The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins, Phoenix pounds 5.99. Prof Atkins is a leading campaigner, with Prof Dawkins, to abolish Oxford's School of Theology on scientific grounds. This book is not part of that argument but, if Atkins's harassment of an enemy is anything like his pursuit of a metaphor, the clerks of Oxenford have a lot of running to do. He locates the elements in an "allegorical" environment, an island whose every region corresponds to a position on the periodic table. This leads us into all types of vividly imagined terrain: mineral deserts, plains of sulphur, a silver lake of mercury and a red one of bromine. The chemicals have their compass points and seasons and the imagery extends into political geography too, with chemico-legal institutions and regional governments. He even speaks of the "enslavement" of silicon (the material of the microchip) by carbon (us). This is at times an idiot's guide to Chemistry - made to look more so by the patronising double-spaced page design - but it is certainly an improvement on my old stinks master.
Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai, Minerva pounds 6.99. In the subtle and delicate prose that is her trademark, Desai's first novel for seven years explores the mysterious pull of the Indian guru. Is this genuine spirituality or a subspecies of pop hero-worship? Matteo is an uncritical devotee of the Mother's quasi-oriental cult but his wife Sophie is a sceptic, always posing awkward questions as they travel round India: "I thought you hated your childhood. Have you come here to have another?" Her stubborn attachment to their threatened marriage leads Sophie to investigate the Mother, uncovering the story of an Egyptian dancer born in the 1920s whose journey takes in Paris, New York and Venice before she reaches the ashram. Although this part of the story is well told, one's attention is held more firmly by Desai's account of Matteo and Sophie, a couple with suggestive echoes of the Pringles in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy.
Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Pan pounds 6.99. As the title of this final part of Howard's extraordinary four-volume "Cazalet Chronicle" seems to confirm, it has been a top-quality Fair Isle jumper of a novel, superbly designed and knitted. Wartime forced the branches of the Cazalet family into a three-generational coherence that, at its peak, became almost institutional. Now, as peace melts the glue, the family comes slowly and gracefully apart again. In Marxist terms, this is bull's-eye bourgeois realism, a historical novel that hits on a precise crux in the past: the irreversible social, psychological and above all sexual changes that the Second World War forced on the English middle class.
Soul Searching by Nicholas Humphrey, Vintage pounds 7.99. Psychologist Humphrey here almost makes a case for himself to chair the dispute between Peter Atkins (see above) and Oxford theology. His book asks why, in an era of scientific materialism, do most of us (unlike Alice) persist in believing impossible things before breakfast? It is not that we necessarily reject science. In fact, we take it so much for granted that we're always trying to prove the existence of the soul - or miracles, or psychokinesis - by scientific means, which in logic is paradoxical and self-defeating. Ultimately it's clear Humphrey falls into the Dawkins/Atkins camp: for him, to expect the general resurrection of the body is scarcely different from believing in alien abduction. Along the way he is highly entertaining, though he does leave a few questions going a-begging.
Whatever Happened to Margo? by Margaret Durrell, Warner Books pounds 6.99. "You will my dear start a guesthouse," decreed Margo Durrell's aunt. "Not a common affair but something rather superior." Margo was the teenage sister with the many bottles of skin cleanser and the diaphanous wardrobe who went with Gerry Durrell and the family to grow up in Corfu. Having grown, married, divorced and returned to England, Margo took the aunt's advice, becoming a seaside landlady in Bournemouth. The story of this chaotic, Ealing comedy episode in her life - written in the 1960s but immediately consigned to an attic - shows that, among the Durrells, narrative verve is a familial trait.
From the Boer War to the Cold War: Essays on 20th Century Europe by A J P Taylor, Penguin pounds 8.99. On television, Taylor was usually ready with something pertinent and irreverent to say. These occasional essays, lectures and reviews show both qualities, as well as the mastery of epigrammatic English which made him the most readable of historians. There are many gems - portraits of men A J P knew; pungent contributions to the politics of warfare - and the odd surprise, such as a defence of Belloc. But then Taylor was always a maverick. His delightful encomium to Lancashire ends the collection, which is prefaced by an account of Taylor's career by Chris Wrigley.
This enormous figure is the single most remarkable Chinese archaeological find of the last decade, according to Mysteries of Ancient China, ed Jessica Rawson (British Museum Press pounds 25). Its base represents four stylised elephant heads; the precise significance of the whole monumental bronze remains unknown until experts can work out what was held in its exaggerated hands: perhaps an elephant tusk?Reuse content