Paperbacks: A Crack in the Edge of the World<br/>Treason in Tudor England<br/>The Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center<br/>Philosophy<br/>The Magic Spring<br/>Fateless<br/>War and Peace

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A Crack in the Edge of the World, by Simon Winchester (PENGUIN £7.99 (412pp))

Though it happened a mere 20 years after Krakatoa, the subject of Winchester's previous geological page-turner, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is far closer to home. This involved the virtual destruction of a modern city by forces that are very much alive today. Winchester, who studied geology before turning to journalism, graphically explains what makes the San Andreas fault so different. Moving north at about an inch and a half a year, the Pacific Plate is the fastest in the world. "It is very fast, very interesting and very, very dangerous." Winchester brilliantly combines this underlying drama with the momentous consequences on the earth's surface. Colourful details included a stampede of long-horned cattle down Mission Street and Enrico Caruso, in town for a performance of Carmen, described as wandering the streets cigar in hand and muttering: " 'ell of a town!" The bulk of the damage and the death of up to 3,000 people (later underestimated for PR purposes) were caused by subsequent fires. Pulling together vivid contemporary accounts, which tend to be less perturbed than awestruck, Winchester describes a very modern disaster. The result is an epic entertainment. CH

Treason in Tudor England, by Lacey Baldwin Smith (PIMLICO £8.99 (342pp))

The treasons and stratagems provoked by the endgame of the Blair regime remind us that power and plotting always go hand in hand. This was never more so than in the paranoiac and ardent Tudor era, when Straw-style disloyalty was liable to result in beheading (or worse). First published in 1985, Baldwin Smith's lively catalogue of conspiracy ranges from "Sweet-Lips Gregory" Botolf, who blabbed his way to the gallows after an attempt to subvert Calais, to the Earl of Essex's "befuddled and addled-headed" attempt at sedition. CH

The Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center, by Christine Roussel (NORTON £12.99 (159pp))

Meriting a place in the luggage of any visitor to the Big Apple, this pocket-sized guide reveals that the Rockefeller is an unparalleled treasure trove of art deco. The splendid period allegories range from "Seeds of Good Citizenship" (a "robust, muscular figure" sows stylised fleurs de lys) to "Prometheus", said to be "the most photographed monumental sculpture in New York". The surprising quantity of British imagery is because the first tenant was the British government. Contrary to a claim on the cover, the book has nothing by Diego Rivera. CH

Philosophy, by Nicholas Fearn (ATLANTIC £8.99 (225pp))

Probing the latest waves of philosophy to crash against the craggiest problems of humanity, Fearn interviewed "30 of the world's most prominent thinkers". He proves to be an astringent interrogator. When Peter Singer declares "'Speciesism' will go the way of sexism and homophobia," Fearn worries: "It depends whether animals acquire the value of humans or humans are reduced to the status of animals." Fearn's trek is readable without being glib. It's a shame, therefore, that he says "Chomsky invented linguistics." It is usually considered to have been invented by de Saussure (1857-1913). CH

The Magic Spring, by Richard Lewis (ATLANTIC £8.99 (338pp))

Croydon-born and not particularly proud of it, Lewis spent a year seeking out his English roots. He travelled to the town of Whittlesey with a gang of morris dancers ("Here advanceth the stout guardian of the hole-punch"), he nervously joined a Cotswold dance class ("I might as well have dialled 'Brazilian she-male - all services' "), he enters a gurning competition in Egremont ("As their faces mutated like radioactive accidents, I knew I stood no chance"). Lewis proves to be a highly engaging companion, eliciting humour from English traditions but never scoffing at them. CH

Fateless, by Imre Kertész (VINTAGE £6.99 (262pp))

Now a much-praised film, Kertész's novel about a tough, smart Budapest kid's passage through Auschwitz and other Nazi death-factories merits all the wonder it has inspired. No other story of the camps has dared edge this close to dark humour and lyrical reflection (well caught by translator Tim Wilkinson) - and even to "nostalgia" for the slave's "clearer and simpler" life. As Gyuri hardens his heart to survive, Kertész breaks the reader's. BT

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (PENGUIN £9.99 (1392pp))

Hmm. As literary challenges go, to review War and Peace in 75 words is up there with running a marathon in full armour - but, luckily, much quicker. I'm not even going to try. Instead, I'll say only that Anthony Briggs's wonderful new translation of Tolstoy's masterpiece will instantly transport you to the parties and battlefields of Russia in the Napoleonic wars and, for the next 1400 pages and however many hours and days, keep you enraptured. Read it, and weep and wonder, but read it. CP

Comments