Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Blue Sweater – Jacqueline Novogratz

Book Description (Amazon):

The Blue Sweater is the inspiring story of a woman who lblue_sweater_left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. It all started back home in Virginia, with the blue sweater, a gift that quickly became her prized possession—until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to Goodwill. Eleven years later in Africa, she spotted a young boy wearing that very sweater, with her name still on the tag inside. That the sweater had made its trek all the way to Rwanda was ample evidence, she thought, of how we are all connected, how our actions—and inaction—touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know or meet.

From her first stumbling efforts as a young idealist venturing forth in Africa to the creation of the trailblazing organization she runs today, Novogratz tells gripping stories with unforgettable characters—women dancing in a Nairobi slum, unwed mothers starting a bakery, courageous survivors of the Rwandan genocide, entrepreneurs building services for the poor against impossible odds.
 
She shows, in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, how traditional charity often fails, but how a new form of philanthropic investing called “patient capital” can help make people self-sufficient and can change millions of lives. More than just an autobiography or a how-to guide to addressing poverty, The Blue Sweater is a call to action that challenges us to grant dignity to the poor and to rethink our engagement with the world.
My Review:
Executive Summary: absolutely life changing
This book blew me away. Max was doing interviews recently and one of the questions for the interviewees was their favorite or most recently read books (great question!). One of the interviewees mentioned this one. He brought the name home to me, and after a quick look at the summary, I promptly requested it from the library. I am also planning on ordering my own copy so that I can share this story with others.
It’s also a tough book to summarize. Essentially it goes through Novogratz’s struggles and successes doing charitable work in Africa (and later India and Pakistan) over a period of about 30 years. It is auto-biographical, but I never thought it came off boastful or preachy or political in any way (which I appreciated). She begins her post-college life somewhat stumbling into a job in banking–a job which allows her to travel around the world. Unlike many privileged Americans, she spends time in the slum areas of her travels, not just the glitzy tourist destinations. This coupled with some disagreements with her boss leads her to abandon banking and take a job working for a nonprofit microfinance organization for women based in Nairobi. Initially the author hates the idea of catering specifically to women but that view changes throughout the book (realizing that helping a woman helps a whole family).
Her project in Nairobi doesn’t turn out very well as she is not very in tune to the culture of Africa. It’s a bit devastating, but in the end, she has learned some valuable lessons and takes on a new project in Rwanda. The Rwanda project was similar (microfinance loans to women) but it was actually successful. She also demonstrated running a charity like a business for the first time with a bakery for unwed mothers. This became the main theme of the book (how to run a charity like a business).
Novogratz returns to the USA to get an MBA at Stanford and then works for the Rockefeller Foundation where she initiates a program to teach wealthy people about charity (which I thought was really interesting). And then eventually she creates the “patient capital” investment company, Acumen Fund.
The issue that she is trying to address is that misguided charity often hurts the people receiving the charity. It’s something along the idea of give a man a fish or teach him to fish. However, it’s much more intricate than that. It’s not only teaching the skills but also investing in the infrastructure and economy to allow those skills to be honed. It’s a merging of empathy for people with the focus and conviction (and skillset) to help them. It’s listening and understanding the way that the local people do business and interact with each other to make the charity as effective as possible. Acumen Fund chooses to provide money for charitable organizations that are fully vested in their communities. They don’t just provide a product to the poor. They hire the poor, they expand technology and infrastructure all while providing something that will help the impoverished.
Verdict: 4.5-5 stars. This really, really made me think. The only downfall was that sometimes the writing was a bit matter-of-fact (Novogratz is not an author) and it was often hard to follow all the characters. Minor grievance for such a profound work.

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Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review

Eragon – Christopher Paolini

Book Description (Amazon):113436

Fifteen-year-old Eragon believes that he is merely a poor farm boy—until his destiny as a Dragon Rider is revealed. Gifted with only an ancient sword, a loyal dragon, and sage advice from an old storyteller, Eragon is soon swept into a dangerous tapestry of magic, glory, and power. Now his choices could save—or destroy—the Empire.

My Review:

Executive summary: Fun read.

In the first chapter, you are introduced to Urgals (large horned monsters), a Shade (evil spirits encompassed) and three elves. The female elf magically gets rid of a blue sapphire that she is protecting, but then is captured by the Shade and her counterparts killed.

We are then introduced to 15 year old Eragon who lives with his uncle, Garrow and his cousin Roran. We know Eragon has difficulties with the butcher, Sloan although Roran is hoping to marry Sloan’s daughter Katrina. Also in this second chapter Eragon discovers a blue sapphire (presumably the one in the first chapter) while hunting in the Spine. King Galbatorix is mentioned.

In the next chapter, traders come to the town nearest where Eragon lives (Carvahall) bearing bad news about the land of Algaesia. The blue sapphire is examined by a trader but determined to be unsellable. We meet the storytellers including Carvahall’s own named Brom. We learn that the Empire led by King Galbatorix are hated by most but are generally followed. There is also a rebel group called the Varden who continually tries to fight the empire. We learn the backstory of Galbatorix and that he used to be a Dragon rider before he turned evil.

And then the sapphire stone hatches to reveal a blue dragon. I must say that I was a bit surprised as I didn’t think that the obviously blue dragon from the cover would be revealed on page 36. I flipped to the back to see a total of 497 pages. Oh no. Is this going to be 463 pages full of aimless wandering and elf song?

Eragon and the dragon, eventually named Saphira (when the dragon names were suggested, it was obvious which one it was going to be), grow a stronger connection. Saphira grows bigger and bigger and then it turns out that Eragon and Saphira can communicate with each other through their minds and have a stronger connection as a team than they wood individually.

Two black cloaked men show up in Carvahall, and Eragon overhears them speaking to Sloan. He is “trying” to go home, but he coincidentally bumps into Brom and his silvery hand mark (which was created by his first touch of Saphira) is discovered. When he gets home, Saphira flies away angrily with Eragon to avoid these cloaked strangers. They return the next day to find the house blown apart and Garrow injured. Eragon takes Garrow into town where he struggles then eventually dies. Eragon realizes his cover is blown and sneaks off in the night with Saphira and the help of the town storyteller Brom. (page 100)

For the next 397 pages, Eragon & Saphira with the help of various others go chasing after the cloaked men (the Ra’zac, who are the king’s servants). Eragon learns fighting skills and magical powers, and they inevitably find the elf from chapter 1 and take her to the Varden, where there is an epic battle between dwarves, urgals, elves, humans, etc. The culmination of this battle has Eragon killing a Shade (a big deal) and then (a terribly overused plot point in this book) passing out and while unconscious, being contacted by someone who tells him to travel to the forest of the elves…creating the segue for the sequel.

This book was recommended to me by a few people, and I happened to already have a copy of it which was certainly convenient. It was only after I finished that I realized that the book was written by a teenager! The book was started when Paolin was only 15 years old. That explained a few things to me.

There were obviously a lot of similarities to other fantasy work, but that didn’t really bother me that much. I expect to see dwarves, elves, and epic battles between them when there is a dragon involved. I actually was reminded a bit of Avatar with the relationship between Eragon and Saphira, which post-dates the book release. I thought the quick pace of the book was good (but I also am the sort who tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring twice and got bored in the middle both times…) and even though I summarized 397 pages in one paragraph, I didn’t feel bored when I was reading it.

Like I mentioned previously, there were a lot of convenient ways to transition the story, passing out for one. I think Eragon passed out 5 or 6 times throughout the book and always made it out OK. The characters were not that well developed, and despite their background information, you didn’t really know what they looked like or any personality traits of them. And some of the descriptions of locations were really hard for me to follow. When they finally got into the area where the Varden were hiding (Tronjheim), I must have read the description 3x of what the area looked like before abandoning the attempt.

Verdict: 3.5 stars. It was fun to read, and not that serious. I will probably read the sequel(s) when I get an opportunity to, however, I will borrow them from the library. As far as young adult (yes that’s how I would classify it) books go, it falls somewhere in the upper middle class. 🙂

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review

Mudflap Nerd Girl

photo (1)

So I was driving around during lunch today, and I saw this awesome bumper (mudflap? window?) sticker. It’s one of those “mudflap girls” reading a book! Maybe these are more common than I know about, but this is the first one I’ve seen. And it was impressive enough that I whipped out my camera (while at a red light) and snapped a pic! Sexy nerd girl love!!

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The Chaperone – Laura Moriarty

Book Description (Amazon):

The New York Times bestseller and the USAToday #1 Hot Fiction Pick for the summer, The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.
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Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
 
For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
 
Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers,  and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.
My Review:
The executive summary: I’m appreciative to live in the time I do.
Louise Brooks was a real person, albeit someone I’m fully unfamiliar with, and she was chaperoned by someone to New York. The chaperone Cora and her story were the “fiction” part of this historical fiction and were completely invented by Moriarty. I think she did a good job overall of tying the real with the created.
I sympathized with Cora up until she decided to leave for New York. She had a terrible childhood and turned out well despite it. She seemed very smart, courageous, and focused, all traits I like to see. Then when she assumed her chaperone role, she became exactly the “flat tire” that Louise called her. I understood the juxtaposition that Moriarty was trying to achieve with that, but I didn’t understand why it had to continue for so long. Small complaint. But I was appreciative when she finally had an awakening and stopped being such a stick in the mud.
*spoiler alert*
I saw the two “twists” coming about a mile ahead. I suspected Alan of being gay when we first met him in the book. It seemed too unusual– this handsome older unmarried man (especially in that era). Then when he didn’t want to “visit” Cora any more, I was even more confirmed. So that came as no surprise. The way it was announced in the book was a little more graphic than I was expecting for this story but no big deal. I also completely saw the relationship with Cora and Joseph coming. And I saw him getting in trouble with the nuns over it too. I did not expect him to move to Wichita and continue his life there. That was a good part to the twist.
I fully expected Cora to be Italian with the description of the dark hair and the foreign language (the foreign language lady in the shawl was a bit of a red herring) so it was kind of a surprise to me the resolution there. I appreciated the situation with the mother. With the exception of breaking into the office of the children’s home, the entire situation seemed pretty realistic–especially the mother’s reaction and response.
It’s saddening to see how difficult the situations were for basically every character in the book just because of “what people thought”. Alan and Raymond were never allowed to be open with their relationship (Raymond standing alone at Alan’s funeral really made me sad.) Cora had to overcome being from suspicious beginnings, and to never speak of it. And thenshe had to live a farce, pretending to be the attentive wife. Cora’s mother had to be strong and make some tough decisions to continue her life without shaming her family and impoverishing herself (and likely her child). Joseph had to overcome being German, although at the same time, that may have helped him avoid dying like his wife (Side note, there was a kid who rode my bus as a child with the last name Schmidt. He would turn his eyelids inside out. It was nasty.). And Louise probably had to overcome the most. But even still, at the end, it was difficult to feel truly sorry for her. Her lack of caring evoked a lack of caring in me.
I found it a bit surprising that the story continued on for so many years after the main plotline. I’m not sure I had an opinion good or bad on that decision. In many ways I appreciated it, but I also wasn’t sure it was necessary.
I found the bit about the Lysol overly disturbing. The thought of that gives me the creeps.
I loved this quote and think it’s very poignant: “That’s what spending time with the young can do–it’s the big payoff for all the pain. The young can exasperate, or course, and frighten, and condescend, and insult, and cut you with their still unrounded edges. But they can also drag you, as you protest and scold and try to pull away, right up to the window of the future, and even push you through.” I definitely see that situation happening in so many variations in life. Maybe falling into that was what helped Cora live such a long life! 😉
Verdict:
4 stars. This book is worth reading. I might wait until it comes out in paperback (side note, this was my 2nd book I’ve read on my iPad. I’m buying in a little more to this whole “ereader” craze).
I thought in general this was a unique portrayal of the 20’s. So much of the 20’s that I read and see is speakeasies and flappers and illegal booze–partying and whimsical fun. This was a more grounded portrayal of the struggle of the changing of the times, especially in an area that isn’t a big metropolis. It makes me want to research a bit more about Louise Brooks, silent movies, The Age of Innocence, and Shuffle Along.

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Filed under 4 stars, Book Club, Book Review

2013 Book Club List

So I am in a book club. We meet once a month at various places in Houston and talk about our book for the month. I’ve discovered a lot of new eateries via book club, and also a handful of books I would give a 4 or 5 star rating! I’ve been in this book club since mid-2009, and this year we decided to change our book selections somewhat. In past years, each group member brought in a few selections they thought sounded good, and as a group, we selected our favorite one or two (depending how many people vs. how many months) from that. This year, we decided to branch out a bit more and select our books from a set of categories. The selection process was similar in that each member took one category and presented a few options for it. Thus here is our list for this year:

January – historical fiction – The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

February – classic – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

March – mystery – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

April – non-fiction – Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand

May – sci-fi/fantasy – Poison Study by Maria Snyder

June – comedy – Bossy Pants by Tina Fey

July – romance – The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman

August – (auto)biography – Brooklyn NY: A Grim Retrospective by Jerry Castaldo

September – recent NY Times bestseller – The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom (my pick!)

October – book made into a movie – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

November – pick an author – Anne Rice

December – group book swap

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Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

symmetry

Book Description (Amazon):

Julia and Valentina Poole are twenty-year-old sisters with an intense attachment to each other. One morning the mailman delivers a thick envelope to their house in the suburbs of Chicago. Their English aunt Elspeth Noblin has died of cancer and left them her London apartment. There are two conditions for this inheritance: that they live in the flat for a year before they sell it and that their parents not enter it. Julia and Valentina are twins. So were the girls’ aunt Elspeth and their mother, Edie.

 The girls move to Elspeth’s flat, which borders the vast Highgate Cemetery, where Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Stella Gibbons, and other luminaries are buried. Julia and Valentina become involved with their living neighbors: Martin, a composer of crossword puzzles who suffers from crippling OCD, and Robert, Elspeth’s elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. They also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including—perhaps—their aunt.

My Review:

The executive summary: this book was odd.

I started out liking the book. Elsbeth seemed a strange, intriguing character, especially with her will. I was sad to see her die so early in the book, and I was curious about how the book would lead from there. I found the situation with Edie receiving Elsbeth’s letters quite entertaining (and in hindsight, I wish some of that humor had continued throughout the book).

After Elsbeth dies, we truly meet Martin and Marijke, who might be the only genuine characters in the entire book. I found their side story to be the most interesting, heartwarming part of the book (and also wondered why their story was included as they don’t contribute much to the “real story”). We find out that Robert works at Highgate Cemetery and is (understandably) devastated about Elsbeth’s death. (I have never been to London and had no idea until the end of the book that Highgate Cemetery was such a big deal. The author seemed to assume everyone knew that…) And we are also introduced to Edie’s dysfunctional family–her husband Jack and the twins Julia and Valentina.

We then find out that Elsbeth is not fully gone. She is a ghost and is trapped in her flat. For the most part, this is well imagined by Niffenegger—that if you became a ghost, you would grow and change just as a newborn child would. However, it was never really explained why she was stuck in her flat (get back to that later), and she never did any funny pranks as a ghost, just really creepy things…

Once the twins finally move to London (all the family drama just annoyed me), you realize Robert is not at all well-adjusted. He follows the twins around lurking at them instead of introducing himself like a normal person. (why?!) The twins are their same weird self-absorbed selves and eventually Elsbeth starts communicating with them starting with helping them catch a kitten (named Little Kitten of Death). For some reason (not explained), only Valentina can see Elsbeth, and they develop a closer connection than Julia does. At the same time, Valentina is also developing a relationship with Robert (when he finally had to stop being a lurker) so it becomes this weird ghostly love triangle.

Then it gets weirder. Little kitten of death (whose name I thought was funny at the beginning but it turned out it was just disturbing) is playing with Elsbeth when Elsbeth accidentally removes its soul, and then puts the soul back into its body. Um, what?! At the same time, Valentina is trying to figure out a way to get away from her controlling twin Julia (which was weird because Julia was always the one wanting to do things so she didn’t seem that controlling to me most of the time) and re-enroll in school. But she cannot figure out any logical way of separating from Julia (like, you know, talking to her or being reasonable) so she solicits Elsbeth’s help. Valentina easily convinces Elsbeth to take her soul out so that she can fake her death and then reinvent herself without Julia. (Really? that’s your first thought!) Robert helps with the details of the burial and cemetery stuff while Elsbeth practices on the kitten. Well, practice isn’t the right word because she tried one more time after the first and the kitten’s soul escaped so the kitten died. Still, idiot Valentina thought it was OK to proceed.

Stupidly, they go through with the plan. Valentina’s soul is “too weak” to be replaced in her body, so Elsbeth puts her own soul in Valentina’s body to get back together with wimpy Robert (creepy ghost threeway success!). Valentina’s soul reconnects with kitten’s soul and they figure out how to leave the flat (why didn’t Elsbeth figure this out?) via Julia’s mouth to fly around on crows (again, what?!)

In the end, Julia helps Martin reconnect with his wife (by sort of tricking him into taking OCD medicine) and she starts a relationship with Theo, Robert’s son. Edie tells her husband the truth, which he already knew, and adds to the total confusion of the twin story line. Elsbeth in Valentina’s body has a baby but Robert finds his spine and leaves her.

Verdict:

2.5 Stars. I would only read this if you have to. Or you have no other books and a free copy of this one.

The general premise of the book was interesting, but the execution wasn’t up to snuff. None of the (main) characters were remotely likeable or interesting. The story line seemed to bumble around with too many unrealistic moments and accidental happenings to make the story come together easier. The ending was wrapped up too quickly—half of it being predictable (Elsbeth) and half of it being completely crazy (Valentina flying away on a crow). The one genuine plus is that the writing style is well crafted and despite the storyline, you can still enjoy the words.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Book Review