Book Review: Paperbacks

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Rise of the New York Skyscraper 1865-1913

by Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W Condit

Yale, pounds 17.50, 478pp

IT IS one of those facts which every schoolboy used to know: the existence of New York's skyscrapers depends on the bed-rock of Manhattan. However, at some points the island's rock basement plunges several hundred feet below street level. This partially accounts for the disappearance of skyscrapers between midtown and the financial district downtown.

Landau and Condit insist that the skyscraper was born in New York, not Chicago. Buildings soared as soon as the technology allowed. Essential elements included cast-ironwork, elevators (tested with a cargo of eggs and light bulbs), fireproof construction, central heating, ventilation and electric lighting, not forgetting the "all-porcelain syphon-jet toilet" invented in 1880.

The results ranged from fanciful pinnacles to utilitarian blocks. Not all were commercial. The Statue of Liberty (1886) was equal in height to a 12-storey skyscraper. The 1884 Dakota apartment block on the Upper West Side was renowned for its nine storeys and hotel-like amenities. (Though not mentioned here, the building's most famous residents, John and Yoko, had a refrigerated room to keep their fur coats). But it was business which prompted Manhattan to head heavenwards. Magnates sought to outdo each other in grandeur. In 1905, the New York Times claimed its new HQ was the "city's tallest building" at 476 feet - but that included a 114ft flagpole. There was no doubt about the 612ft Singer Building, the world's tallest on its completion in 1908. It was outstripped by the 792ft tower built for F W Woolworth in 1913. (He paid cash.) The photos in this definitive book are pure joy. A few captions bear the word "demolished," but it does not appear as frequently as it would in an equivalent volume on London. CH

The Nation's Favourite

by Simon Garfield,

Faber, pounds 5.99, 330pp

THIS FLY-on-the-wall account focuses on Matthew Bannister's transformation of Radio 1, but Garfield's most entertaining pages are devoted to the "absolutely monstrous egos" that were the templates for Smashie and Nicey. According to John Peel, the Simon Bates speciality "Our Tune" filled "every lay-by in the country with weeping truck drivers at 11am,". Dave Lee Travis, akaThe Hairy Cornflake, hogged the airwaves with a half-hour digression about his local fire-brigade. Hilarious stuff.

Dark Continent

by Mark Mazower,

Penguin, pounds 9.99, 496pp

A BRILLIANT survey of Europe's blasted 20th century. In the Thirties, H G Wells urged students to turn themselves into "enlightened Nazis". In occupied Paris, Teilhard de Chardin wrote: "We are watching the birth rather than the death of a world." Nazism, Mark Mazower insists, "fits into the mainstream of European history far more comfortably than most like to admit." Rubbishing the notion of "a new, confident and unified Europe," he says that we should settle for "a more modest place in the world."

The Journal of Mrs Pepys

by Sara George,

Review, pounds 6.99, 340pp

THRILLER WRITER Sara George has set about the commendable task of Mrs Pepys's restoration. Giving her a diary and words of her own, George has read between the lines of her husband's entries and fleshed out a spirited and sensible companion for the young civil servant. As enjoyable as a Philippa Gregory epic, George's unadorned prose records the domestic; the personal; and the momentous (the plague and Great Fire). A life dominated by dirty washing and minor ailments.

One Good Thing

by Rebecca Stowe,

Sceptre, pounds 10, 276pp

LIKE ANNE Tyler characters, only funkier, Rebecca Stowe's Lower East Siders are a little too old to be hip, too scruffy to become famous. Ex-bongo player turned novelist, Harry Butler, spends his days composing Gregorian chants and trying to finish his book. His wife Clark keeps him in low-rent accommodation and back-rubs. Life is sweet, until Harry sees a young man's fall from their building, and ends up losing Clark's respect. Stowe's plot is screwball, her characters resoundingly real.