Niche nook

"Niche nook" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

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.)


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