Vacation time, and the reading's easy--thanks to those uninterrupted hours on the beach or the screened porch. Sure, you could do worse than spend an afternoon with John Grisham or Robert Ludlum. (You could read Robert James Waller!) But why not use those long stretches to catch up on more serious books you haven't gotten around to? Here's a sampling of recent paperbacks you might want to pack.
Some of the season's most compelling reads probe the astonishing geopolitical shifts of the last few years. David Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize for Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (Vintage, $14). And no wonder. His account of Soviet communism's collapse is marked by pathos and humor, keen reporting, and deep understanding of Russian and Soviet culture. Why did the Soviet monolith come undone? Once
Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed glasnost and the evils of communist rule became widely known, Remnick concludes, the empire could not endure. The paperback includes a new afterword.
For another ground-breaking view of communism's fall--this one from within the Oval Office, the Kremlin, and the Pentagon--try At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War by Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott (Back Bay Books, $12.95). It captures the way then-President George Bush's growing political and personal attachment to Gorbachev affected policy. A new epilogue examines the relationship between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.
In Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (Vintage Departures, $12), Robert D. Kaplan blends a vivid travelogue with a quest for the roots of ethnic hatreds. For many Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians, he shows, ancient battles mean as much as the Soviet Union's demise. And rape and ethnic cleansing have long marked the region's warfare.
The human dimension of the madness engulfing the former Yugoslavia is also conveyed in The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War (Harper Perennial, $11) by Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian. Her heartbreaking vignettes evoke the horror of the conflict better than any dispatch from the front. The paperback includes five new essays.
In Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (Norton, $12.95), George F. Kennan, Washington's former envoy to Moscow, turns his attention homeward to examine his country and himself. It's no surprise that Kennan, now 90, is struck by how much U.S. society has changed. What's arresting is how little he likes of what he sees as a culture less and less tolerant of the viewpoints of others. This is a fond and rueful farewell to a place and time changed out of all recognition.
There's also a fresh crop of biographies in softcover. Readers of William Shawcross' Murdoch (Touchstone, $15) will discover that Rupert Murdoch's current Fox network drive is just one more, not-so-surprising turn in the media baron's pursuit of a global empire. Shawcross gives us Murdoch as opportunist, cajoling, conniving, and bullying his way to ownership of many of the world's choicest media properties.
Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles by Margaret Leslie Davis (Harper Perennial, $13) profiles the turn-of-the-century power broker who brought distant mountain water to a young and thirsty Los Angeles. From his buckboard trip up the remote Owens Valley to buy water rights from unsuspecting farmers to his maniacal drive to complete the Los Angeles aqueduct, Mulholland presided over one of the century's great engineering feats. Along the way, he overcame financial catastrophe, mutinous workers, and family tragedy. His success made him rich--and made possible the city's reckless, unbridled growth.
Another engrossing life story is James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Vintage, $14), a biography of the legendarily idiosyncratic Nobel physics laureate, who died in 1988. Thanks in large part to Feynman's outsized personality, Gleick manages to communicate arcane scientific material in an entertaining fashion.
Speaking of arcane science, if you're confused by news stories about the quest for genetic cures for disease, pick up Exploding the Gene Myth by Ruth Hubbard, a Harvard University professor emerita, and Elijah Wald (Beacon Press, $12). While warning that many findings are overhyped, the book explains enough biology and genetic theory to let you evaluate what you read. It also explores the social implications of genetic testing in schools, the workplace, and by doctors and insurers.
Given the explosion in "edutainment" software for children, this is a good time for a look at The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (Basic Books, $12). Computers in schools, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Seymour Papert, have so far been too few and misapplied. But engaging, interactive software that lets children explore knowledge at their own pace can bring education in line with the way kids learn.
When The Age of Diminished Expectations, by MIT economist Paul Krugman, was published in 1990, it was praised for its readable, even enjoyable, prose. Here was Economics 101 made relevant to today's world and laced with irreverent asides. Now, Krugman has updated his analysis of U.S. economic policy with an introduction linking President Bush's fall to simmering dismay over the economic slowdown, along with new chapters on European monetary affairs and health care (MIT, $12.95).
A more extended analysis of the economic roots of Bush's defeat is contained in Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity by Kevin Phillips (Harper Perennial, $13). Phillips, too, sees resentment over the economy as the key to Bill Clinton's victory. Revitalizing the economy could give the Democrats the keys to the White House for years, says Phillips. Otherwise, Clinton "can be destroyed by the same angry electorate."
If you're not among the 450,000 people who bought Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution in hardcover, now is your chance to read this well-written bible of the movement. The authors are reengineering's originators, Michael Hammer and James Champy (Harper Business, $13).
Of course, management trends come, and management trends go. And Warren Bennis, a professor at the University of Southern California's business school, has observed most of them. An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change (Addison-Wesley, $12.95) gathers some of his most provocative writing, from his 1966 essay on "The Coming Death of Bureaucracy," to his 1978 call for more active boards, to his 1992 article on the virtues of federalism and its application to the corporate world.
Get itchy when you're away from the business world too long? Look for Watch It Made in the USA: A Visitor's Guide to the Companies that Make Your Favorite Products, due in August from John Muir Publications ($16.95). This lively illustrated guide by Bruce Brumberg and Karen Axelrod gives you the lowdown on hundreds of companies that offer tours, museums, or visitors' centers. Want to know how they make crayons (Binney & Smith), whiskey (Jack Daniel's), pianos (Steinway & Sons), tractors (John Deere), toy trains (Lionel), glassware (Corning), RVs (Winnebago)? The guide tells you how to see for yourself.