Book review: ‘The International Bank of Bob’ by Bob Harris

Bank of BobBob Harris knows exactly where he had his epiphany. On a writing assignment in Dubai, a location known for both its extreme wealth and rampant poverty, he was sipping a shockingly expensive cup of coffee while trying to forget a group of migrant workers sleeping in the streets before work the next day.

As a freelance journalist and travel writer, Harris traversed the globe covering luxurious accommodations — and though he wasn’t paid handsomely (nowhere near enough to stay in those digs on his own dime), he was able to build his savings while writing and enjoying the sights. Considering himself fortunate, Harris notices how workers watch him in the street: his American clothes, his fancy transportation. The people constructing the resorts he’s frequenting are often thousands of miles from home — and their families. They work for years at a time in a form of indentured servitude so Harris can sip a cup of coffee expensive enough to completely buy them out of poverty back home.

He has to do something.

Joining Kiva, an international lending site linking funds to borrowers around the world, Harris pours his savings into loans distributed to impoverished world citizens who simply need a helping hand. Kiva’s platform links partner institutions to individuals with funds who want to help. You’re not donating money; you’re lending it. And, the great majority of the time, you get it back . . . and can flip it again.

In The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time, Harris takes his lending one step further: after providing the funds for men and women in Africa, Morocco or Cambodia to buy supplies for shops, purchase cows, help with schooling and more, Harris takes a trip of his own: to meet borrowers face-to-face. Via translators and helpers, Kiva employees and locals, Harris finds himself in all manner of locales to meet the people who benefit every day from the faith of strangers. And if he’s helped change their lives in any small way, well . . . they’re changing his, too.

What struck me immediately in this thorough, honest and fascinating travel and humanitarian memoir is Harris’ steadfast belief that one person really can make a difference. Never does he judge or condescend; he is thoughtful, kindhearted. Bob is humble. His painstakingly cautious approach to telling others’ stories is further proof of his sincerity, and I couldn’t help but admire him — as a person and a writer — for the lengths to which he strove to make the story about others, not himself.

No small feat for a personal memoir.

The armchair travel opportunities are plentiful here, absolutely, and Harris paints many a beautiful picture as he travels seeking to better understand microcredit. But Kiva and microlending — and those they benefit — are the stars of this story. Microfinance was made famous by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who penned Banker to the Poor. For someone who walked into Harris’ story without any knowledge of microfinance, I emerged with a much clearer understanding of the process.

I really appreciated the incredibly balanced perspective Harris offers in . . . well, every aspect of the book. While microlending has been life-changing for some and most local partner agencies are working toward the common good, Harris doesn’t paint over the messier parts: like the organizations shut down for veritable loan sharking. He talks of the good and the bad, the joys and the trade-offs. And though he is a champion for Kiva, he doesn’t work for Kiva; he’s free to discuss what he wants. His story never reads like a rampant endorsement for the site, though he never puts it down.

This is a story of money . . . of who has it, and who doesn’t. Harris often discusses “the birth lottery” — how the circumstances of our lives are so often dictated by forces out of our control. God, destiny, science, karma . . . however you view it, somehow we got here. What are the odds I would be born a white American woman in a middle-class family, for example? (Pretty low.) Who’s to say I am more “worthy” of a warm dinner and clean bed than a little boy in India, or a young mother in Vietnam? (No one.)

But Harris doesn’t dwell on the sad or the unpleasant. He mixes his own personal history — and his father’s hardscrabble Appalachian roots — with the stories of those he encounters, which lends a sweetness and authenticity to his adventures. He isn’t a poverty voyeur, zipping around the world to gawk at others’ troubles and flip them into a fat book advance. Bob is in the story, invested in the story — and he’s still written a moving book that never screams Look at me! It never feels boastful, which is pretty amazing if you consider he and members of his Kiva group have made more than 121,000 loans totaling upwards of $3.4 million through Kiva.

If ever there was something to brag about, well — that would be it.

But Bob doesn’t. Bob is funny. Bob is awesome. I finished this book feeling buoyant and hopeful and happy. It gave me a warm, humanity-doesn’t-completely-suck feeling often missing from my everyday life. With the evening news so often full of pain and chaos, The International Bank of Bob reminded me that through laptops in random laps across the globe, so many people are working toward a greater tomorrow by making a small and generous move today.

We can work toward a greater tomorrow. Together. In small ways, in big ones
. . . together.

What a beautiful thing.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0802777511 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Yes, Chef’ by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, ChefEthiopian-born, Swedish-raised American chef Marcus Samuelsson had anything but a conventional upbringing.

After his African mother dies of tuberculosis following the 75-mile walk to a hospital that saved the life of he and his sister, 3-year-old Marcus is adopted by a loving white couple from Sweden. Raised with a grandmother who instills a passion for food and fascinated by the tastes and flavors of his dual heritage, Marcus turns his sights on cooking. His ambitions propel him from kitchens in Göteborg to fine restaurants in Switzerland and France, eventually landing him in New York City.

Now a successful chef and a “Top Chef Masters” winner, Samuelsson documents it all in Yes, Chef: his honest account of what it took to land him where he is today . . . and a loving ode to his varied roots — and phenomenal food.

This memoir landed in my hands on a rainy day at the library. I was wandering the audio shelves in search of something different — and I’ve been on a serious foodie fiction and food-related memoirs kick lately. Though I’d never heard of Marcus, something about his story jumped out at me. I devoured his memoir — pun intended — and am already fantasizing about how to get up to Red Rooster to taste his dishes in person.

Where to even begin with this story? Marcus’ rise to the top was filled with potholes and setbacks, disappointments and grief — but he persisted. While it’s hard not to judge some of his steely-eyed decisions harshly, thinking him cold-hearted, I believe Marcus was just a young man with ambitions that couldn’t be dampened. His laser-sharp focus on pursuing cooking came above everything else — and I couldn’t help but admire that.

Despite some of his more surprising decisions, Marcus comes across as raw and humble in his retellings of the moments that shaped his life. His descriptions of family — specifically, what “makes” a family — were touching and heartbreaking, and I cried my way through one of the early chapters. I was fascinated by his African and Swedish roots, and revelled in his descriptions of life in Göteborg (or “G-berg,” as the kids affectionately call it). The narrative detoured a bit as Marcus arrived in New York, but I loved feeling his sense of camaraderie with the wide-ranging people that inhabit the city.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Samuelsson, he has a fascinating story to tell — and I loved that Yes, Chef also pays homage to the many people who helped him continue climbing a ladder that might have otherwise become sawed-off. Also touching on issues of class, race and culture, this memoir was a thought-provoking read that held me captive from beginning to end.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

About the audio: Samuelsson narrates his own story — and honestly, despite having to get used to his accent, I can’t imagine it any other way. His unique vocal patterns and careful word choices would have been lost on another narrator. As it stands, listening to Yes, Chef was an interesting and moving experience.

Book review: ‘Bloom’ by Kelle Hampton

Bloom by Kelle HamptonAs Kelle Hampton and her husband prepare to welcome their second little girl, they have no idea that lovely Nella, new little sister to their beloved Lainey, will present more new challenges — and opportunities — than they could ever have imagined.

Born with Down syndrome, Nella’s condition was a complete shock to the Hamptons . . . especially Kelle, who was suddenly forced to reconcile the dreams she had for the “sister” relationship her daughters would share and left to grapple with how a special-needs child would impact her family. In her honest, raw accounts of the early days of Nella’s life and where her family is now, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected is a captivating, soul-soaring story of a mama whose love for her children knows no bounds.

Hampton is a blogger, writer, photographer — all talents immediately evident at her blog, Enjoying the Small Things. Nella’s story begins as a post in January 2010, and the Hamptons’ lives are forever altered by her arrival. What becomes immediately obvious in Kelle’s retelling is this mother’s pure, raw and unfiltered ability to draw you into her family’s story . . . and hold nothing back.

I’m going to be honest with you, just as Kelle is honest with us: her reaction to Nella’s Down syndrome was tough to read. She painfully describes the days and nights following her daughter’s birth, in which she writhed and sobbed and questioned her faith. I felt physically uncomfortable hearing Kelle’s reaction, but the story is obviously a retrospective. We understand that Kelle doesn’t feel this way now and, in fact, she frequently mentions her own embarrassment about her behavior. We know how much she adores Nella now — but she doesn’t prune the past. She chooses not to remove the ugly bits, even knowing how ugly they really are.

And that is the power of Bloom: Kelle invites us in, knowing we could judge her. Frown at her. Gossip about her. She invites us in because this story — her story — is an important one to tell, and she wants us to understand that Nella truly is a blessing. Their blessing. And if she couldn’t yet understand it that January night, she gets it now.

I read this story in two days, picking it up immediately after a copy arrived in the mail. I read it during my lunch break, hunched over a dry sandwich; I read it while waiting for my fiance to come home and ask about dinner; I read it while making dinner, which proved to be tricky; and I read it until 1 a.m. the following evening, wrapping up the Hamptons’ saga with half-shut, drowsy eyes. And then I found Kelle’s website because I needed updates.

Bloom is real, honest, gut-wrenching. It’s thought-provoking — what would I do in this situation? — and it’s painful. It’s also beautiful and realistic and something I couldn’t stop reading, because I have so much respect and admiration for Kelle — and so much jealousy regarding her giant, awesome net of friends (and how they get her through). The women in her life are amazing, and she makes no bones about the importance of their faith, inspiration and guidance in the weeks, months and years after Nella’s birth.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how truly gorgeous this paperback is. As Kelle is a talented photographer, the pictures in Bloom are her own — and each big moment is illustrated with a stunning shot or two. The book is the perfect blend of photographs and narrative, but make no mistake: the words themselves? Super important. This ain’t some picture book with a few captions pasted in, friends; Kelle is a fantastic, engaging writer, and I closed the final page with so much love for her family. The photos tell their own stories, and the book wouldn’t be as powerful without them.

If you appreciate memoirs, stories of family, books that detail adversity and rising above . . . well, I’ve got a book for you. Readers don’t need children of their own to appreciate Bloom and its universal truths about love, life and relationships, though I imagine the story will resonate even more powerfully for parents. This was the type of book I finished and wished I’d read a little more slowly. It’s the sort of tale I will return to again for courage and inspiration — and bless little Nella, who is too precious for words.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062045040 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Paris, My Sweet’ by Amy Thomas

Writer and foodie Amy Thomas has a longstanding love affair with Paris. The macarons, the handsome men, the atmosphere . . . si belle. After she embarks on a week of sweets for fun, an opportunity to return — full-time — sets her on a new path. As an advertising writer for Louis Vuitton, Thomas trades her busy life in New York City for a walk-up in the City of Light. And that’s only the beginning.

Amy Thomas’ Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) is a sweet-as-candy, fun and hunger-inducing look at one woman’s journey through France’s capital city. Thomas is my kind of friend: someone with a talent for words and an insatiable hunger. I mean, her sweet tooth is epic — and after cautioning not to read some books on an empty stomach, this would absolutely fall into that category.

Thomas’ memoir is, in many ways, an exploration of what makes a place “home.” Coming from New York, where Amy is a successful singleton who doesn’t have much time or inclination to date, journeying to Paris means bidding adieu to her many friends and family — and discovering what it means to truly be on your own. Especially without a common language to bond them, Amy’s work environment is challenging — and interacting with the French can be difficult and confusing. She becomes more self-assured with time, eventually branching out to make new friends and puzzle out French behavior, but it takes a while. As all good things to do.

Though I adored the many mentions of Paris’ insanely awesome desserts (and New York’s, too), I ultimately finished this story wanting a little more. Amy is very likeable and kind, but the story lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. I suppose I was naively waiting for her to fall in love, get a big promotion, stumble into ownership of a bakery. Something. I read too much fiction, I guess. Because I’ll say this for Paris, My Sweet: Amy feels very authentic, and her tale is realistic. For most, a handsome foreigner doesn’t lock eyes with us across a vanilla cupcake and bed us within the hour. A snooty widow doesn’t take a shine to us, leaving her beloved bistro to the adorable American upon her death. If we stumble, no one is there to catch us. We just figure it out.

Yes — for most of us? We’re just taking chances. Putting one foot in front of another. Looking for opportunities with the knowledge they may not come. And as Amy cavorts through Paris — sometimes muddling through as an expat; sometimes having the croissant-eating time of her life — I was right there with her. Paris comes alive through Thomas’ tales, and I loved visiting as she pedals the winding streets, slogs up to her apartment and plunks down to watch the city come alive from her window.

It all felt very intoxicating. And though I wish the plot itself was a little more exciting, I state that knowing life is often that way: sometimes a sweet frosted thing, perfect and knowable — but more often a gamble, a few stolen chances. Thomas does a great job of drawing you into her tale . . . and getting you hungry for those lovely macarons. Francophiles, foodies and armchair travelers will find Amy a willing and lovely narrator, and her memoir a sweet adventure.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402264119 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘You Tell Your Dog First’ by Alison Pace

In a world of cat people and dog people, Alison Pace is firmly in the dog camp.

Well, actually . . . that’s sort of underselling it. Pace, author of novels like Pug Hill and A Pug’s Tale, is a serious dog person. In You Tell Your Dog First, a serious of canine-related essays, Pace recounts her fur-filled childhood, creation of a life in New York City, writing career and — eventually, quite happily — the adoption her own West Highland White Terrier, Carlie. It’s heartwarming non-fiction with chew toys, cute guys and dogs roaming free in Central Park.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m also in the dog camp. I mean, my golden retriever has an entire category on the blog devoted to him. I grew up with dogs, love dogs, get excited at the prospect of visiting a friend with a dog. When others coo over adorable babies, I’m reaching for the squirmy mutt at their feet. If my boyfriend had a dollar for every time I squealed, “Oh my God, look at that dog,” he could retire quite happily, get a bunch of cats and leave my dog-hair-covered self in the dust.

I’m glad he doesn’t have that many dollars, by the way.

So for someone like me? Someone who, as Pace’s title suggests, tells her dog the big news first? I was all about Pace’s funny, cute look at life with canines. I loved her descriptions of growing up with a literal pack at the homestead and could relate to her feelings of being a dog person without a dog. Living in New York City, Pace’s options regarding pet-friendly rental buildings are complicated. And when Carlie, a former show dog, comes into her life? Well, Pace will move mountains to find a good living situation for them both.

If you’re not nutso for pets, I can see readers rolling their eyes at some of the antics — but the charming thing about Pace is that she never takes herself too seriously. Aware that some of her behavior could be seen as excessive, she often pokes fun at herself and reminds Carlie that she knows “Mommy is acting crazy.” It’s funny, and I understand. I’m not above dog-talk myself. I mean, my dog has a theme song; we sing Rudy’s favorite tunes when he walks into the room.

Dogs. They’re just really great.

You Tell Your Dog First is a quick read with insights as to how four-legged friends make our lives all the richer, and I really enjoyed Pace’s musings on the unconditional love and companionship of dogs like Carlie. If this book sounds like it’s up your alley, it probably is. And if you skipped over this review as soon as you saw mention of a canine, well . . . you’re not even reading this ending graph, are you?

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0425255875 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Giveaway results on Nov. 9: Congrats to Summer, our randomly-selected winner! Summer, I’ve emailed you.

Book review: ‘Heaven Is Here’ by Stephanie Nielson

Stephanie Nielson led an incredibly blessed life. With a husband she adored and four happy, healthy kids, Stephanie’s days were filled with adventures in domestic bliss. She loved to run, hike and spend time in her beloved Utah mountains. Her faith was incredibly important to her, and she’d always known she wanted to care for a large family.

But if that were the whole story, we wouldn’t have much of a story. In August 2008, Stephanie and her husband, Christian, were flying with a close friend in a small plane when it crashed in a fiery wreck. While their friend was tragically killed, Stephanie and Christian managed to survive — albeit with severe burns that covered 80 percent of Stephanie’s body and more than 50 percent of Christian’s. Badly broken, bruised and devastated, the couple were taken to a hospital where Stephanie remained in a medically-induced coma for months. When she finally woke, she was in a nightmare.

But Heaven Is Here isn’t a tragedy. I can honestly say this is one of the most inspiring, tear-inducing, heartwrenching books I’ve read — the sort of story I pass around to friends and family, saying, “You have to read this.” Acknowledging the story as “incredible” in the subtitle really isn’t overstating the case. When all hope seems lost, the Nielsons’ faith and family support gets them through.

Once told she might have to have her limbs amputated, that she would never walk, that she would never live the independent life she’d loved again, Stephanie defies all logic. After many painful surgeries and endless weeks in the burn unit, her skin begins to heal. She starts to walk again, first to the nurse’s station and then to the end of the hall. And then beyond. She begins to eat and drink, to even try to type. Though she doesn’t look the way she used to — and her face is very changed — she is here. Among the living. Given a second chance and an opportunity to see her children grow up.

She doesn’t take it lightly.

I went into Heaven Is Here with limited expectations. Nielson is a blogger-turned-author, see, and I tend to look at those with a skeptical eye. But I’ve followed Stephanie’s journey for years at the Nie Nie Dialogues, an honest look at her life and family, and I find her to simply be an incredible mother and person. I didn’t know if the book would merely be a rehashing of blog posts, but that was not at all the case. I’m very familiar with her story, of course, but it was as if I were reading it all for the first time.

Though we do not share the same faith and I consider myself more spiritual than religious, the power of Stephanie’s beliefs in her healing process was hard to deny. Though religion permeated the book, I didn’t find it heavy-handed or preachy. This is Stephanie and Christian’s story, after all, and she couldn’t tell it without explaining how crucial her faith was in her recovery. Totally get it, and it didn’t bother me.

It’s hard to read the Nielson love story without tearing up a bit, too. Divided into three parts, Heaven Is Here first offers us a glimpse at Stephanie’s early life, her family background and her courtship with Christian, who bounded into her father’s business with an open smile and an interest in taking his daughter out on a date. Even after a whirlwind romance and marriage, life wasn’t perfect — and Stephanie’s honesty is to be commended. She doesn’t cover a plain white canvas with sparkly rainbows, puppies and butterflies. Even as a young and healthy mother, she faced challenges. But nothing compared to those to come.

The book’s second part details the plane crash and the Nielsons’ early months in the hospital, right up until Stephanie is well enough to go home. And here’s the spoiler-that’s-not-really-a-spoiler: Stephanie and Christian do get better. They heal. It’s incredibly hard and emotional and tough and awful, but somehow they manage to survive and even thrive in the face of tragedy. And just this past spring, Stephanie and Christian welcomed a fifth child, Charlotte. That she carried. Herself. In her own bruised-but-never-completely-broken body.

The most gut-wrenching portions of the book came when Stephanie’s four kids — two daughters, two young sons — finally come to visit their mother in the hospital. With a completely different appearance, Stephanie worries endlessly that she will “scare” them and doesn’t want them to ever see her . . . or even to see herself. I was on pins and needles waiting for their reaction, too, knowing how much a negative one could impact Stephanie’s recovery. For a woman who only ever wanted to take care of her children, not being able to do so hurts her to the core. And seeing the kids’ wide eyes and tears was hard to read.

But things improve. Things always improve. And reading about the love Stephanie and Christian share, their dedication to one another and their family, the way they hope and dream and struggle together . . . well, it was inspiring. It really was great. And I could probably write a few more paragraphs about why I love the Nielsons, but I wouldn’t want your eyes to glaze over. So I’ll skip to the end.

Fans of memoirs, tales of tragedy-turned-triumph or those who enjoy inspirational stories with just a dash of faith thrown in can look no further than Heaven Is Here. Stephanie’s raw and honest account of life as she knows it had me in tears time and again, but I ultimately finished the book with an uplifted heart and a desire to never take my own life for granted. The simple things — like walking, talking, seeing — aren’t always simple. We should all count our blessings, and make every day count.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1401341799 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Bossypants’ by Tina Fey

What’s more awesome than Tina Fey? Having Tina Fey ride around with you while you run errands. Listening to the writer, actress and comedian’s memoir of life in and out of the spotlight was a delightful experience, especially for a reader who channels Fey’s “30 Rock” character Liz Lemon on a daily basis. Unintentionally, of course.

“Before Liz Lemon, before ‘Weekend Update,’ before Sarah Palin, Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.” (Goodreads)

It’s hard not to love Tina Fey, and Bossypants was exactly what I expected: an entertaining, mostly light-hearted look at Fey’s childhood, formative years and ascension to the superstar-level popularity she enjoys today. The title should have been a giveaway, I suppose, but I wasn’t expecting quite as much on how what it’s like to be a woman in power. The media peppers her with questions like, “Is it hard to be the boss?” — and Fey, with her trademark wit, speaks honestly. I liked her answers, but it was just . . . different.

Though I was completely immersed in the memoir, parts were more interesting to me than others. Not going to hate on my girl, but I didn’t find her details surrounding her stint on “Saturday Night Live” to be nearly as compelling as her tales of a fateful childhood with a bad-ass father and teacher mother. I might be alone in that, but I was hoping for more anecdotal over-shares from her youth. A “late in life” baby, Fey had a short-lived rebellious streak as a kid — and her teen years played out as an exercise in geekiness. I totally got that — as well as her uncanny ability to fall in love with unavailable (read: gay) young men. All right up my alley.

Part of me wishes we’d just stayed in childhood, though. I laughed the hardest as she described her dad’s charisma and cool factor, and as she detailed her nerdy exploits as a teen. That’s not to say I wasn’t still thick in the narrative as we got into adulthood, but for me? Much of Fey’s appeal is her bumbly championing of the Everywoman. She’s funny without really trying to be funny, and that’s my kind of humor. (And maybe yours, too.) Those stories shine best as she describes her awkward years, though I rooted for her as she entered the “SNL” fray and delivered her iconic Sarah Palin impression.

Bossypants will be especially intriguing to those who enjoy behind-the-scenes peeks at life in show business — and Fey delivers. Here’s the thing: if you like Fey, you’ve probably already read this book or have serious plans to obtain it. I listened to it on audio, a genius move on my part — because really. Tina Fey. Telling you hilarious stories while you drive to Target. Doesn’t get much better than that. And if you don’t like/care about Tina Fey, I’m probably not going to convince you Bossypants is up your alley . . . because it may not be. If you think Fey is hilarious, read it (it’s quick). If not, you may want to pass.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316056871 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazon
Audio copy borrowed from my local library