! The Book of Babel: Words and the Way We See Things by Nigel Lewis, Penguin pounds 7.99. In the story of Babel, primordial society was broken up when God, as a punishment, suddenly multiplied the linguistic stock of mankind. Diversity brought division, hatred and war but, as Lewis reminds us at the start of this intriguing exploration, language finds ways across boundaries, via metaphor. The very word (an example of itself) means a carrier-over or (metaphorically again) a bridge across. This is not conventional linguistic philosophy (no mention of Wittgenstein), but underlying Lewis's skein of etymology is the argument that metaphor sits "at the deep psychological core of perception", reaffirming "like a kind of metaphysical glue" its intrinsic unity. On the way Lewis makes fabulous discoveries: that Ireland is a barnacle, a semen stain is a "map of France" and (in Afrikaans) a baboon is Adonis.
! A Dance Between Flames: Berlin Between the Wars by Anton Gill, Abacus pounds 7.99. There are signs that historians have bloated on the corpse of the Third Reich and are turning back to the chaotic and barmy but, in another way, infinitely saner Weimar Republic. This well-sourced book - despite its title - has little to add to our knowledge of the Nazis. It begins with the spartacist revolt which followed defeat in 1918, then goes on to concern itself mostly with the social history of "Weimar" Berlin, the city of Sally Bowles and Brecht/Weill, thrumming with sex, drugs, and hyperinflation; with cafe society, crime and a cult of sensation; and with arts that romped from Dada through expressionism to Mies van der Rohe. Only in his final chapters does Gill arrive at the glum austerity of Nazi Berlin and the pomp of the 1936 Olympics.
! The Fate of the Elephant by Douglas H Chadwick, Penguin pounds 7.99. Chadwick, a writer and biologist, approaches his research with the worthy aim not just to learn about his subject, but to learn from it. His world tour of places where the elephant's fate is under determination gives a splendid overview of the problems faced by the species: he travels to India, Thailand, Malaysia and Africa, where they live; to Japan and Hong Kong where their ivory is still in demand; and to zoos everywhere. What does he learn from the elephant? "The extent to which we are kin." It sounds sentimental, but the elephant is a delightful creature - warm, fun-loving, intelligent and beautiful: everything, in fact, we would like ourselves to be. The danger from ivory poachers may now have receded; the relentless poaching of their habitat goes on.
! The Kenneth Williams Letters ed Russell Davies, HarperCollins pounds 7.99. "Williams was one of the great letter-writers of modern times," says Davies, which slightly begs the question. In modern times, hardly anybody writes letters, so that Williams - himself consciously anachronistic in many ways - looks like one of the last letter-writers. The most prolific years of his correspondence - mostly edited from his carbons - are the 1970s, when Williams, having reached a peak of fame, turned his flat into a central London hermitage from which letters issued in a steady stream. His hallmark as correspondent is the ability to tailor his voice to the recipient. Dirty jokes for the Stoker's Mess of HMS Leverton, camp gossip for Joe Orton, high moral tone for the Times (when calling for a ban on the film Rosemary's Baby), cultural sophistication in letters to an academic friend. Williams is always performing. Sometimes the letters are brilliantly funny, occasionally they are little better than superficial. But more often than not they strain for effect. And "cos" for "because" throughout is a major irritant.
! The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-94 by Edward Said, Vintage pounds 9.99. Palestine-born Said was re-born in New York in 1967. He was no more than an English literature professor until the Six-Day War politicised him and, as he describes in his introduction to this collection of 25 years-worth of essays, he suddenly found "what happened in the Arab world concerned me personally". Thereafter Said has upheld his people's cause and attacked Zionism with courage and at some personal cost (he is treated as a virtual pariah by the US media). Not every aspect of Said's thinking will pass without criticism. You notice, for instance, his unwillingness to face up to the vicious character of Ba'athism, and his view of Palestinian ideology can look a touch rosy. But his shifting attitude to Arafat - in 1980 a hero, by 1991 a betrayer of "our history and our people" - is another matter: it shows he is prepared to jettison symbols and hold onto reality.
! Graham Greene: Friend and Brother by Leopoldo Duran, trs Euan Cameron, Fount pounds 7.99. The imprint is primarily a religious one, and that seems appropriate since the author - one of Greene's greatest friends in his last years - is a Spanish catholic priest, and apparently the model for Fr Herrera in Monsignor Quixote. After Michael Shelden's depiction last year of Greene as an incorrigible traitor, it is useful to meet the other side of him - a modest, courteous and affectionate man, though with a darker aspect which had much to do with his "obsessive faith". This sunny, amusing and extremely well-translated book of anecdote and picnic-talk also shows what Greene saw in Duran: not a sycophant, but a sympathetic companion who respected his opinions and laughed uproariously at his jokes.Reuse content