The End, By Ian Kershaw
Ian Kershaw's account of the last months of the Third Reich makes harrowing, but compelling reading. By the summer of 1944 it was obvious that Germany could not win the war; yet they continued to fight, somehow finding more men to replenish heavy Wermacht casualties and even managing to increase production of armaments. As Kershaw points it, it is unusual for a nation to continue to fight to the last gasp in this way. So why did they do it? Kershaw's scholarly yet humane account identifies Hitler's own fanatical inability to concede defeat, and the fact that all power was concentrated in his hands; the terror apparatus that ensured dissenters, deserters and defeatists were executed, down the last hours of the war; fear of the encroaching Russian army; among Nazi officers, a refusal to let their political enemies triumph over them; and, it's painful to say, a continuing adherence to Nazi ideology among some of the population. Amazingly, the Jews were blamed for the bombing of German cities; and when skeletal concentration camp prisoners were led through towns on forced marches, a common reaction was to jeer and throw stones. In the last year of the war the slaughter of Jews and other designated enemies was stepped up. Vast numbers of Holocaust victims would have been saved had Germany surrendered in 1944; as well as millions of German soldiers and civilians. The nightmare was of Germany's own making. But the innocent suffered along with the guilty.
Incognito, By David Eagleman
One of the great pleasures of modern life is a well-written popular science book, with a clear narrative, friendly explanations that respect both the lay-reader's intelligence and their ignorance, and a plethora of weird facts that make you nudge the person next to you and say '"Listen to this!'" Incognito, a dispatch from the frontiers of neuroscience, is just such a book. It explains why seeing is not done with the eyes; asks which Mel Gibson - the drunk anti-semite or the sober non-anti-semite - is the real one; and explores why it's so difficult to keep secrets. Recent discoveries about the brain have important philosophical implications. If you still cherish a belief in free will, read this and be prepared to abandon it.
Beirut 39, Ed. Samuel Shimon
A collection of stories, poems and novel extracts from 39 young Arab writers, this demonstrates the range and energy of contemporary Arabic writing. There's social realism, magic realism, fables and slices of life. Stand-out pieces include Abdelkader Benali's novel extract, A Trip to the Slaughterhouse, centred on a Moroccan family living in the Netherlands. It's brilliantly written, captures the family dynamic perfectly, and makes you hungry to read more. Hyam Yared's passionate love story, Layla's Belly, stays in the memory, as does Adania Shibi's At the Post Office, a day in the life of a girl working in a Palestinian Post Office, as does Abdella's The Wounded Man, the story of a young gay man in Rabat; as does Hamdy el Gazzar's Secret Pleasures, about a blind imam with a huge penis.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, By Paul Torday
A clever collage of emails, diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, memos and memoirs and extracts from Hansard, this tells the story of how the fisheries scientist Dr Arthur Jones is swept away by the charismatic Sheikh Muhammad's crazy scheme to create a salmon river in the desert land of Yemen. Torday's ventriloquial skill in capturing the different voices and formats would do credit to Jonathan Coe. It's an unusual novel both in theme and structure; it's also funny and extremely readable - the kind of book it's worth picking up for a quick burst even if you've only got five minutes to spare - and its heart is very much in the right place. There's a love story in there too. No wonder they made a film of it.
The Chicken Chronicles, By Alice Walker
In this short memoir, Walker chronicles the pleasure of raising a brood of chickens, with names like Babe, Hortensia, Rufus, Glorious, Agnes of God, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. She records her bond with the birds, the pleasures of holding them, watching them, feeding them and talking to them - as well as reflections on the relationships between humans and the animal world, the death of Michael Jackson, and accounts of Walker's travels, including meetings with the Dalai Lama. Many of the entries are addressed directly to the chickens, and this could easily have been twee; but Walker's charm, humanity and graceful style just about carry it off.