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Travels in the New Third World

A-BoomerangIn his 2010 best seller, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2010), Michael Lewis explained what caused the collapse of our nation's financial system. Boomerang, originally published as five articles in Vanity Fair, is a companion piece in its exploration of the wider global financial crisis. Lewis's other books include Liar's Poker (1990), Moneyball (4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003), and The Blind Side (3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007).

The Topic: "The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet from 2002 to 2007 . . . wasn't just money, it was temptation," Lewis writes. "It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge." In this work of financial disaster tourism, Lewis examines five post-crash nations. In Iceland, he finds inexperienced bankers who caused three banks to go under. In Greece, an age-old monastery represented the country's vice and greed. In Ireland, the mess was created "by the sort of men who ignore their wives' suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions." By contrast, the Germans played, naïvely, by Wall Street's rules. Finally, Lewis posits California as part of "the new third world," in which people took "what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences." At its core, Boomerang tells a human story of greed and self-delusion.
Norton. 224 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780393081817

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"What he ended up compiling is a saga of staggering selfishness, greed, and incompetence that somehow manages--because it is Lewis doing the telling--to be every bit as engaging as it is horrifying. ... It's not a pretty story, but thanks to Lewis it is a compelling one." Marjorie Kehe

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Lewis's rare gift as a guide through the world of credit-default swaps and sovereign debt doesn't come simply from his deep understanding of how the global financial system works (he worked on Wall Street in the early part of his career), but also from his skill as a storyteller, his ability to tell the larger tale through fascinating human stories of greed, excess, and self-delusion. ... In the end, Lewis notes, it's not just a problem of public deficits but of moral deficits." Chuck Leddy

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lewis] actually makes topics like European sovereign debt, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank not only comprehensible but also fascinating--even, or especially, to readers who rarely open the business pages or watch CNBC. ... At times Mr. Lewis can sound a lot like Evelyn Waugh: shrewd, observant and savagely judgmental, dispensing crude generalizations about other countries, even as he pokes fun at himself as a disaster tourist." Michiko Kakutani

Spectator (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Lewis's approach, explaining it all in terms of delinquent national behaviour patterns while reminding us gently that he also knows how markets work, is as illuminating as that of any Nobel laureate. ... But do these broad brushstrokes really add to our understanding of why we're all suddenly poorer than we thought we were before? I think they do." Martin Vander Weyer

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Lewis' attempt to link German financial indiscretions to an apparent national fixation with excrement prompted some publications to publish skeptical condemnations of his diagnosis as rooted in stereotypes and unwonted assumptions, it still makes for fun reading, with unapologetically bold assertions linking fine observational travel writing and lucid expositions of what went wrong. To suck in readers who might have trouble keeping up with financial specifics, Lewis regularly breaks for local color, from Icelanders' weary reactions to being asked about Björk ('Of course they've met Björk; who hasn't met Björk?') to the persistent Irish belief in the existence of fairies." Vadim Rizov

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Yet even as Boomerang captures the essence of the international economic crisis--as a sort of travelogue version of Lewis's must-read The Big Short--it also offers an odd collection of searing, sometimes funny but mostly head-scratching judgments and stereotypes about the offending countries. ... Greece ... offers the book's most fascinating tale: how the kindly monks managing the millennium-old Vatopaidi monastery jutting out over the Aegean Sea became the nation's poster children for greed and corruption." Carlos Lozada

Critical Summary

Boomerang is financial disaster tourism of the highest caliber--tragically, perhaps more than just voyeuristic for many readers--written by a journalist well versed in both global finance (Lewis worked on Wall Street in the earlier part of his career) and travel writing. Entertaining and elucidating, Lewis does what he does best: he criticizes what went wrong in the world's financial markets and looks both at individuals responsible for the turmoil and those who foresaw the collapse. Although he treats the post-crash nations with a light touch, at times it seems just a little too light: sometimes formulaic, with national stereotypes (particularly the excrement-loving Germans) that angered a few critics. But despite a few complaints, Boomerang is that rare work of financial journalism: clear, compelling, and a "sadly hilarious short primer of human frailty" (Spectator).