Paperbacks: The Conversations<br></br>John Betjeman<br></br>Prime Mover<br></br>India in Slow Motion<br></br>The Garden: an English love affair<br></br>Hard Water<br></br>The Radetzky March

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The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje (BLOOMSBURY £14.99 (339pp))

When I was writing a feature about Foyle's earlier this year, the manager of the shop's film section told me The Conversations was one book they couldn't keep on the shelves. This series of discursive exchanges, between the novelist Michael Ondaatje and the film editor Walter Murch, about the techniques of film-making, has become a word-of-mouth bestseller among Soho's film community. As one of the editors of Apocalypse Now, Murch was responsible for the phenomenal opening sequence, which combined "the biggest gasoline explosion in film history" with Martin Sheen smashing his reflection in a hotel mirror. Murch says his job is "to create an abstract, dramatic, multilayered, visually arresting scene out of raw material". His exposition is as much about human perception as cinematic technique. He describes the extended use of un-subtitled Italian in The Godfather as "aphasic... the sound exercises the mind in much more complex ways than appear on the surface of the scene". In the same film, the audience is lured to pay attention to the key scene when Michael Corleone commits double murder in an Italian restaurant by "the intimate noise of a cork being pulled from a bottle". Murch also asks: "Why do we happily endure sudden transitions [in film] for which nothing in our evolutionary history seems to have prepared us?" This richly stimulating book deserves a readership far beyond the film world. CH

John Betjeman by Bevis Hillier (MURRAY £9.99 (736pp))

The second tranche of Hillier's epic biography, 14 years in the writing, begins in 1934 with our 27-year-old hero as film critic on the Standard and ends in 1958 with the "runaway success" of his Collected Poems. This highly entertaining volume is packed with baroque detail, ranging from JB's wartime spying activities in Ireland (the IRA considered assassination) to Waugh's bullying attempt to convert him to Catholicism: "Hell hell hell. Eternal damnation." A hopeless father, a daredevil cat burglar (of his own house), Betjeman is constantly surprising. Volume Three is due out next year. CH

Prime Mover by Steven Vogel (NORTON £11.95 (370pp))

This is a book about muscles, though any bodybuilders drawn to it should also ensure their brains are in good nick. Though he guides us through every intricacy of the astonishing rigging that forms 40 per cent of "a human in decent shape", Vogel lightens the load with lively examples. He explains myoglobin, the stuff that draws oxygen to muscles, through the tasty dark meat of flying birds such as ducks. Hydrostatics, the use of hydraulic pressure to contract or extend muscles, is exemplified by the penis, but is more perfectly displayed in the worm: 50 per cent of the human population may find this surprising. CH

India in Slow Motion by Mark Tully (PENGUIN £8.99 (302pp))

This series of extended pieces displays the BBC's old India hand in fine form. Raging against bien-pensant patronising of the subcontinent, Tully argues that allegations of "child slavery" are having a disastrous effect on the Indian carpet industry. Tully reveals the reality of modern India - how politicians are pinning their faith in IT, how small farmers are driven to suicide - but he is at his best on religious matters. In essays on the revival of the cult of Rama and the potent "enchantment" of the Sufis, he is passionate, honest and insightful. CH

The Garden: an English love affair by Jane Fearnley- Whittingstall (AURUM £12.99 (294pp))

For the price, this account of 1,000 years of gardening is a minor miracle. Almost every page seduces the reader with illustrations ranging from Mantegna's glorious Garden of Virtue to Gillray's splendid Delicious Weather (the arriviste "Squire Mushroom" takes snuff on his garden bench). The text is equally scintillating, including Hot Cockles (a game played in Renaissance gardens), the canine skeleton kept in a garden, and the garden created by Leigh Hunt while in gaol: "There was an apple tree from which we managed to get a pudding." CH

Hard Water by Jean Sprackland (JONATHAN CAPE £8.00 (53pp))

The title poem sets the tone of this fresh and gutsy collection, shortlisted for the Whitbread poetry award, in a celebration of the poet's Northern roots: the "blunt taste" of "fierce lovely water that marked me for life". Sprackland's bold voice combines no-nonsense candour with a clear-eyed but tender appraisal of the world and its peculiarities that at times veers into the surreal. In poems about bottle banks, jellyfish and parking metres, there are glimpses of love and loss, childhood memories and adult uncertainties, all infused with a surprising, sexy, fhumour. CP

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (GRANTA £7.99 (363pp))

Begun in Berlin in 1930, Roth's masterpiece remains perhaps the greatest of all decline-and-fall novels about the end of "old Europe". With a fabulous tragi-comic gift for people, period and place, it follows three generations of the Trotta clan as they serve the stuffy, silly - but basically humane - Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1859 to 1916. Michael Hofmann's dazzling new translation sings and swings as Roth bids a merrily sad farewell to this absurd, but cherishable, world. BT