Summer Reading, Heavy to Light
Compiled by Hardy Green
Deceit, manipulation, seduction, treachery -- sounds like the latest management how-to? Well, these are also key themes in what's likely to be this summer's most frequently packed paperback: Robert A. Caro's THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: MASTER OF THE SENATE (Vintage, $19.95). This 1,167-page Pulitzer Prize winner is the third volume in the author's magisterial biography of Johnson. Here, Caro chronicles LBJ's meteoric political rise following his first election to the Senate in 1948. The drama revolves around the congressional battle for racial justice, with the beguiling and ruthless Johnson at the center of the action. At age 44, LBJ had become the youngest Senate Majority Leader in U.S. history, hoping to use his clout to leapfrog into the Presidency. Of the book, reviewer Richard S. Dunham said: "No other contemporary biographer offers such a complex picture of the forces driving an American politician, or populates his work with such vividly drawn secondary characters."
Can't handle the weight? There are plenty of other titles to consider in BusinessWeek's annual roundup of summer paperbacks.
Another historical portrait can be found in TUXEDO PARK: A WALL STREET TYCOON AND THE SECRET PALACE OF SCIENCE THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF WORLD WAR II by former Vanity Fair writer Jennet Conant (Simon & Schuster, $14). This book tells the previously little-known story of former Wall Street magnate and self-taught physicist Alfred Lee Loomis, an important contributor to the development of radar, which proved crucial to the Allies' victory in the war. In the late 1930s, Loomis' private, state-of-the-art physics lab served as a meeting place for such visiting scientists as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi. Later, when he was at the U.S. National Defense Research Committee, Loomis was instrumental in organizing political and economic support for radar research. Reviewer Otis Port said the volume was "a must-read for fans of World War II history, and it will captivate students of science and technology."
THE LAST LONE INVENTOR: A TALE OF GENIUS, DECEIT, AND THE BIRTH OF TELEVISION by former BusinessWeek editor Evan I. Schwartz (Perennial, $12.95) details another technological tale: the rivalry between former Idaho farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth and the slick David Sarnoff of Radio Corporation of America, both of whom claimed to be the "father of television." In the summer of 1921, the 14-year-old Farnsworth was struck by inspiration while plowing a potato field behind a team of horses. He had been busting his brain over how to achieve something that hobbyists had dubbed "television." It suddenly dawned on him that an electron beam could create moving images by zipping back and forth across a phosphorescent screen -- just as his plow was cutting furrows, only 1 million times as fast. More than 80 years later, every TV that uses a tube works on the idea that Farnsworth hatched that morning.
Bernard Lewis' WHAT WENT WRONG? THE CLASH BETWEEN ISLAM AND MODERNITY IN THE MIDDLE EAST (Perennial, $12.95) is "a timely and provocative contribution to the current raging debate about the tensions between the West and the Islamic world," according to reviewer Stanley Reed. From the 9th through the 13th centuries, says the Princeton University emeritus professor, the Islamic world was the leading economic power and had "achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization." Then, beginning in the 15th century, residents of Islamic lands found themselves at first unable to keep pace with the West and later falling under its domination. Muslims' solution, Lewis argues, was to blame Europeans, Jews, and Americans for their own shortcomings. That blame game, still going on today, explains the seething anger demonstrated by some Muslims toward the West, says Lewis.
More recent political action is the subject of THE RUSSIA HAND: A MEMOIR OF PRESIDENTIAL DIPLOMACY by Strobe Talbott (Random House, $15.95). "The anecdote-stuffed book," wrote Moscow Bureau Chief Paul Starobin, "will fascinate anyone with an interest in the personal dynamics of statecraft." This is an insider's account of U.S.-Russia relations in the '90s, written by the former Deputy Secretary of State, also a former Time magazine columnist. Talbott sees Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a worrisome pair of psychological twins -- both natural leaders and incurable screwups. Ultimately, the author suggests, Clinton became seriously deluded about Yeltsin, even as Russia's citizens understood that their President had surrendered control of the ship of state to a murky band of Big Business titans -- the so-called oligarchs.
A different sort of global problem is quietly becoming a crisis. The world's water resources are under severe strain from pollution, population growth, and climate change, as author Diane Raines Ward describes in WATER WARS: DROUGHT, FLOOD, FOLLY, AND THE POLITICS OF THIRST (Riverhead Books, $14). The conservationist-author points out that the urge to find, dam, and channel water is one of the earliest spurs to technological advance. But attempts to monopolize its sources have also led to wars. And as potable water gets scarcer, it is increasingly at the heart of humanitarian crises -- witness the suffering in Baghdad when fresh-water and wastewater systems were disrupted in the recent war. Ward has a sharp eye for contradictions: Dams, she notes, are built to irrigate land for farming, but poor design can starve downstream farms of nutrients. Water Wars offers "plenty to inspire and alarm," found reviewer Adam Aston.
But, hey, we've had no shortage of bubbles -- as New Yorker writer John Cassidy reminds us in DOT.CON: HOW AMERICA LOST ITS MIND AND MONEY IN THE INTERNET ERA (Perennial, $13.95). This account of the '90s tech-stock boom and how it affected the U.S. "excels at providing insight into events that, in retrospect, seem inexplicable," noted reviewer Peter Elstrom. Why, for example, did professional money managers pour funds into the stocks of Internet companies that had no profits and no prospects? Since such pros are judged on how well they perform against benchmarks, such as the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, they have little choice but to follow the herd, says Cassidy. In a new afterword written for the paperback, Cassidy considers the current economic climate and how players from investment bankers to Alan Greenspan have sought to deal with the embarrassing 1990s.
Another chronicle of prosper- ity is LIVING IT UP: AMERICA'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH LUXURY by University of Florida professor James B. Twitchell (Simon & Schuster, $14). To those who condemn ostentatious consumption, Twitchell says: Lighten up! At one time, social rank was based on "the capriciousness of ancestry," but now, he finds, it's merely a matter of "opuluxe spending" and conspicuous display. Americans' common desire for luxe, he says, even provides a social bond. As the author prowls designer stores from Rodeo Drive to Midtown Manhattan, he describes how shopping has become a transcendent, near-religious experience. The book is an unusual and entertaining take on America's true national pastime.
Status-seeking is also the subject of Joseph Epstein's SNOBBERY: THE AMERICAN VERSION (Mariner Books, $14). Yet this account more resembles an intellectual stand-up routine than a sociological treatise. Like Twitchell, Epstein feels that, ever since the demise of debutante balls and other affectations of the WASPocracy in the U.S., snobbery has concentrated in such realms as food, wine, and fashion -- along with education and political correctitude. This observation allows the author to trot out a chorus line of one-liners, such as the description of a woman whose style of living was "Prada and two dogs," or the discovery that the International Croquet Assn. refers to any croquet kit under $300 as a "children's set." Said reviewer Joan O'C. Hamilton: "There's plenty of artful writing and thought here, and Epstein's wit makes even the excess historical padding and linguistic hair-splitting palatable."
A BIG LIFE (IN ADVERTISING) by Madison Avenue legend Mary Wells Lawrence (Touchstone, $14) also indulges in a bit of commodity fetishism. Between the 1960s and '80s, the maverick exec penned Alka-Seltzer's unforgettable "plop plop, fizz fizz" and led a glamorous life, marrying Braniff International Airways' dashing CEO, Harding Lawrence. Her influential agency, Wells Rich Greene Inc., created such enduring slogans as "I Love New York" and "Flick your Bic." Don't expect this breezy volume to offer much on the social or moral implications of advertising. "Its true worth," according to reviewer Gerry Khermouch, "is its revelation about how the ad game really works: What matters is big ideas."
A much more grueling life is described in COMPLICATIONS: A SURGEON'S NOTES ON AN IMPERFECT SCIENCE by Atul Gawande (Picador, $13), described by reviewer Catherine Arnst as "an insightful read -- and a disquieting one." Think medicine is an exact science? Think again, says Gawande, a Harvard Medical School-trained surgeon. The author tells how physicians often make decisions based on guesswork, instinct, or desperation. Their medical training is a long process of trial and error, with humans as practice material. Diagnoses vary by doctor and even by time of day. Gawande writes that doctors can never be sure if their actions will prove wise: "That our efforts succeed at all is sometimes a shock to me." It's a persuasive demonstration of just how messy, tentative, and surprising medicine can be.
Associate Editor Green handles the books section.