Leonardo: The Artist and the Man by Serge Bramly, Penguin pounds 12. Leonardo was a prime example of finding God inside yourself because for him divinity was more inventive than creative. Yet his first crucial lessons probably came from his master Verrochio: in seeing. This, Leonardo wrote, 'embraces an infinity of forms yet fixes on only one object at a time'. Knowing the plethora of experience and the eye's super-selectiveness were two pillars of Leonardo's genius. The third was his peerless draughtsmanship. Bramly brilliantly mines the 7,000 scattered pages of his subject's notebooks to present him as a town-planner, architect, musical instrument maker, foundryman, lexicographer, physicist, anatomist, etc, but primarily as an artist, because this was the way to 'dispute and rival nature'.
The Blade and the Passion by Les Dawson, Robson pounds 6.99. A posthumous novel from the Lancashire comic who wrote much as he talked, so that the vinegar-and-gravel tone of his voice can be heard straight from the page: 'Anyone can be bent, I grant you, but Quasimodo abused the privilege' or 'She had the skin of a freshly boiled hippo in labour'. The such-as-it-is plot is a Goonish parody of Dumas, Defoe et al, with the jokes breeding at high-velocity: 'Drake put me ashore and I caught a French package. The doctor said it would clear up eventually, if I didn't fiddle with it.'
The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon, Mandarin pounds 5.99. It is debatable whether Ehrich Weiss would have made it today: the cool, ironic hero was not his style. The man who became Harry Houdini, the world's most idolised
illusionist, was highly passionate, though oddly - for one who looks like a bondage king - not about sex, of which he was wary (one reason for his disappointing film career was his horror of kissing the leading lady). His heart belonged first and always to his mother. But the theatrical presentation of himself was his second hottest passion: he was always The Great Houdini, even to his wife. In his eminence, he found time for the histrionic persecution of inferiors, regarding them without irony as tricksters. He drew up lurid oaths of loyalty for his assistants to swear. But his escape from the persona of Ehrich could not be repeated. Harry had him completely trapped. A fine biography.
The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Chilling Confessions of James Maybrick by Shirley Harrison, Smith Gryphon pounds 5.99. In 1993 publication of a manuscript journal purporting to be Jack the Ripper's was greeted lukewarmly by the media, wary after the recent Hitler fraud. Yet this discovery - if true - was not only a completely new solution to the Ripper, it contained the answer to a second notorious murder case. The supposed diarist was James Maybrick, whose wife (in what has long looked a miscarriage of justice) was condemned in 1889 for poisoning him. The diarist here confesses that he was an arsenic abuser who, insanely jealous of his flirtatious wife, killed the five Whitechapel prostitutes through vengeful feelings inflamed by the drug. The accumulated arsenic took his own life a few months later. In this paperback you can read the facsimile of the highly melodramatic but not unconvincing diary, along with Harrison's well-written commentary. Then judge for yourself.
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, Virago pounds 5.99. Three damaged women are tormented by the glamourous, fatal, psychopathic Zenia, who wins their confidence only to hurt, betray or humiliate them. Atwood is in a playful mood in this gothic fantasy. Her she-devil gets at the trio of victims through their menfolk, to torture them emotionally and make them doubt first their vanity and then their sanity. She seems to be saying that the grubby manipulations and appetites of men are nothing compared to the depredations of a Superbitch.
The Garden of Paper Flowers: An American at Oxford by Rosa Ehrenreich, Picador pounds 5.99. This look-back over two years as a Marshall Scholar at Christ Church accuses Oxford University in the nineties of being a 'mixture of muddle and benign neglect'. Worse, its students and dons are class-ridden, bigoted, complacent and anti-intellectual. Not the first time such ordure has been hurled, but to glimpse ourselves as others see us is always salutary. Stressing her dislike of the British lack of earnestness, Ehrenreich hints at her core complaint, that Oxford abused her in the worst way for an educated American: it infected her with cynicism.
Monkey's Uncle by Jenny Diski, Phoenix pounds 5.99. A novel about madness and zoology, in which the protagonist Charlotte, assistant in an animal laoratory, almost 50 and with a recently dead daughter and an impossibly priggish son, suddenly becomes an embarrassment. She goes outside, tears off her clothes and starts to destroy her garden. The slow climb back to a resolution of this crisis involves a complicated path, via Charles Darwin and an orang utan who talks.
Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1993 by WD Flackes and Sydney Elliot, Blackstaff Press pounds 14.99. This is the fourth, updated edition of a unique reference work, listing the people and events that have shaped the Terror Years of Ulster. Whether these have now ended remains to be seen, but the IRA ceasefire has certainly not made this work redundant. Flackes (former well-respected BBC Northern Ireland correspondent) and Elliot have done a great service in signposting a way through the minefield of terms like Peace People, Peace Line, Powersharing, Third Force, Fair Employment, etc, as well as giving potted profiles of key individuals, a chronology of events, lists of election results, security statistics and more.
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