Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Ten Best Books of 2011

Bowing to convention, here's my list of the best new books I've read this year on globalization. None of these are dry academic studies; all are engaging first person narratives, journalistic accounts, or colorful histories that illuminate the complexity of globalization for ordinary readers. All of these are highly recommended.

1. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
  • This "biography" of the city of Jerusalem, by focusing so clearly on the most coveted holy city in the world, illuminates the rise and fall of regional and global powers that have claimed possession of Jerusalem's sacred space over millennia. It's the most readable 600 page history book I've ever read, entertaining and enlightening at the same time. It was impossible to put down.

2. Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (W.W. Norton, 2011)
  • As my recent review indicates, this is a entertaining and sobering account of recent financial history by one of our best-known non-fiction writers.

3. Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Penguin, 2010)
  • Another book reviewed in this space, All the Devils is probably the single best place to start reading about the origins of the financial crisis, although it's best read in conjunction with the next selection. McLean and Nocera largely blame Wall Street for the crisis, mostly corroborating Charles Ferguson's Inside Job.

4. Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Times Books, 2011)
  • Unlike McLean and Nocera, Morgenson and Rosner focus on the story of James Johnson's tenure at Fannie Mae, the quasi-government mortgage guarantor. They convincingly show how Fannie Mae was involved early in contributing to the crisis, especially in hijacking Washington politicians. The lesson? Beware of the capitalist-statist complex, the overlap between Wall Street and Capitol Hill: this is the space Fannie Mae exploited to enrich Johnson and his cronies under the guise of expanding homeownership to new borrowers. If you read this and All the Devils, you'll have a fairly complete picture of what happened.

5. Stacey Edgar, Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide (St. Martin's Press, 2011).
  • An upbeat and hopeful example of alternative globalization. This young mom built a fair trade fashion business aimed at empowering female producers by giving them access to the large U.S. market through Global Girlfriend.com. While the narrative is a bit too cheerful and optimistic, it also stimulates hope about making a dent in global poverty.

6. Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011)
  • If you can get past the cheesy cover, you'll find an engaging story of eating across the Middle East in a time of war. Having married a Lebanese journalist not long after 9/11, this young writer becomes a war reporter, but she ends up writing about ordinary Middle Eastern life by focusing on the region's cuisine. Globalization is often accused of undermining traditional diets, but, as Ciezadlo shows, it can also foster cross-cultural understanding. Recipes are included!

7. Connor Grennan, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal (William Morrow, 2011)
  • A young man decides to spend his savings on a trip around the world and decides to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal because it sounds cool. He ends up finding his wife, discovering his vocation, and starting an organization to combat child trafficking in Nepal. A great story, told humbly. (Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book when it was chosen for Malone University's Fall 2011 required freshman reading program.)

8. Robin Wright, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (Simon and Schuster, 2011)
  • As the Arab Spring continues to unfold, this is a helpful first cut at telling its early history, by a seasoned journalist. Wright explicitly links the changes in the region to the forces of globalization. Far from being isolated from the world, the region turns out to be very much interconnected: satellite TV, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all significant tools in spreading revolt against corrupt regimes.

9. Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale (Penguin, 2011)
  • A reflective romp through a six-month experiment at going screen-free: no TV, no computers, no cellphones, and no video games in the house. Maushart has a Ph.D. in communications from New York University, so she's got some excellent preparation for thinking about media in society. Her lessons, "The Ten Commandments for Using Modern Media," are excellent advice for all of us. Instead of accepting the intrusion of electronic media as inevitable, we need to slow down and find alternatives that keep us human. We need to make space for kairos time and resist the flattening forces of chronos.

  • Also reviewed here, this book focuses on the American automobile industry in a global context: the oil price spike and financial collapse of 2008 were the nails in the coffin for an industry that had many internal problems. 

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