Paperbacks

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

A Possible Life

Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson, £12.99

Starting at the end of Sebastian Faulks’s wonderfully intricate but exceedingly readable new novel might seem to make more sense than beginning at the beginning. The book is a bit like life: it takes the passage of time and the accumulation of experience for its reasons to become clear. Made up of five apparently unconnected stories, the novel winds its way from a second World War death camp, through a childhood in a Victorian workhouse, to a scientist working in Italy in 2029, and on to the sad tale of a French servant, finishing with a love song. There are common themes, however: freedom and imprisonment, war, books, the beauty of cricket, the Madonna, and monocularism – as in being one-eyed. The possibility of human existence as a shared consciousness, communal and endless, is intrinsic to the tales, and the last line of the last story is startling but optimistic: “We’re all in this thing, like it or not, for ever.” Claire Looby

Hope: A Tragedy

Shalom Auslander

Picador £7.99

Solomon Kugel, paranoid self-loather and relentless anthropomorphiser, flees the city with his wife, his beloved son and his wretched, ailing mother (who constantly talks of how she suffered in the Nazi concentration camps despite the fact that she was never in one). They decamp to a farmhouse in rural Stockton, New York, in an effort to escape history and begin life anew. But Kugel’s troubles are only beginning. As he lies in bed one night he hears a tapping coming through the vents of his house. Convinced it is some lunatic arsonist, he follows the noise to the attic, where he discovers a thought-to-be dead, well-loved historical figure hiding like some emaciated anchorite. For Kugel things swiftly go from bad to worse. Shalom Auslander is masterful in how he examines the legacy of the Holocaust and the meaning of historical consciousness through a biting gallows humour without undermining the novel’s tender heart. This first novel is hilarious, irreverent and brilliant. Michèle Forbes

Noon

Aatish Taseer

Picador, £7.99

Aatish Taseer’s novel tells the story of Rehan Tabassum and his travels, both physical and emotional, between New Delhi and Pakistan. New Delhi is the home of his unmarried, wealthy mother; Pakistan is the home of the father he never knew. Rehan’s journey begins on a train as he moves south from Kashmir. Issues of national identity, religion, class, family and language are explored but with no real elan, and the casual reader may well struggle with the regional politics and their importance to the protagonist’s life. His situation might have been characterised in this country as a case of love across the barricades. Unfortunately, the book never shakes off the shackles of a ponderous plot and prosaic writing: “Mirwaiz’s eyes grew wide with an apology.” Do eyes grow wide in apology? There is also something quite cold about the dialogue; the characters speak to the reader but do not engage. Pól Ó Muirí

Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew

Richard Davenport-Hines

Harper Press, £9.99

As Titanic’s centenary steams to its close, and a multitude of books, documentaries and exhibitions float in its wake, it is all too easy to believe there is little left to be learned about the once “unsinkable ship”. Davenport-Hines’s approach is to chart Titanic’s fate through the stories of those who built it, those who travelled on it and those who lost their lives on it. A historian and biographer by trade, he sets the familiar story within a broader historical and social framework while seeking out details that add colour as well as relevance to his work. From the warnings displayed outside steerage cabins on Cunard liners – that couples “making love too warmly” would have to marry in New York – to his research refuting the popular belief that stewards deliberately locked gates to prevent third-class passengers from reaching the upper decks, Davenport-Hines brings a freshness and a sense of pathos to a Titanic story we only thought we knew. Freya McClements

A Little History of Philosophy

Nigel Warburton

Yale, £9.99

Nigel Warburton presents bite-sized philosophy in A Little History of Philosophy – tasty tapas of thinking, if you will – in 40 very readable chapters. Beginning with Socrates and Plato, Warburton charts the development of philosophy since ancient Greece, including some contemporary philosophers. (Yes, they are still in our midst.) Warburton’s biographical sketches are by no means exhaustive, but they give a flavour of the philosopher’s character, his little oddities and, naturally, an outline of his thought: the gloomy Dane Kierkegaard, whose name means Graveyard in Danish; Kant – who gets two chapters – on his daily walks during which he cogitates; and Schopenhauer throwing down the (philosophical) gauntlet to Hegel by organising his lectures at the same time. Not that it did him much good. The students packed Hegel’s lectures out – but don’t you feel you know Schopenhauer a little better, knowing that he was jealous of Hegel? A case of the philosopher as parish footballer, perhaps. Pól Ó Muirí

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