The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh

The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope
by Austen Ivereigh
Henry Holt and Co.
464 pages - ISBN 9781627791571
October 2014

Barnes and Noble

Pope Francis is coming! Pope Francis is coming! 

To the United States that is. The supreme pontiff is gracing us with his presence later this month and while I’d love to see him in person, I will have to live vicariously through all the digital media that will hit the internet as a result of his visit.

I’m fascinated with Pope Francis and I’m not even Catholic. I was raised a Protestant in a denomination which denounced everything Catholicism stood for. No rituals, no crosses, no rosaries, no artwork or statues, no big churches, no religious hierarchy, no priests, no Pope. Because my upbringing was so anti-Catholic, now as a non-religious adult I’m very intrigued by what was withheld from me and I’m particularly fascinated with the role of the Pope. He’s not just the leader of the Catholic church; his influence stretches beyond the boundaries of his religion. The Pope has a platform unlike any other world leader. The election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis, a Jesuit Priest turned Cardinal from Argentina, was a monumental decision that would forever change the history of the church.

Not knowing very much about Pope Francis, how he became Pope or the Catholic church in general, The Great Reformer by Austen Ivereigh became a primer for me. It’s not the ideal book for someone with little knowledge of Catholicism. Reading up on the religion beforehand would have helped me out a bit. However, the book’s focus is solely on the evolution of Jorge Bergoglio into Pope Francis. Because he hasn’t been Pope for long the book is mostly about his life as Bergoglio. The chapters follow his life in chronological order yet each of them start in the present (2013-2014) then dip back into the past.

Bergoglio/Pope Francis led an oftentimes tumultuous life. We learn about Argentina’s difficult political history, Bergoglio’s upbringing, Jesuit priesthood, his work with the poor and the many relationships, both bad and good, that he’s had over the years with key figures in religion and politics as well as family and friends. As a big fan of another Jorge, Argentine author and poet Jorge Luis Borges, I was particularly enamored by the fact that Borges and Bergoglio met when Bergoglio invited the author to speak to his class as a Jesuit college. Jorge meets Jorge; two Argentine greats who continue to influence the world in death (Borges) and in life (Bergoglio/Pope Francis).

Jorge Bergoglio meets Jorge Luis Borges

I listened to this book on audio. I had been having a lot of luck listening to non-fiction books about religion so I gave this one a try. The author narrated the book and did a fine job but in the end I did have some difficulty following a long with his narration. This book is a bit biased in favor of Pope Francis. Whenever we learn something negative about Bergoglio/Pope Francis it’s quickly followed up by a statement by the author that redeems him. Bergoglio/Pope Francis is a very admirable man and has led a good life with a focus on simplicity and generosity and that comes across in the book.

Even though this book was published early in his career as Pope, this book won’t become outdated any time soon because the author wisely focus on Pope Francis’ journey to the Vatican instead of his short time at the Vatican. The title is true to the purpose of the book. The reader learns a lot about how Pope Francis could reform the church and how along the way he became such a radical voice. I recommend The Great Reformer to anyone who has a basic understanding of Catholicism and a particular interest in the life of Pope Francis.

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Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
by Greg McKeown
Hardcover - 260 pages
ISBN 9780804137386
Crown Business
April 2014

I’ve read a few books this year that have changed my life and this is one of them. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown is about getting rid of all those things that make you overworked, stressed and unfocused to get back to the essentials. Author McKeown breaks down the concepts into parts so you can understand the whole picture clearly and even includes some helpful drawings that enhance the message.

McKeown says there are two types of people: Non-Essentialists and Essentialists. Non-Essentialists try to do it all. They multitask and try to fit in as much as they can into their packed days. The more they think they can accomplish the more they feel accomplished. However, the author makes the case that they are stretching themselves too thin and the time and energy they can put into certain aspects of their life and career is decreased because it has to be spread across so many different tasks.

I love how the author implements the drawings and sketches. The one below effectively demonstrates the difference between putting all your energy into one thing versus putting small portions of your overall energy into many things:

The book offers a lot of advice on how to say NO to the non-essentials and yes to the essentials. Readers are encouraged to embrace routine as a means of conserving mental energy. Escape, sleep, editing, clarification, setting limits, creating buffers and boundaries are all elements of the advice. The advice can apply to many people but the examples the author provides are primarily composed of high-power executives. I was a bit offended to have to read about Jeff Bezos’ sleeping habits. I really don’t care about people like him. I’m a professional but I can’t relate to someone like that. I would have liked more examples that would people like myself who inhabit the middle and lower classes can relate to. I don’t think Essentialism is something only the rich can afford. I think anyone can become an Essentialist.

After reading this book I realized that I used to be an Essentialist and that I was happy that way. What changed was my loss of religion. When you are religious you say “no” to many things. Life can become a lot simpler and more focused when you clear the extraneous and whittle things down to what’s most important. When I stopped being religious, it wasn’t like life became a free-for-all and I said yes to everything. However, I did start saying yes to more things and found that life got more complicated and more cluttered as the years passed. I think at heart I’m an Essentialist and the Non-Essentialist lifestyle is not for me. It’s too stressful and harried. I need some simplicity and focus! I’m grateful to this book for opening my eyes to this.

Disclaimer: I received this book as part of Crown's Blogging for Books program.

The Sting Man: Inside Abscam by Robert W. Greene

The Sting Man: Inside Abscam 
by Robert W. Greene
Originally published 1982
Penguin Books
Paperback, ISBN 9780143125273
324 pages

Barnes and Noble

The movie American Hustle released late last year captivating audiences with its improvised dialogue, crazy hairstyles, 1970s fashion and style and performances by top actors including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. The film wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it nonetheless received much admiration and acclaim and garnered 10 Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Bradley Cooper, Best Supporting Actress – Jennifer Lawrence, Best Director – David O. Russell, Best Actor – Christian Bale, Best Actress – Amy Adams, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Production Design). At first viewing of this film, I felt a little let down. However, as soon as I walked out of the theatre I kept thinking of the film and its been on my mind ever since. Something about the movie just stuck with me and got me thinking. One of my primary thoughts is that the film might be ahead of its time. I tend to chuckle at this notion considering the fact that the film is about the past. We may not fully appreciate it now (or perhaps we shall depending on how many Oscars it receives) but we may appreciate its genius in the future.

After seeing the movie, I was browsing my favorite sites online and saw that Biographile (a site run by Penguin Random House) featured The Sting Man: Inside Abscam by Robert W. Greene in an article. This book, published in 1982, is the definitive tome about Abscam. I entered Biographile’s giveaway and was one of the lucky winners! As soon as I got the book I started devouring it right away.

Abscam had been in the works for a few years and the FBI’s key man behind the sting was the notorious con man Mel Weinberg (Irving Rosenfield as played by Christian Bale in the film). Greene’s book follows the life of Weinberg, his early start as a con artist, his successful career conning people left and right, his romantic relationships including with his mistress Lady Diane/Evelyn (Lady Edith/Sydney as played by Amy Adams in the film), his inevitable capture by the FBI and his involvement in Abscam. While the film American Hustle is about Abscam and the filmmakers heavily relied on this book as a source of information, the film was not intended to be faithful to the original story. For example, Diane had no role in Abscam. Her participation in the Abscam is a figment of the clever filmmaker’s imagination. The real Abscam was essentially a men’s club.

The book is only 324 pages but took me quite a long time to read. Scams and cons are often really complex and this book is crammed with details. There are so many names that its hard to keep track of them all. The author uses surnames frequently enough so you can keep track of who he is referring to. But for the most part there are too many names to keep straight. For the most part, Abscam seemed overly complicated but the incredible attention to detail was necessary for what they wanted to accomplish: getting members of Congress and the Senate on tape accepting a bribe. Greene takes his time going through every single phase of Abscam. This is necessary because, although the information can be overwhelming, you get the overall sense that Abscam was a long and complicated process.

Throughout the book there are breaks that feature transcripts from tape recordings and scenes from Mel Weinberg’s life and cons. These are often entertaining breaks and a chance to pause and catch your breath before diving into more complicated details of the scam. There are plenty of these breaks and you’ll look forward to reading each and every one once they appear.

The book follows Weinberg’s life up until Abscam and then devotes a lot of time to the Abscam scandal but only one small chapter to the aftermath. Because the book was written and published so soon after the scandal broke, there might not have been enough time for the fallout of the scandal to fully develop or people may have read enough about the aftermath and wanted more about how it started and how it worked. Greene writes in a very chronological manner, hardly ever going back into time for information. This keeps readers on the straight and narrow. Deviations might have been too confusing for the reader. The last chapter was added after the book’s publication and provides us with the final chapter in the tragic life of Marie (Rosalyn as played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film), Mel’s second wife.

If you loved American Hustle and are really curious about Abscam and this moment in US history, I highly recommend reading The Sting Man. The events in Mel Weinberg’s life and in Abscam are exciting and often shocking and surprising. It certainly was a wild ride!

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

The Silent Wife 
by A.S.A Harrison
ISBN: 9780143123231 Paperback
Penguin Books
June 2013
Barnes and Noble - IndieBound - Powell's

Boy, it's been quite a long time since I've read a contemporary novel for adults. For fiction, I mostly read classics (for my classics project) or books for children and young adults (for my job). And outside of that my reading mostly consists of non-fiction. Needless to say, it felt really really good to pick up a contemporary novel and just lose myself in it.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison follows the relationship between couple Jodi and Todd which, after 20 or so years, is quickly beginning to unravel. Because of Jodi’s hesitance, they have never married nor have they any children. Both are in their mid-to-late 40s and Todd is in the throws of a mid-life crisis. He has taken up a torrid sexual affair with Natasha, the college age daughter of his best friend Dean. The affair is successfully kept secret from both Jodi and Dean until Natasha becomes pregnant and insists that Todd leave Jodi and marry her. While it takes some prodding from Natasha, Todd is happy to embark on this new journey in life. He’s finally going to get married and be a father, two life events that Jodi has denied him during the twenty years they were together. But Todd’s new life isn’t perfect and his abandonment and betrayal is destroying Jodi.

Its not a spoiler to say that Jodi will end Todd’s life because that’s made clear at the very beginning of the book. The plot basically follows the events that lead up to his inevitable demise and what happens immediately after. I glanced at some negative reviews and found that most were disappointed because the book wasn’t a psychological thriller, that the comparison to Gone Girl others have made was inaccurate and that the plot was very slow. After reading those reviews, I’m glad that I didn’t expect a rip-roaring thriller and found that I enjoyed the book immensely and not having certain expectations helped I’m sure.

When I intially read the book description, I saw this more as a book about an unraveling relationship more than a psychological thriller. And that’s what it was. However, that’s not to say there aren’t some psychologically thrilling moments. The climax of the book was so disturbing to me that I had to put the book aside and relay my thoughts to happier things so I wouldn’t be too emotionally unsettled to continue. And yes I am a sensitive reader, more so than most, but it doesn’t discredit the power of the climax which I thought was particularly well done. The pace of the book worked for me. Jodi moves slowly and methodically and Todd’s life moves like he had just pressed the fast forward button. The 28 chapters in Part 1 go back and forth between Jodi (Her) and Todd (Him) until it reaches Part 2 where it is all about Jodi and the aftermath of Todd’s death. I’m a big fan of alternating chapters, especially when what they’re alternating between opposites (present/past, him/her, good/evil, etc.) or two different perspectives (Jodi/Todd). The alternating chapters worked particularly well in this book.

The book, while very enjoyable, wasn’t without its flaws. I didn’t feel much of anything for Jodi but then again I’m not really sure we are supposed to. Jodi is a psychologist and is calm, reserved and methodical. I found it hard to connect with her but also felt remorse for her situation. I didn’t have much in common with Todd either but I felt he was a much more interesting character than Jodi. Their relationship and the events that unfolded were fascinating to watch. I didn’t quite get why the author focused so much on Jodi’s relationships with other men (her two brothers and psychologist Gerard). Jodi’s conversations with Gerard about her brothers are given plenty of attention but I couldn’t quite connect that to Jodi’s relationship with Todd. Maybe someone else could appreciate this where as I didn’t.

If you are looking for a exciting psychological thriller, look elsewhere. If you want a thoughtful read that really explores the nuances of human relationships, then this book is for you. Unfortunately, the author A.S.A. Harrison passed away before the book’s publication. Its too bad that she couldn’t enjoy her book’s release to the world or follow it up with more insightful fiction.

Note: When I first came across this book, I noted some similarities with the Jodi Arias case. Both women are named Jodi, both had unraveling relationships and both killed their romantic partner. Other than those similarities, the two stories, the fictional one and the real life one, couldn’t be more different!

Classics Project Book #6 ~ Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan
by J.M. Barrie
Blackstone Audio
Originally published 1904
ISBN: 9781441715494

Barnes & Noble


Peter Pan is one of several classic children’s novels that escaped me in my youth. As an adult, I’m trying to make up for lost time and channel my inner child by reading them. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz delighted me, Alice in Wonderland is on the horizon and I just finished an adventure with Peter Pan.

So much of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is especially for the imagination and feeling of a child. Peter Pan is the boy who never wants to grow up. He’s gay (in the classic definition), innocent and heartless. As a child, he has the magical power to fly simply by tapping into “lovely wonderful thoughts”. He has very little sense of time and virtually no long-term memory because he is too consumed with new adventures and being a boy. While children often struggle with the limitations of their age, Peter Pan, the Lost Boys and their new friends Wendy, Michael and John Darling demonstrate that being a child is something special and that adults are at the disadvantage of not being able to recapture the magic of their youth.

Peter Pan lures Wendy, Michael and John from their cozy home, teaches them to fly and they have wondrous and sometimes dangerous adventures. The characters of Neverland include fantastical creatures like mermaids and fairies that children only read about in books but here are children interacting with them in their own exclusive world. The children are pitted against the most capitvating villain of their imagination: pirates. Neverland is exotic and different and a place where your average adults are not allowed.

I think the enduring legacy of the story of Peter Pan is it’s ability to tap into a child’s imagination in the most direct way possible. The story captures their imagination, speaks to their hopes and fears and provides them with heroes that they can identify with.

I enjoyed this book as an adult but do regret not having read it as a child. Most of the fantastical adventures were lost on me and I found myself more interested in the tail ends of the story when we're in the Darling home.

I got this book as part of a free audio book deal from . They are a great alternative to Audible especially if you don’t want to do business with Amazon. The audio book was narrated by Christopher Cazenove who I think did a wonderful job. It felt very much like a classic story time narration. I wonder what an audio narration would sound like with a much young narrator. I think it would be even better.

Classics Project Book #5 ~ The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

The End of the Affair
by Graham Grene
6 hours 28 minutes
Originally published 1951

Years ago I remember catching snippets of the 1999 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The film starred Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore and there was one scene has a permanent spot in my memory. It’s when Maurice Bendrix (Fiennes) puts stockings and shoes on Sarah Miles (Moore). He tells her he’s jealous of her stockings, of her buttons and of her shoes and it’s one of the most romantic and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever been privileged to witness (you can read the lines from that scene here ).

Fast forward to 2012 when Audible announced their A-List line of celebrity narrated classic and literary audio books. I signed up for Audible so I could download Anne Hathaway’s narration of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (read my review here) and Colin Firth’s narration of The End of the Affair. Both proved to be incredibly listening experiences!

The film plays up more of the love affair between Maurice and Sarah. The book stays true to it’s title and focuses strictly on the end of their affair. The story takes place during World War II in London. Maurice will do anything to possess Sarah. He’s a novelist who has more control with the imaginary worlds he creates in his writing than with real life. Sarah Miles is a gentle woman, in love with Maurice but still devoted to her mild-mannered husband Henry. Sarah abruptly ends their affair when in a moment of despair she promises God she’ll end the affair if only Maurice survived the bombing. Maurice doesn’t know this and is convinced that Sarah is having an affair with someone else. He hires a detective, reads her diary and is constantly obsessing over every minute detail of their affair and of her life.

“We are possessed by nobody, not even by ourselves.”

We as the reader are drawn in to Maurice’s story of jealousy and obsession. This novel is taut with emotion and we become fully enveloped in this beautifuly written yet haunting and dark story. The prose is magical, the characters feel real and the story is exquisite. Colin Firth’s narration is one of the best I’ve ever heard. He won the Audie Award for Best Audio Book of 2013 and it’s well-deserved (it was also nominated for Best Solo Narration - Male and Best Literary Fiction Audio). Die-hard Firth fans will swoon when they listen to this!

The End of the Affair is referred to as one of Graham Greene’s Catholic novels and religion, personal belief, tradition and atheism are all explored. The theme of religion becomes much more important at the end of the novel. I didn’t quite understand why this was considered a Catholic novel until I got to the last third of the book. The book is also loosely based on Graham Greene’s real life affair with Lady Catherine Walston as well as his own struggles with converting to Catholicism.

I highly recommend this book if you like beautiful prose with intense emotion. The scene I loved from the movie ended up not being in the book which I didn't mind. The movie played up the romance and the book focused on the end of the affair which seems to be fitting for both mediums.
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