Paperbacks For Balmy Days

From weird ideas to Iacocca, here's what to put in your beach bag

Isn't playing the stock market just gambling? Yes, says Morgan Stanley (MS ) executive Aaron Brown—and a good thing, too! Brown, a risk manager and former trader with degrees in applied math from Harvard University and finance from the University of Chicago, says finance would be tepid and ineffectual without the vitality imparted by the gambling instinct. His book, The Poker Face of Wall Street (Wiley, $16.95, coming in July), is a sprawling, idiosyncratic, and sometimes poker-obsessed work filled with nuggets about American history and finance. Quirky insights make the book special, according to reviewer Peter Coy.

Not for you? Well it's only one of the several volumes in BusinessWeek's annual roundup of paperbacks published just in time for the lemonade-and-hammock season.

Are layoffs an unavoidable fact of life? No, says New York Times economics reporter Louis Uchitelle. In The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (Vintage, $14.95), Uchitelle draws upon mounds of research to show the folly of such an approach. Dumping workers only seems to be economical, he says, pointing to a plethora of hidden costs that include severance, potential lawsuits from aggrieved workers, loss of institutional memory and trust in management, a shortage of staff when the economy rebounds, rehiring expenses, and a culture of survivors who are risk-averse, paranoid, and alienated. Contrast that with the no-layoff payoff: fierce loyalty, higher productivity, and superior innovation. Reviewer Michelle Conlin said the author makes a strong case that layoffs should be the last place CEOs turn in times of trouble, not the first.

Snap judgments have a bad rep, says Malcolm Gladwell, one that's not always justified. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Back Bay Books, $15.99), The New Yorker writer asserts that on-the-spot decision makers can be very insightful. He relates the story of a psychologist who, after listening for only a few minutes to a couple's casual conversation, can tell they are headed for a divorce. Not all snap judgments are spot-on, concedes the author. The key to effective decisions is what he calls "thin-slicing," or instantly homing in on a few salient details. Gladwell's aim is to help everyone make better choices, no matter how much or how little time they take. Reviewer Diane Brady called the volume "concise and provocative."

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer seems an up-and-comer. But what is to be made of his controversial career so far? Has he been a populist crusader who stepped into a regulatory vacuum—or an overzealous, self-aggrandizing bully? To review the record, consider Spoiling For A Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer by Brooke A. Masters, a senior business reporter for the Financial Times (Owl Books, $16). Reviewer Michael Orey found the book to be an evenhanded compendium of Spitzer-led high-profile cases involving tainted research by Wall Street analysts, improper mutual fund trading, and rigged bidding in insurance. What's missing, though, is a clear judgment of Spitzer by the author, a failing that may disappoint readers.

How often do you have an opportunity to observe skilled workers produce a masterpiece? Well, here's your chance to follow a single piano, No. K0862, on its yearlong journey through Steinway & Sons' New York City factory and on to the company's storied concert division, where instruments are earmarked for loans to artists and institutions. The artisanal process has changed little over the centuries, as you can discover in the pages of Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand (Times Books, $15) by New York Times reporter James Barron. The author leavens his account with tales of the waxing and waning of Steinway company fortunes, a 19th century rivalry with Chickering & Sons, and details of marketing schemes from yesteryear.

Like Dobie Gillis' sidekick, Maynard G. Krebs, we all might like to flee from work, at least during the summer. But there is no escape. In Toxic Emotions at Work (Harvard Business School Press, $14.95), Peter J. Frost describes the debilitating effects of his own on-the-job stress: "Issues that once might have stayed with me emotionally for only a few hours soon began to keep me awake for nights on end." Frost, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, focuses on this toxicity, which, as "a normal by-product of organizational life," he insists cannot be avoided, only managed. This useful volume examines the sources of organizational distress, considers how "toxin handlers"—those, such as project managers, who often have to help others through difficult periods—can protect themselves, and suggests ways to construct more compassionate workplaces.

Readers fond of accounts describing the broad sweep of history will enjoy 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Vintage, $14.95). A correspondent for Science and The Atlantic, Mann taps into recent scholarship that challenges the conventional wisdom about Native American culture, society, and politics. The revisionists argue that pre-Columbian America did not consist of a pristine landscape, home to a relatively small number of illiterate and innumerate people living close to the land. Instead, vast civilizations had long flourished throughout the Americas, especially below the Rio Grande. The Maya and Aztec civilizations, as well as the lesser-known Tiwanaku and Wari, among others, built giant cities with magnificent architecture and lively intellectual life.

With a new book in print, former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca is back in the news. His publisher has taken advantage of the occasion to reissue the 1984 megaseller Iacocca: An Autobiography (Bantam, $15). This is the book that made almost every CEO say: Hey, I should have a book, too! A good bit of what's in this memoir, such as his section on "the Japanese challenge," is of historical interest only. But his account of the turnaround at Chrysler still resonates: "There was so much to do and so little time! I had to eliminate the thirty-five little duchies. I had to bring some cohesion and unity into the company. I had to get rid of the many people who didn't know what they were doing...." It's an intriguing account of a singular American life.

Another author who has benefited from recent publicity is Stanford University management professor Robert I. Sutton, author of the just-published The No Asshole Rule. Now, his 2002 book, Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, is finally out in paperback (Free Press, $14). Among its offbeat notions: Reward both success and failure, but punish inaction. Encourage people to ignore and defy authority. And "find some happy people and get them to fight"—meaning you should hire upbeat staff and foster sharp conflict over their competing ideas. Each of Sutton's 11 1/2 maxims is the subject of its own chapter. The author's wit and erudition make Weird Ideas That Work a pleasure to read.

Finally, those who need a bit of quality fiction should consider Suite FranÇaise by Irene Nemirovsky (Vintage, $14.95), a tale of France under Nazi occupation that was apparently written during the period described. Although the book was never finished—the author, a Jew, died in Auschwitz in 1942—its two extant sections are engrossing. The first of these shows the panic afflicting a cross section of Parisian society as the German armies approach. Among those fleeing the capital are an upper middle-class Catholic family; a snobbish, successful writer and his mistress; a boorish bank manager and two employees; and an effete art collector who'll do anything to save himself. There are moments when this section resembles a French Grand Hotel, populated by class-conscious stock characters. But the author's ear for conversation and way with minor characters make up for any failings. And the book's second section, on the German occupation of a small town, is quite affecting, especially in its treatment of the growing closeness between a lonely French woman and a cultured German lieutenant.

Compiled by Hardy Green

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