The Books of Summer

From neocons to Julius Caesar, here's a sampler for vacation

Has America become a conservative country -- or is it just going through a phase? The sources of the country's current rightward tilt are examined in The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (Penguin, $16) by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, the U.S. editor and Washington correspondent, respectively, for The Economist. The British duo sit in on meetings at right-wing lobbying organizations and citizens' groups from Washington to Colorado Springs. They survey think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. And, perhaps most intriguingly, they consider the effects of such cultural developments as the emergence in the U.S. of thousands of planned communities -- selective neighborhoods that tend to be suspicious of government and to look to themselves rather than to the state for basic services. Reviewer Alexandra Starr found the book to be "smart, witty, and a pleasure to read."

Not your idea of summertime reading? There are plenty of options among the titles in BusinessWeek's annual paperback roundup.

Another author looking at U.S. social developments and the country's cultural divide is New York Times columnist David Brooks. Tell me your Zip Code, Brooks suggests, and I'll describe your preferences and preoccupations. In the exurbs, he says, NASCAR, Pentecostalism, and country music are all the rage. In the inner-ring suburbs, on the other hand, a professional elite minds its Olympic-size Jacuzzis, donates to Amnesty International, and scarfs down "morally elevated" foods from Trader Joe's. Brooks's On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (Simon & Schuster, $14) doesn't just settle for snarky jokes, though. The author summons a host of social observers, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Henry David Thoreau, to deliver observations on our future-mindedness, workaholism, and generalized anxiety. Reviewer Joan O'C. Hamilton found Brooks's book lacking in truly original insights, but she admitted many of its observations are "laugh-out-loud funny."

The consumerist cornucopia is front and center in Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Ecco, $13.95). In every sphere of life, from snack foods to 401(k) investments to religion, Americans are forced to select from a vast and growing array of alternatives, says the Swarthmore College professor of social theory. That's good, right? Well, Schwartz believes that such abundance robs us of contentment. Bedeviled by price comparisons and irrelevant assessments, we are driven into a state of confusion, frequent buyer's remorse, and depression. But don't get the idea that The Paradox of Choice is a gloomy read: Clever analysis buttressed by sage cartoons from The New Yorker will have you smiling frequently as you recognize a familiar bewilderment.

Will wars make such concerns seem trivial? For a vision of how U.S. strategic policy is likely to evolve, take a look at The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century (Berkley, $16). Author Thomas P.M. Barnett, a strategic researcher at the U.S. Naval War College and "a savvy prognosticator," according to reviewer Stan Crock, says future conflicts will not simply involve Islam vs. the West, but will be contests between those nations tied to a global economy (the Functioning Core) and those that aren't (the Non-Integrating Gap). Trouble spots, not surprisingly, include much of Africa, the Balkans, parts of Asia, the Caribbean, as well as the Islamic crescent. Barnett proposes a three-pronged response, ranging from occasional "preemption" of threatening regimes to economic efforts to reduce poorer societies' "disconnectedness."

A covert war that came back to bite the U.S. is the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin, $16). Author Steve Coll, the managing editor of The Washington Post, recounts operations of intelligence services from the U.S., the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia -- how these various nations secretly trained Afghan guerrillas, plied them with cash and weapons, and attempted to indoctrinate them. Products of this cauldron were, of course, both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. It took until the mid-1990s, Coll shows, for U.S. operatives to become aware of bin Laden's deadly activities. The CIA missed its best chance of nabbing him -- during his stay in Sudan -- and soon he was off to Afghanistan. Coll describes how Clinton's security advisers tried to warn the incoming Bush team about al Qaeda, but Rice, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld were not interested. Ghost Wars, said reviewer Stanley Reed, is "a first-rate work on intelligence operations and their unintended consequences."

If business history is more your cup of tea, consider The New Yorker staff writer David Owen's deft Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine (Simon & Schuster, $13). The book, which reviewer Nanette Byrnes called "fresh and compelling," sets the stage by describing how for hundreds of years, inventors tried to figure out how to make exact replicas of documents. But nothing quite worked until Chester Carlson came up with a process based on electrostatic charges and photoconductivity. It took 22 years to transform Carlson's 1938 discovery into a marketable product -- and that period provides one of the book's best sections, dominated by the stories of dozens of little-known chemists, physicists, engineers, and executives. Such figures as engineer Bob Gundlach had to overcome an exhausting array of challenges, from finding the appropriate optical lenses to learning how to keep the device cool so that paper didn't catch fire. "The more you understand about xerography," Gundlach told Owen, "the more you are amazed that it works."

A storied past is also on display in The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company (KO ) (Random House, $15.95) by New York Times reporter Constance L. Hayes. After a spin through the history of Coke's early days and the evolution of its bottling network, the author depicts the company succumbing to a ruinous arrogance. A glorious run under Chief Executive Roberto C. Goizueta in the 1980s and early '90s preceded a period of troubles -- an employee lawsuit, weak markets abroad -- under successors M. Douglas Ivester and Douglas N. Daft. Repeated earnings disappointments prompted little more than excuses. Hays's narrative reaches a crescendo in late 1999 after a series of fateful events -- from a contamination scare in Belgium to a revolt by some key bottlers -- led to Ivester's forced resignation. The Real Thing is noteworthy for its intrepid reporting and crafty storytelling, said reviewer Dean Foust, but he noted that the book's focus on the 1990s makes it feel a bit dated.

Not all the fancy footwork is in the executive suites. Consider the mugs, molls, and hangers-on depicted in the spellbinding Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (Penguin Press, $16) by Bryan Burrough, author of Barbarians at the Gate (1990). "Baby Face" Nelson is such a murderous psychopath that his cronies fear him more than the police. Bonnie Parker writes verse for her mother in between stickups at gas stations and banks, which she carries out with the murderous Clyde Barrow. And most notorious of them all, bank robber John Dillinger engages in wild automobile-propelled gunfights with the police. He escapes repeatedly, only to be gunned down after he's fingered by a woman friend. Arrayed against them were the college boys and "cowboys" of the early FBI, which was compelled by the villains to become a modern police organization. Burrough draws upon news accounts, FBI files, and interviews to construct a "model of narrative journalism," in the words of reviewer Joseph Weber.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Still with me? Then Julius Caesar isn't altogether terra incognita to you. In Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (Anchor Books, $15), the scion of the Julian clan comes across less as the author of clunky ablative absolutes than as a hip political operator -- a bisexual man about Rome equally famous for his flowing, "loosely belted" togas and for the lavish bribes that won him public office. Here, too, are Cicero, Spartacus, Vercingetorix, Cleopatra, golden boy Pompey, Mark Antony, and Sulla -- the ruthless general who, sporting "the hairstyle of a playboy," slaughtered fellow Romans in a civil war. Holland delivers a festival of scheming, back-stabbing, and one-upmanship, bringing to life the period from 509 B.C., when Rome was in its infancy, through 14 A.D., the year of Augustus Caesar's death.

Finally, a lost world of New York comes alive in the recently republished Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell (MacAdam/Cage, $10). Mitchell was a legendary writer at The New Yorker for more than 30 years, specializing in tales of saloons, eccentrics, and only-in-New-York institutions. Profiled here is Hugh G. Flood, a retired house-wrecker who, at the time of this book's composition in the 1940s, lived in the Hartford House hotel near the Fulton Fish Market. Mr. Flood spent his days observing waterfront activity and savoring harbor air -- and his evenings sipping Scotch and arguing with his retired mariner pals. A "seafoodetarian," Flood believed oysters could cure any ailment and asserted that he intended to live to age 115. One motivation: Heaven sounded as forbidding to him as Hell. "I'm a God-fearing man," he'd assert, but "I don't really want to go to either one of those places." Old Mr. Flood is eminently readable, and at just over 120 pages, provides a wonderful excuse to while away a summer afternoon.

Compiled by Hardy Green

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