April 2010 Archive
I find the most helpful thing to do while writing a book is to read lots of books. Not only do you learn a lot about whatever you are reading about, but you see what works and doesn't work when it comes to voice, structure, tone and other dorky things authors obsess about.
Here's my current pile of reading-- the ones on the left are still to be read, the ones on the right are done. Actually both piles have gotten higher since I took that photo, and the pile on the right is just a bit taller now. But that won't last. Like Sisyphus, I stupidly keep buying books once the to-read pile starts to look remotely manageable.
I usually refrain from writing about books, because it's not much of a review if you only write nice things, and as an author its hard for me to write bad things about something someone worked really hard on. Just getting a book DONE can feel like a Herculean task and no book is going to be perfect for every reader. But someone asked me for a list of my favorites so here you go.
1. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. It's really hard to write one compelling book about large, disparate chunks of the world (trust me on this) and Zakaria is one of the few that pulls it off. He's incredibly gifted at pulling together lots of strands to make one compelling central argument. My book mostly starts with the assumption that emerging markets are where the most economic growth is going to take place in the next few decades, but Zakaria's book explains why and what America's place in that world will be.
This is my only quibble: Indian nationals are incredibly patriotic and Zakaria is no different. There was a subtle shift in tone when he wrote about India and I felt like-- on the margins-- Zakaria cut India more slack on certain things. For instance, he praised the legal system put in place by the Brits. It may have been set up well back in the colonial days, but no one in India would tell you the legal system is anything to brag about today. Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of Infosys, told me that it would take 320 years to try all of the pending and backlogged cases in the Indian courts. "Can you imagine?" Murthy said laughing at the absurdity.
Still, this is hands-down the best overall book I've read on globalization and I highly recommend it.
2. India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha. I wish there was a book this good on the history of every country I'm visiting. It's whopper at some 800 pages, but Guha, a historian, takes you on an unbiased, thoroughly researched and riveting journey through India's first fifty years or so of independence. I came away understanding modern India a lot better and wondering why an over-the-top biopic had never been made about Indira Gandhi.
3. Democratic Brazil Revisited. I wish there was a book this good on politics like this for every country I'm visiting. This book is a collection of essays by academics that break down every aspect of Brazil's democracy-- from education to violence to economic and social policy. It's the update to an earlier edition that predicted some choppy waters for the Lula administration. Surprisingly, when they revisited the topic four years later, the researchers found that overall Brazil's democracy had outperformed their expectations. For what's essentially a text book, it's also amazingly readable.
4. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang. I mentioned this one in my last post but it bears mentioning again because it is one of the best books I've read over the last year or so. It actually makes me a little angry at how good it is. Factories in China are one of those topics everyone feels entitled to have an opinion on and it's usually: They treat workers like crap and make low quality stuff. What Chang uncovered by living among the girls powering China's factory boom was quite different. It was the story of empowered, ambitious young women taking low level opportunities and creating whole careers out of them. It tells you so much about the culture of modern China and is engrossingly written. As a writer, Chang doesn't get carried away with the sound of her own voice. She lets the stories of the girls unfold simply and beautifully.
There's not much info on Chang online. She doesn't appear to have written another book and I can't tell if she's even still a reporter. I hope she is. I also hope this book made her a lot of money because she deserves every penny.
5. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families by Philip Gourevitch. The world's longest and most confusing title, I know, but this is the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide. It's heartbreaking, eye-opening and frankly, will make anyone in the world with a soul embarrassed at how much we let Rwanda down some 15 years ago. Gourevitch did a follow up piece last year in the New Yorker about how Rwanda had rebuilt itself, that only barely scratched the surface of the strength and almost super-human forgiveness of the Rwandan people. Not only do I highly recommend this book, I highly recommend that anyone travel to Rwanda to see this amazing country for themselves.
Yes. This is my first blog post of 2010. Well, first post here anyway. I've done plenty for TechCrunch and I've written more than 35,000 words from my book since January 1. I've also -- not surprisingly-- been traveling. I spent a few weeks in Sao Paulo, Brazil came back to San Francisco for about 23 hours then hopped on a flight to Delhi. I spent a few weeks in India traveling between Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and half a dozen villages. I flew back to San Francisco for about 22 hours then went to Hawaii for a speaking gig and interview with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar-- an unassuming billionaire who has pledged to give 90% of his wealth to charity, much of which is flowing towards entrepreneurs in the poorest parts of the developing world. (One of my favorite days in Sao Paulo was spent taking a graffiti tour of the city, which is where I took the photo above.)
I've been home for a few weeks now, long enough to get over my jet lag, lose a few travel pounds and get a long-needed haircut, but not quite long enough to get as wrapped up as I'd like in some exciting new projects at TechCrunch. It's not nearly long enough to do as much book writing as I'd like and not nearly long enough to see my husband and friends.
But it's time to hit the road again. My book is due on August 1, and I've got tens of thousands more words to write and seven weeks left on the road. Up next is a place I can't disclose, followed in May by South Africa, Indonesia and my final trip to China.
I can barely contain my excitement about the things scheduled for these final trips. But at the same time, travel is getting harder. For one thing, I'm physically tired. I've lost exact count, but I know I've spent more than 30 weeks in other countries in the year-plus I've been researching this book. Eating in hotels, packing the same suitcase over and over again and navigating through security in hundreds of domestic airports, trying to gain trust of sources when I only have a few weeks in a country, negotiating cabs and public transportation in more than a dozen languages I don't speak-- it's all weighing on me.
Worse is the idea that it's all almost over. The last year on the road has changed me as a person. I've done things I never thought I could. We all live such coddled lives in America and yet live in such a fear-based culture. This book has utterly changed my relationship with fear. Riding an elephant through ancient ruins, hiking amid a family of silverback gorillas in Rwanda, weaving through Beijing traffic on a bike, or even just waking up to find a spider crawling on you and merely smashing it and going back to bed-- these are all things I never saw myself doing with ease. I've become a great problem solver in my home-life because doing business in emerging markets is a constant game of problem solving. Everything is a negotiation: Every hotel booking, every cab ride, every meeting and as the outsider I am *always* at the disadvantage.
But the biggest reason the travel is getting harder is that my head and notebooks are so packed with phenomenal stories of entrepreneurship and human strength that I'm not sure I can absorb anymore. That sounds really pandering and cliche, but when (hopefully) you read my book you'll understand exactly what I mean. You could make twenty movies out of the various stories I've found. We're so used to thinking of emerging markets and the chaotic push from poverty to middle class-- or in some cases poverty to extreme wealth-- as a story of desperation, but it's really the story of strength.
Over the past few months, I've read about 20-or-so books on politics, history, economics and culture about the countries I'm visiting and this morning I started "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" by Leslie T. Chang. It sums up what I'm trying to say about strength better than I can. China has more than 130 million migrant workers-- the largest migration in human history. Chang writes about these women working in factories:
"But suffering in silence is not how migrant workers see themselves. To come out from home and work in a factory is the hardest thing they have ever done. It is also an adventure. What keeps them in the city is not fear but pride: To return home early is to admit defeat. To go out and stay out--chuqu-- is to change your fate...
...Earning money isn't the only reason people migrate. In surveys, migrants rank 'seeing the world,' 'developing myself,' and 'learning new skills' as important as increasing their incomes. In many cases, it is not crippling poverty that drives migrants out of homes, but idleness."
That kind of strength and life-changing determination puts my journey-- as hard as it's been for me-- into stark and humbling perspective. And as I process all I've seen and done and turn it somehow into a book, I guess that realization is a big reason I've been so quiet the last few months. Anything I can tell you about my journey just pales next to the journeys of those I'm writing about, so a big part of me would rather just wait until you can read that.
An unforgettable portrait of the emerging world's entrepreneurial dynamos Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky is the story about that top 1% of people who do more to change their worlds through greed and ambition than politicians, NGOs and nonprofits ever can. This new breed of self-starter is taking local turmoil and turning it into opportunities, making millions, creating thousands of jobs and changing the face of modern entrepreneurship at the same time. To tell this story, Lacy spent forty weeks traveling through Asia, South America and Africa hunting down the most impressive up-and-comers the developed world has never heard of....yet.
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