The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (Bloomsbury, £8.99, 291pp)
Initially, Pollan's wonderful exploration of four plants (apple, tulip, marijuana, potato) bears a close similarity to two other equally brilliant studies of comestibles: Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner (corn, salt, butter, rice etc) and Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Change (quinine, sugar, tea, cotton). There is, however, a difference in Pollan's viewpoint. While Visser and Hobhouse explore man's exploitation, Pollan takes the plant's viewpoint. In the case of marijuana, he suggests that the intoxicating element, known as THC, may be there in order "to discombobulate the insects ... that prey on the plant". However, he also quotes a botanist who suggests that the most obvious evolutionary advantage of THC was "the psychoactive properties which attracted human attention and caused the plant to be spread around the world". Are we being used by the plant, rather than vice versa?
In the case of the tulip, this suggestion appears to fall down. The virus which causes the blooms to "break" into exotic swirls of colour - and prompted the outburst of tulipomania - also eventually kills the plants. But, suggests Pollan, "what if the question is instead considered from the vantage point of the virus?" Erudite and entertaining, Pollan's book is a roller-coaster ride for the intellect. It is also highly amusing at times, such as the author's panicky uprooting of his marijuana crop following the visit of a firewood supplier, who casually revealed: "Nine to five, I'm chief of police."
Slipstream by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Pan, £7.99, 493 pp)
The cover puff ("Love, literature and betrayal ...") might be from a film noir poster and EJH's memoir is not without dark moments, especially a horrific fumble by her "most gregarious" father at the age of 15. Mostly, however, this is a lively account of haute bohème life in post-war London. Illuminated by a novelist's eye for detail, her book is brimful of incident, including marriage to Peter Scott, impregnation by Arthur Koestler, a fling in Spain with Laurie Lee, an abortive tryst with Nancy Spain and an increasingly ghastly marriage with Kingsley Amis. Brave, revelatory, unvarnished, this is a hell of a story.
Turner by Barry Venning (Phaidon, £12.95 , 351pp)
This lively, prolifically illustrated survey illuminates the long career of Britain's greatest artist in a host of ways. Deftly sketching in the political, social and artistic background to Turner's long career, Venning notes how Turner's humble origins made him far more receptive to radicalism than the country gentleman, Constable. Thackeray was telling the truth when he wrote of "Rain, Steam and Speed": "The world has never seen anything like this picture." Mark Rothko acknowledged his debt in a joke: "This man Turner, he learnt a lot from me."
Brit-Think, Ameri-Think by Jane Walmsley (Penguin, £6.99, 145pp)
The title is clunky, but Jane Walmsley's insights into transatlantic differences hide much insight within a humorous shell. "Americans think death is optional. Brits keep a weather eye on the sword of Damocles above their heads." We're the most irreligious nation on earth and accept crooked teeth in our children. Americans love "cute" (think Goldie Hawn) and treat sex seriously. They have genuine summers, plenty of cupboards and great cocktails. We have all-wool carpets, delivered milk and the world's most beautiful prams. We also have Jane Walmsley, an American who has lived here for 20 years.
In Black & White by Donald McRae (Scribner, £7.99, 415pp)
This tremendous double biography concerns the interwoven lives of the first black stars in American sport. To Hitler's chagrin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Two years later, Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber", snatched the heavyweight title by demolishing Max Schmeling in a single round. McRae's account of their achievements is thrilling, but he devotes equal space to the duo's sad decline. Snubbed by the establishment, Owens was reduced to racing against horses within days of his victory. Heroin and mental illness lay in wait for Louis.Reuse content