Ten Serious Reads For Summer

These paperbacks give you lots to ponder on the beach, including plenty about the world's political woes -- and a juicy mob tale

As the deadline approaches for a turnover of power in Iraq, few writers seem more on target than Fareed Zakaria. Democracy and liberty are not identical, notes the author, who is editor of Newsweek International, and the bundle of freedoms that we regard as key to civilized political life -- from the rule of law to the rights of free speech and religion -- have nothing intrinsically to do with voting. Accordingly, his latest book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (Norton, $14.95), has some advice for nation-builders: Construct the institutions of classical liberalism first, then hold elections. This volume, which reviewer Bruce Nussbaum called "intensely provocative," was first published in April, 2003, only days after the invasion of Iraq began. In a new afterword to the just-published paperback edition, Zakaria reflects on the challenges in that chaotic land. Here's a dose of his realism: No matter how well a transfer of power goes, the U.S. must "come to terms with the reality that America now has a 51st state called Iraq."

That's serious reading for summer, of course. And Zakaria's is only one of the books in BusinessWeek's annual paperback roundup that homes in on world political woes. Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Vintage, $11) also presents a bracing outlook: "It's time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world," writes the senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Americans, with their vast military power and willingness to use it, are from Mars, it seems. Meanwhile, Europeans, who lack such military resources and prefer to employ "soft" tactics such as diplomacy or foreign aid, are from Venus. In a new afterword to what reviewer John Rossant called a "slender but brilliant" book, Kagan says that the ability to confer or deny legitimacy to any military action is Europe's "comparative advantage in the new geopolitical jostling with the U.S."

Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Cornell University Press, $19.95), by Brookings Institution fellow P.W. Singer, provides a thoughtful, engaging critique of the U.S. government's growing dependence on private companies to wage war. Mercenaries in the employ of the Pentagon have made news with every new controversy in Iraq, from the ambush that sparked the siege of Fallujah to the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib prison and the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's offices. The involvement of these for-profit fighters has inspired plenty of political vitriol, much of it directed at Halliburton (HAL ), Vice-President Dick Cheney's former employer. But there are some less-well-known players here, too: DynCorp, MPRI, and ICI Oregon, which do everything from database work to intelligence-gathering. The phenomenon is likely to keep generating headlines no matter who is elected Vice-President this fall.

For a look back at the unlamented period of the Cold War, there's William Taubman's 871-page Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton, $17.95), winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for biography. Reviewer Rose Brady called this book "a fascinating look at a complicated, self-made man." Born to an impoverished Russian peasant family, Khrushchev became a metalworker, union militant, Communist Party leader presiding over the Stalinist purges in Ukraine, member of the inner circle, and, finally, head of the Soviet state. And that was just the prelude: Khrushchev's term of office, from 1955 to 1964, saw triumphs in space flight and foreign policy, brinkmanship over the Berlin Wall and missiles in Cuba, and, importantly, a nuclear-weapons test ban with the U.S. and Britain. Taubman, a professor of political science at Amherst College, probes deeply into the Soviet Premier's personality, finding him to be engaged in a "desperate search for respect."

The formative influences of U.S. capitalism are the subject of City University of New York historian Thomas Kessner's Capital City: New York City and the Men Behind America's Rise to Economic Dominance, 1860-1900 (Simon & Schuster, $15). After the Civil War, New York emerged as the nation's dominant metropolis and its financial capital. Kessner asks: Would the U.S. economy be the same today if that city had been, say, cautious and pedigree-conscious Boston? The author has his doubts. He celebrates New York's vibrancy, its "audacious and driven businessmen," as well as the "civic values, countervailing business and economic interests, intellectuals, reformers, and the labor movement" that bridled capitalism's oppressive side. Here are portraits of Theodore Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan, urban developer Andrew Haswell Green, and Tammany Hall political boss William Marcy Tweed. Remembered by most as a vile king of graft, Tweed is also portrayed here as "a born genius at organization," whose plan for modernization remade the city.

An unabashed scoundrel is the subject of former BusinessWeek editor Donald Dunn's Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial Cons (Broadway Books, $14). Originally published in 1975, the book has just been re-released as part of a series called the Library of Larceny, along with such titles as New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling's 1942 The Telephone Booth Indian. Dunn tells how a self-educated Italian immigrant transformed himself into a "wizard of finance." In reality, of course, Charles K. Ponzi was running a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme in which the funds of latecomers went into lavish payouts for the early birds. The book's made-up dialogue seems bogus -- but also weirdly suited to the pulp-nonfiction topic. "I'm drier than a Methodist conclave," Ponzi exclaims at one point, calling for a drink to cement a deal. Later, one satisfied "investor" announces: "Mr. Ponzi, you d' greates' 'talian of anybody!" But Ponzi himself claims only third place, behind Christopher Columbus and radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi.

History buffs may also enjoy Gavin Weightman's The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, $$13.95), an engaging and compact account of a little-remembered oddity of the past: the sale of natural ice harvested from America's northern lakes and rivers. By the mid-19th century, Americans from all walks of life had grown accustomed to using ice to preserve perishable food, chill drinks, and make ice cream. Nor were they alone: American ice was transported around the world in insulated ships. Weightman profiles Boston-area entrepreneur Frederick Tudor, without whose effort the ice industry might not have developed. The book also provides engrossing detail on the grueling extraction, which was often carried on at night by teams of workers using pickaxes, saws, and horse-drawn ice plows. Even though artificial ice was being manufactured as early as the 1850s, the natural-ice trade remained strong until the 1920s.

The enigma that was Henry Ford is at the center of Wheels For the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (Penguin, $18), which reviewer Kathleen Kerwin called "comprehensive and briskly paced." Author Douglas Brinkley, who has also written biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, among others, had access to the Ford Motor Co. (F ) archives and was urged by CEO Bill Ford Jr. to writes a "warts-and-all" book. While Brinkley devotes 500 of the book's 880 pages to the company's founder, the saga hardly ends there. He goes on to tell how, at mid-century, Henry Ford II struggled to revive the carmaker. The Edsel, the Thunderbird, Lee Iacocca, the Mustang, and the Explorer all put in appearances, as does Ford's current leadership.

A provocative account of recent financial history is found in Tearing Down the Walls: How Sandy Weill Fought His Way to the Top of the Financial World...and Then Nearly Lost It All (Free Press, $15), which reviewer Heather Timmons called "well-written and fast-paced." Author Monica Langley, of The Wall Street Journal, tells the story of Weill's rise to the top of the world's largest financial institution, Citigroup (C ). She follows his career from its ignominious start at Bear, Stearns & Co. (BSC ), through his success as the head of brokerage house Shearson, his ouster from American Express Co. (AXP ), and his comeback with consumer-finance company Commercial Credit Co. One omission of the hardback edition is rectified with a new final chapter, which discusses developments since Citicorp's $300 million fine and settlement with New York State over various alleged improprieties on Wall Street.

Finally, for a bit of fun, try The Last Good Time: Skinny D'Amato, the Notorious 500 Club, and the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City by Vanity Fair contributor Jonathan Van Meter (Three Rivers Press, $14.95). In the late 1940s, D'Amato bought a struggling Atlantic City restaurant with a backroom gambling operation, the 500 Club, and turned it into "ground zero for the supercool lifestyle." At the club's zenith in the '50s, Frank Sinatra played a regular gig there, and such celebrities as Joe DiMaggio, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eartha Kitt came by. The stars drew crowds who would pay to feel equally hip. But then came congressional hearings on organized crime -- which drew attention to D'Amato's mob ties -- followed by Atlantic City's slow decline. Reviewer Robert McNatt enjoyed the book's "myriad tales of mobsters, murders, dames, celebrities, and crooked pols." The Last Good Time may be the perfect escape for readers weary of geopolitical gloom.

Compiled by Hardy Green

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