Paperbacks: Under Water to Get Out of the Rain<br/>Penguin Special<br/>Meditations<br/>God's Secret Agents<br/>Howard Hodgkin: the complete prints<br/>The Wonder Spot<br/>Mr Muo's Travelling Couch

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The Independent Culture

Under Water to Get Out of the Rain, by Trevor Norton (ARROW £7.99 (385pp))

If you can stand the occasional creaky joke, this book is perfect beach reading. On a slender autobiographical line, the Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Liverpool hauls in a fascinating trawl of maritime marvels. We learn, for example, that the octopus is "an Einstein among invertebrates", dolphins' tails go up and down because they are distant descendants of shrews whose tails did the same thing, "directional clues" in limpet slime may be imitated in a future generation of computers, an elephant once swam 48 kilometres and Homo erectus became Homo sapiens due to a shellfish diet rich in brain-building fatty acids. The cringe-making gags ("Win got fed up with this intermittent romance and made it clear I was close to a no-Win situation") are a small price to pay for this torrent of revelations, but Norton goes too far in repeating the old canard that Elephant & Castle derives from Infanta di Castile. The castle was a howdah. This book is not without its serious side. Norton's diving tales involve an alarming number of fatalities. Drowning, he stresses, "is what the sea does best". The relentless destruction of the marine environment is a sobering descant in Norton's delightful sea shanty. CH

Penguin Special, by Jeremy Lewis (PENGUIN £9.99 (484pp))

Despite the forebodings of Orwell ("for publisher, author and bookseller, it is a disaster"), Allen Lane made a success of Penguins by marrying hardback editorial standards and mass marketing. Jeremy Lewis broadens the appeal of this fine portrait by including asides on Lane's pugnacious publishing rivals and the eccentrics who worked for Penguin. Tattooed everywhere but his heels, one editor spent time in both prison and a Franciscan monastery. The charming but ruthless Lane was equally odd. His breezy attitude when lost in the Kenyan bush ("Round the next corner there'll be a melon stall") is a delight. CH

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius (PENGUIN £7.99 (254pp))

Originally written in Greek, these imperial pensées were Socratic dialogues that the Emperor left unanswered. Perhaps it is unsurprising that they were never intended for publication since Marcus Aurelius scoffs at the notion of fame: "All is ephemeral, both memory and the object of memory." If his scorn for celebrity was never more pertinent than today, the same applies to his demolition of conventional beauty: "Any man with feeling will see a kind of bloom and fresh beauty in an old man or an old woman." Translated by Martin Hammond in a muscular style appropriate to the old warrior, Marcus's Stoic self-help manual was battle-tested. CH

God's Secret Agents, by Alice Hogge (HARPER £8.99 (445pp))

The perilous return of Jesuit priests to the Protestant England of Elizabeth I was very similar to undercover operatives in occupied Europe during World War II. Brilliantly elucidating the complexities of the era, Hogge tells a thrilling story of bravery and betrayal. Though 124 Catholic priests were executed under Elizabeth, we learn that "this regime... still actively did not want to kill". This reluctance ended with the Gunpowder Plot. Hearing the ruthlessness of arch-plotter Robert Catesby, one English Catholic declared: "I greatly misliked it." CH

Howard Hodgkin: the complete prints, by Liesbeth Heenk (THAMES & HUDSON £29.95 (240pp))

Issued in paperback to coincide with the mammoth Hodgkin retrospective at Tate Britain, this exemplary volume chronicles the great colourist's struggle to produce prints that match his painting. He swiftly discovered the impracticality of revision. "If you don't know what you're going to do, you'll make a mess," was the "sergeant-majorly advice" of one printer. Moreover, the cost precludes steady evolution. Hodgkin compares the process to a taxi that "charges by the second". His mastery of the medium can be judged by the 80 colour plates gathered here. CH

The Wonder Spot, by Melissa Bank (PENGUIN £7.99 (324pp))

"I planned to tell him that I had no Hebrew aptitude," says Sophie Applebaum, narrator of Melissa Bank's charming second novel, "and also to convey the message of Bob Dylan's song 'It Ain't Me Babe'". She manages to avoid the bat mitzvah her parents have planned, but the path to true love, and employment, is not quite so smooth. This book is like a delicious tarte au citron: sweet, yes, but also zesty and fresh. CP

Mr Muo's Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie (VINTAGE £7.99 (264pp))

Called back from his long expat idyll as a Freudian in Paris to rescue an old flame, Mr Muo finds a China much changed from the country he left a decade ago - and, in some ways, even weirder. This exuberant Chinese Candide (translated by Ina Rilke) shows Paris-based writer-film-maker Dai Sijie analysing his native land with an offbeat humour set between satire and silliness. Earthy but erudite, with a spiced wit all its own. BT