Paperbacks: 23/09/11

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The Independent Culture

Just My Type: A book about fonts by Simon Garfield

Profile £9.99 (352pp), £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Who would have thought that the world of fonts could arouse such passions? But according to Simon Garfield's witty and illuminating history of typography, "font wonks" have always been in our midst - fainting at the inappropriate use of Comic Sans (not great on a tombstone) and drooling over lost signage and extinct type-faces.

It was thanks to the advent of the personal computer, and Steve Jobs's student interest in calligraphy, that a private language previously only understood by printers and publishers crept into general use. Now when we settle down at our screens we're able to plump for Calibri over Century, Baskerville over Bubble Bath -Garfield explains how this happened and what these choices say about us.

Not, as the author is quick to point out, that "font" is strictly interchangeable with the word "typeface". A font is a set of metal parts - or digital files - while the typeface is the overall design that allows us to reproduce these fonts. With that in mind, we set off on a whistle-stop tour of font history taking in the classic serif font of the ancient world, Gutenberg's Bible and the Swiss modernist movement that generated the ever-popular Helvetica.

As a writer who succeeds in re-interpreting arcane design-speak for a wider audience, Garfield is at his best when investigating the personal histories of designers. He analyses the relationship between the famously priapic Eric Gill and his "curiously sexless" Gill Sans font, and talks to Matthew Carter, creator of Verdana (Microsoft and Google's favoured font) who recalls how as a toddler his mother cut out letters of the alphabet from linoleum. Years later he found the letters in a box. '"They were Gill Sans, "' he says, '"and they tooth marks on them." '

It is a book that opens our eyes afresh to the jostling array of "armour-plated" "balletic" "nuzzling" typefaces that demand our attention and appreciation. Part-way through, Garfield cites the example of Cyrus Highsmith, a New York type designer who tried to get through a day without encountering Helvetica, but found it on his clothes (washing labels), breakfast yoghurt, newspaper, credit cards and even the menu of his favourite Chinese restaurant.

Alongside esoteric insights into aesthetics, we learn how Gotham helped win Obama's presidency (it signalled forward thinking without scaring the horses ). An unexpectedly engrossing read, this is a book that threatens to make font wonks of all of us. H

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Vintage £7.99 (280pp) £7.59 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Set in Newark in the hot summer of 1944, Roth's 32nd book tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a Newark gym teacher, who because of poor eyesight, is unable to enlist. An unlikely Rothian creation - neither priapic nor pompous - Bucky is regarded by the local boys as "fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular - a comrade and leader both". But as a polio epidemic starts to sweep the city, and his young charges fall sick, he faces an existential crisis. His girlfriend, Marcia, wants him to leave his job and join her as a counsellor at a camp in the Poconos far away from the infection. At first he refuses, but then changes his mind with unforeseen consequences. This is an elegiac and eloquent late work that brims with unexpected sentiment. H

Mistaken by Neil Jordan

John Murray £7.99 (408pp) £7.59 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Neil Jordan, who famously directed Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire, re-enters gothic territory with a novel about doppelgangers and confused identities. As a boy growing up in 1960s Dublin, Kevin discovers he has a double called Gerry who lives in a posher house on the south side of the Liffey. Finally, after years of being mistaken by lovers, thugs, shopkeepers and even dogs, they decide to exploit the "long waltz of mutual confusion" to their own advantage. But as the story is told retrospectively, we know that their transgression will end in death. An atmospheric read, the novel combines tenderly drawn scenes from Dublin life with a good dose of genre darkness in a classic doppelganger tale about missed opportunities. H

The Picture Book by Jo Baker

Portobello £12.99 (450pp) £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Some writers let you know you're in safe hands from the start, and Jo Baker is one of them. Stretching from the First World War to the present day, this drama-rich saga unfolds as a series of intimate family portraits. First there is Battersea-born William, a worker at Price's candle factory, who loses his life at Gallipoli; then his son, Billy, who faces the D-Day landings on a military bicycle; followed by his disabled son, Will, who becomes an Oxford academic in the 1960s. Closing the novel is Will's daughter, Billie, an artist in contemporary London. There are gripping set-pieces, from childbirth to battlefield, all related in cut-glass prose and embedded with telling period detail. A satisfying generational history, Baker's novel is reminiscent of Margaret Forster's best work. H

A Year in the woods by Colin Elford

Penguin £8.99 (167pp) £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

This diary of a deer stalker, arranged around the months of the year, sees Colin Elford getting up before dawn every morning to surround himself in the glorious isolation of the forest. He does not set himself up as a philosopher striving for higher truths in this rural solitude. He seeks only to record the everyday orchestra of sounds, smells and sights of the woodland and he does so with an eloquence, wonder and passion that is often moving. It is not just the daily doe cull that makes for such keen reading - though it certainly has moments of high tension - but all the other furtive dramas of life and death taking place behind the foliage: "Understanding nature is what makes being in the woods so interesting," he writes. "You see the everyday struggles that most people miss out on."        AA

Phantoms of Breslau by Marek Krajewski

MacLehose £7.99 (272pp) £7.59 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

A classicist at Wroclaw University – a Polish city only since 1945 - Krajewski has in his splendid series of crime novels resurrected the lost world of prewar, German Breslau – as it was. He disinters this buried metropolis like a fictional archaeologist, framing his tantalising mysteries and gamey characters against a hallucinatory sense of place. In this third book, set in 1919 and saltily translated by Danusia Stok, the Freud-reading Criminal Assistant Eberhard Mock investigates the case of four mutilated corpses dragged from the Oder. The killer, who soon strikes again, taunts Mock in messages full of visions of the apocalypse. From waltzing hotel "hostesses" to heart-stopping local fare (pigs' trotters in aspic, goose necks on potato cakes), Breslau 1919 lives again.        BT

Egypt on the Brink by Tarek Osman

Yale £9.99 (309pp) £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

When Tarek Osman published the first edition of this lively, learned and compelling book in late 2010, its title would have sounded sensational to many specialists – including the CIA. Yet Osman had called the state of his nation exactly right. By 11 February – as his new preface reports – the regime fell as crowds on Tahrir Square held up banners saying "Mubarak: Enter + Shift + Delete". This updated edition follows the post-revolution events, balancing the likely strength of hi-tech young liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. But the sharp analysis of Egypt's youth revolt, and its collision with a corrupt elite, still stands. Osman captures a generation "animated by a passion to escape the failure it feels it has inherited". Now that passion has borne rich fruits.        BT

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