Three Cups of Tea – Review – ***

For those who don’t know, Three Cups of Tea is a non-fiction novel co-written by Greg Mortenson and journalist David Oliver Relin. It’s about Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer and current humanitarian, who has made it his mission to promote peace by building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The story itself is fascinating; heart-warming, inspirational, and genuinely incredible. It begins just after Mortenson’s failed attempt to climb K2, one of the toughest peaks of the Karakoram range in the Himalayas. He accidentally wanders into the mountain village of Korphe, and is so thankful for their support and hospitality that he offers to try and help them in whatever way he can, in return. The rest of the book traces Mortenson’s journey as he plans and struggles to raise funds to build the first school, and how his work begins to take off. Mortenson is fairly well known in many circles today, and a quick Google search could tell you everything you need to know about his history. However, a book like this, which has clearly been richly researched and deeply cared for, is certainly a welcome addition to Mortenson’s legacy.

The problem, unfortunately, the very, very big problem, is in the writing. Considering that there were not one, but two authors, and that one of these authors has allegedly received actual awards for editing, and that, I presume, there was at least one editor at Penguin who read the book before shoving it through the printer, the prose in this novel is just, well, frankly, it’s dismal.

If I may pick some nits, one of the very basic rules of the English language that these two can’t seem to get straight is the distinction between the words “and” and “but”. If I am not mistaken, and I don’t think that I am, and, to put it crudely, means in addition to, while but implies a statement that is in contrast to. However, there are many sentences in the book which quite clearly confuse the meanings of those tiny little words.

“And” is further abused by being thrust unsuspecting on the beginning of practically every second sentence. I don’t know about you, but when I read a sentence beginning with the word and, that sentence stands out as important, majestic, perhaps a wee bit pretentious. But every fucking sentence? Did you have a word quota to fill? JUST DELETE IT. IT IS NOT NECESSARY.

To get a better idea of what it’s like to read Tea, take that third paragraph of mine and add the word to every second sentence. I dare you. No, I’ll make it easy for you.

“The story itself is fascinating; heart-warming, inspirational, and genuinely incredible. And it begins just after Mortenson’s failed attempt to climb K2, one of the toughest peaks of the Karakoram range in the Himalayas. He accidentally wanders into the mountain village of Korphe, and is so thankful for their support and hospitality that he offers to try and help them in whatever way he can, in return. And the rest of the book traces Mortenson’s journey as he plans and struggles to raise funds to build the first school, and how his work begins to take off. Mortenson is fairly well known in many circles today, and a quick Google search could tell you everything you need to know about his history. But, however, a book like this, which has clearly been richly researched and deeply cared for, is certainly a welcome addition to Mortenson’s legacy.”

By the end of the book, I wanted to destroy that tiny little conjunction. Although, to be fair, it’s not the word’s fault that the people wielding it clearly missed that first grade grammar class where we were told to never, under any circumstances, begin a sentence with the words “but”, “because”, or, that’s right, “and”. Or perhaps they just took that class, four years later, telling them that the ban wasn’t quite so absolute, a bit too seriously.

The prose is frightfully purple, bursting at the seams with adjectives. Congratulations, you found your thesaurus. Get over the excitement and move on.

However, some of it is, I swear, downright nonsense.

“’I wasn’t trying to be difficult. These guys had a serious job to do, especially after 9/11,’ Mortenson says, pronouncing the word the way he does.”

I mean – what? Which word? Pronounced how? Why on earth do you need to point that out? None of these questions are answered in any of the 349 pages I scoured. I have to imagine this one’s on you, Relin, as that sentence just screams rushed journalist to me (and believe me, I would know).

But abusing words isn’t enough. M & R had to drag the punctuation into it, too. Joseph Heller, who wrote the morbidly hilarious Catch-22, wrote florid sentences that could reach a whole page in length. Mortenson and Relin are evidently hell-bent on beating that record.

“In the fall of 2003, at the desk of his aviation company in Rawalpindi, as he tried to arrange a flight for Mortenson to Afghanistan, now that the CAI’s work in Pakistan was on firm enough footing for him to leave, Bhangoo’s boss, the bull-like Brigadier General Bashir Baz, ruminated on the importance of educating all of Pakistan’s children, and the progress America was making in the war on terror.”

Oh, that’s right.

You might think I’m harping a bit strongly on the writing style, but considering that you’re stuck with it throughout, I think it’s an important part of any book.

The bottom line is, I would recommend it to anyone who can stand reading it.

*This is an old review, not part of the Cannonball Read, but I never published it.

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Posted on May 19, 2011, in Book Reviews, Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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