Summer Books: Playing Catch Up On The Beach

To some people, summer reading means a novel the size of a concrete block, usually involving a foreign setting, an illicit electronic transfer of funds or data, a beautiful but possibly dangerous woman, a deadly secret, and sex between adults not married to one another. To some people, summer reading means a mystery. Any mystery.

I say: Save the fluff for snatches of reading on the train or in the dentist's waiting room. To me, vacation is a chance to catch up on more serious books that reward uninterrupted focus and long blocks of time. If you feel the same, here are some meaty titles to dig into--with a thriller and a picture book thrown in for good measure. They're all in paperback, so you can pack a few.

Topping the stack is David McCullough's friendly but balanced Truman (Touchstone, $15). Tracing the trials Truman faced after succeeding Franklin D. Roosevelt less than three months into FDR's fourth term, the biography is highly readable, even gripping. It shows that Truman's success and unpopularity both stemmed from his moral courage.

Truman's long run as a hardcover best-seller seemed to reflect a longing for the sort of integrity Truman symbolizes. If William Greider is right, disenchantment with the man at the top is but a symptom of what's amiss in American politics. In Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (Touchstone, $13), Greider says the government is in the grip of powerful interests and elites, foreign and domestic. While Washington accommodates them, ordinary folk see their standard of living fall and get stuck paying for fiascoes such as the savings and loan bailout.

Greider's work has a complement in John Kenneth Galbraith's slim The Culture of Contentment (Houghton-Mifflin, $9.95). A "fortunate and favored" U.S. elite, Galbraith argues, has extraordinary power to shape events and set policy--at the polls, in government, and in Corporate America. The result, he says, is an ailing economy and polarization between haves and have-nots.

From what we know now, confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg won't make riveting TV. But thanks to Capitol Games: The Inside Story of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and a Supreme Court Nomination by Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz (Harper Perennial, $14), you can replay the circus that ensued when Hill alleged that nominee Thomas had sexually harassed her. See again the Senate Judiciary Committee members, the handlers, the hangers-on. Hear again the remarkable televised discussions of erotomania and porn. What comes across powerfully is how the confirmation process has been degraded.

If you've been curious about Sam Walton: Made in America, My Story, by the late architect of the Wal-Mart discount-store empire, dip into it at a fitting bargain price (Bantam, $5.99). Written with John Huey, the book is long on company history, free-enterprise boosterism, and how-to, but short on introspection or intimate disclosures.

There's lots of drama in Vendetta: American Express and the Smearing of Edmond Safra (Harper Paperbacks, $5.99). Bryan Burrough probes American Express Co.'s mid-'80s effort to ruin Safra's name after the Lebanese banker quit Trade Development Bank, which he had sold to AmEx, and began planning a rival operation. Did then-CEO James D. Robinson III know of the attempted character assassination? Burrough convinces us only that he probably did. The book unfolds like a whodunit, and its milieu--the international intelligence underworld--has a seamy fascination.

In To the End of Time: The Seduction and Conquest of a Media Empire (Touchstone, $13), Richard M. Clurman, once a Time Inc. journalist and executive, assesses the Time-Warner merger. He says Warner's boss, the late Steve Ross, romanced Time into making the deal of the century for Warner, whose shareholders reaped billions. Former Chairman J. Richard Munro's fears of a takeover were also a key factor, he suggests. A new afterword covers Ross's death and Nicholas J. Nicholas Jr.'s ouster as president and co-CEO.

On the international front, two books--Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America by Lester Thurow (Warner, $12.99) and A Cold Peace: America, Japan, Germany and the Struggle for Supremacy by Jeffrey E. Garten (Times, $12)--analyze the new global power balance. Economist Thurow contrasts the three regions' forms of capitalism and argues that to compete, the U.S. should end its obsession with short-term profits and relax antitrust rules. Garten, who foresees a power triangle with continually shifting alliances, says U.S. thinking is too geared to military conflict. Here's a chance to probe the mind-set of former investment banker Garten, just nominated to head the Commerce Dept.'s International Trade Administration.

Our thriller is Michael Crichton's Rising Sun (Ballantine, $5.99). The plot: A Los Angeles gumshoe investigates a sex murder at a Japanese conglomerate's U.S. headquarters. The subtext: The wily old cop who helps him provides a running denunciation of the Japanese character, Japan's global ambitions, and the vulnerability of U.S. institutions. As suspense, Rising Sun is only middling. As polemic, it's mind-boggling. By embedding in pulp fiction the message of such critics of Japan as Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr. and Karel Van Wolferen, Crichton has taken it to a vast audience.

It's Crichton's season; the film of his Jurassic Park just opened to record crowds. Once you've been scared--or tickled--to death seeing a dinosaur chow down on a lawyer, you'll be ready for The Making of Jurassic Park by Don Shay and Jody Duncan (Ballantine, $18). With color and diagrams, the oversized paperback shows how the filmmakers made and moved those dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park has people discussing whether life might really be cloned from ancient DNA--and whether such efforts could go disastrously awry. Similarly, Steven Levy's Artificial Life: A Report From the Frontier Where Computers Meet Biology (Vintage, $13, August) explores the fringes of artificial intelligence and the implications of creating software-and-silicon "organisms." Asks Levy: Couldn't new software critters that can pass along complex genetic code and evolve independently develop into something essentially--alive? Levy overreaches, but it's fun to ponder whether people can bestow their traits en the sterile 1s and 0s of computer programs.

If you care more about how technology is changing our lives right now, pick up Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vantage, $11). Postman coins "technopoly" to describe a society--like that of the U.S., he says--in which technology dominates all aspects of life. His main concern is the computer-driven glut of information. Traditional information filters--schools, religion, the family--no longer work, he says, so we depend on experts and bureaucrats. What's lost is society's cultural "narrative"--the history through which people find meaning and purpose.

Economist Juliet B. Schor has a different view of what ails us. In The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic, $12) Schor claims that, compared with 20 years ago, the average American works the equivalent of an additional month per year. Once you get past the statistics, The Overworked American is a fascinating mix of social observation and economic theory. Here's to reading it in a beach chair.

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