Books: Paperback roundup

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The Independent Culture
Kosovo: A Short History by Noel Malcolm, Papermac pounds 10. Fractal geometry, which deals with infinitely complex shapes inside a finite area, could have been inspired by reading about Kosovo. However you take the name Kosovo, which has been applied to a number of different but overlapping geographical units, it is a smallish place, but it still manages to encompass an extraordinarily convoluted collection of myths and loyalties. In this successor to his Bosnia: A Short History, Malcolm does a brilliant job of unpicking fact and fantasy, as he traces the history of this long- standing trouble spot from Roman times, through centuries of Ottoman occupation, to the manoeuvring of borders that followed the two World Wars. Along the way he puts paid handsomely to the notion that Kosovo is a Serb heartland, whose native population has been displaced by later Albanian interlopers. (By the way, the book cites a memorandum sent to the Great Powers in 1913, in which the Serbs base their claim on, among other things, "the moral right of a more civilised people" - which in the light of recent events is really quite funny, in a sick way.) But he also cuts down to size the competing Albanian myth that the territory has a long autonomous history: what this book proves is how thoroughly the history of Kosovo is enmeshed in the history of the whole region; how it bears the imprint of both Islam and Orthodox Christianity. Anybody who wants to understand the conflicts that have shaken the Balkans in recent years is recommended to read this book (Malcolm cites the near universally held view that "The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and it will end in Kosovo"). But it shouldn't just be read for that reason: it is also a beautiful instance of historical synthesis, a masterclass in plain, elegant prose, and a monument to the power of reason to face down barbarism and chaos.

A Hack's Progress by Phillip Knightley, Vintage pounds 7.99. Memoirs of 40- odd years in the newspaper business, from early days in Australia, working for the young Rupert Murdoch, to investigative triumph with the Sunday Times Insight team in its glory days, when journalists were allowed to spend years at a time chasing one story. The first part, when Knightley recalls his years of drifting from job to job (South Sea island trader, vacuum cleaner salesman) is the most enjoyable. Later, he drifts into self-justification a little, as in his chapter on the Hitler diaries episode, from which he emerges saying "I told you so" even as he wipes the egg from his face. On the other hand, he is scathing about himself when he comes to describe his part in the Insight investigation into Thalidomide, which most people would gladly accept as a journalistic triumph. And there are some interesting sidelights on the world of intelligence, which Knightley brushed against when writing his biography of Kim Philby. All in all, a mellow, pleasing book.

In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson, Penguin pounds 6.99; Selected Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Penguin pounds 7.99. The world in general seems to be coming round to the view that Stevenson is one of the great 19th-century novelists and essayists, and the re-issue of In the South Seas can't do the cause any harm (although the rather louche photograph on the cover may not help). Stevenson had originally intended to write the definitive account of the South Sea islands - to be called simply The South Seas - but ill-health and some uncertainty over what he was doing prevented him from finishing it before he died. What we have here is the posthumous collection made by his friend Sidney Colvin, full of flaws and far less than he wanted it to be, is still a delightfully sympathetic, imaginative attempt to encompass the places and the people, as well as the web of legends that bind the two together. As for the Selected Poems - well, Stevenson has his limitations as poet, in terms of the moods he could tackle; but his best verse has a racy, conversational style and a plainness of diction that makes for pure pleasure.

Mrs Einstein by Anna McGrail, Anchor pounds 6.99. Fact (apparently): Einstein and his first wife had a child before they were married, who was put out to foster, and disappeared from history. McGrail's engaging fantasy has her discovering who her father is and setting out to take revenge by beating him to the theory of relativity, or picking holes in the one he's got. The journey takes us from Hungary before the First World War to Los Alamos during the Second, taking in some of the century's more significant events and offering a good deal of rather well- explained science - in fact, as well as being a pretty good narrative, this is also one of the better introductions you can find to modern physics.

Gravity by Erica Wagner, Granta pounds 6.99. Short stories by the American- born literary editor of the Times, which were hugely praised on publication. It's an undeniably impressive debut, written in a controlled, ice-smooth prose with a taste for faintly surreal dislocations. But the control makes it hard to warm to; she suffers from an almost Updikean urge to describe afresh, which only partly camouflages the unoriginality of her themes - a retake on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a library romance, a Cosmo-feminist tale of a mother's weight-fascism. Still, a name to watch.

Questioning the Millennium by Stephen Jay Gould, Vintage pounds 6.99. Now, we all know that Gould is a brilliant explainer and populariser of science. But at his worst, as when he gets going on his favourite baseball similes, he can be both pompous and folksy. And this, his slightest book so far, finds him at his worst rather too often. In it, he reflects on three millennial themes - the recurrence of apocalyptic dreaming throughout history, and how, in the Christian world, this got bound up with thousands of years; the apparently trivial question of whether the millennium starts on 1 January 2000, or 1 January 2001; and third, why we get so bothered with the arbitrary tens and 100s of the calendar at all. As I say, much of it is bothersome, but Gould chases along some interesting little alleyways, and there is a twist at the end which, though his method of revealing it is a little coy, accounts surprisingly and movingly for his interest in the whole topic.

Robert Hanks