WHAT TO READ ON VACATION Put down those how-to tomes and pick up some real books -- tales of giant squids, serial killers . . . darn, maybe even some poetry.
By GIL SCHWARTZ GIL SCHWARTZ is a writer and business executive living in New York. REPORTER ASSOCIATE Kelley Tice

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Congratulations. As a representative business person, you possess astonishing intelligence, cultivated interests, and a strong, sinuous attention span. But what, on an average business day, must you read? Horrible stuff. It starts with the digital display telling you it's time to get up. Next comes the business section of the morning paper, which, necessary and valuable as it may be, doesn't exactly leave you feeling plump and satisfied, not with all its chat about declining profits, rightsizings, leanings, and meanings. Waiting at the office is a stack of junk, including but not limited to four demographic journals that you must read because they cost your department $495 per year (each), six overnight faxes, a couple of memos informing you to DO IT NOW, and rows and rows of fetid numbers. I don't know what you call it -- information ingestion? -- but you sure can't call it reading. Great reading exorcises reality. And while it is possible to have a great read in the middle of the October strategic planning & season, it's a lot easier to find your pleasure in a chaise longue while attempting to balance book, beverage, and appetizer. And so the good Lord created the last weeks of August, when the world slows on its axis, maybe not a lot but enough. This August, the cornucopia of books at our disposal includes several large enough to stop a Range Rover, weighty as a lead mallet and twice as violent and dense. Some are as light and sharp as good Finnish vodka. Others are really quite stupid. These are my favorites, for scientific research shows that only in pursuit of something stupid does the weary human being refresh itself. This would also explain the existence of tennis and golf. What kind of nourishment do you favor in your summer mental feed bag? Let's look at some likely prospects, defined by the type of reader you might be. -- Page-Turning Fool. You're sitting at a meeting with a mix of internal and external players. A lot of them are your superiors. Some are peers who would be only too happy to eat your lunch and carve up your place setting. The group is on you like a wet suit. They want numbers. They want explanations that haven't even been invented. That's right, homing in on you from way close up and ready to tear your head off is Beast, by Peter Benchley (Random House, $21). Aieee! Actually, it's not about corporate politics. It's about a giant squid, and it's tremendously escapist fare for those who find inexorable monsters that rise from the deep relaxing after 50 weeks on the job. For those who need a more global menace to engage their horror ducts, Tom Clancy has written The Sum of All Fears (Putnam, $24.95). Clancy's prose is extremely precise, and his tale, as always, is intricately plotted and credible. This world, however, takes serious concentration. I have more trouble with a passage like this than I know I should: ''Once the nose and fin packages were installed and activated, the only remaining activation procedure was the installation of a special arming panel within the cockpit of each fighter, and the attachment of the power plug from the aircraft to the bomb.'' Okay. But my fingers fly a lot quicker over a blood boiler like Loves Music, Loves to Dance, by Mary Higgins Clark (Simon & Schuster, $21.95). Clark's sensational story of two women menaced by a psychotic serial killer isn't nearly as ambitious as Clancy's. But at least we know where we are. We're in Bundyland, and not Al (Married . . . With Children) Bundyland either -- Ted Bundyland! And no matter how bad things get, we know the wacko gets caught. Not, however, before he wreaks some gratifyingly terrible outrages. This nut works the personal ads to find victims, then compromises their windpipes. When they are dispatched, he places a dancing slipper on one recently deceased foot, then twirls about with the corpse. Charmant. For violence of a different sort, try Damage, by Josephine Hart (Knopf, $18). There's this tidy British family, see, very respectable. The wife is exquisite, and from a wealthy family. The husband is a doctor of some renown and also, by the way, a successful member of Parliament. The son is very good looking. His lover is a mysterious and very messed-up woman who practically reeks of sensuality. Lover meets father at a cocktail party. Uh-oh. Father and lover immediately embark on an, um, relationship that features an insane level of passion with a side order of bondage, biting, and assorted sadistic diversions. The rest is tragedy whose particulars I will not reveal. Yes, it's difficult to identify with characters like these. But it's easy to be happy that you're not one of them. Things are a whole lot more down to earth in Sue Grafton's H Is for Homicide (Henry Holt, $17.95). We're in schmutzy and not-quite-picturesq ue California, and our hero is resourceful, witty, and gritty insurance investigator Kinsey Millhone. This time, Kinsey is busy shielding a con woman from a crazy, rejected gang-leader lover who also has Tourette's syndrome, which doesn't help his disposition or his power of self-control. Grafton has a superb grasp of police procedure, and anyone with a taste for crusty sensibility, believable plotting, and good, clear writing will enjoy stuff like this: ''I resisted the impulse to shake hands with the man. It seemed inappropriate since I'd just burgled something from his desk . . . His gaze was intense, giving him the look of a man capable of seeing straight from his own felonious heart into mine.'' That's nice. This summer is one where we'll have to do without a 900-page screamer from Stephen King. I miss it. There is, however, a bright-red hard-cover reissue of his old collection Night Shift (Doubleday, $19.95). Those who have already sucked up that compendium of comic-book shorties may avail themselves of a neat new assortment of terror and gross-out fun: I Shudder at Your Touch, edited by Michele Slung (Penguin's Roc Group, $19.95), with grotesques from King, Ruth Rendell, Clive Barker, and 19 others. Particularly good, for those with strong stomachs, is the Clive-meister, who can make King look like Maxwell Anderson: ''Even as the lock clicked she killed him,'' he writes of his telekinetic heroine, who embodies all that is powerful and compelling in Woman. ''Nothing spectacular in the execution; she just reached into his pigeon chest and crushed his lungs.'' Yech! Give me more. -- Deep Thinker. After saturating your palate with brutality and superficial sensation, it may be time to move to a higher plane. For a real mental workout, try Immortality, by Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, $21.95). Kundera rambles around the universe with great themes and fascinating ruminations. But it can be tough sledding. In one passage he tells of the time Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala, were pondering what to do with their pet rabbit while they were away on a long trip. Writes Kundera: ''The next day Gala prepared lunch and Dali enjoyed the excellent food until he realized he was eating rabbit meat. He got up from the table and ran to the bathroom, where he vomited up his beloved pet, the faithful friend of his waning days. Gala, on the other hand, was happy that the one she loved had passed into her guts, caressing them and becoming the body of his mistress. For her there existed no more perfect fulfillment of love than eating the beloved.'' Waiter! Me, I'd rather order up a hot plate of Stephen Jay Gould's new collection of naturally historical thoughts, Bully for Brontosaurus (Norton, $22.95). Gould is the kind of writer whose intelligence and tremendous capacity for enthusiasm are so contagious that, if they were not beneficial in the extreme, they would be illegal. It is simply impossible not to be interested in things that engage his capacious mind and prodigiously productive word processor. This time out he shares insights on language, the creation of baseball, Tolstoy, and, of course, dinomania. But it really doesn't matter what Gould focuses on. He melds science with real life better than anyone else. And don't forget to pick up a copy of Illiberal Education, by Dinesh D'Souza (Free Press, $19.95). The current think piece on political correctness by a flaming conservative has all liberals talking and a good many sort of nodding, guiltily, as liberals do. Make sure, however, that if you praise D'Souza you're vacationing with folks who share his views. You don't want to be sent packing for using the word ''seminal'' among people who find that kind of sexist linguistic hegemony by male Eurocentrist pigs offensive. -- Republican Party Pooper. A bunch of stuff out there may leave you feeling wistful and affectionate toward your senior management, who end up looking pretty good by comparison. One is Bob Woodward's look at the inside workings of the Bush bureaucracy, The Commanders (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). Let's face it: It's sort of tough to care about a bunch of organization men seriously going about the business of doing their jobs -- just like you. Kind of makes you nostalgic for the great and questionable titans of years just past. No, probably not Richard Nixon -- he's back! And we've got him! -- but maybe the Reagans, who seem likely to provide meat for the literary skewer for years to come. In this vein, sample Haynes Johnson's Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years (Norton, $24.95), which basically blames the Gipper for what's become of the 1990s. Reverential Reaganauts will be peeved. But for bitter Democrats who feel they just might have to wait until the millennium for a candidate, let alone a shot at the White House, it's balm to the soul. So, of course, is Kitty Kelly's notorious Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography (Simon & Schuster, $24.95), which will be most annoying to those who believe it is the responsibility of all Americans to buy their own evening gowns, stationery, and toilet paper. -- Inner Warriors . . . Real men have Needs. Needs to achieve, you know, personal growth. For the 97-pound weakling inside all of us, there's the story of Samuel Wilson Fussell, a sensitive, Oxford-educated intellectual who decides to encase his fearful, tender heart in 260 pounds of rock-hard Muscle (Poseidon, $18.95). Fussell is the son of Princeton heavyweight literary and social critic Paul Fussell, and the tale of his descent into Schwarzeneggerian madness is a surprisingly compelling read in the tradition of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, for bodybuilding is nothing if not an addiction. Highly recommended. But man is not just sinew and flesh. Man is also as big as all outdoors inside, where raging mammal howls at internal moon or some darned thing like that. For American men, who have been aching to break out of their sensitive 1970s shell for at least a decade, Robert Bly has invented Iron John: A Book About Men (Addison-Wesley, $18.95). It's well written, as you would expect from one of the most important poets of the past 30 years (who are the others?). It's seductive, speaking about the interior warrior who yearns to burst from our bosom, brandishing myth and, er, seminal power. And as an antidote to 25 years of strident feminism, it's a shot of high-octane fuel in the face. It's also dumb. But better dumb than numb. Go, Bob!

-- . . . and Woman of the Dunes. Women, on the other hand, tend to hate overtly dumb books. Many of them seem to prefer the deep, comalike somnolence that comes of patiently investigating the minutiae of bourgeois lives, the pleasure that comes in, say, an Ann Beattie story when Muffie and Thad find that matching pair of Docksiders they thought they'd misplaced on their last trip to Nantucket. If you like those kinds of thrills and chills, try Anita Brookner's Brief Lives (Random House, $20). My wife did. The other morning I asked her to make coffee, and she said, ''Let me just finish this chapter. I want to see whether this certain man that the heroine is interested in comes over to dinner, or whether she is forced to go over to this elderly woman's house and give her a bath.'' If you can stand that kind of suspense, dig it! At least Brookner gets her business done in only 260 tense and delicate pages. Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt (Random House, $22.95), is a churning, lusty, circuitous tale of some 550 pages with a Shakespearean number of characters and enough atmosphere to make Umberto Eco sneeze. It is also without question the best buy per pound on the shelves today, and heavy enough to hold down the entire side of a picnic blanket, not to mention your imagination, for about three weeks, minimum. Now that's value. Here's one that looks like a woman's book, but isn't: The Kitchen God's Wife, by Amy Tan (Putnam, $22.95). Tan's tale is about the tensions and conflicts between the younger generation of almost wholly assimilated Chinese women and their solid, tradition-bound mothers who, nearing the end of their days, are eager to pass something of the old ways down. The Kitchen God of the title determines whether you have good luck or bad. And -- here's the good news -- you can change your luck. Amy Tan writes with originality and humor, and she manages to weave grand historical events (China before the revolution is not chopped liver) together with well-observed details of everyday life. Few contemporary books feel like literature. This one does. -- Post-Literal You. On the other hand, who needs linear, straightforward | narrative? Squares! We're post-literate, aren't we? I know I'm interfacing between hardware and software constantly, and in that world all hellzapoppin' ! Like, for instance, have you installed your new upgrade of DOS 5.0 yet? If you haven't, pick up the ultimate in excitement for wonks, technodroids, and geeks -- The Microsoft MS-DOS, Version 5.0 User's Guide and Reference (list price, including disk, $99.95). Load all your transient and stay-resident programs in high memory, plug in an expanded memory manager like HIMEM.SYS or QEMM, run CHKDSK and get available memory at 636,240! What a rush! And while you're at it, read Lingo, by Jim Menick (Carroll & Graf, $19.95), the story of a nerd who builds a computer that can reach out for new information, teach itself based on experience, and ultimately get people to do things on its behalf, which is more than I can say for most of my friends. So as we come down to the last choking rattle of summer, Labor Day night itself, you may be wondering whether we really shouldn't try to get around to one of those, you know, business books? One with a positive message and yeasty managerial tips? We should. And yet . . . So many times I find myself reading these things at arm's length, holding the tip of my nose, mentally, expecting to come face to face with something that will cause me to hurl the book across the room and head out to the kitchen. Pfaugh. Instead, on the cusp of autumn and a full season of serious, if not downright somber, work, maybe it's better to spend a quiet night with The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Vintage, $12.95), keeping in mind that while Stevens was writing some of the most pungent, lyrical, and coherent poetry of the 20th century, he was holding down an executive post with Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co., working 18 years before he made vice president, and never really giving up his day job. I don't know. For some reason, I find that comforting.