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Book Review of: The Blue Sweater

Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World

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Review of The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz (Hardcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This personal memoir of an exceptional person on a series of exceptional quests is intriguing. It's not particularly polished, but the stories are unusual enough to keep the reader interested. Like any other memoir, the events are colored by the perceptions of the author. Since I have no other account of those events, I can't tell to what degree this took place in this book.

Ms. Novogratz accomplished some amazing things. Obviously aware of this, she made several efforts in the text to show that she wasn't all full of herself (some of these were clumsy, some were not). But I think this point is already made in her actions and the general philosophy evident in those actions. I guess there are always people who "read between the lines" things that aren't there, so maybe she did this on good advice as a precaution.

It's also evident that Ms. Novogratz wants to leverage her solid accomplishments in some way for posterity and continuation of what she started.  She and I are very close in age, and I understand this need to motivate the generations that follow. She's done this in person, and with the book she's reaching a wider audience.

She offers some observations and advice, multitasking advocacy with personal accounts and thus isn't proposing a specific program. Perhaps she's trying to avoid being preachy (she succeeds) and wants people to look at her example (while making it clear she's not full of herself) and let them find their own way.

This book has some writing flaws that I would normally harangue over in a review. But any good reviewer steps back and tries to determine who the audience for the book is and what the author is trying to tell them. That process may instruct the author to downplay some of the points that are important for proper reviews of general nonfiction.

For example, if the book were about how to start a company (such as Acumen Fund, which she founded), then the book would need to express its objectives and devote a chapter to each one. But this book isn't about that. It's not instructional guide for a specific process or to reach a specific  goal, though the author does convey some thoughts that are instructional.

Ms. Novogratz is a doer, not a talker. Keeping that in mind when reading this book will help you more enjoy the richness it offers.

It seems to me that the primary audience would be people who have the means, opportunity, and desire to travel to distant lands and help the very poor help themselves. I can't personally connect with that. There are also several other audiences, and you may find yourself a member of one or more of those.

For example, we all know someone who could use some mentoring. Something Ms. Novogratz learned, and repeatedly gave examples of in the book, is that telling people what they are doing wrong and then giving them a "better way" tends not to work. What she found was that you first need to understand where those people are and then help them to get to where they want to be, using what they are willing to use. This reflects, to me, what Stephen R. Covey says about "Seek first to understand."

One reason for the colossal failure of poverty relief efforts (in poverty-stricken places ranging from third world countries to urban America) is those efforts often proceed on assumptions that just aren't true. If the reader learns anything from this book, my guess would be Ms. Novogratz would desire the reader to learn how to really listen to people and see them as they are rather than how you wish them to be.

While I understand intellectually exactly the point she's making, I have to say I personally find this extremely hard and unnatural to do. So, I'm not pointing fingers at people who are serving in any capacity in poverty relief efforts. I am merely saying that Ms. Novogratz has this important message to communicate through her memoir. I think her need to convey this in depth is why the book, though a memoir in style and substance, is packaged as more of a self-help book for those wanting to help others.

She actually began this book not as a book but as a letter to herself. She was trying to understand the genocide of Rwanda, and getting her thoughts down was part of her effort to understand. But the letter kept getting longer. After 10 years, she just about had a book. Well, the next logical step....

It's also important to note that Seth Godin reviewed this book, wrote a snippet for the jacket, and has personally been very involved with Ms. Novogratz efforts over recent years. If you don't know who Mr. Godin is, start thumbing through back issues of Fast Company or ask just about anyone who has an MBA and is participating in today's business world. If you do know who Mr. Godin is, then just get the book (because he really, really wants you to).

This book consists of 16 chapters, a prologue, extensive acknowledgements, and a nicely done index. Each chapter begins with a relevant quote, and probably not one you've read  before. In these chapters, Ms. Novogratz proceeds pretty much in chronological order from her early adventures up to almost the present--roughly three decades.

Here's a sampling of chapter titles:

Chapter One. Innocent Abroad. This was aptly named, and Ms. Novogratz does some mea culpa here. I think one of her messages was that she had to learn by making mistakes. I found this refreshing in an era in which prominent people frequently pretend they are somehow genetically better than everyone else. Another message is that you can expect to stumble. Don't let that discourage you, as it's part of the process of learning. The key, however, is to actually learn from that. I think here we can understand that Ms. Novogratz is a humble person. If she weren't, then she would still be a "Chapter One" person today.

Chapter Five. The Blue Bakery. This is a mix of mea culpa and providing a success story. The bakery project is where Ms. Novogratz had several "aha!" moments. And it's where she really started to hit her stride. This chapter forms the foundation for the rest of the book, as it's the foundation from which Ms. Novogratz views the rest of her work in Africa (work that took about 20 years).

Chapter Nine. Blue Paint on the Road. This is the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. One of the central items in this chapter is the bakery was also a victim during that period of mass insanity.

Chapter Fourteen. Building Brick by Brick. How do you bring low-cost housing to areas where the residents have no access to a mortgage? Ms. Novogratz quotes one of the "making it happen" people she learned from. "We go to the people and live with them, build on what they know, listen to them, and help them do things for themselves." This is Ms. Novogratz' guiding philosophy, but not the one she began with. This chapter includes discussion of incremental housing and other solutions that don't typically cross the Western mind.

While I doubt Ms. Novogratz intended it, a major "takeaway" for me was the enormous expansion of the federal government over the past 20 years and especially the new legislation rammed through Congress in February of 2009 are counterproductive to the American economy and the American people. We are, like the African poor, capable of doing things for ourselves. We don't need bureaucrats and reality-averse programs undermining us at every turn. We need respect, not handouts and pats on the head.

In Africa, Ms. Novogratz found ways to remove barriers to people's progress and to find inexpensive solutions to help people be more productive. We should translate the lessons of this book into how we view the role of government in our own country. Rather than inflict us with "basket-making" projects (pork barrel spending), the government should instead serve the citizens by understanding where we are and what we have to work with ($2 trillion we don't have isn't it).

Of course, there are other lessons to learn from this book. Because it's not preachy or driven by a narrow agenda, there is room for people to learn much from Ms. Novogratz' experiences. If nothing else, this book is worth reading just to see how far one person will go to make the world a better place. And how she did that through the very people she helped.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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