Sunday, November 14, 2010


It has been a few months since I read Malcolm Gladwell's, Blink, and I decide it was time for his next book. In Outliers, Gladwell poses a provocative question: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Challenging our cherished belief of the "self-made man," he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don't arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky."

Outlier is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier. And while we have a very good understanding of why summer days in Paris are warm or hot, we know a good deal less about why a summer day in Paris might be freezing cold. In this book the focus is on people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.

Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendants of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots' culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math. But there's more to it than that. Throughout all of these examples--and in more that delve into the social benefits of lighter skin color, and the reasons for school achievement gaps--Gladwell invites conversations about the complex ways privilege manifests in our culture. He leaves us pondering the gifts of our own history, and how the world could benefit if more of our kids were granted the opportunities to fulfill their remarkable potential.

Gladwell’s writing is clear and colloquial throughout, and his chapters are deftly structured, each one introducing new material while simultaneously reiterating and amplifying what came before. He broke down trends like no one else in The Tipping Point, and was single-handedly the most convincing voice for trusting your gut reactions (in an age of numbers, facts, and analysis no less) in Blink; this guy knows how to research, and better yet, put the nuggets of wisdom he's found in psychology and science into terrifically engaging and palatable text. In short, Mr. Gladwell's writing--his earnestness, optimism, and persuasiveness--never ceases to impress me.

As it was with the Tipping Point and Blink, Outliers is another attempt to make us think about the world a little differently. The hope with Tipping Point was it would help the reader understand that real change was possible. With Blink, it was to get people to take the enormous power of their intuition seriously. Outliers is meant to make us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers, it is not just because of their own efforts. It's because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances, and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds, and how many of us succeed, than we think. That's an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea

Little Bee

"... a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must all see scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."

I think that I am generally a curious person. I like to know what's going on and why, and I dig for answers when I have questions. While browsing in the bookstore this week, I picked up the book Little Bee, written by Chris Cleave. The summary wasn't so much of a summary, as an enticing invitation to curious people like me. It stated "We don' want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it." How could I not read it? Little Bee is a very special book indeed. With one of the most vividly memorable and provocative character, this novel is profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop. Cleave unfurls a haunting work of human triumph and the perils of globalization where girls like Little Bee are just silhouettes, expendable products in a world that is shifting and changing.

Some 50 years ago, the region near Nigeria’s Atlantic coast provided the setting for Chinua Achebe’s haunting novel of a world torn asunder by the vicissitudes of Anglo-imperial expansion. To capture the tragedy of colonialism in that account, “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe looked to Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” for inspiration: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

The drowning of innocence and the anarchic consequences of the global reach are hardly confined to Achebe’s Nigeria of yesteryear or to the colonial underbelly of Britain’s “civilizing” mission. The story of globalization is a centuries-old account of historical interconnections shaped by exploitation, despair and, at times, moral conscience and optimism. Chris Cleave, a columnist for The Guardian, puts a modern-day spin on Achebe’s concerns with his immensely readable and moving second novel.

While the pretext of Little Bee initially seems contrived — two strangers, a British woman and a Nigerian girl, meet on a lonely African beach and become inextricably bound through the horror imprinted on their encounter — its impact is hardly shallow. Rather than focusing on post-colonial guilt or African angst, Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice.

Sarah O’Rourke might appear to be an insipid character, with her career at a British magazine, her Batman-costumed young son, her uninspiring lover and her gentrified Surrey lifestyle. When juxtaposed with the Nigerian refugee called Little Bee — whom we first meet behind the razor wire of a British immigration center — Sarah is unsympathetic, even tiresome. But that impression changes partway through the novel when a flashback to Africa reveals her fortitude. There, it is Sarah, rather than her husband, Andrew, who gallantly comes to Little Bee’s rescue. Sarah must also pick up the pieces after Andrew’s descent from third-world cowardice into first-world madness.

Yet the character and voice of Little Bee reveal Cleave at his finest. As she navigates the dehumanizing indifference of immigration detention with her self-taught Queen’s English, this young refugee tugs at the reader’s conscience. For two years, she has avoided the “ravenous eyes” of the camp’s men with her purposefully mismatched charity-box clothes, unwashed skin and bound breasts. Eventually, she turns up, illegally, at the O’Rourkes’ home in Kingston-upon-Thames. In the weeks that follow, the lives of Little Bee and Sarah will be woven into a web in which disparate worlds can be connected in the unlikeliest fashion.

The tide of that event carries Little Bee back to their world, which she claims she couldn't explain to the girls from her village because they'd have no context for its abundance and calm. But she shows us the infinite rifts in a globalized world, where any distance can be crossed in a day--with the right papers--and "no one likes each other, but everyone likes U2." Where you have to give up the safety you'd assumed as your birthright if you decide to save the girl gazing at you through razor wire, left to the wolves of a failing state.

London, with its dizzying abundance and multiculturalism, looks like a parallel universe when compared with the impoverished Nigerian village where Little Bee grew up. Surely the locals would chide, “Little miss been-to is making up her tales again,” were she ever to return to what remains of her birthplace. Yet it’s this same village that instilled in her the skills and values needed to help her navigate toward her own scarred survival.

Like Little Bee, Sarah is a survivor. But the lessons of the past are not enough to steer either woman to safety. Instead, in a world full of turpitude and injustice, it is their bold, impulsive choices that challenge the inevitability of despair, transforming a political novel into an affecting story of human triumph.

In the first few pages I fell in love with Cleaves vast narrative and storytelling abilities. The images that he created for me were so detailed and complete. "So, I am a refugee, and I get lonely. Is it my fault if I do not look like an English girl and I do not talk like a Nigerian? well, who says an English girl must have skin as pale as the clouds that flout across her summers? Who says a Nigerian girl must speak in fallen English, as if English had collided with Ibo, high in the upper atmosphere, and rained down into her mouth in a shower that half drowns her and leaves her choking up sweet tales about the bright African colors and the taste of fried plantain? Not like a storyteller, but like a victim rescued from the flood, coughing up the colonial water from her lungs?"

This novels greatest strength is the squeamishly raw candor of its protagonist, Little Bee. Every now and then, you come across a character in a book whose personality is so salient, and whose story carries such devastating emotional force, it’s as if she becomes a fixed part of your consciousness. Besides sharp, witty dialogue, an emotionally charged plot and the vivid characters’ ethical struggles, Little Bee delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency.

Cleave masterfully veers quickly between humor and horror, a very dark, biting humor to be sure, but usually skating along a thin blade of irony, the kind to make you laugh with a little grimace. "I think my ideal man would speak many languages... He could speak with any person, even the soldiers, and if there was violence in their heart he could change it. He would not have to fight, do you see? Maybe he would not be handsome, but would be beautiful when he spoke. He would be very kind, even if you burned his food because you were laughing and talking with your girlfriends instead of watching the cooking. He would just say, Ah, never mind... Forgive me, but your ideal man, he don't sound very rill-istic." "It was a song called We Are The Champions by a British music band called Queen... One time he showed me a picture of the band... One of the musicians in the picture, he had a lot of hair. It was black with tight curls and it sat on the top of his head like a heavy weight and it went right down the back of his neck to his shoulders. I understands fashion in your language, but this hair did not look like fashion... It looked like a punishment."

Again, I am amazed at the connections between books. "He'd been awake all night writing an opinion piece about the middle east, which was a region he had never visited and had no specialist knowledge of. It was the summer of 2007, and my son was fighting Penguin and the Puffin, and my country was fighting Iraq and Afghanistan, and my Husband was forming public opinion. It was the kind of summer where no one took their costume off." Having read Three Cups of Tea, and Infidel, it's so interesting to see the different views on the same subject, in this case, the war with the Middle East.

Sequined with lustrous turns of phrase, spanning two continents and driven by real-life global concerns, what elevates this novel even further is Cleave’s forceful call for all of us, the floating masses of a globalized, socially isolating modern world, to look after one other.

Three Cups of Tea

This weeks book, Three Cups of Tea, is one that I have noticed for several weeks, but has been continually overlooked for one reason or another. This week, however, when I actually read what it was about, and skimmed through it, it looked too interesting to pass by for another week. written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea is the inspiring account of one man's campaign to build schools in the most dangerous, remote, and anti-American reaches of Asia. It is captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, and will win many readers' hearts.

In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time—Greg Mortenson's one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban. As it chronicles Mortenson's quest, which has brought him into conflict with both enraged Islamists and uncomprehending Americans, Three Cups of Tea combines adventure with a celebration of the humanitarian spirit.

Award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin has collaborated on this spellbinding account of Mortenson's incredible accomplishments in a region where Americans are often feared and hated. In pursuit of his goal, Mortenson has survived kidnapping, fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, repeated death threats, and wrenching separations from his wife and children. But his success speaks for itself. At last count, his Central Asia Institute had built fifty-five schools. Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.

Throughout the chapters of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson describes everything from his climbing experiences, to his relationships with everyone from his wife to village leaders. Although I am interested in mountain climbing, and would one day like to climb one of the worlds great peaks, I found it difficult to become fully engaged when that part of the journey was being discussed. When Mortenson was describing his personal relationships however, I was enthralled. My favorite anecdotes were formed between Mortenson and the Korphe Village Chief, Haji Ali. There was so much wisdom and simplicity passed from Haji Ali to Mortenson, it became hard not to take his words into account in my own life.

"The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share tea, you are family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die." --Haji Ali

Mortenson later reflects on Haji Ali's words. “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly… Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.” This is such an important and fundamental lesson, that too often gets overlooked.

My favorite word is phantasmagorical, meaning a series of dreamlike images. I discovered it in junior high while using a thesaurus, and it has stuck with me ever since. I have never before seen it in print, until this book. It appeared in the second half, and when I came across it I was so happy that I kept coming back to that page to re-read it. It reminded me of The Book of Awesome, something so small and simple as coming across your favorite word in your book, but it has the power to make your day. That's awesome.


This week I was the mood for another novel. One of my Moms lifelong friends is part of a book club, and I often hear second hand about some of her favorite reads, including Water for Elephants and The Book of Negroes. One afternoon, my Mom came home telling my about this book her friend was reading called Room. It sounded intriguing, and having enjoyed her previous recommendations I picked it up the next day. Written by Emma Donoghue, Room is inspired by the Josef Fritz case, in which an Austrian man locked his daughter in the basement for 24 years. It is gripping, claustrophobic, and fantastically evocative. As a thriller and love story of sorts, Donoghue's novel is a fantastic story, imaginative, unique and beautifully written, and a stunning achievement.

In many ways, Jack is a typical 5-year-old. He likes to read books, watch TV, and play games with his Ma. But Jack is different in a big way, he has lived his entire life in a single room, sharing the tiny space with only his mother and an unnerving nighttime visitor known as Old Nick. For Jack, Room is the only world he knows, but for Ma, it is a prison in which she has tried to craft a normal life for her son. When their insular world suddenly expands beyond the confines of their four walls, the consequences are piercing and extraordinary. Despite its profoundly disturbing premise, Donoghue's Room is rife with moments of hope and beauty, and the dogged determination to live, even in the most desolate circumstances. A stunning and original novel of survival in captivity, readers who enter Room will leave staggered, as though, like Jack, they are seeing the world for the very first time.

I was hooked upon reading the first paragraph, 'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"'

Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible. As a narrator, five-year-old Jack is tremendously enticing as he faces a whole new world of unfamiliarity and fear. Earnest and bright, he is remarkably adaptable, and provides commentary that is lushly intricate. His mother, kidnapped seven years earlier while walking through her college campus at age 19, has created a world for her son that is rich in play and learning, all the while anticipating the day they might make their “great escape.” This environment has provided Jack with an impressive vocabulary, though his advanced learning is juxtaposed with the natural innocence and bewilderment of a small child. The result is a story told through a child’s eyes, but in language that is endearing rather than tiresome.

The character of Ma, while not the main voice, is nevertheless whole. Donoghue employs Jack’s descriptions of her moods, conversations, and thoughts to paint a picture of a woman struggling to keep it together for the sake of her child, while also fighting to become the person she once was and might be again, if circumstances allow.

For the first couple chapters I found the narrative a little hard to read. With Jack as the narrator, it was a little choppy. But like any character, once I got used to the way he talked, the narration became an important part of creating a memorable and emotionally compelling story. This was an incredible novel, and another look into the intricacies of relationships and survival. Donoghue has produced a novel that is sure to stay in the minds of readers for years to come.
"I was gripped by Room as soon as I discerned its startling premise. It is an almost macabre and completely accomplished novel, one that places Emma Donoghue in the company of writers such as Hilary Mantel and Muriel Spark -- writers who address evil in their works without flinching. Room is, however, leavened by one of the most convincing portrayals of love I have come across in literature or in the world outside it. Room deserves a wide readership. It should inspire a dialogue among its readers about how a life -- how all of our lives -- can be redeemed through the telling of stories, and through ingenuity, loyalty, bravery, hope and love."