.. It only needed two pages. Love u mortenson u r a great guy

    • I never said the book sucked. I said it was boring and dry- and read the comments-it seems I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’m sure Mortenson is a great guy. It’s a shame he didn’t have a better writer to help tell his story.

  30. I am a little surprised at the strong distaste for the
    book. I enjoyed it very much. My son’s school is using
    the book; the parents and teachers are reading the
    main version, and there is a young adult and preschool version of the book as well.

    I think some of the haters must be the “hipster” types.
    I am glad that I am not too “cool” to enjoy a variety
    of things from the dorky to the divine, and not give a
    rat’s posterior what anyone else thinks.
    Of course, to each his own.

    • I am by no means a hipster (thank you for the laugh!). But I do read a LOT, and not everything appeals to me. Sorry.

      I think the book has a great message and is an important book for educators. It’s an important story, told in a very dull way. But I’m glad you enjoyed it. Like you said, to each his own.

    • I am *not* a hipster! I love good writing, period! I am also not a Hater! You don’t know what you are talking about, Susan. And you care…otherwise, you would not have posted!

  31. I agree- this review is really awful and immature and mean. I liked the book. Obviously a non fiction book describing real events isnt going to be full of excitement and amusement. I thought it was interesting and easy to follow- though some parts were a bit boring.

    • I’ve read enough non fiction to know for sure that it can be done well. I don’t need to be entertained and amused. I’m sorry you thought my review was awful but the delivery in this book was dull, flat, and boring. At least you can concede that parts were boring. I appreciate your honesty. Thanks for the comment.

      Oh, and people- this is a blog. MY blog. If I think a book was boring, I’m going to say so. I’m not a paid reviewer, I don’t have to do in-depth, professional analysis. I can say what I want. Might I suggest that you create a blog too, then you can say whatever you want, in whatever manner you choose!

  32. First off, I have to say that I found this review througha school assignment. And I love it! My opinion of Three Cups of Tea is the ezact same as yours. If it wasn’t required for summer reading, or if David Oliver Relin was nt the author, I could actually have liked the book. I totally apreciate what Greg Mortenson does, the same as you, and I think that his idea of using education to fight the war on terror is superior.

    I liked your review immensly and will probably check out other books you’ve reviewed.

  33. You could not have been more right about every aspect of this book!! i totally agree with you

    and thanks for the summary and the links… they really helped me on my essay

  34. i think you are being way too hard on this guy. if you’ve ever worked in international development you’d understand the difficulties involved. sometimes when you try your hardest things still dont work out.

    all that matters is the intentions of ones heart. he is a good guy.

  35. This review is Hilarious!!! Unfortunately i disagree i liked the book and how it was written. but everyone is entitled tot heir opinions.


  36. It ‘s pretty sad but what I love about this is man who went through all that trouble to help and made a hug differences in these kids life’s

  37. Mortenson was lucky I was stuck with this one on a plane. Mortenson should appreciate that. Mortenson is a good guy.

    Your review is hilarious and spot on. Looking back, I can’t believe even I finished it, but it was also a book club selection.

  38. Thank you for writing this review and sparing me the tedium of reading the book. I was feeling bad about rejecting it in the bookshop on my way from the shelf to the till. I thought the writing style was clumsy and unskilled and instantly didn’t care what he did, or how, or why. Now I can go to my reading group on Friday in the clear and certain knowledge that I made the right decision!

  39. Thank you! Saved me buying yet another inspirational-boring book… The review was hilarious!

  40. I agree…I’m a teacher and the book was given to me to read with my 8th grade students the last 9 weeks of school last year….I kinda felt bad for making them read it.

  41. really? i seriously enjoyed the book. like it was a page turner for me. It just kept wanting to learn MORE about mortenson.. i think relin did an amazing job gathering all the facts together!

    but i can see how ppl are turned off by it.

  42. […] Mortenson, a mountain climber turned activist, and the author of the best selling book Three Cups of Tea, has done just that.  He founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which has built nearly 150 […]

  43. Hilarious! Loved the review, Lisa. Mr Relin did a bad job, over-simplified and over-romanticised what could have been a great story if told well. Respect to Mortenson but how he REALLY did it is still unclear.
    I’m working with setting up schools in Indian Kashmir myself, so I thought this book would be helpful in sorting out actual on-the-ground problems I come across (like proper documentation, registration with notoriously corrupt govt officials and bureaucratic departments, how to get good teachers in remote areas, duh, then supervise them, check the quality of teaching intermittently etc.) but nothing of the sort. The way Relin tells the story it was like “I’m American so I can get airlifts from the Army” and instead of the actual schools and what went on in there, it was about constructing buildings. I have set up threee schools in remote villages, and believe me, getting rooms or a building is the least of one’s worrries.
    I was gifted ‘Three Cups’ by a dear friend and was pretty keen on it until I got through about one-third and was like, “Errr. Wait a a minute. We have been had.” 🙂
    Anyway, loved your post. Was nodding and laughing along throughout.

  44. […] Books on the Brain […]

    UGH i have to write a report on it and how this relates to nursing, and honestly nursing is a process wiht great planning which mortenson obviously did not!!

    i did not enjoy this book but i enjoy the story, does that make sensE? haha

  46. i love your book. i rate it #1!!!:):):):):):):):):):):):):):):)):):):):):):):):):):):):):):):)):):):):)):):)thankyou !!!

  47. i l;ove yoiur book i rate i8t#1 it `s awsome !!!!!!!!!:):):):):):):):):):))::)):):):):):):):)):):):):):):):):):):thank you!!!:):):)

  48. i love your book i rate it #1.!!!:):):)

  49. exxxacctly. the writing was painfully bad and 3rd person sucks. i hate the interviews and the jumping points of views. i like the story, just not the way it was written.

  50. I am a teacher at a high school that has chosen to use it in it’s 12th grade curriculum. I think that is a shame. I have respect for Mortesen(perhaps not as much as he has for himself) and the message the book “could ” be passing on to students, but it is lost in bad writing. Because this book is soooooo boring, almost every student I have reading it hates the book and hence is disinterested in the message. I am not teaching the class by the way. I think it is important to recognize what makes a book great and it is not just the story but the author’s ability to write well. I can’t say enough about importance of good writing skills and how all authors are definately not created equal. In expressing appreciation for books we absolutely should consider the author’s writing ability. I hate TV but this story probably would have been better suited for a tv news feature if it was going to be poorly written. That is not a slam on Mortensen’s character ,it is merely an assessment of Relin’s writing skills.

  51. Yeah, I finished the book today, I thought it was okay. Rather interesting concept, and it probably felt riveting for Mr. Mortensen while he was in Pakistan during the turmoil rise.

  52. […] Cups of Tea – Books on the Brain Tweet (function() { var s = document.createElement('SCRIPT'), s1 = […]

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