Books: Paperbacks - Life's been a beach for years

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The Beach: The History of Paradise of Earth

by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker Pimlico pounds 10

Every August, cars full of Romans decant on to the 2,000-year- old Appian Way that takes them to the ancient port of Ostia, and its beach; a summer migration that has been in practice since 15BC.

As nature's most effective anti-depressant, the beach is a site of transformations - both psychic and geological - and, as American academics Lencek and Bosker point out in their social history of beach bummery, it has been thus since ancient times. Jesus began his ministry on a beach, Noah built his ark on a beach, and pallid Englishmen and women go there to enact wild mating rituals.

But back to the oiled and perfumed Romans splashing around on the Mediterranean coast of Baiae, much to the irritation of Seneca the Younger. For 500 years, Baiae reigned as the most fashionable beach resort in the world, a place where otium cum dignitate - a break from the pressures of city life - could be pursued, where social conventions broke down. For Seneca, it was a "vortex of luxury and a harbour of vice", but then he hadn't seen Ibiza and, anyway, his room overlooked the great bath and he was constantly distracted by the noises of merriment. Party-pooping Christians would have sympathised with his distaste - piety demanded the "odour of sanctity", so sea-bathing was out and, of course, hedonism was a definite no-no. Only masochistic hermits braved the barren outposts of terra firma.

This erudite and witty study charts the evolution of the seaside from its place in Graeco-Roman mythology to its present role as the central staging ground for humankind's diversion. The diverse rituals of daytrippers to Blackpool and surfers riding the waves in California are set in their socio-historical context with a lightness of touch and a judicious choice of illustrations. Bosker and Lencek employ various fields of study to define anything from the mechanics of sand formation to the restorative effect that seaside holidays had on shell-shocked troops returning from the trenches of the First World War. An illuminating byproduct of their analysis is an account of how beaches divided, figuratively as well as literally, England from the rest of Europe. While 19th-century British "aquatherapists" were strapping themselves into their bathing machines, the louche habitues of the Riviera were seducing and swindling each other - thereby converting "this shifting margin of land" into a moral touchstone. Lencek and Bosker cover a lot of ground, so you'll need at least a week on the beach to catch up.

Stop Press

Tim Heald

Orion pounds 5.99

Most former Fleet Street hacks have scores to settle with someone or other, and Tim Heald is no exception. The only difficulty in this romp through the fast-moving world of newspapers lies in determining exactly whom Heald's invective is targeting. The sole goody in this sea of thinly disguised "foreign parvenus" and "hard-nosed Thatcherite millionaires" is a sacked lit ed who cunningly transforms himself into a media consultant. The observations are spot-on, the humour broad, but so broad it blunts the satirical edge.

Pears on a Willow Tree

Leslie Pietrzyk

Granta pounds 6.99

American writer Leslie Pietrzyk has taken as the theme for her first novel the divisive changes in women's lives wrought by the 20th century, particularly as they affect mothers and daughters. But this is clearly a personal testament that expresses the author's longing for this distance to be filled. Four generations of Polish-American women illustrate the forces that have shaped women's lives and the compromises they have to make. For great-grandmother Rose, an immigrant to Detroit, each day is a struggle to survive. Cloistered in the shadows of this harsh existence, her daughter Helen stays close to the family and its traditions, suffocating her own daughter, Ginger, to such an extent that she runs away to Arizona. It is up to Amy, the last of the matriarchs-manquees to heal the rifts. Pietrzyk treads a careful line between mawkishness and subtlety as she conveys the secrets and unspoken love between her characters.


Edward de Bono

Penguin pounds 7.99

The minimalist (or should that be post-minimalist?) white cover says it all. Edward de Bono, the man who dreamt up lateral thinking, who has written 58 books which have been translated into 34 languages, who has been invited to lecture in 58 countries, and to whose work there are four million references on the Internet, has decided that life's too complicated. Have you ever wondered why it is so fiendishly difficult to fill in a tax form? he asks. Wonder no more, just follow the wild man of epistemology's 12-Step Plan for cutting the red tape and anxiety from our lives. He even provides sound-bite summaries in massive typeface to introduce each revolutionary concept. It's simple, really, try "historically reviewing" (ie, challenging the modes of thought we take for granted), and then "reframe" (ie, determine which are the "non-problems" to which we are seeking solutions). It all sounds a bit too complicated for me.

Maurice, or The Fisher's Cot

Mary Shelley

Penguin pounds 7.99

In 1820, two years after the publication of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote a story for Laurette, the 11-year-old daughter of a friend. As it was considered too short to publish, the manuscript was forgotten, and then lost. A few years ago, Laurette's great-grandniece discovered a "little book of a few pages, sewed with a string" with the words "For Laurette from her friend Mrs Shelley" written on the first page. Shelley scholars have since authenticated it as the missing manuscript, and Claire Tomalin (biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary's mother) has written a wonderfully revelatory introduction in which she describes the background surrounding Maurice. Some may find Tomalin's essay a more satisfying story than the work itself. But Maurice is an illuminating piece of children's literature steeped in the traditions of Shelley's forebears. Anyone familiar with her history of miscarriages and infant mortality will not be surprised to learn that her children's story opens with a funeral. It goes on to tell the emblematic tale of a child who has lost his parents, and a father who has lost his son. It is a minor work, but deeply affecting, and it is best read in conjunction with Tomalin's essay. Only then will the themes of death, displacement and recovery resonate so forcefully that Shelley's formally happy ending is tragically belied.

Fanny Burney: Her Life

Kate Chisholm

Vintage pounds 7.99

Fanny Burney was born in 1752 and lived for 88 years, meeting explorers and poets in the court of "Mad" King George III and ending up in Paris just as Napoleon's armies were marching against England. Her life encompassed great technological and economic changes as well as the shifting dynamic between men and women. Her letters and diaries, written in a vividly detailed, sprightly prose, reflect the energy of these hectic times. A radical "lady novelist", she is perhaps best known for Evelina, a deliciously salacious portrayal of a young girl who takes London by storm. It seems Burney had the same effect, and Doctor Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke were soon flocking round her at Mrs Thrale's famous literary salons. Her courage is legendary (she survived a mastectomy without anaesthetic), and Kate Chisholm does justice to this lioness's life. More importantly, however, she forces us back to the beautifully observed and compelling journals and letters of her subject.