Paperbacks: Among the Righteous: Lost stories from the Holocaust's long reach into Arab lands<br/>The Model<br/>Passionate Minds: The great scientific affair</br>Getting Even: Revenge stories<br/>The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Among the Righteous: Lost stories from the Holocaust's long reach into Arab lands, By Robert Satloff (Public Affairs £8.99) fivestar

It's rare that a historian can tread fresh ground, and almost unbelievable that one writing about the Holocaust should have uncovered so many until now untold stories as are in this powerful, timely book. Robert Satloff, a Jewish-American expert on modern Islamic affairs, surprised even himself when his simple ambition to find the story of an Arab who saved a Jew from the Holocaust developed into such a complex and consuming project. But, in large part for fear that to acknowledge the Holocaust is to legitimise Israel, a sinister culture of denial pervades Arab discourse. In trying to research the extent of Nazi Germany and Vichy France's activities in North Africa – during which 5,000 or approximately 1 per cent of North African Jews died in forced labour camps – and the extent to which Arabs collaborated, resisted or looked the other way, Satloff came up against unhelpful bureaucracy and closed ranks. And when, after several years of dedicated sleuthing, Satloff discovered stories of Arabs who had, at risk to themselves, sheltered Jews, it was usually without the help of their descendants. Little more than a generation on, such precious kindnesses and noble deeds had been forgotten, or disavowed, by their doers' own families.

As must any book about the Holocaust, even one about the outlying reaches of its horrors, this one contains episodes that will make the reader flinch and want to turn away. Satloff is too good and truthful a writer to allow you to, but his tone is evenly modulated and conciliatory. Ultimately this is a hopeful book: an important reminder that the Holocaust was not an exclusively European ordeal, which might offer those on either side of the Arab/Israeli divide a means to reconnect with their history in a more nuanced, honest way, and so better to understand each other in the present.

The Model, By Lars Saabye Christensen (Arcadia £11.99) threestar

Peter Wihl is a celebrated Norwegian painter living a contentedly bourgeois life with his wife and small daughter until, just ahead of his 50th birthday, he finds he's inherited a degenerative disease that will turn him blind. As luck would have it, he is reacquainted with an old school friend, now an ophthalmologist – but a renegade, mephistophelean one – who offers hope of a cure. But at what cost?

Christensen invites a comparison to Ibsen's The Wild Duck (Peter's wife is designing a production), in which Hedvig, too, is going blind, and which is also an enquiry into metaphorical moral blindness. But the comparison is unflattering. Instead of the great dramatist's studied naturalism and interactions of complex characters, The Model is a simply schematic morality tale, and its secondary characters rather flat and functional. Peter's comeuppance is neatly delivered and Christensen's tale is gripping enough in the telling. But at its end you notice it achieved the rare distinction of being both predictable and unlikely.

Passionate Minds: The great scientific affair, By David Bodanis (Abacus £9.99) fourstar

The American edition of this book bears the fuller and more flavourful subtitle "The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Émilie du Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse and the birth of the modern world". It captures the tone of what is a pacy and racy dual biography of Voltaire and his married mistress of 10 years very well.

Passionate Minds' purported intent is to rescue the headstrong young aristocrat du Châtelet from history's footnotes and install her where she belongs, among the pantheon of the Enlightenment's greatest scientific thinkers. Voltaire conceded that she was his intellectual superior, while Bodanis says her insight anticipated the discoveries of photography, infra-red and relativity. We have to take his word for it, though, for although he is the author of three previous excellent popular science books, he has far too much plot to romp through to devote time on mathematical workings or explanations of the science.

Getting Even: Revenge stories, ed Mitzi Szereto (Serpent's Tail £8.99) twostar

From Greek tragedy to the Bible, Shakespeare and beyond, revenge has fuelled many of our most enduring and primal dramas. The stories selected by Mitzi Szereto for this collection, though, are for the most part rather more mundane affairs; neat little narratives more akin to Tales of the Unexpected, in which women exact an ironic or fitting revenge on the boorish, neglectful or philandering men who have wronged them. There is satisfaction enough in those, but there are ghoulishly delectable pleasures to be had in the few stories that stand out. Niall Griffiths turns in a short but decidedly funky zombie drama, "Never Die", that gets under the skin. Stella Duffy's narrator has you cheering her on when she goes after the bank managers and credit card companies that hounded her husband to death, in the well-wrought, unexpectedly affecting "Payment in Kind". And in the best of the lot, the weird and funny "A Cake Story", Josie Kimber invents a character – clearly insane – whose baroque plans and all-consuming obsession with her intended victim call to mind the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's classic "The Tell-Tale Heart".

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, ed Roxana Robinson (New York Review Books £10.99) fivestar

In Edith Wharton's first published story, "Mrs Manstey's View" (1891), a widow sits out her remaining days by her window in the back bedroom of a New York boarding house. It's a vantage point that, sustained by the sight of plants flowering amid the concrete, she has cherished for 17 years. In one of Wharton's final and most celebrated stories, "Roman Fever" (1934), two ageing widowed New Yorkers are similarly taking in a familiar view when the memories of long-suppressed passions and hurts suddenly bubble up between them.

In both stories, and in the intervening 18 that comprise this immaculate collection, we find women observing the world from a distance, restrained by the extraordinarily elaborate codes of behaviour that govern well-to-do, turn-of-the-century New York. But also women surprising themselves, and us, with the intensity of their feelings and desires, and the ingenuity with which they'll circumnavigate convention in order to express them. Where passions smoulder at length in Wharton's novels, her stories zero in on the moments of eruption. Always, though, in the most elegantly crystalline and coolly ironic prose.