Thursday, August 27, 2009

McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld -- Misha Glenny -- 3 Stars

So I am a quasi member of a book club. The book club is actually quite fine but I dub myself a 'quasi' member having only attended two meetings in the past six years. The books are predominantly either from the political science or international affairs ilk and this is my second blog about a book from that club (the first blog).

In the past few weeks, I have spent some time getting through the behemoth that is McMafia. It's not so much the length of the book (only about 350 pages) but rather the large and long pages that contain next to no dialogue (which greatly increases the length of the book) and the seemingly endless slew of foreign names and cities that are mentioned that made it a difficult book to plow through. Nonetheless, I got through it and was happy I did so as it was an illuminating, if not slightly depressing, view of our current global world.

As you might be able to ascertain from the title, the book is about the growth of worldwide crime in connection with development of globalization. In general, the book is not so uplifting and pretty much scared the hell out of me. Glenny spends most of the book explaining the litany of criminal problems in a collection of countries around the world. While doing so, he talks about the great diversity of crimes that are occurring worldwide that include: drugs, prostitution, cybercrime, theft, labor trade, etc. For the most part, his writing is crisp and the books high points occur when he shares the intimate details and personal stories from people connected and affected by global crime around the world.

There were a few interesting items I gleaned from the text that are worth sharing. First, the rise in global crime has a number of causes with perhaps none more critical than the fall of the Soviet Union. Additionally, the huge rise of wealth in Western Europe and the proclivity for the people of these cultures to want very cheap goods and often ilicit items is hugely important. As Gleny nicely puts it, "Organized crime is such a rewarding industry in the Balkans because ordinary West Europeans send an ever-burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleep with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; snorting coke through fifty-euro notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigration labor on subsistence wages; stuffing their gullets with caviar and admiring ivory and sitting on teak." Second, SO much of the illicit trade that occurs is either connected or related to licit trading that it is incredibly difficult to determine the line between the two. Likewise, most criminal organization have a hand in many, many legal and illegal businesses. The yakuza in Japan, for example, have become an institutionalized element in society. Third, so many governments of countries around the world allow illegal elements, or, in some cases, are part of the criminal underworld (Nigeria, much of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, for example). This in turn creates a major issue for Westernized countries as they ask these countries to curb corruption and strengthen the rule of law which they are often unwilling to do. On the other hand, the West plays a part in the rise of criminalization and needs to reassess its resistance to free labor and protectionist practices.

Overall, the book is a bit difficult to get through and will certainly make you look at the world and even YOUR own role in it (yes, each of us actually plays a part in the rise of the global criminal world). Perhaps the most uplifting thing I took away from the book (if you can call it that), is that I feel incredibly lucky to be an American. He goes from country to country demonstrating ways crime is a regular part of everyday life, and he does not paint an uplifting picture. So, if you want to undertake a meaty, detailed, richly told story about global crime in the world, this is the book for you!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Good to Great -- Jim Collins -- 4 Stars

As the summer spirals to the end, teachers across the country are coming to the realization that the short, sweet weeks of summer are rapidly coming to a close and its time to start refocusing on another year ahead. Time to put down the sunscreen and novels and start to reexamine curriculum and rethink lesson plans. In the spirit of returning to school, I felt it might be useful to read a book that can add and help improve my educational knowledge. Rather than reading something about educational philosophy or policy(as I did for the past few years), I turned to a classic book about business titled Good to Great by Jim Collins.

I wasn't quite sure if this book would apply to schools or even if the book would be interesting (as I am not really a business person); I was sure that it was a classic book on business that is highly recommended. Luckily, the book was applicable to schools, easy to get through and interesting to boot!

Basically, the book looks at eleven Fortune 500 that made the leap from being good to being great. There is a whole bunch of rigid criteria, and I feel pretty confident that those 11 are pretty special. Anyway, the book breaks down six major things (in three categories) that have helped these companies rise to the level of greatness.

Overall, what I found most pleasing about this book was the simplicity (yet difficulty to accomplish) of each aspect and how easily the business examples and stories could apply to any organization, even a school. I was worried the book would all be business golbydegoop (sp?) but all of it was easy to digest and made a great deal of sense. The really difficult part, however, is putting into practice the ideas Collins mentions. Nonetheless, it is certainly nice to now have a detailed and clear road map.

I wouldn't necessarily suggest this book for alot of teachers out there, but I would urge anyone to pick it up and check it out if you are curious about organizational leadership, how to create a successful business model, or how to go from being good to great. You can scan through many parts of the book, and its written and organized in ways that make it very easy to pull out the most salient pieces of information quite quickly.

I gave the book 4 stars and rate it somewhere between good and great!

Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin – 4 stars

Currently, there is a great deal of buzz and excitement about David Oliver Relin’s story of Greg Mortenson told in Three Cups of Tea . It is a national bestseller and has begun to receive a cult like following in educational circles. Due to the overwhelmingly strong support of this book by nearly everyone, I felt it was definitely worth a read.

If you are not familiar with the story, the book is basically a retelling of the last 10 years of Mortenson’s life as he attempts to create schools in Pakistan and now Afghanistan. The book is written entirely by Relin but Mortenson’s life and memories are what fill each chapter and move forward the story.

Overall, the hype is worth it; the book is very good. Like many things that become incredibly accepted in American pop culture, it is well worth checking out. (Side note -- This may sound incredibly obvious but recently it dawned on me that whatever it is that ‘America’ as a whole supports in pop culture, and sort of comes out of nowhere, is almost always worth the hype. Some recent examples: Slumdog Millionaire – no one ever heard of it, then everyone saw it, ridiculously good; Da Vinci Code – awesome; Kanye West – I thought just another rapper, until I listened, again incredibly good. Anyway, you get the idea, this book falls into that category). The book’s story is incredibly touching, and the whole idea that the most effective way to fight terrorism is through education and children is obviously inspiring to any reader (perhaps more so to teachers).

I will probably get chastised for not giving the book 4.5 or 5 stars by some but let me explain. First, in general, I do not have a huge interest in foreign countries, and I especially find Asia to be uninteresting (this is totally subjective and I understand I am Euro/Western-centric). Second, I was frustrated with the lack of ‘results’ or even details about the future of the students of these schools. So much of the book premise is that making schools in these areas by themselves is the answer. I don’t quite agree. What are the graduates of these schools doing? Obviously if the alternative is the Tailban, the school is far superior but if they are simply learning about medicine and never returning to help their village and local people, what use is that? (I will answer my own question here as Mortenson and CAI (Central Asia Institute) try to educate girls, as they are far more likely to return and help the local village). Third, the book is often confusing. The number of varied names of places and people is incredibly overwhelming, and its difficult not to get lost from time to time try to keep up with who each person is.

With all that being said, the greatness of the story (less so the book) is the simple way Mortenson and CAI are helping to change the world. One of the best messages in the story is that the stereotypes that are so prevalent in our media and our culture about Pakistani and Afghanis are so off based. Think of it this way, if you assume that all or most people in this area are terrorists or support terrorists, than you should be okay with everyone in that area assuming you voted for George W. Bush and/or support all of his policies. Prior to the election, few Americans supported Bush’s military policies just as an incredible few in that area supported the Taliban and currently support terrorism. Most are similar to Americans: they have a core set of moral values, believe in helping others and think education can solve many problems.

Perhaps the most saddening and incredibly difficult problems stems from one major issue. As Mortenson visited some American Pentagon workers, they asked to help him by providing money. His response was “I realized my credibility in that part of the world depended on me not being associated with the American government, especially its military.” What incredibly ironic and difficult position. This is one of the major problems with the current world and America’s position. In many ways, this makes Mortenson’s work even more important.

Regardless of your view of foreign policy, wars, and education, check this book out. You may not like it; heck, you may think Mortenson’s ideas are the biggest waste of time and money but I promise you’ll be moved to have a far more defined view about foreign education, America's palce in the world, and terrorism.

(By the way, longest blog post ever for me!)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Old School – Tobias Wolff ------ 4 STARS

Recently, I was in this ridiculously cool used bookstore in Saratoga, NY. The place is awesome; it goes from room to room, seemingly never ending. It’s in a basement, and is dark, dank and fairly spooky. Anyway, I picked up a couple of cool books there and one was Old School by Tobias Wolff. I had recognized it because I saw it at Borders less than a week before for three times the price, and it’s a bestseller, so I thought it was worth picking up. I was not disappointed.

The book was a school teacher’s dream; a story about students who were passionately interested in school and put the literary competition held each year as the pinnacle of academic pursuits (the story was based in the 1960s, so it seems a bit more believable). The book is told from the first person point of view of one of the students. He sort of reminds me a bit of a smarter, saner Holden Caulfield.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Although quite short, the story told was fascinating, characters interesting and dialogue and writing exemplary. The writing sort of reminded me of Hemmingway in some ways (who, along with some other famous authors, is a featured character in the story), as it was simple and to the point but many passages held far deeper meanings.

There were some negative aspects that prevented it from garnering a higher rating. Primarily, the story does not flow as well as one likes. This is especially true of the final chapters. Apparently the author had submitted some of the chapters as short stories to the New Yorker prior to completing the full novel. Near the end of the book, one feels as if each chapter is a separate vignette rather than a fully completed novel.

I would strongly recommend this book to all readers. Besides being short, you can finish it in a few days, it is easy to read and the moral/question of truth and honesty, which is at the heart of the novel, is easy for anyone to identify. Now if only all current students in America could have the same passion and interest in academics as the characters in this book…oh, to dream.