Paperbacks:The Observer Years<br></br>Supping with the Devils<br></br>The Parthenon<br></br>Faster than the Speed of Light<br></br>Hermit in Paris<br></br>Fever Tree<br></br>Carpenter's Gothic

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Observer Years by George Orwell (ATLANTIC £12 (242pp))

Though this collection lacks anything to compare with Orwell's celebrated essays on such quirky topics as Billy Bunter, the perfect pub and Donald McGill's seaside postcards, it is an absorbing haul that reflects a fascinating period. From 1942 until his death seven years later, Orwell contributed foreign reports, features and book reviews to the great liberal paper of the era.

Orwell's pieces, which flowed effortlessly from his typewriter after he first tried them out on colleagues in the form of monologues fuelled by "strong tea and hand-rolled cigarettes of strong shag", are remarkable for both perceptiveness and prescience. In 1945, 10 years before the Dien Bien Phu debacle, Orwell noted how De Gaulle's intention to retain Indochina as a colony was a consequence of revived French nationalism stemming from defeat. Writing in 1944 about the Home Guard, where he had been a diligent member, Orwell stresses the themes comically utilised in Dad's Army: "Its tendency has been to fall into the accepted English class patterns." It is depressing to consider the decline in public involvement since the 1945 election, when the prevailing attitude among electors was "serious and democratic and gives evidence of a great advance in political intelligence". And 70 book reviews, on topics from poetry to potholing, indicate Orwell's range. CH

Supping with the Devils by Hugo Young (ATLANTIC £8.99 (336pp))

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of journalism, Hugo Young is described as "a worthy successor to Orwell". Like Orwell, Young was an indefatigable moralist, always readable and often surprisingly trenchant. On his death-bed, Young wrote a pair of devastating columns on Blair. The first said that "a bad war... will be Blair's epitaph". In the second, he described Blair as "a great tragic figure" whose credibility was "vanishing". More important was "what becomes of [us] in abject thrall to Bush and his gang". CH

The Parthenon by Mary Beard (PROFILE £8.99 (209pp))

This hugely engaging account of the greatest icon of the classical world is packed with interest. The building that the Greeks knew as "hekatompedon" (100-footer) successively became a cathedral and mosque. It was a gunpowder store when the Venetians blew it up (along with 300 refugees) in 1687. When Elgin's agents chipped off the statues in 1801, their activities were even then regarded as "insensate barbarism" by one English observer. Though she explores the frieze, Beard does not commit herself on the issue of the marbles' return. "Paradoxically, its status as international icon can hardly be disentangled from its diaspora." CH

Faster than the Speed of Light by Joao Magueijo (ARROW £8.99 (275pp))

A Portuguese physicist based in London, Magueijo is a bull in the china shop of science. His heretical speculation that time travelled faster in the early universe than it does today is expressed with exemplary lucidity and idiosyncratic vigour. It is rare to encounter the terms "shit" and "crap" in a science book. His suggestion would elucidate the Big Bang, though it would also demolish Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Magueijo's account of alliances and animosities in the scientific community is riveting and full-blooded. CH

Hermit in Paris by Italo Calvino (VINTAGE £7.99 (255pp))

These shards of autobiography and travel diaries shed a fascinating light on the author of Invisible Cities. He says that San Remo, where he spent his first 25 years, is "peculiarly present" in that book, but the shifting perspectives of his masterpiece are reflected in Calvino's urban obsessions. He lived in Paris, loved Los Angeles, but New York was his ideal: "a geometric, crystalline city, without a past, without depth, apparently without secrets". The finest piece in this collection is an account of the omnipresence of Mussolini's image in Calvino's childhood - variously authoritarian, Cubist, equestrian, military and, finally, risible. CH

Fever Tree by Jackie Wills (ARC £6.95 (655pp))

Just selected by Mslexia magazine as one of the 10 best women poets in the UK, Jackie Wills explores the landscapes of memory and place with stark, and at times disconcerting, clarity. "I decide to carry a net/ above my head," she says in one poem. "At the end of the day/ I go over my catch." Here, the catch is rich: still lives of her children, on the cusp of birthdays and rows, travels to distant places, and, running through it all, a longing for sleep, "tantalising as the soft, loose neck/ of a golden retriever". She is at her best when most surprising, bringing flashes of the extraordinary to the everyday. CP

Carpenter's Gothic by William Gaddis (ATLANTIC £9.99 (262pp))

Gaddis (1922-1998) was the garrulous godfather of the high-energy, high-IQ US blockbuster. His unstoppably funny, startling voice echoes through later talkative epics, from Pynchon to Franzen. Atlantic has also reissued his 1955 slab The Recognitions, and his 1975 monster satire about a child capitalist, JR. But, for newcomers, this 1985 novel of religious dogmatism and artistic trickery offers a compact entrée to the delirious dialogue that fills the weird Gaddis galaxy. BT