The Wal-Mart Effect is reminiscent of Fast Food Nation in that the author, former Washington Post reporter Charles Fishman, digs deeply into the "Wal-Mart ecosystem" for lengthy anecdotes about the manufacture and sale of everything from lawnmowers to pickles to bikes to power tools to bacon cookers to shirts to salmon. (Wal-Mart is the number-one purchaser of salmon in the U.S.) Fishman uses his reporting to explain exactly how the retail chain with $11 billion in profits impacts the economic food chain. It's a fascinating peek behind the curtain of el capitalismo.

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But the book is much better (and more challenging) than the entertaining Fast Food Nation. Rather than being a heavy-handed and predictable takedown of Wal-Mart—a company that forces U.S. manufacturers to lay off U.S. workers and exploit inhumane labor practices overseas—the book also provides data and details that praise Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart lowers the overall rate of grocery inflation in the U.S. by 15 percent, cuts out wasteful packaging to the benefit of the environment, and yes, actually does create more jobs per county than it displaces when it moves to town.

Indeed, there are only three times when Fishman openly editorializes, and it's not about Wal-Mart. It's about Southwest Airlines,, and Starbucks. He loves Southwest Airlines; he doesn't love Seattle's corporate stars. After saying that "the average product we buy from Wal-Mart costs less than $3," Fishman sneers: "Starbucks is built on a customer philosophy exactly opposite to Wal-Mart's, charging more for a cup of coffee than anyone would have imagined 20 years ago. The price of half the drinks on the Starbucks menu board is more than $3. A desire for indulgence has created the world's most popular cafe."