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Niche nook

We asked our reviewers to recommend the best business, humor, sports, economics and self-published niche books of 2011-2012

Niche nook

David Bahnsen, a senior vice president at a leading financial firm, described five excellent business books published during the past year:

• Attacks on Mitt Romney's time at private equity firm Bain Capital are political, of course, but they also illuminate a key debate: wealth creation vs. job creation. Some theorize that the pursuit of wealth by a few does not create jobs-but in practice, as Robert Sirico shows in Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, job creation is a byproduct of the profit motive. Although Sirico did not set out in this book to spotlight 2012 politics or Bain Capital, he has produced a much-needed 200-page apologetic for free market morality.

• In 2001 top economist Jim O'Neill gave us a new acronym, BRIC, to describe the bloc of countries he saw as having extraordinary (and "emerging") economic growth potential in the decade ahead. O'Neill was right about Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and his only flaw was in understating how dramatic their growth would be. His newest book, The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond, reviews the state of these growth economies and what lies ahead. He also examines the futures of countries such as Indonesia, South Korea, and Mexico, and masterfully spotlights the positive effects that capitalism and globalization are having all over the world.

• Many evangelicals are writing and reading about character in the corner office, integrity in the marketplace, and leadership in the boardroom-so it's ironic that one of the best new books out is The Pope & the CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, Andreas Widmer's delightful summary of all he learned from the late Pope John Paul II. Widmer, who was a Swiss army guard before becoming a successful entrepreneur, shares key principles that any student of faith and business must not ignore.

• Ever since he produced Liar's Poker, one of the truly iconic (and entertaining) books ever written on life inside Wall Street, Michael Lewis has given us wonderfully written books that throw new light on undervalued resources and overhyped ones. Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World unpacks the debacle that has become the Eurozone in a way that is clever, informative, and most of all, frightening. But readers will not feel so good about the challenges those leftist Europeans face when they come face to face with the situation in California and Washington, D.C.

• As a student of the great financial crisis of 2008, I was nervous to read what a New York Times contributor might have to say about the subject. Plenty of books already exist that teach the narrative of capitalism's failure and the need for greater government intervention to keep it from happening again. Much to my surprise, Gretchen Morgenson's Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon not only avoids the typical leftist storyline, but refutes it altogether: She indicts rank cronyism as the chief culprit, and the government-sponsored enterprises of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the greatest examples.

Humorist Albin Sadar, declaring that "Christian humor" is not an oxymoron, offered as evidence a novel about a stand-up comedian, a book of funny observations, and a cartoon collection:

• In the novel category, Michael Snyder's A Stand-Up Guy is a semi-sweet romance wrapped in a milky mystery topped by a load of nutty characters. The title character, mediocre comedian Miles Oliver, can't stop saying "I'm sorry" while pursuing the quirky, kleptomaniacal accountant, Matilda. A Stand-Up Guy is light reading that's edgy without going way over the edge. It offers little that's preachy, and poignant moments of forgiveness drive much of the latter third of the book.

• Those who like quick one-liners will enjoy cartoonist Cuyler Black's What's That Funny Look on Your Faith? Think Gary Larson Christianized: Drawings go from corny (a trio of cows singing, "Amazing graze, how sweet the ground") to silly (Adam and Eve checking out a selection of leaves in "The Fall" Clothing Catalog) to clever (a supposed Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse banned from riding because he's on a hobbyhorse).

• The names of sections in Stuff Christians Like by Jonathan Acuff include "Using Vacation Bible School as Free Babysitting," "Waiting until a Co-Worker is Away from His Desk to Drop off Some Christian Propaganda," and "Church Names [Warehouse 242 and The Summit] that Sound Like Designer Clothing Stores." Acuff, tongue in cheek, shows how back-at-work conversations about worship services are supposed to lead to evangelism. Question: "What'd you do this weekend?" Answer: "I hung out at Elevation." Follow-up question: "Is that a new club?" Recommended response: "No, it's a church"-followed by a slide into a full gospel presentation.

WORLD Mailbag editor Les Sillars is looking forward to the 2012 Olympics, which begin July 27 in London, but he does not assume that the games will unite us because "sport transcends culture." He reviewed five recently published sports books show that athletics can mean very different things in different contexts:

• Jim Yardley frames his entertaining Brave Dragons as a clash of authoritarian Chinese culture with the free-market DNA of the NBA. The Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, the doormat of the Chinese Basketball Association, imported the league's first ex-NBA head coach in 2008 hoping to Americanize cautious Chinese players. The team's mercurial owner, peasant-turned-steel-tycoon "Boss Wang," thought it should work-the hoops are 10 feet high in both countries, right? But in basketball-crazy China, players, coaches, and owners express pride, ambition, generosity, jealousy, and courage in very different ways than in the United States, on and off the court.

Into the Silence by Wade Davis shows how British angst in the aftermath of the Great War, plus imperialism and advances in map-making, led to attempts to climb Mt. Everest in 1922 and 1924. The climbers wore wool overcoats and two pairs of long underwear, and only on the second try did they bother with the newfangled oxygen tanks. The book lags in places but the second ascent, the closest anyone would come until Edmund Hillary bested Everest in 1953, is an inspiring yet tragic tale.

• In This Love Is Not for Cowards, Robert Andrew Powell follows fans and players of the Indios, a top-level Mexican professional futbol team, and shows how they try to cope with a culture increasingly ruled by drug lords. The Indios, he writes, give hope to people who just want to "dance and watch soccer and drink and love" as they try to survive in Ciudad Juarez, the city across the fence from El Paso that has become the murder capital of the world. Powell begins to realize he's fallen into the same cultural fatalism when he sees on the news that a cartel victim's body parts were strewn along his jogging path minutes after his last run and he's more annoyed than horrified. The book has frequent profanity but nicely illustrates the human capacity for self-deception.

The Best American Sports Writing series lives up to its name, as usual, with the 2011 edition. Series editor Glenn Stout and guest editor Jane Leavy's anthology collected stories on topics ranging well beyond football and baseball to, for example, an amazing profile of the world's greatest "free diver" (no air tanks, 702 feet). The worldviews of the writers vary widely, but the editors look for stories that say something significant about being human.

• In Three and Out, John U. Bacon follows Rich Rodriquez for the three disastrous seasons he coached the Michigan Wolverines after nearly taking West Virginia to a national college football title. Rodriquez comes across as a decent guy and great coach brought down by bad luck, backbiting boosters, and his own ambition. Even Bacon, a Michigan fan, sees something wrong with an "educational" program in which hundreds of millions of dollars rest on whether a 20-year-old player hits a 35-yard field goal. This solid book should give pause to fathers whose fondest hope is that their sons might one day play big-time college sports.

If basketball is a contact sport and football a collision sport, this year's presidential campaign is turning economics into a demolition derby, with the two central figures of modern economics-Keynes and Hayek-clashing by proxy, with America's future at stake. Les Sillars reviewed four recent economics books:

Keynes Hayek by journalist Nicholas Wapshott is a thorough yet accessible and balanced look at the two economists. Keynes said he was saving capitalism, not undermining it, in advocating that governments spend their way out of the Depression. His views dominated economic policy in America and Europe for decades. But Hayek showed, as Wapshott explains, that "those who advocated large-scale public spending programs to cure unemployment were inviting not just uncontrollable inflation but political tyranny."

• Hayek would have appreciated The Morality of Capitalism: What Your Professors Won't Tell You: It's a collection of essays edited by Tom G. Palmer that gives capitalism its due. As Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey points out, it "is the most amazing vehicle for social cooperation that has ever existed. And that's the story we need to tell ... that it's about creating shared value, not for the few, but for everyone."

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty surveys economies over the last 1,500 years to show that countries became wealthy when their citizens created societies with "inclusive" political and economic systems that respect political rights and encourage economic opportunity for everyone. Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson point out that institutions in poor countries "extract" wealth for the elites. Sadly, they minimize the role of religion and ignore the way truly inclusive systems developed only in Western nations whose citizens shared a biblically based worldview that values individuals. (A few countries, like Japan, imported inclusive institutions.)

• Niall Ferguson in Civilization: The West and the Rest traces economic progress to six "killer apps": competition, science, property rights, medicine, a consumer society, and the work ethic. All of these ideas owe something to Judeo-Christian values, and his last chapter on work shows how Protestantism "provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5."

Authors send WORLD senior writer Susan Olasky about 200 self-published books each year, and twice a year she writes briefly about the 10 best. Her overall advice for writers: Write about something you are uniquely equipped to write about. Don't choose topics well-covered by traditional publishing houses. Be ruthless when you edit. Cut, cut, cut. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Her list begins with two books by retired university professor Gregory Athnos, who traveled to Rome during one of his sabbaticals to study early Christian catacomb art. Granted access to the Vatican archives, Athnos discovered how early Christians emphasized the Resurrection in a way the modern church fails to do. In The Easter Jesus and the Good Friday Church, he unpacks a theology of resurrection. In The Art of the Roman Catacombs: Themes of the Deliverance in the Age of Persecution, Athnos provides a guide through the art that inspired his research. Clear writing and illustrations make this an engaging guide to the art that arose from the early Christians' resurrection hope.

Many WORLD readers have lived interesting lives, and six of the 10 books tell their stories in engaging ways. In Piercing the Night, H. Eberhard Roell describes his family's adventures in Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin. Working as missionaries with a Dutch organization, Roell gained insight into problems in relief and development work, and vividly offers up stories of people, places, and adventures.

Lee B. Mulder, a journalist involved in missions for nearly two decades, also writes about Uganda in They Call Me Mzee. Mulder shows how his experience of Uganda differed from his expectations. With a focus on the Christian faith of many Ugandans, and their partly successful battle against AIDS, Mulder offers Uganda as a hopeful example to other African countries.

Infinitely More by Alex Krutov is a memoir about growing up in the Russian orphanage system. Within the system Krutov moved to different orphanages, to an abusive adoptive home, a mental institution, and a juvenile detention facility. He met a few Russians who singled him out for kind attention, but his life did not begin to change until in his mid-teens he began to meet visiting American missionaries.

Matthew Lock Pridgen's American childhood was in some ways the opposite of Krutov's, but both young men ended up in despair. Pridgen's outwardly obedient style gained him acceptance to Duke University, but-once free of parental and cultural restraints-he experimented heavily with drugs. At his lowest point he decided to kill himself by swimming straight out into the Atlantic. From Folly cuts back and forth between events leading up to his suicide attempt and the swim itself.

Power of Dream, Love, Mission by Matthew Whong tells pastor Whong's story of growing up in North Korea, escaping to South Korea after Communism came to the north, immigrating to the United States to study, becoming a pastor, marrying an American woman, and becoming a missionary to Koreans in Brazil. He shares wisdom and insights gained through those experiences.

Beyond My Limits: Adventures with God on the Appalachian Trail by Charles Anderson engagingly tells how the former missionary to France became a missionary to fellow hikers on the 2,000-mile-plus Appalachian Trail.

Two works of fiction also made the list. Gerald F. Ward's Roar of the Lion: Encounters with the Christ is a slender book of biblically based short stories. Each story is a first-person account of how various people-a shepherd, a leper, Legion-reacted to meeting Jesus.

The protagonist of Angie Brennan's comic novel, My Life Behind the Brick Wall, is a young woman who works for the Brick Bulletin, the brick industry's monthly magazine. Bored with her job, Vivian starts writing a blog about the antics of her co-workers. When the blog becomes public, trouble and romance ensue.

The Editors

The Editors