Books That Make A Difference

So many books, so little time…

Are you like me? Do you have multiple pages of wish lists for books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and “To-Read” shelves on Goodreads and Library Thing?

I know this will come as a big surprise to you, but I have an especial interest in books that highlight aspects of humanitarianism and social justice.

Two of my upcoming reads:

Strength in What RemainsStrength In What Remains by Tracy Kidder

This is a non-fiction story about a man from Burundi who comes to the U.S. after surviving civil war and genocide. He arrives with practically nothing, but through the kindness of strangers, finds his path to healing (and a medical degree from Columbia).

All That is Bitter and SweetAll That Is Bitter And Sweet by Ashley Judd and Maryanne Vollers

This is Ashley Judd’s memoir that stemmed from diary entries written during her humanitarian journeys around the world. It details individual stories of survival as well as her own personal struggles.

Have you read either of these? If so, what did you think? Do you read books like these? Why or why not?

If you know of an inspiring book I should add to my list, I’d love to have your suggestions!


Undaunted“Why didn’t you come sooner?” A young girl once posed this question to Christine Caine—the co-founder of The A21 Campaign, which fights human trafficking. This girl had suffered unspeakable horror as a slave sold for sex many times a day. She’d stared at Christine with despair in her eyes. “Why didn’t you come sooner?”

In her excellent book, Undaunted, Christine Caine says she had an unassailable excuse, but couldn’t bring herself to use it. In truth, she hadn’t come because she simply hadn’t known. But that wasn’t good enough—not in the face of this girl’s urgency, her despair.

Have you ever temporarily lost your child in a crowd? Felt the searing rip of instantaneous fear? However shy your personality, you grip strangers’ arms, begging to know if they’ve seen your child. How can they even consider going about their day when something so absolutely desperate is happening? You’re frantic for a kind and friendly person to find your child and bring them back to you. You pray for the kindness of a stranger.

But what if that is not the type of person your child encounters?

What if your child’s eyes are darting from one unfamiliar face to another for rescue? But that rescue doesn’t come. Can you now blame the girl for asking, “Why didn’t you come sooner?”

“When you’re not lost—when you’re safe—it’s hard to understand the urgency of needing to be found, needing to be rescued.” Christine Caine

With that quote, I think you can already see how Undaunted is a book that hits hard. But it is simultaneously very inspiring. Christine Caine generously shares her own dramatic life story in the hopes it can help ours. She has gone through some really difficult things that could have left her bitter and stagnant…but instead, she has used them to make—not only herself—but others stronger. And she has developed a compassion that has shot past emotion into action.

In Undaunted, Christine talks about why we hold back—how we may want to help others, but common things stop us:

  • We don’t feel empowered
  • We think we lack the courage, the strength, the wisdom, the money, the experience, the education, the organization, the backing.
  • We feel unqualified. We feel daunted.

Personally, I’ve felt all those things, but this book helps remind me how to overcome them.

I’ve written for The A21 Campaign East Coast office for over a year now, but I’ve not met Christine Caine personally. I had the chance in June at our first (soon-to-be annual BE HER FREEDOM gala), but to be honest, it’s not that easy for me to just go up and talk to somebody—especially when that someone is a great and powerful speaker…and doer of so-many-things overwhelming. I guess you could say I was daunted. One time, hearing her speak, my husband leaned over to me and said, “She packs into a 40-minute lecture what it would take someone else an hour and a half to say.”

It’s true. Christine Caine is a slim 5’3” energetic powerhouse. While she travels all over the world, speaking inspirationally to thousands upon thousands, I sit in my office chair, oftentimes staring at my blinking cursor. Although our lives are very different, one of the blessings of her being so open about the difficulties in her own life is that they resonate. Suffering (unfortunately) is a connector for us all.

Like her, I, too, know exactly what it’s like to hear a doctor say, “I’m sorry. I can’t find a heartbeat.” Perhaps, pain is not always so similar in nature, but we have all suffered. We can understand loss. We feel compassion. What we do with it is the main difference. How we handle it is up to us.

Many former human trafficking victims are now huge advocates for the cause. Other activists, like myself, may have no personal tragedy to associate with the cause, but “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” -Benjamin Franklin. Human trafficking is not only a horrific crime; it’s also the fastest growing in the world. The trade of people now outsells the trafficking of arms. If we don’t fight this, it is not a stretch to consider a future where we will know someone who has fallen victim.

Christine has a wonderful prayer in her book, Undaunted. “God, help me not to close my eyes to other people’s horror or ignore injustice. Help me fight the injustices you hate. Help me value people and speak up for those who have been silenced.”

I know I’m quoting her a lot, but hey, she’s got a lot of good stuff to say. Here’s one last: in reference to the rows and rows of posters of the missing. “These photographs should be in beautiful frames on a mantle, or in the pages of a family photo album on a coffee table… They shouldn’t be plastered coldly here, taped across the peeling paint of an airport wall.”

The New Year is a great time to stand up. Don’t you think?

Chris Cleave: Victims of Terrorism…to Refugees…to Olympic Athletes

I discovered the British author, Chris Cleave, when I was in one of my “happy places” (the bookstore) and picked up Little Bee. As you can tell from the title of this post, Chris Cleave doesn’t exactly choose the lightest of topics. But that’s fine because I don’t always read fiction to escape. Sometimes, I need an author to slap me in the face a little—make it impossible for me to ever look at something the same way again.

But why am I writing about this author on a blog about volunteerism?

Topics: I just read Writers Digest’s interview with Chris Cleave in this September’s issue (Yay! I’m actually ahead since this is still the beginning of August) and several of his answers really struck me. His novels, he said, “really break down to two things: They put people in extreme situations, and then they ask those people what their answers are going to be to big ethical questions.”

For Little Bee the question was: How much of our comfortable lives should we give up to help people who have less than us?” Ooh, tremendous question—one I struggle with. And close to home, since my book (finished, but still chopping away at word count) is about what makes people volunteer to be international aid workers, leaving behind their comfortable lives to work in some of the world’s most dangerous and isolated places.

Skill: I’m also writing about Chris Cleave because in Little Bee, he wrote one of the best opening pages I’ve ever read. And trust me, as an aspiring writer, I’ve read a lot of first pages, analyzing how writers manage to hook readers right from the get-go. Chris Cleave does it in such an artful, skilled way, I found myself smiling as I read it…and then, re-read it twice more. A young girl, a Nigerian refugee in the UK, is wishing she were a British pound coin—jealous of where it can go that she cannot. How much of her current situation, her past, as well as her hopes, he gets across in such a short segment is masterful.

Didn’t stop with words: Chris Cleave wrote on the subject of refugees and now advocates for asylum seekers. In his new book Gold (which I have yet to read, but definitely will) the two main characters are Olympic athletes—one of whom has a daughter with leukemia. Chris now fundraises for leukemia research. I love this sort of follow-thru…words in action.

Side note: Publication for Gold was obviously well-timed with the Olympics. Yet, his first book, Incendiary, had uncanny timing in a different way. It came out the day of the London bombings in 2005 and was promptly pulled back off the shelves for its terrorist subject matter. (Must’ve been a stab to the heart for the author.) Obviously, it found its way back, promoted by people unafraid to look difficult subjects in the face—and paradoxically find a source of hope rather than a deeper dirt-pummeling.

Do you read books that you know will make you uncomfortable? That will likely alter your perspective or make you aware of something that does not have an easy solution? What books have had the greatest impact on you?

Half The Sky

Half the Sky bookHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide This is a book every woman should read (and then hand to the men in your life). Pulitzer-winning authors, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn succeed in the difficult task of informing us of some of the world’s worst ills against women and girls, without sending us into complete depression. A significant portion of the book describes hope in action.

Half the Sky calls us to pay attention…to notice and not turn away because the subjects are difficult. Too many of the daily trials women face, slip under the radar—even though, as the Chinese proverb says, “Women hold up half the sky.”

Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of real people: the injustices as well as some successes.

An idea of some of the issues they cover in Half the Sky:

  • Human trafficking/forced prostitution (An issue that pulled at my heart; so I now write for A21 Carolinas, an affiliate of the A21 Campaign.)
  • Rape as a weapon for submission—whether for sexual slavery; to compromise and shame a girl/woman into marriage; or to intimidate those who challenge social customs of subservience
  • Practice of throwing acid in a woman’s face if she rejects a man, or a man wants to get rid of his wife
  • Gender discrimination: in poor families (particularly in certain developing countries) girls often aren’t vaccinated; don’t receive medical care or the same amounts of food as their brothers. Also there are many sex-selective abortions
  • How both men and women absorb cultural norms and accept customs harmful to women
  • Women’s health: how many die in childbirth or have horrific complications like fistulas, which often result in stigmatization by their communities.

Kristof and WuDunn state the best way to combat poverty is to empower women. Here are a few of their suggestions in how this can be done:

  • Promote teens and college students to see the world firsthand. To volunteer. It’s thought they will be more likely to stay abreast and involved in issues they have witnessed or can relate to in countries they’ve been, and later do something about it.
  • Support local women’s endeavors
    • Education
    • Micro-enterprise
    • Skills training
    • Women’s health
  • Promote awareness
    • Educate yourself
    • Facebook, Twitter, talk to your friends about whatever issues matter most to you. (Never know, even if you can’t become actively involved, they might).
    • Know the warning signs and pass them on
      • As many as 17,500 are trafficked in the States each year. So, it’s here..not just in other countries.

Sheryl WuDunn gives a great talk on TED about Half the Sky. This is an important book for our time!

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? How do you handle reading difficult subject matter? Which, if any, of these issues speak to you?

Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit Dismissed

Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit dismissedThis past Monday, the civil lawsuit against the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and the authors and publisher of Three Cups of Tea, was dismissed. The CAI is the non-profit Mortenson co-founded that works in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools and promoting education.

Quick Catch-Up in Case You Don’t Know the Muck-Up. Author, Jon Krakauer and CBS news show “60 Minutes” did ‘exposes’ (more like accusation flinging) on purported untruths in Three Cups of Tea, disbelieving the CAI’s stats for schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Greg Mortenson’s account of how he first came to be interested in building schools in such a remote and dangerous region; and whether he was really kidnapped by the Taliban. Read Mortenson’s response to these allegations.

Judge’s take: After plaintiffs were given five tries (amendments) to come up with a case to support their claims of fraud, deceit, breach of contract or racketeering, the judge concluded, “…the imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment would be futile. This case will be dismissed with prejudice.” For more on the Mortenson case, read here.

A Few Points About the Mortensen/Three Cups of Tea Case:

  1. I’m glad I write mostly fiction.
  2. The CAI can now get on with their worthy mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nothing like a lawsuit to stymie everything. They work with local communities to build, supply, staff, and maintain over 180 schools and 30 vocational centers. They provide support to an additional 56 schools, 20 literacy centers, eight scholarship programs, and 22 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects. (stats from CAI’s recent newsletter)
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Mortenson’s had issues with book royalties: how he benefitted…and how the CAI benefitted from his book sales and speaking engagements all over the world. Promote one; promote the other. Who pays? The dual benefit sounds like an accounting nightmare…and has proven to be. In April, the Montana Attorney  General announced a settlement where Mortenson pays $1M to the CAI for mismanagement of funds. But, if you’ve read Three Cups of Tea, you know that admin stuff is not his strong suit. In my opinion, he’s not a bad guy; he’s just not details-oriented. If he was more geared toward stopping to think about the possible ramifications and risks of things, he probably wouldn’t have accomplished what he has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Anyone who has worked in management or with volunteers knows you need to identify your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Mortenson is an intrepid, fearless sort who puts himself out there and makes things happen. He’s passionate about education and its implications for peace. But that does not a detail-oriented person make. He needs those types around him to keep him on track.
  • I worked in humanitarian logistics for several years, so in the book, when he first talked about taking all these heavy-duty supplies to this remote, mountainous village to build a school, my brow furrowed and my mind immediately went to, “How are you going to get them there?” Again, not his initial strong suit. (But maybe now it is. Sometimes, just takes some trial and error).
  • Humanitarian work is HARD. Very. There are no cookie-cutter responses because there are so many facets and factors. Overseas projects involve many layers of people and dip into all kinds of cultural issues, often without first realizing it. (A subject I discuss in my book.)

A Concern in the Publishing Community Raised by this case:  Along with the CAI, Greg Mortenson (whose story it is) and David Oliver Relin (who wrote the book in collaboration with Mortenson), Penguin Group (the publisher) was named in the lawsuit. This would’ve had serious implications if they’d lost. It would’ve in effect held the publisher responsible for verifying every detailed fact their authors site as truth—a task next to impossible. (Don’t get me wrong; publishers need to act responsibly and not just print whatever, but complete verification would take more effort than running Top Secret background checks on each author.)

What are your views on this case? Do you think publishers should be held responsible for every word their authors say? What’s your take on Mortenson’s book and the lawsuit?

Soft But Potent Power

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

I am loving this book. Author, Susan Cain, discusses how much we lose in undervaluing introverts…how well known figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Warren Buffet and Gandhi, achieved what they did, not in spite of but because of their introversion. This book: Quiet, is so worth a read, even if you’re not an introvert. It’ll help you understand ‘the other side’ better and develop stronger relationships, both personal and in the business realm. Some studies say one out of every two or three people is an introvert. So I’m sure you know a few.

Cain chronicles the rise of the extrovert ideal in the 20th century and its extreme impact on our current society; how it has shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait…”

Talkers are often perceived as smarter. Yet, “…there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.”

Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this…and it’s not to bash the extreme extrovert over the head. I believe we need both extroverts and introverts. Two halves to a whole. But one shouldn’t be made to feel ‘less’ than the other.

Cain’s stories of successful, introvert leaders were especially interesting to me. She makes a very good point about needing to delineate between good presentation skills and true leadership ability. Common traits used to describe some highly successful leaders were: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated. Not the traits that first come to mind when you think of CEOs, are they? So, how do they manage? Cain and those she interviewed argue these introverted leaders build not their own egos, but the institutions they run. They are interested in listening and gathering information more than asserting opinion or dominating a conversation. They truly build their team.

Where Soft Power Comes In

My favorite part (at least so far, since I haven’t finished the book yet) refers to how introverts might not like the spotlight or speaking in public, but they will push themselves to endure it because a cause matters that much to them. Their strength lies in their ideas and heart. They…”rally people to their cause through conviction rather than dynamism.” They change lives by their caring. Their strength comes from substance. They focus. They carry on without getting sidetracked. They have quiet persistence. In particular, it makes me  wonder how many non-profits are run by introverts.

What have you felt so strongly about that it forced you out of your comfort zone? Or have you felt because you’re more a quiet type, you didn’t have anything to offer? Let’s just dispel that right now, shall we?

Check out Susan Cain speaking on TED.

Impact of International Travel On Teens and Twenty-Somethings’ Career Paths

Get out and see the world: Why it can be a good idea for teens and twenty-somethings before jumping into the workforce.

The irony of traveling in foreign countries, especially when studying abroad or volunteering, is that you learn a great deal about yourself. Beyond self-reliance and how to get yourself around, my own personal experience has been it helps bring you closer to figuring out your purpose in life and what issues in the world matter most to you.

Some tough questions: Is your job or the degree you’re earning in college, right for you? How many of us later in life are NOT working in our field (on purpose)? How many of us would’ve liked to figure out earlier we wanted to do something else? If you want to be a doctor or nurse, maybe it would be a good idea to volunteer for a medical nongovernmental organization, see if medicine is where it’s at for you, or if you chose the profession for other reasons. And this goes for countless other professions as well, since humanitarian work covers pretty much every aspect and need of life.

While volunteering, you might just discover your niche. You might discover the topic of your thesis or develop special skillsets that boost your resume over other applicants. Immersed in a language, you might just become fluent.

Volunteering or studying abroad is thought, in general, to enrich understanding of other cultures and promote greater acceptance of people who dress or talk differently. Recent studies show study abroad programs having a huge impact on people—in particular, for those going somewhere in the developing world.  Many maintain a long-term interest in the places they visit and the cultures where they have made friends, and go on to invest time and effort in development programs or become social entrepreneurs.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, says in his book, Half the Sky, that if you really want to help….”to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it—and it’s impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst.” (pg. 88) He goes on to say that he believes one of greatest failings of the American education system is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. He is of the opinion universities should require graduates spend some time in the developing world by taking a gap year or study abroad.

What do you think? Should taking a gap year or study abroad in a developing country be a university requirement? (Personally, I would’ve jumped for joy to be ‘required’ to do that.)

Same Kind of Different As Me

Same Kind of Different As Me is a true story of a very unlikely friendship between a man who has grown up in abject poverty, too familiar with injustice and tragedy, and an international art dealer who, in his own words, bootstrapped his way into the rarified atmosphere that oxygenated the lifestyles of the Forbes 400. What do these two men have in common? Not much. What could forge such an improbable friendship? Well, that would be the faith of a godly woman who sees past the meanness of the streets and the stigma of homelessness and refuses to allow herself or her family to become entrapped in the shallow tides of wealth and prestige.

Same Kind of Different As Me, written by Ron Hall & Denver Moore, (Thomas Nelson 2006) is told from their alternating points of view and has such an easy, informal style that it’s like you’re sitting across from them at a local diner, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze. But, that said, it’s not a story of tall tales to make them each look good; it’s a candid account that doesn’t skim over the dark details most people would have a hard time admitting. “I ain’t gonna sugarcoat it,” Denver says, “the streets’ll turn a man nasty.” And Ron confesses (along with a great deal of other things) that his do-gooder veneer was “stripped to reveal a squeamish man whose charity, at the time, had definite limits.” It’s a story of mistakes, weakness and prejudice and two men eventually asking—as many of us probably have—“How did it come to this? How did I get here and let my life become this?”

If they’d stopped there, it wouldn’t be the inspiring story that it is. So, fortunately, they did not. A shared tragedy tests their faith, but through it, the incredible power of God is revealed and how it can dispel preconceptions and stereotypes that block sight of the living, breathing person standing in front of you. As Ron later writes, “…I cannot see into a person’s heart to know his spiritual condition. All I can do is tell my own jagged tale of my own spiritual journey and declare that my own life has been the better for having followed Christ.”

I have no experience with either of the lifestyles depicted in Same Kind of Different As Me. I’m no wealthy jetsetter. Nor have I ever experienced being so alone and downtrodden that the only recourse is a homeless shelter. I’ve been inside one; that’s all I can say. Once, a friend suggested we do an art project with the women and children at a homeless shelter here in Charleston. She got our church small group involved and we bought plain t-shirts and all kinds of paints to decorate them. I have to admit, I was surprised when we showed up and many of the women at the shelter already had designs drawn out on paper, ready and waiting—some, very elaborate with flowering vines or animals they individually loved. I guess I hadn’t really thought about what they might love or what talents they harbored; I had pictured them only as needy. I realized that day how much you can miss out on when you accept the flatness of a stereotype. Read Same Kind of Different As Me and it will show you that to a far, far greater degree.

Recommend it? Definitely. As Denver says, “The truth about it is, whether we is rich or poor, or something in between, this earth ain’t no final restin place. So in a way, we is all homeless—just workin our way toward home.”

Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone – Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

This is one of those books you should definitely read, but don’t really want to. Yet, you should anyway. Gear up for it if you have to and tell yourself you’ll read something light afterward. It’s worth it.

Long Way Gone (LWG) is an intense and brutally open account of a boy from Sierra Leone, who at the age of thirteen finds himself a soldier fighting for three years with the government forces in his country’s civil war (1991 – 2002). At its heart, LWG is a story about a decent, gentle boy who becomes like a machine that can kill without thought, yet eventually manages to regain his humanity. In Ishmael’s case, it was with the help of UNICEF and his extended family…and in no small measure, his own astounding strength. Later, he is one of two boys chosen from his country to speak at the United Nations on how violent conflicts affect children.

We’ve all heard of terrible atrocities going on in our world, but the story of an individual child is much more difficult to bear than to hear statistics—like over 50,000 people killed. Why is that? I think it’s because we can’t wrap our minds around those kinds of numbers. The scope. Plus, they are faceless. But we can picture and walk with the one…the individual. That’s why such accounts are so important. They are galvanizing.

This story gave a glimpse into a life…culture…and perspective very foreign from my own. It yanked at my heart…and to be honest, made me feel slightly sick. But, it also provided valuable insights that I believe can be applicable to anyone helping in other traumatic situations happening around the world.

In addition to compassionate awareness and advocacy, reading LWG can promote understanding. For example,

1) To understand why a child who has experienced war might jump at the sound of chopping wood or stones landing on tin roofs. (pg.5).

2) To comprehend why it might be a bad idea for a well-meaning humanitarian entity to right away put boy soldiers who have served on opposing sides in the war, in a rehabilitation center—together. Taking someone out of a certain setting does not automatically create neutrality. People bring their emotions and memories with them, regardless of place. These are just a few of the things I learned from this book.

I’m thankful that Ishmael was able to tell his story and bring greater awareness to those of us caught up in our own lives, so removed from such atrocities. I’m also grateful to those who volunteer in warzones—both locals and expat staff—helping boys like Ishmael. It’s not a stop on everyone’s life path to do that kind of thing. But if they can do it, I figure I can at least make myself read about the people and situations that have compelled them to become involved in relief and/or rehabilitation efforts.

Don’t think for second that this book won’t hold your interest. It will. I read it in two days. I’d love to hear what you think of it, too.


Cover of "Freedom: A Novel"

Cover of Freedom: A Novel

I recently finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s book, Freedom, which has been described as a portrait of our times. I found a particular line of his prose to be very telling. Within the context of the female protagonist looking for significant change in her life, he writes….

“What she should have done then was find a job or go back to school or become a volunteer.

It seems he understands the inherent paradox volunteering can have on a person’s life. It’s not just for them; it’s for you.