Saturday 10 August 1996
The Foul and the Fragrant by Alain Corbin (Papermac, pounds 12) One of the most unusual history books ever published, this is a study of smell in the 18th and 19th centuries. For a French academic, Corbin's writing is remarkably free of opaque abstraction and packed with lively detail. In the 1700s, we learn, there was a ''long-lived fashion for animal perfumes with the odour of excrement''. Corbin explores contemporary views on pongs, efforts to clear up urban stenches, the blooming scent industry (Worth and Guerlain were active in the 1860s) and how many great writers had an olfactory obsession - even Zola, who had a poor sense of smell.
Whitewash: Pablo Escobar by Simon Strong (Pan, pounds 6.99) Though the basic facts about the unlamented cocaine boss are well known, they continue to amaze: his Noah-like zoo of exotic species (their ordure was useful for masking coke); his art collection, including a Van Gogh; his penchant for murder, which extended, at least putatively, to the US President. In this absorbing, but relentlessly gory, investigation, Strong piles on the detail. There is a distasteful UK involvement. We were distantly concerned with supplying massive quantities of solvent. More directly, most mercenaries who worked for the drug cartels were British.
Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal (Abacus, pounds 9.99) Garbo wore his clothes, Bobby Kennedy hated his guts, Princess Margaret was an unexpected heroine (''far too bright for her station in life'') - Vidal knew everyone and remembers everything. Like Anne Fleming, he was brave enough to bang Waugh's ear-trumpet. This great rolling tide of a memoir, oscillating seamlessly between now and then (up to 1964), is wonderful entertainment. An occasional campness of expression is more than compensated by Vidal's incomaprable wit. Unexpectedly, he is also deeply moving, particularly about the death of an early love at Iwo Jima.
Power Play by Stephen Fay (Coronet, pounds 7.99) A surprisingly entertaining biography of Sir Peter Hall, the man who spent the Sixties and Seventies changing the face of British theatre, and the Eighties trying to earn enough cash to support a growing tribe of children and glamorous ex-wives. More loathed than loved, Hall admits to ''walking over people'' without realising it, and an innate love of power. Most fascinating of all are Stephen Fay's descriptions of the impresario's childhood years in Suffolk, and the awesome consequences of too much mother-love.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Black Swan, pounds 6.99) Nobody takes poorly planned holidays in the world's dingiest places with the vigour and wit of Bill Bryson, so it's a wonder he's taken so long getting around to his former adopted home of Britain. As usual, everywhere he goes it's raining, the shop-fronts are dismal and the pizzas terrible. Less intense than The Lost Continent, this book features kindly and acute reflections on what it means to be British - in Bryson's view the happiest people on earth. A casual, sentimental journey around an island that likes its pleasures small, and its puddings, as he charmingly describes them, ''cautiously flavourful''.
A Scandalous Life by Mary S. Lovell (Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99) Mary Lovell's latest biography tells the intriguing life of the free-spirited, sexually liberated 19th century beauty Jane Digby. Following a much publicised divorce in the 1830s, when she ran off to the continent to join her German princeling lover, Digby entertained herself with a Bavarian king, an Albanian brigand and a Greek count. Finally living in Damascus and married to a Bedouin 20 years her junior, she was still worrying about getting lucky at the age of 70 .
Whatever happened to Margo? by Margaret Durrell (Warner, pounds 5.99). Gerald Durrell's energetic and long-suffereing elder sister, who featured so prominently in My Family and Other Animals, appears by her own account to have ended her days running a boarding house in Bournemouth. What her memoirs omit to mention is that her life ''post-Greece'' saw rather more exotic adventures than choosing the next lodger. She spent the war in Corfu disguised as a native, travelled extensively in Africa, and in later years took a job as a mariner on a Greek cruise liner. An endearing portrait of post-war suburbia, but one that sells its author short.
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