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3 Cups of Tea, The Confluence Book Club Selection

Riverdaughter wrote a lovely piece, “Saturday: A little thing for the girls,” about a group of Afghani girls who were attacked on their way to school:

The principal of the school, Qaderi, has been partially successful in getting the 1500 female students to return to class by promising them transportation and security. So far, the students have returned but the buses and protection haven’t materialized and Qaderi is getting worried.

The Bushies made Afghanistan promises they did not intend to keep. Like many other projects the Bushies took up, they did a half assed job and left the locals fend for themselves. The world is full of hurts and injustices and the United States is just now starting to feel what that is going to be like with the deepening recession. But we are incredibly lucky that if an American girl wants to attend school. even if that school eventually ignores her and gives her a substandard education compared to boys, she has the means to get to its stingy-assed doors in one piece.

Sexism costs. In Afghanistan, it has been very costly as the years of the Taliban has reduced half of the population to a state of illiteracy. If we ever hope to have a stable, prosperous Afghanistan, where reason and education trump superstition and anachronistic tradition, it will require a literate population and the education of girls is critical to this goal.

Her post reminded me of something I’d heard about the book, 3 Cups of Tea and I thought it might be nice to build on the theme by reading the book as one of our book club selections.  I should have known better than to commit to a book I hadn’t read myself. . .

The first disappointment was that Mortenson didn’t write it (unless it’s “as told by”) there’s a co-author and the “voice” is his. The book reads as if the two guys had a series of conversations that were all transcribed (maybe in shorthand) on 3×5 cards. And then the 3×5 cards were written-up into a book. It’s not that those bits-of-stories are boring – it’s that they come out of nowhere and hang there by themselves. Here’s an example:

Mortenson had been invited to dozens of weddings since he’d first arrived in Pakistan. The details of Balti nuptials varied from village to village, but the central feature of each ceremony he’d witnessed remained much the same – the anguish of the bride at leaving her family forever.

“Usually at a wedding, there’s a solemn point when you’ll see the bride and her mother clinging to each other, crying,” Mortenson says. “The groom’s father piles up sacks of flour and bags of sugar, and promises of goats and rams, while the bride’s father folds his arms and turns his back, demanding more. When he considers the price fair, he turns around and nods. Then all hell breaks loose. I’ve seen men in the groom’s family literally trying to pry the bride and her mother apart with all their strength, while the women scream and wail. If a bride leaves an isolated village like Korphe, she knows she may never see her family again.”

The next morning, Mortenson found a precious boiled egg on his plate, next to his usual breakfast of chapatti and lassi. ….

In the sample above we jump from the violent emotions of the Balti wedding to a change in the routine of Mortenson’s breakfast.  I don’t know about you but, I couldn’t care less about Mortenson’s breakfast.  I want to know more about those weddings — more about the parents who sell their daughters for live stock.   And what Mortenson thinks about that.  Filtering the stories through the voice of co-author David Oliver Relin strips the story of all passion  — and therefore interest.

Well, that sample was on page 141 and it’s the first sign that Mortenson had any sort of social life during his visits. And it’s the first time since the opening chapters (describing his failed attempt to climb to the K2 summit) that the story came alive. The rest of the time it’s like reading something published by Reader’s Digest.

How did this book become a best seller?

Don’t get me wrong — my expectations of a best seller aren’t that high.  I’m not confusing the success of a book with the quality of that book. I stuck with The Thorn Birds even though it was clearly just a rough draft.  I flew through Jurassic Park even though there were virtually no human characters of note.  I even slogged through The Da Vinci Code, just to prove I could do it. But, I’m stuck on page 141 of this one thinking — I just don’t care about this book.

And that’s a real let down.  Because I think that somewhere in that stack of 3×5 cards there was a good story.

45 Responses

  1. How did this book become a best seller?

    There’s a different book that made me ask that same question

  2. Which one? I’m open to talking about the failures of Best Sellers….

    • Methinks myiq just may be referring to the fictional works of Teh One, miscategorized as they were.

  3. hell, that goes more than half the countries on the globe when it comes to women getting an education, not just Afghanistan, im a bit sick of hearing about Bush, can you move on I have

  4. I’m sorry the book was such a disappointment, Katie. This makes me want to look around for a really good book on women in Afghanistan. And those weddings do sound really interesting.

  5. I agree The DaVinci Code was a joke. It was basically stolen from a lot of other books, some of which I had already read, and the characters were wooden and unsympathetic.

  6. Yes, I’d like to know more about the whole process. How do they keep a tradition that causes so much pain alive? Why do they do it?

    • Katie,

      Are you referring to the marriage pain? The pain of leaving one’s family of origin??

      The why is in the book. They have no way of contacting each other once they move on to other tribes. And, because it’s a patriarchy, the husband’s tribe gets to “keep the couple.”

      In the case of Korphe, they are quite literally isolated from the rest of Pakistan by their geography.

  7. bb — I don’t know about a good book re: women in Afghanistan, but if you want a good one on muslim women I suggest “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


  8. I agree The DaVinci Code was a joke

    The prequel (“Angels and Demons”) was a much better book.

  9. I remember reading a book about the !Kung people of the khalahari as an undergrad in an anthropology class. I can’t remember the name of it, but a short google search came up with Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak. I don’t know if that is the book I read, but I remember the woman was Nisa, she was the subject of intense anthropological research among this last group of “untouched” cultures. Her perspective of life, love, gender roles, and everything else was fascinating.

  10. Excellent but oldie book on Afghanistan-A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Brit author Eric Newby detailing a trip there in the mid fifties. Republished 2008 by Lone Books (2nd ed)

    Another good book by him is Love And War in the Apennines for anyone who loves Italy.

    • Didja know that “Hindu Kush” means “Hindu Killer?”

      The name says a lot.

      • That’s but one interpretation of several folk etymological theories. (see wiki)

        Anyway what has always fascinated me about the Hindu Kush was the discovery of a group of people living there with green eyes and blonde hair, who it seems are descended from the troops of Alexander the Great (of Greece). (A similar group has also been found close to the Great Wall of China).

        I find it tragic that for one reason or the other Afghanistan is continually being invaded. (And abuse of women’s rights are the way that some feminists justify things being done that shouldn’t be done)

  11. This was for wickets on Sunday-but might as well post it here-Afghan down home music 😉

  12. It’s the kind of music and dance they play for days at weddings.

  13. I think the point of the scenario you excerpt is this: the wailing and gnashing of marital teeth is more common than is the eating of eggs for breakfast.

    I found the technique to be effective, and haunting.

    Here Mortensen is… dining on this delicacy…. while all around him is the kind of suffering that we, as Americans, can barely imagine.

    Further, it is mentioned later, that the bridge Mortensen built to Korphe had the (probable) effect of keeping brides in touch with their mothers. This act, which in the US would only amount to keeping family members a few moments closer by car …. literally transforms the lives of Korphe women. In ways we can but imagine.

    I give the book two thumbs up for illustrating the ways in which apparently simple acts ripple outward…..

    I’ll say more later.

    • SYD, I’ll add it as an update to the post when you’re read. I’d LOVE to present a more upbeat view of the book

    • Your take on the juxtaposition of the wedding anguish and the breakfast delicacy reminds me of the dining scene mentioned in the song Ode to Billie Joe. The mother goes on blithely telling the family that Billie Joe Macallister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge , Pass the peas..

      • Interesting point about Ode to Billie Jo.

        And yes, I’d say there are similarities. Except… there is no import given to the “Billie Jo peas” per se. They could have been mashed potatoes, and the juxtaposition would still stand.

        In “Three Cups of Tea” however, every simple act has some kind of arcane meaning it seems. Especially those involving food and drink.

        Being offered a third cup of tea, for instance, means Dr. Greg is now “family.” Being offered the egg, means that he is a highly honored guest.

        In places where folks are hungry a lot of the time…. foods take on symbolic connotations… of the sort to which most of us are probably not accustomed……

    • “I give the book two thumbs up for illustrating the ways in which apparently simple acts ripple outward…..’

      I agree. And one person can make a difference. I read this over a year ago, and was deeply moved.

  14. Obat response to the post-

    “Gosh O-merican women dont know how lucky they got it I mean thay get to read and learn simple math regardless of intellegence! They do not have to worry about being denied access to their mothers(ask Betty Jean how true this is) and family after marriage.

    Gosh Women In O-merica need to stop b*tchin’ about how bad it is here and that they only get 78 cents for every dollar men get. Hey they can even get an Abortion if they aint feeling blue and have consulted with their families and preachers and husbands/father of the child!”

    PUMA Response:

    This is just awful!

    • Now many dual income families are finding out how difficult it is to live on one (78% of one) income.

    • The Obot response may be what you say, Fuzzy. But, if so, I believe it would fly wholly in the face of Mortensen’s mission.

      Dr. Greg was not interested in any liberal BS. I do not think he would be impressed by the kind of pompous “anti-racism” that we now see amongst those who assuage their guilt by “voting black.”

      Mortensen was a soldier, born the son of a Lutheran missionary. He was an ED nurse, and a mountain climber. He’s the dad of two home birthed babies. I betcha he’s “pro-life.” And I know he’s “pro-woman.”

      Dr. Greg has quite literally transcended the shallow dichotomy of liberal/conservative stereotypes. That’s not easy. And that is what makes his story so compelling IMO.

  15. Best sellers are like the top rated tv shows – they appeal to the masses. Remember how many years Wheel of Fortune was the top rated show – and how many really good documentaries on PBS are seen by very few people.

  16. As a failed novelist, I am continually astonished about what actually gets published and what the public actually buys. And that tells me how truly awful a writer I must be. Gawd, I am depressed.

    • churl, don’t be depressed. Your works have probably not been published because editors are looking for the kind of crap that Oprah book club readers will lap up. I’m guessing you are a very talented writer!

  17. dfid I sum it up pretty good?

    Hey Catrina (waves at Cat)

  18. The children’s version of this book is actually an easier read. After staying up until 2 am reading one night, I decided to pick up my daughter’s copy the next day and finished it off in an hour or so. Obviously, the children’s version doesn’t present as many details, but it essentially tells the same story, plus it includes more pictures and a question and answer session with Mortenson’s young daughter.

    I still like the book, in that I really like learning about Mortenson’s experience in the region, but must admit I felt like I was slogging through it. I am happy that I purchased it and am especially grateful I was able to find the children’s version for my daughter to read.

    • How old is your daughter? My g-d is almost 10; would she be able to read the children’s version?

      • My daughter is 10 and she was able to read it without any problems. She is a big reader though. You might be able to read reviews at amazon or at http://www.penguin.com/youngreaders.

        The back of the book says it’s for ages 8 and up. I think a lot would depend on if you think she would really enjoy reading that type of book. My almost 8 year old son would probably have no interest reading the book.

    • I almost bought the children’s version. But thought better of it. Cuz I was afraid I’d miss some of the political overtones.

      Planning to but it for my nieces, though. Glad to know there are more photos!

  19. well, i was going to be say i didn’t buy the book or read it, but since I just read katie’s review, i’ll just be glad about that :-0

  20. it sounds like mortenson needed a good editor

  21. Someone remind me of the title/author of that book about the Islamic woman whose half/ brother sold her to some man after her parents died, how the husband decided to bring her home a bourka, etc. My dau-i-law had it when I was down there last, and I started it but couldn’t get past the bourka. D-i-l said she didn’t think she could stomach it either.

  22. The writing matters for me. I can thoroughly enjoy reading a book about nothing consequential if the writer is engaging. Conversely, I have trouble getting through anything written without talent or involvement, and that includes non fiction.

    I used to pop into the book shack next to the departure gate before my monthly long haul flights, and often walk out 45 minutes later disappointed at myself for not having found anything to read.

  23. I’m pretty tolerant about the writing for a book like this. I liked it overall and was glad I’d read it. Some things I liked:

    Mortensen’s steadfast insistence that school must be for girls too, and not as tag-alongs or second class citizens. When resources are scarce, anything for girls usually goes by the wayside first.

    The point (granted, it was made over and over) that education and self-enablement (self enabling?) is the way to bring peace to a region AND facilitate economic and standard-of-living development.

    Early in the book, when Mort. is first describing the home of his host, and how meager and bare it was, he takes pains to blow off any Western romanticization of “the simple life” and calls their living conditions what they are — poverty.

    That said, many of the elements of the book had an Oprah Book Club quality that I didn’t like. A friend who I recommended the book to pointed out that everyone he met he/his co-author made a point about emphasizing how “wise” they were, to the point where it really seemed sort of condescending to be so surprised about it, like it’s simply astonishing that any society that doesn’t have computers and indoor toilets could not possibly contain so many smart and wise people.

    It’s not the greatest literary exercise, true, but it fits well into the “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” theme.

  24. Here is a link to Greg’s talk which he gave just 1.5 hours from where I live…but I went to the challenge basketball game instead.


    There was a booklet passed out which I did obtain…thanks to the history teacher who made it to the talk. It does offer extra insights into a culture which is so vastly different from ours.

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