Ty Burr
June 06, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

If we go on summer vacation to relax, how come we then obsess over SPF 15 and Skin-So-Soft? We need a vacation from vacation, and this, thankfully, is where beach reads come in. The best aren’t necessarily the melodramas du jour that populate the best-seller lists. As you might pack a steak sandwich to take to the beach, so too does meat have its place in the summer literary diet. All that’s required is a world to get lost in while dodging Kadima balls.

Said worlds don’t even have to be fictional. Robert Caro’s 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, re-creates six decades of backroom urban politics in all their venal glory. Even if you’ve never heard of Moses, you’ve driven on the roads and bridges he built if you’ve passed through New York City. Caro shows how this civil servant came to have far more power for far longer than any mere elected official — and how that power turned him into one scary son of a bitch.

For more nonfiction slumming, try Herbert Asbury’s pungent 1927 The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. The title may have you thinking Jets and Sharks; sorry, Asbury is concerned with the Whyos and Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies and Hudson Dusters — gangs of murderous miscreants who rose out of the slums in the 1800s. The chapters on the Civil War-era draft riots — when New York was literally taken over by a mob — is street history at its most compelling.

Switching coasts and centuries, Otto Friedrich’s 1986 City of Nets passes the Hollywood of the 1940s before your eyes, year by year. So what? you ask. So this: In 1940, the movie industry was coming off its greatest year. The decade would see the end of WWII, the arrival of television, the dawn of the blacklist, the first falterings of the studio moguls. In short, everything changed, and this absorbing popular history nails the big picture and the human details.

Well before the first agent stumbled into Hollywood, the Rocky Mountains were the scene of genuinely savage power plays. Bernard DeVoto’s classic 1947 epic, Across the Wide Missouri, tells the story, with welcome dry wit, of the mountain men who crisscrossed the West during the 1830s (via astounding solo forays, in some cases). Many writers have since visited this territory, but DeVoto remains the class act.

By now, you’ve had it with reality; you’re ready to escape to some fictional island. Fine. Here’s one: Desolation Island, the fifth book in the acclaimed Patrick O’Brian seafaring series set during the Napoleonic era. You don’t need to have sampled the abiding friendship between Post Captain Jack Aubrey and doctor/spy Stephen Maturin before; in this entry, action is paramount. In particular, there’s a man-of-war chase down to Antarctic latitudes that would make one hell of a $150 million Hollywood movie. At 13 bucks, the book remains the better deal.

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