Books: Paperbacks

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Richard Feynman: a life in science by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

Partly through his own zaniness, Feynman's bongo-playing is better known than his ground-breaking science. This biography bravely attempts to correct this lopsided picture - though the results can sometimes be a little odd. At the same time as "socialising with air hostesses" in Copacabana, we hear that "he began to think seriously about the puzzling properties of liquid helium". Though Feynman worked on the A-bomb at Los Alamos and scooped a Nobel for his quantum theories, public fame came with his explanation of the Challenger disaster. For a view of science with a human face, this book is hard to beat.

The Englishman's Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Anchor, pounds 6.99)

Guy Vanderhaeghe's stirring novel of Hollywood and the Wild West will appeal deeply to members of the cowboy brigade. The book's dual narrative switches between the story of a young "wolfer" making his way north to Canada, and Twenties Hollywood where a reclusive studio head, Damon Ira Chance, wants to do for the American Frontier what Birth of a Nation did for the Civil War. When it comes to buffalo hunts, horse rustling and flinty-faced wranglers, Vanderhaeghe is up there with Cormac McCarthy.

Istanbul: the Imperial City by John Freely (Penguin, pounds 8.99)

Yet another excellent volume on the city with three names and on two continents. In a heroic feat of compression, Freely tells its exotic story from the era when "the invincible whale Porphyry wrecked all shipping in the Bosphorus for months" up to the present day. Freely maintains readability by including a host of colourful detail. We learn, for example, that the sex-addicted Ibrahim the Mad (strangled 1648) had a huge library on coitus and "even invented some new and previously unknown postures". A 60-page section giving notes on all surviving buildings mentioned in the text makes the book obligatory reading for anyone planning a visit.

The Blindman's Hat by Bernard Cohen (Allen & Unwin, pounds 6.99)

Vernon is an Australian in New York. He has a little white dog called Muffy, and a ditzy girlfriend called Dida - both of whom he takes for walks in Central Park, and then takes home to bed. So in love is Vern that he quits his job on a New York paper to spend more time sleeping with Dida, and worrying about the loss of his Australian accent. As if the novel weren't cute enough, Muffy also has a speaking role - making urbane observations on the state of Manhattan's sidewalks.

Racers by Richard Williams (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

Damon Hill's Pyrrhic victory in 1996 provides Richard Williams with a thrilling, ironic narrative on which to base this panoramic portrait of Formula One. But what makes his book such a compelling read, even for those who associate Benetton with checked jumpers rather than chequered flags, is the book's Dickensian galere of players, so deftly and wittily described by Williams. He notes that "the cad's moustache and smarmed back hair readily identified Graham Hill as the last driver of the National Service generation". Bernie Ecclestone stands for "neatness, fresh paint, straight lines, clean surfaces". Schumacher is simply "a style-free zone".

Footsteps by Katharine McMahon (Flamingo, pounds 6.99)

Full of bad women and bad weather, Katharine McMahon's generational saga of a Suffolk family is a cosily old-fashioned read. When her husband is killed in a climbing accident, Helena Mayrick finds evidence at the bottom of his rucksack to suggest that she wasn't the only woman in his life. Brooding on her own uncertain past, Helena is prompted to explore the romantic histories of her grandparents - unearthing yet more family secrets.

The Walls of Illusion edited by Peter Haining (Souvenir, pounds 8.99)

Now bearing a title from a song by that great metaphysician George Harrison, this celebration of "psychedelic retro" first appeared in 1975. From Huxley's doggerel quoted in the Introduction ("To make this trivial world sublime/ Take half a gramme of phanerothyme"), it is a sorry advertisement for the effects of psychotropics on creativity. Examples of work by legendary druggy rhapsodists - Ginsberg, Leary, Trocchi, Gysin - emerge as embarrassingly scrappy and self-centred. Fragments by Burroughs and Bowles sparkle among these addled ramblings, but both imply that drug-taking is the very reverse of pleasurable.

A page from Tom Phillips's extraordinary creation A Humument. The artist took an obscure Victorian novel and `treated' it, leaving fragments of the text stranded in surreal isolation amid his swirling abstract figures. A Humument has just been republished in paperback by Thames & Hudson (pounds 14.95)

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