Pack the Swimsuits--and the Paperbacks
Compiled by Hardy Green
Summertime means cookouts, baseball games, absolute relaxation--and catch-up reading? Well, yes, because it's a season when we can steal a few hours to curl up with books we've been meaning to read all year. To help you recall just what they were, here is BusinessWeek's annual roundup of summer paperbacks.
For stimulating corporate drama, there's Taken For a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler by former Detroit News writers Bill Vlasic and Bradley A. Stertz (HarperBusiness, $15). Daimler's $36 billion buyout of Chrysler in 1998 was first described as a marriage of equals--a merger that would provide a blueprint for international consolidation. Before long, however, it became clear that Daimler, with its very different culture, was firmly in control. Vlasic and Stertz detail the merger negotiations and show how Chrysler's Robert J. Eaton was outmaneuvered by Daimler's Jurgen E. Schrempp, a manic executive who scales mountains and plays chess with Russian champ Gary Kasparov. The authors portray the resulting DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) as an unwieldy organization in which a money-hemorrhaging Chrysler floundered as it tried to meet Schrempp's profit goals.
Covert meetings, secret codes, espionage--the latest from Robert Ludlum? No, it's The Informant: A True Story by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald (Broadway Books, $14.95), a book that BusinessWeek reviewer Mike France called "one of the most compelling business narratives since Barbarians at the Gate." Eichenwald tells how a high-ranking Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM ) executive's voluntary confession of price-fixing led to an FBI investigation, a dramatic raid on company headquarters, and, ultimately, a $100 million settlement of federal charges by several corporate conspirators. It's also a case in which the whistle-blower, Mark E. Whitacre, proved to be an embezzler, siphoning millions from ADM even as he was helping the feds establish their case against the company. We sweat along with the investigators as Whitacre attempts to tape-record the incriminating acts of his co-workers--and as the investigation appears headed for a meltdown.
An examination of the culture of a major Japanese corporation can be found in Sony: The Private Life (Mariner Books, $15) by John Nathan, a professor of Japanese cultural studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Asserting that "the environment in which Sony Corporation (SNE ) has historically conducted its affairs is less public than personal, less rational than sentimental," Nathan shows how decision-making was often influenced by the whims of patriarch Akio Morita. Although Nathan was unable to meet the two founders--Masaru Ibuka passed away in mid-1997 and Akio Morita was too ill to meet the author when he was conducting interviews--he got access to dozens of executives who had contributed to or witnessed Sony's development since its 1946 founding in war-devastated Tokyo. These insiders' tales make the volume "the most vivid and detailed account in English of the personalities who built the $60 billion consumer-electronics giant," according to the reviewer, Irene M. Kunii.
Is the market due for a further drubbing? Yes, says Yale University economist Robert J. Shiller, whose bearish Irrational Exuberance (Broadway Books, $15.95) seemed to anticipate the Nasdaq slide when it was published in the spring of 2000. But Shiller has more in mind than exposing speculative manias. He envisions not only a short-term crash but also a prolonged period of stagnation on Wall Street. The market, he says, became a "natural" Ponzi scheme on the strength of statements by New Economy apostles, who lent dangerous credence to a myth of ever-rising stock prices. Although it may seem less compelling now than when it came out, Irrational Exuberance, with its broad investigation of historical evidence, remains provocative. And in a new afterword to the paperback edition, Shiller offers a warning to those still sanguine about the boost that technology can give to the economy: "In bubble times there are always superficially plausible new era theories."
One of history's most bizarre speculative episodes is recounted in Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused by Mike Dash (Three Rivers Press, $12). The book is set in Holland during the early 17th century, the country's golden age. At that time, Amsterdam merchants, who were at the center of the lucrative East Indies trade, had begun to channel their wealth into conspicuous display, including tulip gardens. Rare bulbs became the object of speculation, and prices rose steadily. Around 1624, an Amsterdam man who owned the only dozen specimens of the singular Semper Augustus tulip was offered the equivalent of a wealthy merchant's annual income--for one bulb. But in the late 1630s, the tulip market crashed spectacularly: Flowers that had one week commanded 5,000 guilders fetched only 50 guilders. It's a "concise, artfully written account," said reviewer Mark Frankel.
Another fascinating tale out of Europe's past may be found in Millionaire: The Philanderer, Gambler, and Duelist Who Invented Modern Finance by Janet Gleeson (Touchstone, $13). This biography of pioneering 18th century Scottish banker and financier John Law reads like John Kenneth Galbraith crossed with Danielle Steel. Following a youth marked by dissipation and scandal, Law managed in the early 1700s to persuade France's rulers to establish the Banque Generale to issue paper money backed by deposits--a rarity then--and to install him as the bank's head. The institution's banknotes soon commanded a premium, the country's swooning economy revived, and the Banque Generale became the nation's premier bank. But before long, Law was embroiled in the infamous Mississippi Company bubble, an affair that ended in financial panic and his arrest. It would be 80 years before France would introduce banknotes again.
For readers more interested in U.S. history, there's American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, by Adam Cohen of Time and Elizabeth Taylor of The Chicago Tribune (Little, Brown, $16.95). Daley was not only the absolute boss of America's second-biggest city from 1955 until his death in December, 1976; he was also a Democratic Party potentate who could make or break governors, senators, and even Presidents. Cohen and Taylor have produced what is likely the definitive biography, said reviewer Doug Royalty. They bore into 20th century Chicago, taking us from the stinking stockyards to the polling places where precinct captains often accompanied voters into the booths. The book also tells the fascinating tale of Chicago's rebirth, as Daley and his forces reverse the city's postwar decline and create a truly dynamic modern metropolis.
More recent political developments are the subject of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War, by Pulitzer Prize winner Frances FitzGerald (Touchstone, $17). Reviewer Stan Crock found the work "a sophisticated, often well-written primer on a $60 billion project that has become the most expensive research effort in U.S. history"--the Reagan Administration's Strategic Defensive Initiative. FitzGerald regards the project as sheer folly resting less upon feasibility than upon ideology, principle, politics--and the influence upon Reagan of Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, in which an antimissile missile is planned. FitzGerald also probes the Reagan Administration's inner workings on arms control, and in the process she delineates the fissures that still exist among Republican foreign policy heavies. The account provides important background for the ongoing debate.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Pole whose spellbinding writing sometimes seems more akin to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than to the efforts of more earthbound journalists, weighs in with Another Day of Life (Vintage, $12). Newly out in paper, this frontline account of the Angolan civil war of the mid-1970s was first published in the U.S. in hardback in 1987. Kapuscinski offers a surreal montage of besieged cities, murderous conflict, frantic yet idle refugees, and, above all, mass confusion. At one point, he describes a partitioned countryside where, at a checkpoint, uttering one wrong word meant death. "We have announced ourselves with camarada in a voice strangled and hoarsened by fear," he explains. "If the sentries are Agostinho Neto's peoplewe will live. But if they turn out to be Holden Roberto's or Jonas Savimbi's people, who call each other irmao (brother), we have reached the limit of our earthly existence. In no time, they will put us to work--digging our own graves." Such brushes with death are Kapuscinski's stock-in-trade.
On the lighter side, there's Donald E. Westlake's novel, The Hook (Warner Books, $7.50), a sort of Dial M for Murder among the literary set. Wayne Prentice can't find a publisher for his completed manuscript. Meanwhile, best-selling author Bryce Proctorr has a $1.1 million advance, but a messy divorce has left him completely unable to write. During a chance meeting, the two men arrive at a solution to their problems: They will publish Prentice's novel under Proctorr's name and split the million bucks. Oh, and the big-time author sets one final condition: Prentice will have to kill Proctorr's wife. Otherwise, her lawyers will demand one-half the publication money. Westlake's satire of the publishing world features complex, believable characters wrestling with their troupes of inner demons.
And what would summer be without a baseball book? For all the genuine physical danger in the placement of an object thrown at 90 mph from a small hill 60 feet away, the duel between pitcher and hitter is the most cerebral part of the most cerebral of sports. And Roger Kahn, with a keen half-century of observation, has delivered a most entertaining look at that contest-within-the-contest in The Head Game: Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound (Harvest, $14). "It's a remarkably concise and conversational history of the game," says reviewer Ray Hoffman, "told through the lives of great pitchers, many of whom through the years have shared their philosophies and their pitches with the very fortunate and very able Mr. Kahn."
Green is Books Editor.