Two kinds of narrative> informed business books this year: How did we get here, and what do we do now? For those interested in the economic meltdown, there were gripping tales of greed and delusion that could have sprung from a 19th-century novel think of "Lords of Finance," "Sellout" and "Too Big To Fail." For those looking for ways to cope with a new investment landscape or the prospect of lingering unemployment, there were guides to spending your money, such as "Get a Financial Life" and "The Investor s Manifesto," and to finding a job, such as "Fired to Hired." Here, in alphabetical order, are choices from our editors and writers for top books of the year.
Berkley Trade, $14
By Tory Johnson
Reviewed by Aleksandra Todorova
Recruiter Tory Johnson knows job seekers appreciate concrete advice. Happily, her book is light on generalities and heavy on practical tips.
Johnson writes in a conversational style that makes this book an easy read, but what gets you to turn the pages are the stories from high-profile executives and TV personalities with whom Johnson works on ABC s "Good Morning America."
Our favorite: Years ago, when Diane Sawyer walked into a TV station in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., to ask for a job, she was turned away. The reason? She wasn t "polished enough to be on television news."
Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties
By Beth Kobliner
Reviewed by Kelli B. Grant
This year s graduates may be strapped for cash with an average student loan debt of more than $23,000 and few jobs in sight but Kobliner s guide is one worth giving to anyone just starting out on his or her own. She has updated her 1996 original "Get a Financial Life" and her new version offers necessary and timely advice for today's finance novices.
Kobliner provides a how-to on everything from picking a checking account and reducing debt to buying a home and investing. It s an ambitious task for a 300-page book, geared more toward financial neophytes in their 20s than to 30-somethings. But many readers will find everything they need here for starting out on the right financial path.
Random House, $16
By Jim Rogers
Reviewed by Thomas E. Weber
Jim Rogers (author of "Investment Biker" and other titles) presents this appropriately modest and clearly-written volume as a guide for his own young daughters. Some of the life lessons discussed think for yourself, be ethical, pay attention to details can seem a bit superficial. But Rogers is on much firmer ground when discussing his hallmark method of diving in deep for firsthand knowledge even traveling the back roads of a foreign country before deciding on investments (or anything else).
His girls, like others, are growing up in a Twitterized, Wikipedian world where information is everywhere, yet accuracy can be torturous to gauge. So Rogers s call for doing your own research is welcome. Investing buffs will see this as a nice gift for the kids or grandkids that can help explain just how deeply markets can fascinate and that it isn t just about the money.
In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue
Little, Brown and Co., $24.99
By Lauren Weber
Reviewed by Kelli B. Grant
The underlying message of "In Cheap We Trust": It s OK to be frugal. Really. Author Lauren Weber (who confesses to making her own detergent from borax and laundry powder) delves into America s surprisingly sordid and entertaining history with cheapness.
Who knew our profligate ways went so far back? It turns out even frugal colonial settlers were trying to live beyond their means turning to thrift as a necessity rather than a virtue. Weber's book is an informative read for consumers trying to balance out the mixed imperatives from government, media, retailers and other forces urging them to both spend and save.
By William J. Bernstein
Reviewed by Jami Makan
This handbook is less manifesto than a trove of valuable, simple advice about portfolio design, retirement planning, determining your ideal stock/bond split and avoiding unnecessary fund fees.
William J. Bernstein s suggestions for those traumatized by the financial collapse include the sound Buy fuddy-duddy, low-cost index funds and occasionally the weird Learn to recognize the panicked messages from your amygdalae, he writes, referencing a part of your gray matter that processes emotional reactions. They are the frantic shrieks of your reptilian brain, which wants nothing more than to make you poor. But aside from the occasional scientific term, this is a plain-English introduction to investing.
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World
Penguin Press, $32.95
By Liaquat Ahamed
Reviewed by Robert J. Hughes
Much went wrong with the beginnings of our modern economic system in the days following World War I. Relying on a gold standard, for one thing. Too few bankers sharing too much power much power which, among other things, helped lead to the Great Depression. The U.S. banking system remains fraught, too, still in thrall to bad loans, Ahamed argues, and hungry for capital. Which not too long ago led to you know the rest.
Ahamed writes about the bankers back then to get at the banking system now and going forward. His is a compelling, lively story, filled with interesting characters (one of the early 20th-century bankers believed in the paranormal) and a hero in John Maynard Keynes. For investors who want to weigh the past against the present, or for anyone interested in modern economic history, this is a historical saga with contemporary punch.
By Jonathan Clements
Reviewed by Dyan Machan
This useful guide is unintimidating but chock full of excellent advice, presented in spare and concise language. Clements, a former Wall Street Journal finance columnist, is now director of financial guidance at Citigroup's personal-finance group, and offers sure-footed advice on fundamentals.
When he strays toward more opinionated views, he's even better: Investing in your house will historically offer you a lackluster 4.7% annual return. Clements is also something of an armchair shrink. Investing is about meeting your personal goals and achieving peace of mind: "We should strive to ensure money is enhancing our lives, rather than getting in the way."
The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward and Delusion on Wall Street
By Justin Fox
Reviewed by: Robert J. Hughes
This book examines our "delusion" that the people who make a lot of money are smarter than others. The reality is: Such types are indeed bold, reckless and even lucky. But often as not, they're also idiots. Fox, a columnist at Time as well as a blogger goes back to the early days of the last century to get at our crazy market system.
He also takes us through the academia-driven efficient-market hypothesis (that markets are rational) which, despite being unsupported by facts, has had an enormous impact on markets for almost half a century. In this compelling book, Fox demonstrates clearly not only the illusory nature of monetary success, but also the illusion of superiority that wealth brings.
By Charles Gasparino
Reviewed by Robert J. Hughes
The overcompensated heads of financial companies, investment banks and trading firms may exhibit questionable behavior, but they certainly make for entertaining copy. Think of Richard Fuld, notorious as much for his foul temper and his Mafia-like threats (to break someone s legs, for example) as for his abject failure to save the firm that provided him with the millions to inflate his already oversized ego.
Charles Gasparino, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and an editor for CNBC, not only goes behind the scenes, but takes up a position among the brawlers at Lehman, at other firms and in the government. The usual suspects are all here: the housing market gurus, the credit crunch bankers, the arrogant financiers who thought they were so smart. Gasparino dramatizes with theatrical brio the delusional and greedy people behind our still-running economic melodrama.
Too Big to Fail : The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System and Themselves
By Andrew Ross Sorkin
Reviewed by Robert J. Hughes
The financial scandals are providing the kind of real-life story that Trollope and Dickens had to imagine a century and a half ago. New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin brings a journalist s drive and a novelist s eye to his portrayal of Lehman, AIG, Treasury and other institutions involved in our economic Armaggedon.
Contemporary novelists, take note: Trollope invented Melmotte, Dickens came up with Merdle, but our modern society handed us real-life financial charlatans who have surpassed these scoundrels. If only it were fiction.