Book Review: The Power of Half

August 05, 2010

I got to finish reading The Power of Half in half time! The chronicles of a well-heeled, American family, living the American dream choosing to listen to their socially-conscious teen and volunteering to "half" their living space, makes for a "different" story. Did I like it, yeah, sort of. Because, when I was young, I had such ideals too that were slowly morphed into more pragmatic ways of giving back.

While it was heartening to see that social consciousness is alive even in the consumeristic, individualistic America where most of the teens do charity work for the grades, or media attention and a better chance at an ivy league application acceptance, it sort of makes you want to believe again that altruism is still alive and kicking.

The story ends with Hannah, the teen, highlighting the importance of documenting. Documenting for whom, for what? Excuse me, the bible says, "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" (Matthew6:3). This entire book goes against this very basis of charity and giving.

If however, it was to reveal to the world the personal details about one family's way of coming together through consensus building and teamwork, it was way too voyeuristic to my liking. But then, each one to their own. I suppose it would be an excellent piece on best management practices.

That said, should such stories not be told? Well, for the average teen, it is a good story to read. But will a teen pick up such a book and read? Doubtful. Most of the teens I know are more like Hannah's brother. They are immersed in their own world and when they do get an epiphany moment like Hannah did with the homeless person on the street, they respond to it in the moment. It is not planned. It is not discussed. It is not "journalled" about. It is just DONE.

And how they do it- they literally will give you their shirts off their backs, will share their most treasured possessions without a blink of an eye. They will do a "make over" if they felt that you could do with one. They "feel" deeply.

I once attended a very powerful and revealing talk by Alfie Kohn, one of our modern day gurus on parenting and kids. He speaks about how we have created a society where we want to catch our kids being "good" that results in rewards. This sort of Christian values of getting rewards as candy, admission to a college, or later heaven goes against the very grain of what Jesus preaches. Forgive them, my Lord, for they know not what they are doing!

I do not doubt Hannah's sincerity. The brouhaha around it that it finds value as a book is a bit much. Remember the 7 year old British kid who biked to help Haiti right after the earthquake? That is how spontaneous kids are. It is their very nature. Nothing to bruit about. Rather, it is for us adults to observe this ease of giving and learn from them, remember from them. Kids do not worry about their college admission money. They feel they need to give today, they just do.

It is obvious that Joan, the mother organizer in the book, has instilled this serious projection into the future. When the first payment to Hunger Project comes due and they still were not liquid enough to pay as their home hadn't sold, there is no question in the kids' minds: Take it out from the college funds, the unanimous decision from the kids. The parents balk at it.

I was disappointed in a strange way by the ending of the book. The aim of the book by the end appeared to be the sale of the house that had become a white elephant rather than the quest of giving it started out to be.

This is so typically American. It amazes me just how much we consume as a nation. We keep buying stuff that we never use. We have enough to supply 10 families with stuff. Thanks to freecycle (a neighborhood yahoogroup where you register for free and you can either ask for something you need or offer something you want to give away) we can be rid of much of the stuff in our homes, in the hope of not accumulating again. It amazes me how our garages overflow with items worth a few hundred dollars while our expensive cars bear the brunt of the weather on the driveways.

One other thing that grated on my spartan Indian soul was how often this family ate out while discussing world hunger. It left me a bit nauseous. The token 30 hour fast described in the end sort of sounds lame. It seemed like a slap on addition, a last bit of edit in to make for a soppier story- maybe the editors themselves suggested it to make for a better end, just as the reporters made them retake shots until they got the words they wanted for their news story.

The book ever so lightly brushes past the ugly face of aid. Jeffery Sachs with his gargantuan plan and a mammoth budget coughed up by countries around the world has been proven to be wrong. But then, he gets paid to give wrong advice.

The new buzz word around the aid world is microcredit. Guess what, these chaps who are doing such "good" with this micro capital will be rolling in dough very soon. Mohammad Yunus has shown the world how the rural poor rarely ever default on a loan, however small, especially women. But did anyone bother to figure out the percentage interest these poor women pay? Take a guess. They could be anywhere between 30 to 70% APR, that is much more than most credit cards charge.

So, does this book bring out the farce that aid is? No. Because they are still very innocent and idealistic in their "giving". They describe a scene of being taken by a hunger project local lead to visit a local politico in Ghana. It was so typically Indian in its narrative from the 70s. These days, the Indian politico is not so crude. His crime is very organized. He will not stoop for some white Americans. Oh no. He will want a direct transfer of a small percent of funds that hunger project will get into his swiss bank account so that hunger project can continue to do its "good work" in his country and gull more people into giving.

Blokes aka Meenakshi enjoys writing along with being a mom, a school teacher, a musician and an Art of Living teacher (of meditation and breathing)
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