FOR THE BEACH-BLANKET BOOKWORM
Aaah, summer. The rat race slows a tad--and that means there's finally time to peruse those books you've been meaning to read. But what were they again? Here to help you recall is BUSINESS WEEK's annual summer paperback roundup.
Where better to begin than with a man of vast ambition? Martin Dressler, the eponymous hero of Steven Milhauser's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is an American archetype--one who can make others want to participate in his fantasies. Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (Vintage, $12) takes place at the turn of the 20th century, when ''on any street corner in America you might see some ordinary-looking citizen who was destined to invent a new kind of bottle cap or tin can, start a chain of five-cent stores...or open a fabulous new department store....'' Dressler works his way up from cigar-store clerk to real estate mogul, finally producing a vast hotel, with artificial lakes and mechanical moons, that's meant to supersede the outside world. Reviewer Mary Kuntz found this a ''compelling'' story of a man ultimately overcome by the corrupting nature of his own vision.
The tale of another big-time achiever is also in paperback. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Lowenstein (Doubleday, $14.95) devotes 474 pages to the fabulously successful investor. While Buffett's childhood, unorthodox family (his household contains both wife and mistress), and personality quirks are all examined, the focus is on the man's approach to making money. Reviewer Chris Welles found that although Lowenstein ''only gets so far into Buffett's brain,'' the account would ''stand as the definitive biography.''
One more market phenom is examined in New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques' Fidelity's World: The Secret Life and Public Power of the Mutual Fund Giant (Touchstone, $15). Here, it's ''extensive reporting on the history of the mutual-fund industry and the lax regulatory system'' that make the account worth a read, said reviewer Geoffrey Smith. Marring the book are the author's hostile tone and unsubstantiated suggestions that the company is out of control. But since it's the first book of any weight about this behemoth, whose assets exceed $500 billion, readers will find it worth a look.
Also provocative is William Shawcross' Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire (Touchstone, $16). It details how Murdoch cajoled, connived, and bullied his way to ownership of many of the world's choicest media properties, from The Times of London to Twentieth Century Fox. He has regularly pushed his media outlets to adopt a cheesecake-plus-violence formula--winning ringing approval from mass audiences. And as Murdoch's embrace of pols ranging from New York's Edward I. Koch to British Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown, he is nothing if not politically savvy. Mark Landler, BUSINESS WEEK's former media editor, said the book should be ''savored as a chronicle of one man's fiery arc through the media firmament.''
Or maybe you're in the mood for horror. A real-life scare story can be found in Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood (Touchstone, $15) by Esquire editor Nancy Griffin and Vanity Fair writer Kim Masters. The authors tell how, as co-chairmen of Sony's Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc., Guber and Peters wildly bid up costs--only to produce such turkeys as Bruce Willis' Hudson Hawk, which alone lost $42 million. The duo created an ocean of red ink, in exchange for which both enjoyed annual salaries of $2.7 million and their own corporate jets. Griffin and Masters ''skillfully chronicle the lunacy of the deals, personalities, and excesses that made up Sony's Hollywood nightmare,'' according to reviewer Ronald Grover.
International affairs can be equally unnerving. In The Weight of the Yen: How Denial Imperils America's Future and Ruins an Alliance (Norton, $13.95), author R. Taggart Murphy looks at the contentious financial relations between the U.S. and Japan. The veteran Tokyo-based investment banker says that the Japanese amass and deploy their cash to achieve one goal at the expense of all others: domination of world markets. His is ''an engaging and witty analysis of the forces that have permitted Japan to pile up cash and the policy blunders that have kept U.S. Presidents from Nixon to Clinton in denial'' about the challenge these forces pose, said reviewer William Glasgall.
And there's the ever-mysterious Middle East. Judith Miller's God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East (Touchstone, $15) throws light on the Islamic fundamentalists who are bidding for power across the region--and on the forces opposing them. Miller, a New York Times correspondent, offers a panoply of tales, from the brutal to the brutally amusing. Most important is her description of the diversity within militant Islam, ''as distinct from country to country as Catholicism is in France, Italy, Brazil, and America,'' she says. Reviewer Stanley Reed found the volume ''a chilling survey of the wellsprings of hate and violence in the region.''
But what could be more mysterious than the economy? It's no wonder many are befuddled, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester C. Thurow: The global economy is rife with contradictions. For example, ''capitalism will succeed or fail based on the investments it makes, yet it preaches a theology of consumption,'' he writes in The Future of Capitalism: How Today's Economic Forces Shape Tomorrow's World (Penguin, $13.95). With no guiding ideology other than greed, the system may slowly undermine itself, the author concludes. Although short on solutions, Thurow ''makes a convincing case that the marketplace lacks the magic to save the world from deep trouble,'' said reviewer Stephen Baker.
Among the factors contributing to instability is growing inequality. But just why are some executives able to command so much money? Today, if you're not No.1, you're nothing, say the authors of The Winner-Take-All Society (Penguin, $12.95). Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, professors of economics and public policy, respectively, at Cornell and Duke Universities, find that winner-take-all markets have proliferated--in such fields as law, journalism, consulting, and even academe--with the replacement of regional markets by global ones and the intensification of corporate competition. What's more, they say, much of the rivalry for the top prizes is both costly and socially unproductive. ''Frank and Cook break new ground by linking the win-at-all-costs mentality to economic and cultural problems,'' found reviewer Kathleen Madigan.
Then there's the murky business of U.S. politics. With White House troubles--including Whitewater--going on and on, it's easy to forget how it all started. James B. Stewart's Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries (Touchstone, $14) provides a clear explication of the issues, while probing such related matters as Hillary Rodham Clinton's lucrative commodity trades, the President's alleged sexual dalliances, and the White House staff's attempts at damage control. Both the book, first published in March, 1996, and a new afterword find the Clintons guilty of ''reckless'' investment practices while adding that ''nothing in the Clintons' past, on its face, seems to explain the pattern of evasions, half-truths, and misstatements that have characterized the[ir] handling of the story....'' Reviewer Dean Foust found the ''evenhanded'' account performed ''yeoman service'' for those seeking to sort through the Whitewater mist.
Politics buffs will also appreciate Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson (Random House, $16) by former ABC News Nightline correspondent Marshall Frady. Frady is a marvelous if sometimes overexuberant writer. The book project, he says, thrust him into a six-year ''migratory, open-ended tournament of talking'' centered on a man with ''both a magnificence of spirit and an appalling crassness.'' Frady carefully chronicles Jackson's development, from his illegitimate birth in Greenville, S.C., through the civil-rights, Operation PUSH, and Presidential-campaign years, and on to his current ''unfinished life.'' It's a fascinating biography of a one-of-a-kind American.
Then, for a provocative glimpse into the world of test tubes, try The End of Science (Broadway Books, $15) by John Horgan, a senior writer at Scientific American. Horgan's thesis is that the big discoveries of science have been made: What's left is detail work or stuff that may never be known. In addition to his musings on this notion, the author provides expositions of everything from superstring theory to Thomas Kuhn's analysis of scientific revolutions. And there are fascinating portraits of top scientists, ranging from Francis Crick to Noam Chomsky. Reviewer John Carey found the book ''a compelling tale,'' although the ''pessimistic conclusion is far too sweeping.''
Finally, for those in need of a summertime snicker, there's Coyote v. Acme by Ian Frazier (Noonday, $10). Yes, we're talking Wile E. Coyote, that relentless cartoon adversary of roadrunners--and victim of the fictional Acme Co.'s allegedly faulty and improperly labeled products, including the Acme Rocket Sled and Acme Spring-Powered Shoes. Frazier's book consists of a series of humorous, offbeat essays. The title composition, written in the form of a legal brief, seeks redress for Mr. Coyote, now ''restricted in his ability to make a living as a predator.'' Other essays describe a bank's announcement of an unusual cash-reassignment policy, a no-show jobs hotline for the well-connected, and Stalin's stifled sense of humor. Frazier has skewers to fit all comers.
And speaking of skewers, let's get that charcoal going!
Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.