A Rich Rack Of Paperbacks
Have you got your book? As we head off to leisurely summertime pursuits, one thing most of us require is a good read to tote along. So, in the spirit of the season, here is a sampling of current paperbacks worthy of consideration.
Many of the most engaging business volumes out now are also commentaries on contemporary society. Consider Po Bronson's analysis in his novel Bombardiers (Penguin, $11.95): "The information economy was a Ponzi scheme spiraling out of control. The investment bankers got rich slaving away, so they called in their tax accountants...their therapists...their divorce lawyers.... The doctors, [who] worried about being sued by the lawyers, called their insurance brokers for malpractice coverage." Bombardiers paints an outrageous picture of gonzo bond traders. Their lies, schemes, addictions, and sales spiels will have you guffawing--and, perhaps, nodding in recognition.
Joseph Nocera's A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class (Touchstone, $14) takes us back to the time, not so long ago, before credit cards, mutual funds, or discount brokers. These developments, says Nocera, have given average Americans the passion for money management once restricted to the very rich. More important, says the author, those millions have wrested much of the control of the markets from traders and mega-investors.
In Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (Anchor, $14), Clifford Stoll examines another popular pastime: the Internet. But unlike Nocera, Stoll isn't convinced that this is a development worthy of enthusiasm. "A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where...important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued," he writes in this cautionary tale for the Info Age.
Reengineering Management: The Mandate for New Leadership by James Champy (HarperBusiness, $13) reflects on the successes and failures of one of the decade's most influential management trends. Among its insights: "Genuine reengineering...has made much of the work of middle managers no longer relevant." Yipes! No wonder so many people have the downsizing blues.
It's enough to make you want to escape to a less complicated age. That's almost possible via Richard S. Tedlow's New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America (Harvard Business School, $17.95), which covers the past hundred years. Concentrating on the wars between Coke and Pepsi, GM and Ford, A&P and its rivals, and Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, Tedlow's own new and improved edition--the book was first published in 1990--can be read for its valuable marketing lessons ("inventory is the price a business pays for lack of information") or just as a fascinating window on days gone by.
Neil Baldwin's Edison: Inventing the Century (Hyperion, $14.95) is another blast from the past. Here is a glimpse of the thinking and system-building ingenuity of this "Napoleon of invention." Here, too, is a look at one of the world's great contrarians: a millionaire who railed against wealth, a publicity seeker who craved solitude, the inventor of the light bulb who refused to adopt alternating current.
Horse sense of a different sort was demonstrated by Calumet Farm, which, from the 1920s through the 1980s, produced eight Kentucky Derby winners and champions aplenty before being hobbled and ultimately felled by owner J.T. Lundy's extravagance and chicanery. The stable's engrossing story is described in Ann Hagedorn Auerbach's Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America's Premier Racing Dynasty (Holt, $14.95). Here are the glory days of Whirlaway and Citation--and the ignominy of the 1992 auction that saw the farm and everything on it sold to a Brazilian bidder for $12,000.
In 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelertner (Avon, $13.50), the reader is transported to the period between the Great Depression and World War II. Part tour of the 1939 New York World's Fair and part fiction, this exceptional book is chockablock with ideas about who Americans were and have become. And in its celebration of a more optimistic age, it's as filled with longing as a Cole Porter ballad. "What mattered," says one of Gelertner's characters, "was the luminous feeling you got that, come what may, the future had good things in store for you if you persevered."
A more disquieting look back is Robert S. McNamara's In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage, $15). With this book, McNamara broke his 27-year public silence regarding the Southeast Asian war. Not everyone was pleased with the result, particularly since the former Defense Secretary seems still to view the quagmire as a management problem. All the same, in this self-critical effort, McNamara lays out all the complex reasons for the tragic Vietnam crusade--only some of which had to do with halting the spread of communism in Asia.
In the 1990s, the U.S. has unleashed a new and more potent crusade against communism: rampant capitalism. Jianying Zha's China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers are Transforming a Culture (New Press, $12), gives readers an engaging view of the sibuxiang--"a bizarre, hybrid animal neither horse nor donkey"--that is China today. It's a land where the Communist Party elite rule, but where they must share the spotlight with the stars of the fantastically successful TV soap Yearning or make room for titillating photos and movie-star interviews in The China Culture Gazette. And it's a country where personal freedom is expanding--"as long as you don't engage in overt political protest."
If domestic politics are more your meat, two profiles of the leading Presidential candidates may catch your eye. On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency by Elizabeth Drew (Touchstone, $14) focuses on the telling first 18 months in office of the man from Hope. And what a mess they were, Drew shows: disorganized, uncertain, and sluggish. "We were just reeling, we were just reeling," Communications Director Mark D. Gearan admits to Drew. In a new afterword, the author considers how, since the 1994 Republican landslide, Clinton has been paying for his blunders.
Richard Ben Cramer's Bob Dole (Vintage, $11)--excerpted from the author's 1992 tome, What It Takes--is unabashedly positive toward its subject. Dole comes off as persistent, shrewd, even heroic. Fans and nonfans alike will be drawn in by Cramer's stories of Dole's hardscrabble Midwestern youth, war experiences, and evolution from GOP neophyte to hatchet man to key Washington power broker.
However, if the whole Washington scene suggests images of a fetid swamp infested by special-interest parasites, maybe Kevin Phillips' Arrogant Capital (Back Bay Books, $12.95) will suit you better. To free the political system from high-powered operators representing narrow causes, Phillips proposes moving the capital to other cities for part of each year, replacing congressional votes with national referendums, and closing half the law schools to cut the number of lawyer-lobbyists. Too much? Some "60% of Americans see the country on the wrong track, while half say Congress might just as well be chosen from voter lists or telephone directories," he observes.
If the political heat is getting to you, perhaps you could use a chill. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance by Laurie Garrett (Penguin, $14.95) will give you plenty--750 pages on how such epidemics as AIDS, Ebola, Legionnaires' disease, and malaria emerged and how the battle against them is going. Observes Garrett: "While the human race battles itself, fighting over ever more crowded turf and scarcer resources, the advantage moves to the microbes' court."
Right. Speaking of which, anyone for tennis?