Paperbacks: Picasso: style and meaning<br></br>Greenback<br></br>Fire Mountain<br></br>Solid Foundation<br></br>Parisian Sketches<br></br>The Polished Hoe<br></br>The Universal Home Doctor

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The Independent Culture

Picasso: style and meaning by Elizabeth Cowling (PHAIDON £29.95 (703pp))

Despite its startling price, this prize-winning volume offers tremendous value in two respects. It is a visual feast, containing all Picasso's major works up to 1940, and Cowling's text is a constant delight, always readable, revelatory and knowledgeable. Though some of the works are familiar from last year's Matisse/Picasso blockbuster, many will be new and startling to all but hard-core devotees. Though fresh and engaging, Picasso's lighter works produced around 1920 are relatively unknown. Cowling describes The Italian Woman (1917) as having an "eye-catching colour scheme and attractive, lightweight subject". Today, the influence of such works is perceptible in works by Gary Hume and others. Cowling's thesis is that Picasso's butterfly-like switching of styles was central to his artistic fertility. As his friend Cocteau declared in 1920: "The artist of repute is a pimp, kept by one idea... let's compromise ourselves." But Picasso had been shifting for years before that. The jarring styles of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon from 1907 made Braque feel "as if someone were drinking gasoline and spitting fire." The book details the artist's borrowings from earlier artists and his contemporaries. Matisse complained, after Picasso visited him when ill: "He hasn't come back. He saw what he wanted to see - my works." CH

Greenback by Jason Goodwin (PENGUIN £7.99 (320pp))

The buck stops here if you want to discover the epic history of the "almighty dollar", a currency inseparable from the invention of America. The word derives from thaler, but its symbol, $, once the topic of a long-running exchange in the letters column of this paper, is more mysterious. The uprights may have represented the pillars of Hercules, which appeared on pieces of eight, or they may have been a squiggle inserted by an Irish trader in 1770. Goodwin does not include T-Bone Walker's poignant reflection on the dollar - "The eagle flies on Friday" (from "Stormy Monday") - but he tells us everything else. CH

Fire Mountain by Peter Morgan (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (244pp))

Morgan's lively opening account of the market in Saint-Pierre, Martinique, in 1902 is far from customary output for a reporter on Channel 4 News, but soon he is on his familiar beat of death and catastrophe: "The city... had become a giant brazier, a funeral pyre." At 7.52am on 8 May, the volcanic Monte Pelée produced a pyroclastic surge that killed 20,000 in the "Paris of the Caribbean" in five minutes. The solitary survivor, Ludger Sylbaris, was protected by the thick walls of his prison cell. Morgan conjures up a strange, enthralling story from this distant tragedy. Sylbaris ended up in Barnum & Bailey's Circus. Today, the population of Saint-Pierre is just 5,000. CH

Solid Foundation by David Katz (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (396pp))

Punctuated by gunshots, the reggae beat throbs through this assiduous oral history. Deriving from the uniquely Jamaican genre of ska, the shuffling organ sound of reggae first emerged in the late Sixties, notably in the recordings of Bunny Lee. Katz provides a host of footnotes for the music that provided a soundtrack for the Seventies. We learn that Trench Town, rhapsodised in the work of Bob Marley, was "a community built around Kingston's main sewage gully". Revealing the harsh background from which this vital music emerged, Katz's transcriptions bring reggae giants like Big Youth, King Tubby and Prince Buster vividly to life. CH

Parisian Sketches by JK Huysmans (DEDALUS £6.99 (191pp))

First published in the 1880s, this collection of atmospheric journalism reveals the great decadent ("nature is only interesting when sick and distressed") moving from a broadly naturalistic, almost Dickensian style - as in a 1879 account of the Folies Bergère - to the heightened subjectivity of "Nightmare", inspired by Odilon Redon: "blurred infusoria, vague flagellates, bizarre protoplasms". An enthusiastic flâneur (if that's not too much of a contradiction), Huysmans created evocative prose-pictures of Parisian life - a visit to the barber, a gloomy railway café, a chestnut-seller - that merit comparison with the pictures of Caillebotte, Degas and Atget. CH

The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke (TINDAL STREET PRESS £7.99 (510pp))

Respect to Tindal Street Press for bringing to the UK this soaring and sorrowful novel of Caribbean life. Born in Barbados in 1934, a Canadian since 1955, Austin Clarke creates a seething panorama of sex, race and power on the island of "Bimshire" in the 1950s. The Polished Hoe, which won last year's overall Commonwealth Writers Prize, succeeds chiefly through the tragic, lyrical voice of Mary-Mathilda, light-skinned mistress of a plantation boss. The novel's language proves as lush, seductive - and dangerous - as its landscape. BT

The Universal Home Doctor by Simon Armitage (FABER £8.99 (66pp))

Tipped as a future Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage is often portrayed as the popular face of contemporary poetry. He is more accessible than most but, like Larkin, he wears his erudition and craft extremely lightly. The Universal Home Doctor has all the Armitage trademarks: streetwise brilliance, Northern nous, tenderness and humour, all shot through with a charged intensity. This is a moving collection of journeys, both literal and metaphorical, set against the frailty of the human body. CP

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