Summertime And The Reading Is Serious

Let's see: I've got my towel, my sunscreen, my flip-flops, and of course that featherweight beach novel. Whaaa--it's raining?

Well, maybe summer isn't just for potboilers and private-eye stories. For those days when you feel like settling down with something substantial, here's a sampling of some recent, more serious paperbacks.

Take a vicarious peek through an electron microscope--or through the highest-powered telescope--via one of last year's many books on scientific topics. Barry Werth's The Billion-Dollar Molecule: One Company's Quest for the Perfect Drug (Touchstone, $14) trains its lens on biotech startup Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. There we see company founder Joshua Boger and his team scheming and taking risks to beat competitors--and screaming, throwing furniture, and getting sloshed when they fail. Peeved at publicity given to a key rival, Boger snarls: "I want to rub his nose in the dirt and step on his head." Cold and dispassionate science? Not here.

In The Hubble Wars: Astrophysics Meets Astropolitics in the Two-Billion-Dollar Struggle Over the Hubble Space Telescope (Harper Perennial, $15), Eric J. Chaisson likewise delivers a tale of big ideas and petty striving. The author, a former senior scientist at the consortium of universities put together to oversee the space telescope's agenda, indicts NASA for its addiction to "pure, unadulterated hype." While Chaisson suggests that the megaproject still has problems, he says it represents "a marvelous means to view the cosmos in dramatically new ways."

Reinventing the Future: Conversations with the World's Leading Scientists by Thomas A. Bass (Addison-Wesley, $14) offers less in the way of discord while delivering an equally enticing closeup of offbeat and strong-willed geniuses. Bass asks the questions, and the responses he gets can be mesmerizing. For example, student of evolution Richard Dawkins explains what every corporate primate knows: "In highly social animals the most difficult part of the environment involves outwitting fellow species members."

As with these scientists, political observers find the future to be an intensely interesting subject. Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson take their shot at forecasting in Russia 2010: And What it Means for the World (Vintage, $13). Will Russia become a capitalist powerhouse? Or will today's unemployment, crime, and disaffection undermine democracy to produce a nonideological new version of the old Soviet empire? The authors, many of whose predictions have already come true, suggest in this updated edition that the former is more likely--but only after years of upheaval.

Then there's China, another onetime bad boy of the world community that is now seen as either a budding economic force or an antidemocratic throwback facing a sea of woes. In The Rise of China: How Economic Reform Is Creating a New Superpower (Norton, $14), William H. Overholt opts for the former outlook--and how. With the struggle for power having put most of the reforms on hold, the book now seems a bit optimistic. Still, Overholt's account of how China adopted market reforms while avoiding the chaos of perestroika remains valuable.

Another major player on the world stage doesn't come off nearly so well in Bruce Rich's Mortgaging the Earth (Beacon, $16). What behemoth has, over the past 50 years, plundered global natural resources and impoverished millions, all in the name of progress? Who subsidized the destruction of forests in Brazil along with the forced resettlement of at least 11/2 million people worldwide? Give up? It's the World Bank, according to Rich, who backs up his charges with a wealth of detail showing how the bank's development projects have been "a prime accomplice in a quiet war against the diversity of humankind's cultures and our planet's biological inheritance."

But let's get down to business. Big Business--in other words, athletic shoes. Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World (Adams, $10.95) steers the reader deep into the culture of a $4 billion company that's as reliant on image-making as any Hollywood dream factory. Author Donald Katz descends on the maturing Nike Inc. as it confronts a set of serious crises: Success is threatening both its underdog image and entrepreneurial ways at the very moment that its prime pitchman, basketball legend Michael Jordan, has announced his retirement from the National Basketball Assn. Take a look to find out how the company and its philosopher-founder, Philip H. Knight, stay the course.

Every day is a crisis--or so it seems--for the men and women in David Dorsey's fascinating The Force (Ballantine, $12.50). The members of Xerox Corp.'s Cleveland sales team, whose lives and careers the author profiles for one breathless year, wheedle customers, stroke and berate subordinates, and shortchange their families, all as a part of the race to achieve their annual sales goals. We sweat it out with team members too tense to digest their lunches, so spent by yearend that they beg to be fired. What drives them through seasons of stress and sleeplessness? The promise of bonuses, recognition, promotions--and the feeling that when you're on a roll, there's no one who can resist your pitch.

It's that kind of intensity, many analysts say, that makes small, nimble companies the best hope for America's future. But economist Bennett Harrison's Lean and Mean: The Changing Landscape of Corporate Power (Basic Books, $13) begs to disagree. The account's thorough research goes a long way toward demolishing the idea that small companies are the font of either innovation or job growth. Consequently, says the author, government and communities should focus less on constructing incubators for entrepreneurs and more

on such things as improvements in economic infrastructure and helping to build "interfirm alliances."

Economist Paul Krugman, on the other hand, is inclined to think that, when it comes to economic well-being, nothing government does matters much. In Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in the Age of Diminished Expectations (Norton, $12.95), liberals, conservatives, and the supply-side "cult" all take a lashing. Forget their nostrums, he says--the key to success lies in improving productivity.

Nonsense, says New Age business philosopher Charles Handy: Higher productivity alone won't improve our lives, since it doesn't necessarily lead to job creation. That's just one of the nine "paradoxes of mature economies" he describes in The Age of Paradox (Harvard Business School Press, $12.95). Like Krugman, Handy excels at stirring controversy--and thought.

But if summer's sweltering heat leaves you in need of a laugh, take a look at Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking (HarperPerennial, $12). It's a ruthless send-up of Washington lobbyists, of the tobacco industry and its adversaries, and of political debate via the boob tube.

Or for cold-war intrigue, try The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff (Vintage, $13). When he wasn't warming the Washington Senators' or Boston Red Sox's bench--or honing his fluency in a dozen languages--Berg was serving as a World War II OSS spy. Sound far-fetched? As Casey Stengel used to say: "You could look it up."

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