Paperbacks: The Secret Life<br/> Have I Got Views for You<br/> Charlemagne<br/> My Lives<br/> George Stubbs and the Wide Creation<br/> Making it Up<br/> On Beauty

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The Independent Culture

The Secret Life of Trees, by Colin Tudge
(PENGUIN £8.99 (452pp))

"The human debt to trees is absolute," declares Colin Tudge in his fecund and fascinating account of these vegetable giants. "The only reason we have such dextrous hands is that our ancestors spent 80 million years in the trees." We have since exploited this "big plant with a stick up the middle" in countless ways. The 1,500 species in the Moraceae family range from the breadfruit, whose fruit can grow to the size of a sack of coal, to the white mulberry eaten by silk worms (4,000 kilos of leaves needed for one silk blouse). Tudge tracks the economic rise and fall of trees. Once used for golf balls and cable insulation, the tropical sap called gutta-percha is now only utilised in temporary teeth fillings. But oil palm is booming in the tropics, grown by get-rich-quick agribusinesses "to the huge detriment of traditional farming". We learn that the Joshua tree is a member of the asparagus family and a Brazilian genus of the magnolia family is used to make hallucinogenic snuff. "Perhaps the world needs more hallucinogens rather than less," muses Tudge. But the most vital role of the tree is in the balance of the world's climate. Tudge concludes that "Trees lie at the heart of things". CH

Have I Got Views for You, by Boris Johnson
(HARPER £7.99 (391pp))

It takes a self-propagandist of genius to appropriate the title of a programme on which he made a complete ass of himself for a collection of yellowing journalism. Here is Boris on Cool Britannia: "Man alive, I've just seen the hippest, most jiving place on earth." And his Wildean verdict on Peter Mandelson: "He lived by spin. He died by spin." Boris can certainly crash it out, but whether he should have published his pensées in book form is debatable. CH

Charlemagne, by Derek Wilson
(PIMLICO £8.99 (228pp))

Despite the gulf of time separating us from the warrior-king (742-814), Wilson provides a vivid portrait of Charlemagne. A "workaholic", he was determined, ruthless and opportunist. Yet this legendary figure had a human side. He was a hearty eater and loved swimming. A vignette by a contemporary observer reveals how, when Queen Hildegard tried to influence him over a job appointment with "soft caresses", the king's choice called out "Hold firm, my Lord" and duly got the post. CH

My Lives, by Edmund White
(BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (357pp))

The phrase "open book" might have been coined for White's startlingly candid memoir. His "painful honesty" generates descriptions and analysis in beautiful, unvarnished prose. The book is studded with memorable phrases, sometimes limited in application ("A soft dick means the guy is about to rob you"), sometimes universal: "For children, for all of us, male and female differences remain the world's binary code." White is moving and often funny. CH

George Stubbs and the Wide Creation, by Robin Blake
(PIMLICO £14.99 (372pp) )

Behind those immaculate equine portraits was a self-educated artist-anatomist who followed in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci. George Stubbs remained very much his own man. Though commissioned to celebrate a racing victory, his masterpiece Hambletonian Rubbing Down is "a sombre work" with the horse "hurting and exhausted". Robin Blake illuminates the works with brilliant detail about the era. CH

Making it Up, by Penelope Lively
(PENGUIN £7.99 (247pp))

Penelope Lively bucks the dredge-it-up-and-spill-it-all trend with this "anti-memoir", exploring, in fictional form, the alternative stories that could have taken place at any point in her life. Nothing revolutionary in that, of course, but it is, like all her work, vivid, engaging and thoughtful. CP

On Beauty, By Zadie Smith
(PENGUIN £7.99 (443pp))

This Orange-Prize winning homage to Howards End spins zestful but uneasy campus comedy out of botched connections: between cultures, countries and generations. The academic knockabout of the Belsey and Kipps clans at times feels cheaply bought but, from Kilburn to Boston, Smith's gleeful mastery of social and verbal nuance is peerless. Beneath the fun runs the Forsterian belief that "suffering is real", and that beauty may be both cause and cure of it. BT