Posts Tagged ‘book review’

M4 Version 5[4]I’ve been looking around for a good read for the past several months and finding myself dissatisfied with the airport bookstore. So I was glad to get a review copy of J’s latest: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit.

I read it in one sitting on the plane home from a meeting about disruption, civil society and the capacity of international development/aid organizations to adapt, so it was through that lens that I consumed the book. It pretty much answered the question “can INGOs adapt?” (Spoiler alert: prognosis is not good.)

And make no mistake: These structural issues are universal. It’s not Oxfam or WAC or Save or CARE. You don’t escape this problem by moving to another organization or taking a different job in your current organization, because this is the nature of the aid industry itself.

J’s description of personal agendas, bureaucracy, competition, jostling for position, stressed local government workers, exhausted staff, and unrealistic demands from donors and headquarters is an insider’s view of why INGOs have a hard time adapting and changing. The book describes the complexity of aid and humanitarian work in detail, bringing in the conflicting push and pull of the different stakeholders.

Rather than complexity encouraging adaptation and organizations that are more “fit for purpose,” however, J’s main characters are trapped in complexity that paralyzes, breeds mediocrity, loses sight of the mission and rewards the “wrong” motives and decisions.

Aid is not broken because aid workers are cynical, hedonistic alcoholics. Aid workers are cynical alcoholics because aid is broken, and further, because they have been repeatedly slapped down by their own leaders for trying to make it better.

J does recognize the conflicts, however, and (with only a little bit of blame and harsh judgment), he shows the demands made on people at all levels of the aid machine:

Management and leadership are the easiest things in the world until you actually have to do them.

J does a good job of humanizing the aid worker and his or her personal and professional struggles within this dysfunctional system. He writes about how the passion for aid work conflicts with the personal choices each aid worker makes, most significantly when the addiction to aid work obliterates the possibility of having “normal” and healthy relationships with one’s family and home country society. The book also highlights the internal doubts and fears of self-aggrandizement that any self-reflective aid worker experiences:

…Suddenly Mary-Anne felt overwhelmed with the feeling that her career in the humanitarian world had thus far been built on so much self-important dishonesty….

….“You come here, you and your foreign friends. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to instruct refugees about drinking enough water or where they should shit every day.” He snorted derisively. “These people were mapping the stars and perfecting mathematics while your ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing naked around fires in the forest…. You children come here to patiently explain to Ethiopians about accountability and honesty… You think we need you to help us know right from wrong. You come here to ‘supervise’ people old enough to be your parents. My youngest daughter is your age. ”

Reading the book was like having a long conversation with J over Skype or beers where he offers you career advice and makes you feel better by acknowledging you that you are not the first person to experience internal conflict and self-doubt. There is a fair bit of J bestowing his wisdom on the reader, but I find that J normally has good insights and offers solid advice, so this did not bother me.

I did feel that the book was half-finished. Several of the characters introduced early in the book were not developed out in the rest of it. Given the “to be continued” on the last page, I assume that their stories will be picked up in the next book in the series. I also would have liked more about the setting and history woven in, and more active roles for some of the “local” characters, as well as a chance to get inside their heads and see their perspectives in more depth. This would have rounded the book out and brought it fully from the tongue-in-cheek harlequin romance novel style of J’s first book (Disastrous Passion) to a more solid kind of “historical fiction”.

Some have criticized the book for being aimed solely at those in the aid and development world and making too many “insider” assumptions. I suspect, however, that J purposely wrote it for “Expat Aid Workers,” and I didn’t find that to be a problem. Simplifying things for a mainstream audience would water the book down, making it less “real” for those working in the sector. This choice means that this book will not become a best seller outside of the industry — but I don’t think it is meant to.

I will note that the fact that I didn’t have a problem with the level of detail-that-only-an-aid-or-development-worker-would-appreciate probably means that I am sitting firmly in the category of “Misfit.” Read the book and you’ll understand what I mean!

Disclosures: I was provided with a free copy for review. I have known J for quite some time and consider him a friend, which may color my opinions about the book.

Read Full Post »

“Google employees get to take 20% of their time to do their own thing,” is a phrase that is often repeated and praised in the circles where I run. I have to agree that it’s a fantastic idea — I’m a big fan of side projects.

Chade-Meng Tan works for Google, and he took his 20% time to work on the idea of bringing ‘mindfulness’ into the workplace. (His long-term goal is the loftier one of world peace–but more about that later.)

Meng’s idea turned into a course for Google employees called “Search Inside Yourself” (pun intended). It was a kind of meditation course for geeks and engineers. His book (by the same title) walks readers through the course, going from very very simple ‘learning how to meditate’ to (my favorite) ‘mindful emailing’ and onto his idea that if we each start by developing peace and happiness within ourselves, we will develop compassion, and if everyone is happy, at peace, and compassionate, we can create the foundation for world peace.

I was skeptical about reading Search Inside Yourself because I’m not big on self-help books or reading about hot business management trends or which ‘7 Habits’ will transform my life. I’m also not super touchy-feely. I did enjoy the book, however. It was a pleasant and easy read, and I’m guessing it rolls the key points of most of those other self-help books into one. (Though I could be mistaken, since I haven’t read any of them!)

Search Inside Yourself is meditation and mindfulness merged with emotional intelligence and research on how the brain works applied to the workplace, relationships and life in general. Throughout the book are quotes and conversations with renowned Buddhists such as Matthieu Ricard, (noted for being ‘the happiest man in the world’), the Dalai LamaRichard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn (pioneers in the field of contemplative neuroscience), Norman Fischer and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Meng starts us off with very accessible exercises to learn to meditate. (Chapter 1 is titled ‘Even an Engineer Can Thrive on Emotional Intelligence’) Starting with 2 minutes a day, he says, you can get going. (I tried, and even I was actually able to slow myself down for 2 minutes). He moves on to ‘mindful activity,’ and ‘other-directed mindfulness,’ and  ‘mindful conversation’ exercises that help develop non-judgmental listening, empathy and compassion.

Next, he walks us through moving from emotional self-awareness to accurate self-assessment to self-confidence, focusing quite a bit on the concept of ego. Following this, Meng covers ‘self mastery,’ managing pain and stress, and dealing with distress and managing emotions. One quote I particularly liked was by Thich Nhat Hanh:  ‘wilting flowers do not cause suffering; it is the unrealistic desire that flowers not wilt that causes suffering.’ There is a nice section on dealing with emotional triggers and managing negative emotions with calm.

Meng backs up his ideas with neuroscience and behavioral theories, including those of Tony Hsieh who started Zappos Shoes and Daniel Pink who emphasizes that the best way to find motivation at work is to spend most of our time and energy working towards higher purpose rather than short-term pleasure chasing. ‘If we know what we value most and what is most meaningful to us, then we know what we can work on that serves our higher purpose. When that happens, our work can become a source of sustainable happiness for us,’ writes Meng.

I found the parts of the book that talk about empathy to be quite applicable to the work that aid and development agencies (and non-profits in general) do, especially in terms of results, accountability and effectiveness and how development agencies interact with staff and partners at all levels, internally and externally. People often imagine that at non-profits, everyone is there for a good cause, therefore everyone is nice and there are no nasty internal politics or bad management issues or unpleasant interactions with ‘beneficiaries’ and participants or staff. I promise you this is not true – non-profits need to work on this every bit as much as for-profits — and maybe even more since there are usually less resources to go around or to invest in management and staff training in these areas.

One section I really liked was where Meng refers to Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of  a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. The only way to change this, says Meng, is starting off with sincerity, kindness and openness and with 3 assumptions: that everybody in the room is there to serve the greater good until proven otherwise; that no one has any hidden agenda unless proven otherwise; and that we are all reasonable, even when we disagree, until proven otherwise. Also helpful, he says, is ’empathetic listening’ and ‘political awareness,’ eg., the ability to read an organization’s emotional currents and power relationships.

Meng talks about compassionate leadership and offers advice on turning foes into friends and on dealing with difficult conversations and situations, based on David Rock’s SCARF model for the social brain which describes how status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are major drivers of social behavior. This is where we get our tips on ‘mindful emailing.’

The book closes out with an explanation of how Meng would like to see meditation and mindfulness enter the public sphere in the same way that exercise has. Eg., one day everyone will know that meditation is good for them, anyone will be able to learn how to do it, companies will understand that it is good for business, and meditation will be taken granted: eg, ‘Of course you should mediate…. duh.’

Search Inside Yourself is great example of what can be created when employees have time to think and work on those side projects that add meaning to their lives and value to the greater good. I enjoyed seeing where I’m already being mindful, empathetic and compassionate, analyzing where I could improve, and having some clear and concise instructions on how to get started working on areas that need more effort. Meng has taken an excellent step towards his dream of making these concepts accessible to everyone.


Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending over the complimentary copy of Search Inside Yourself for review!

Read Full Post »

Ann Blackman’s Off to Save the World is a chronicle of the life of Julia Taft. The book showcases how rare it was for women to be involved in high level politics in the 70s and 80s, and how Taft skillfully maneuvered herself in circles that were not open to many women in US Government or international affairs at the time. Taft was clearly a charming, witty, strong and determined woman who endeared herself to most everyone she met.

As the book preface notes “Julia Vadala Taft became one of the country’s top humanitarian relief experts, a friend and ally of the world’s most impoverished people. Starting in 1975, when she directed the Indochina refugee task force, Julia essentially invented the way the United States government responds to natural and man-made disasters around the world, demanding basic rights for those whose lives are turned upside down by civil war, famine, religious persecution, earthquakes, floods and insect infestations.”

I was struck while reading, however, that most of the relief efforts that Taft was involved in sounded an awful lot like operational failures, though they were hailed as diplomacy successes. This gave me much to consider both in terms of political motivations for relief and development efforts, and for observing how far relief work has come since then in terms of understanding the need to be prepared, to take direction from local governments and local populations, to set up proper logistical arrangements, and to maintain neutrality during humanitarian crises. Today, guidelines like the Sphere Handbook and the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct help orient aid workers and give them support and guidance during humanitarian relief operations.

My favorite anecdote in the book was that following the December 7, 1988 Armenian earthquake “Bush [Senior] told Julia that his son and grandson would like to go to Armenia to hand out Christmas presents. [Taft] stifled a laugh: “I thought to myself ‘for God’s sake, this is not a good idea.’ But all I said was, ‘When would you go?'” “The 24th of December,” Bush replied. Taft informed them that Armenians celebrated Christmas on January 6th, and “between now and then, they have a few other things to do besides worry about your security and accepting gifts.” Unfortunately, even though Taft spoke with Colin Powell about the ridiculous idea, they were unable to get them off of the idea of handing out Christmas presents, and “Bush’s son, Jeb, and grandson, George P. Bush, left for Armenia….”

The book reads a bit like a history text book, which was its downfall for me. I would have much preferred a more personal style that engaged me more emotionally. In any case, it is great to see a strong female character like Taft highlighted, and she was clearly much loved by her colleagues, peers and family.

Ann Blackman is the author of many biographies including Seasons of Her Life, Wild Rose, and co-author of The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen. She previously worked at TIME magazine and The Associated Press, and has appeared on various national TV and radio shows such as A&E Biography, The Diane Rehm Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, CNN, Fox Morning News, CSPAN, to name a few. She currently lives in Washington, DC, and on the coast of Maine.

Read Full Post »

“The story of a boy from Baltimore who evolves from a safecracking, jewel-heisting, deep-sea diving, ultimate-fighting, international playboy into a globetrotting humanitarian.”

Why yes, thank you very much, I would like to review that book…. My snark glands start working in anticipation.

Book arrives in the mail and I open to the preface where I read that Stefan Templeton, the troubled and risk-loving misfit hero of the story, has an innocent bright-eyed son and a good, virtuous, hard-working wife in the kitchen. Neither his son nor his wife knows about his sordid past. He risks his family’s well-being to be “a recurring presence in the aftermath of some of the last decade’s worst man-made and natural disasters”. He’s now heading to “the genocide-ravaged Horn of Africa…. On this mission, as on all the others, he would receive no payment.” 

OK, so this will be a story about one of those self-made, selfless martyr, I-have-seen-the-light types who wakes up one day and feels compelled to give up everything to save the world. And there will be fighting too!

We learn that the author David Matthews and Stefan, the hero, grew up together off and on in a hard-knock area of Baltimore, MD. That they are both ‘mixed’ race and that Stefan loves fighting and telling elaborate, hard-to-believe stories. Matthews’ re-encounter with Stefan starts off something like this:


“You taking all this stuff? I yelled to him in the bedroom…

…What’s this? I pointed at the black square.

I removed the device. A block of plastic the size of a primordial cell phone.

He shook his head. It’s a Taser, knucklehead.

Jesus, I said, Get pretty rough out there saving babies?

Stormy clambered into the room, midway through his drawing. What’s a Taser, Poppa?

A Taser makes bad people jump, Stormy-bear. Stormy held up his drawing. I could make out some red and black stick people with what looked like blue arrows raining down on them.

That’s amaaazing, Stefan said.

It’s the African children when you put water on them, Poppa.”


Jesus. I thought. Get pretty rough out there writing good dialog?

Regardless, I continue. The book starts to flow a little better as the story takes off.

I read that Stefan’s parents are from very different cultures — his father: a rigid African-American martial artist from a well-educated family in a rough Baltimore neighborhood, permanently affected by a stint in Vietnam; his mother: a Danish flower child from a wealthy family that runs a new-age spiritual healing school where people do primal screaming and other types of psycho-spiritual curing.

Early in the book, the author sets Stefan up as a pure-hearted good guy with bad luck, a poor hero who gets screwed time and time again by the system. His father’s hard-fighting rigidity combined with his mother’s heal-the-poor hippie sensibilities are lived out through Stefan who gets himself into one tricky situation after another, but only because he is compelled to perpetually defend the defenseless, to be a man.

His weakness for women is made clear early on, as is the idea that women are weak. (Almost all the women we run into in this book are extremely hot, in need of Stefan’s protection, and willing to drop anything to get with our hero.)

It’s Chapter 3 where Stefan has his “incredible hulk” breaking point transformation. A trained fighter who continually turns the other cheek, he is pushed to fight back when a couple of local thugs try to steal his house keys. He pulverizes them both and the defining moment emerges: “This was neither good, nor bad. Right, nor wrong. It was just.” 

Yep, and you won’t like him when he’s angry. Superhero moment complete.

Soon after, Stefan has his first sexual experience while living in a castle in Europe belonging to his mother’s side of the family. Unsurprisingly, it’s with a sexy older woman and Stefan is quite well-endowed: “Ach… zu gross… (oh so big)….” the woman exclaims. “Your mother would kill me.”

Throughout the rest of the book, the system continues making things difficult for Stefan. He tries and tries to make something of himself and his innate superior intellect, physical perfection and sexual prowess but time and time again he’s let down or has to fall back on his unstoppable fighting techniques and knack for straightforward, ethical crime, or he’s simply forced to put himself at risk to save someone at the wrong time or place. Poor guy, he’s just trying to help and it just never works out.

So what better place for him to end up than helping poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America? By the end of the book, he has blundered his way into humanitarian aid work, yet again, the system has no place for him and he must go at it in selfless, renegade, superhero style, saving the poor because the locals need him and the humanitarians can’t get it right.

Matthew’s writing was entertaining enough to keep me reading throughout, but the marketers’ promise was more than what the book could live up to. But I expected that. “The story of a boy from Baltimore who evolves from a safe-cracking, jewel-heisting, deep-sea diving, ultimate-fighting, international playboy into a globetrotting humanitarian” is a bit much to swallow without a grain of salt.

Kicking Ass and Saving Souls is very much a man’s book. I felt throughout that the author was imagining the story embellished a bit further and on the big screen, and judging by the public’s hunger for violent, misfit heroes and feel-good stories about helpless poor people, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it there one day.

As for me though, I’ve had quite too much of the Sean Penn style of humanitarian work to be excited. I’m wary of erratic amateur do-gooders. Not to mention I have some pretty major concerns about  Sam “the Machine Gun Preacher” Childers‘ and Peter “Advisor to Michelle Bachman (and hero of this hilariously scary film)” Waldron style forays into South Sudan and Uganda and such. So I’m the wrong audience for this kind of book.

I’m sure Stefan means well, and certainly Matthews is impressed with him. But I think Stefan is more the kind of guy you would enjoy running into at a bar overseas and trading crazy stories with and leaving it at that. You’d probably go home wondering how much of his shtick was bullshit (while he went home with one of the new volunteers or the local female bartender). And you’d probably have some real concerns about his modus operandi if any of his stories were true.

But the book didn’t really grab me. I’m tired of shoot-em-up-punch-em-up humanitarian aid heroes.  They take energy away from the real issues and the real people, local and non-local, who are doing the work that has long-term impact. And they can actually cause real problems, no matter how good their stories seem and how helpful they think they are being.

Thanks to the author and TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of the book to review.

About David Matthews

David Matthews is the author of the 2007 memoir Ace of Spades, which was selected as an Editor’s Choice pick by The New York Times.  Matthews’s work has also appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir.  He lives in Manhattan, but can’t wait to move back to Brooklyn.

Read Full Post »