Nonfiction

Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, by Muhammad Yunus (Public Affairs, $24). There is probably no story so stirringly American as the one in which a poor citizen -- a "person at risk," if you will -- pulls herself and her family out of utter destitution by the strength of her own will, ingenuity and industry. It is a story we revere, a dream we have pushed to mythic proportions. Yet nowhere is that story being played out with such dramatic force, over and over again, as it is in a place on the other side of the globe -- in one of the poorest places on earth, Bangladesh. In 1983, Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor at Chittagong University in Bangladesh, began an enterprise against all advice by bankers and government officials: He founded Grameen Bank, based on the principle that by giving the poor minuscule loans in response to their personal initiatives, an institution could spark a sea change in the grinding cycle of poverty. Seven years before, Yunus had made a loan of $27 of his own money to 42 people in a tiny village of stool makers. It allowed them to buy the bamboo they needed to produce a number of stools. They sold these in the local market, turned a profit, expanded production and diversified. The process changed their lives: their children ate, the school improved, the village changed. That single loan and the stupendous effect it had on one community persuaded Yunus that credit is a fundamental human right; that even on the level of micro-lending, a bank could spur enormous social and economic renewal. Yunus's book is an account of his struggle to persuade other people in other countries of that conviction. His ideas have already had a great impact on the Third World, and this book is not the first to describe that remarkable work; but hearing his appeal for a "poverty-free world" from the source itself can be as stirring as that all-American myth of boot-strap success.

Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America, by Mike Lupica (Putnam, $23.95). Much of this book, naturally, is a paean to Mark McGwire, who (for those who were sojourning in another hemisphere) hit 70 home runs last year. Lupica, a nationally syndicated sports columnist, quotes St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony La Russa as saying this about his star player: "Mark is stronger mentally than physically. And physically, he's ridiculously impressive, so mentally he's from another planet." But 1998 was also the summer of Sammy Sosa hitting almost as many homers as McGwire, of Cal Ripken, Jr. sitting out a game at last (after playing in 2,632 in a row), of the New York Yankees winning the Series, of Daryl Strawberry perhaps beating cancer. Lupica blends all this into a month-by-month account that links him and his sons with Lupica's late father, who has transmitted his love for the sport down through the generations.

The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why, by Elizabeth Drew (Birch Lane, $21.95). "This is a book about the debasement of American politics over the past twenty-five years," says former Washington correspondent to the New Yorker Elizabeth Drew in the preface to this book. "It is about the decline in statesmanship and leadership, civility and quality, and the growth of partisanship. And it is about corruption: the expanding corruption of money in all its pervasive ways, some of them novel, and including the corruption of the Washington culture -- and the inability of the system to reform itself." Powerful words, but Drew sets out to prove them. She addresses how the Federal Election Campaign Act, signed into law by Gerald Ford in 1974 and meant to place limits on what individuals and PACs could contribute to any campaign, began to be nibbled at: first by the Buckley vs. Valeo case, which overturned key parts of the act in 1976; and then by a whole battery of legal attacks and arguments. She is tough on Clinton, calling his presidency "a squandered opportunity" because he failed to lead on this issue; she describes the hearings held by Sen. Fred Thompson on the campaign finance scandals of 1996; and she outlines how the political system itself has been allowed to sink to a new corrupt low.

CAPTION: Grameen villager with a cellular phone