Books with a Cause

As we come to the end of what’s been a challenging economic year, it’s worth taking a moment to shed the financial stress and dig down into what really makes us tick. For some, it’s more hours out on the trails or quality time with family and friends. For others, it’s appreciating that no matter how much they might have lost, too many people still have less.

One of my favorite Breckenridge, Colo. restaurants, Amazing Grace Natural Eatery, has recognized exactly that. Despite a tough year and endless hard work to make their small business thrive, owner Monique Merrill and staff have decided to start a small charitable giving program to benefit local nonprofits.

Good at the Grace, which they call “a small project inspired by the generous souls who visit us daily,” will take place once a season in support of philanthropic efforts that share the profile of Amazing Grace: “small in stature, but enthusiastically spreading goodness in the world in a joyful, big-hearted way.”

On December 22, Amazing Grace will kick off the program by donating 100% of the day’s net profit, including tips and salary, to the Langtang Medical Clinic in Nepal. The small clinic, established in 2006 by “Doc PJ” (Craig Perrinjaquet), provides free primary medical care to more than 1500 Nepali villagers annually.

Following the lead of Amazing Grace, I hope to extend the goodness with a list of reads that will educate, inspire and offer new ways to make a positive impact. Each of the books below incorporates elements of memoir, adventure and documentary style storytelling, while also leaving you with a reason to support the cause.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn In Half the Sky, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn discuss the major abuses of women worldwide, including sex trafficking, gender-based violence and maternal mortality. They are clear in their goal: they want to recruit all readers to “join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”

Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder – From the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Mountains beyond Mountains, Strength in What Remains tells the story of Deo, who after living through a civil war and genocide in Burundi, moves to the U.S. to create a new life in New York City.

Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson – In the sequel to his bestselling Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson continues his story of building schools for young women, this time in the secluded northeast corner of Afghanistan.

First They Killed my Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Loung Ung – This memoir follows Loung as she’s displaced from privilege in Phnom Penh and forced into work camps under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army. Bones that Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia by Kari Grady Grossman and The Road to Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam are also worthy companion reads.


(This post also appeared in my latest blog for the Women’s Adventure Magazine newsletter)


My 2009 Top 10 Book List

With yesterday’s New York Times post on the 10 Best Books of 2009 (due out in print Sunday 12/13), plus that extra nudge from my reader friends, I figured it was time to decide on my own annual list.

One of the NYT’s picks was at the top of my list as well: A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert. This is just one example of a gem I found because of Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia, the indie bookstore I grew up with – and always make multiple stops at when I’m visiting my folks in Madison, CT. Whenever I see one of Roxanne’s  “shelf talkers” (those great handwritten cards that you only find at small, independent booksellers), I know I’ll be treated to phenomenal writing, poignant characters and relevant social commentary subtlety woven into the storyline.

Which brings me to this year’s Top 10… and the totally biased, informal and newly created criteria:

  • The writing wows me: I want to re-read sentences and wish I had written them, just like in Cleave’s Little Bee (“A scar does not form on the dying. A scar means I survived.”)
  • The characters matter: I care about their fate. They make me laugh (“I am Atomiko!” in Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North.) They frustrate me, but make me think (John William in Guterson’s The Other.) They surprise me (nearly everyone in Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil.)
  • The message outlasts the story: there’s nothing worse than being hit over the head by an author’s political or social treatise. Instead, when it comes to making a point, subtlety wins… especially in fiction. The commentary here ranges from war and immigration to relationships, marriage, addiction, materialism and feminism.
  • Creativity: for those of us who read constantly, this is a no-brainer. (On this year’s list, Shriver definitely takes this category with The Post-Birthday World.)
  • I read it this year. Yes, I know that seems obvious, but many end of year lists are pulled from what was newly released/published. Here, the list is simply pulled from what I read in 2009.


  • Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addiction, David Sheff (best appreciated with the son’s own memoir, Tweak… after all, there are at least two sides to every story.) (review)
  • The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French


  • A Short History of Women, Kate Walsh (review)
  • Into the Beautiful North, Luis Urrea (for those who are on Twitter, Luis and his wife are very active: @urrealism)
  • Little Bee, Chris Cleave (review)
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem (oldie but goodie, soon to be a movie directed by Ed Norton)
  • The Other, David Guterson (author of Snow Falling on Cedars) (review)
  • The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver
  • The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam
  • The Story of a Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer (review)

Please add your own favorites to the comments below so we can keep this list growing!

And, if you need more recommendations, check out my 2008 Top 10.