Paperback Picnic

A wicker hamper of paperbacks, culled from BusinessWeek reviews past

Did the dramatic recent verdicts in the Enron case once again prompt you to resolve to understand the whole affair? If so, check out Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story (Broadway Books, $16.95). The New York Times reporter sorts through the complicated, off-the-books entities cooked up by Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow. And there's a compelling, you-are-there narrative, which, for example, puts the reader in ex-CEO Jeffrey Skilling's bedroom as he struggles with the news of his best friend's suicide and in then-Chairman Kenneth Lay's office as he prays over the phone with a bankruptcy lawyer who wants Lay to give up his job. ``Through it all, Eichenwald somehow manages to give us fresh reasons for outrage,'' noted reviewer Wendy Zellner.

That's just one of the titles in BusinessWeek's roundup of paperbacks published just in time for summertime reading. A more heartening business story can be found in Shift: Inside Nissan's Historic Revival by Carlos Ghosn and Philippe Riès (Currency/Doubleday, $14.95). This is the account of how Ghosn, now CEO of Nissan (NSANY ), turned things around at that carmaker. A decade ago, the company was in a death spiral, carrying massive debts, heavy losses, and a badly damaged brand. The cosmopolitan Ghosn -- born in Brazil of Lebanese parents and educated in France -- was placed in charge of salvaging Nissan after Renault bought a controlling stake in the Japanese auto maker in 1999. Ghosn reduced capacity and trimmed debts while rejuvenating the brand with new models. So successful was the turnaround process that Ghosn himself became a cult figure in Japan.

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy by Matthew R. Simmons (Wiley, $16.95) has a controversial thesis: ``The risk is high that twilight may soon descend on oil production in Saudi Arabia.'' The author, a Houston investment banker and longtime energy Cassandra, bases his arguments on a reading of more than 200 technical papers presented by engineers from Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, and its predecessor, Aramco. He reports exhaustively on instances of increasing water encroachment into the oil -- a sign of aging fields -- declining reservoir pressure, and depletion of the oil in the kingdom's most prolific rock strata. If Simmons is correct, the global economy, which gets 11% of its oil supply from the country, is in serious danger. However, even if his interpretation is too dire, noted reviewer Stanley Reed, the book contains ``many valuable insights'' and a basic truth that the world needs to rethink its energy assumptions.

Several new paperbacks focus on global economics and development. Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East by Clyde Prestowitz (Basic Books, $16) is a call for government to safeguard U.S. citizens from the dangerous shoals of international trade. The appeal comes from an unlikely source: Prestowitz once served in the pro-laissez-faire Reagan Administration as a trade negotiator. But, says the author: ``The apparently effortless technological supremacy Americans assume as a birthright...had nothing to do with market forces and everything to do with targeted policy decisions.'' Prestowitz believes that India and China are on a trajectory to become global economic leaders -- and that unless it takes dramatic steps, the U.S. will fall behind.

Sebastian Mallaby's The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Penguin, $17) is a provocative account of an intense period of change at the World Bank. The author, a columnist at The Washington Post, tells how beginning in 1995, James D. Wolfensohn set about reinventing the institution, whose professionals came across as arrogant and whose projects frequently failed.

In the end, Mallaby seems to suggest that Wolfensohn's legacy was mixed: that some projects suffered, for example, but misappropriation of loan monies by corrupt politicians was somewhat curtailed. Altogether, the book is ``a lively retelling of the tortured history of an important institution that almost no one understands,'' said reviewer Paul Magnusson. A new afterword considers the experience of Bush-appointed World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs also looks at development issues in The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin, $16), which reviewer Pete Engardio said contains a ``sensible, often brilliant analysis of poverty's root causes and potential solutions.'' The author, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, believes that extreme want is far from incurable. For relatively little expenditure, he says, the West could provide medicines and fertilizers that could save millions of lives each year. Sachs points a finger at rural peoples' isolation from clinics, water supplies, and trade routes. He offers firsthand reporting from villages in Africa, Bolivia, Poland, and elsewhere. And he supplies examples of successful aid programs, while showing how highly promising initiatives in AIDS, malaria, and agriculture are stalling for lack of funds.

History buffs will find much to admire in Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence by Tim Parks (Atlas Books/Norton, $13.95). The author profiles five key Medici men of the age, starting with Giovanni, who launched the family bank in 1397. The prototypical Medici is Giovanni's long-lived son, Cosimo (1389-1464), who built up the bank and came to dominate Florentine politics. It was no mean feat to build a Europe-wide bank at that time, since the powerful Catholic Church considered money-lending to be usury and a terrible mortal sin. The bankers lived in perpetual fear of condemnation by the church. However, the family developed various subterfuges to earn a profit without actually charging interest, such as playing monetary exchange rates. Reviewer Thane Peterson said the ``elegantly told'' account offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of 15th century Florence.

With Iran again commanding headlines, readers may be interested in a window into that society. Christopher de Bellaigue's In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran (HarperCollins, $13.95) portrays a culture that places an unhealthy emphasis on death, martyrdom, and defiance of outsiders. Meanwhile, says the writer for The Economist and other publications, the country suffers under an unaccountable and often irresponsible political leadership -- one that's trapped in the past with little interest in the future. The bloody war with Iraq was the regime's apogee, says de Bellaigue, who points to the ubiquitous traces of the conflict that remain years after its end, such as photos of the war dead displayed in parks. Noted reviewer Stanley Reed: ``The author has immersed himself in the society and effectively describes his acquaintances' experiences of the revolution and its aftermath.''

Could it be that watching Desperate Housewives will really make you smarter? In Everything Bad Is Good For You (Riverhead, $14), Steven Johnson focuses on the positive aspects of pop culture, making a strong case that video games, television, and the Internet have evolved to the point that they are challenging our minds in new and productive ways. For instance, video games have become ``fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard,'' he says, improving both hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills. It's hard to isolate such factors' impact, but the author asserts that rising IQ scores are in part a result. Reviewer Spencer Ante found the book packed with ``contrarian insights backed by a deep understanding of high tech and low culture.''

Finally, for those who need a little fiction to leaven their reality diet, there's Never Let Me Go (Vintage, $14) by Kazuo Ishiguro, the celebrated author of The Remains of the Day and other works. Set in what seems to be a posh private school in the English countryside, this novel's characters are beset by an inexplicable sadness and fatalism. Initially, much of what goes on is ordinary, including the usual teenage jealousies and rivalries. Gradually, though, the reader comes to an understanding of the unhappy fate awaiting these youths. Such themes as cloning and nightmarish medicine have become commonplace in futuristic literature. Never Let Me Go handles these with immense subtlety, making for a haunting, thought-provoking read.

Compiled by Hardy Green

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