The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Some gifted men, women and a boy

Lois the Witch (Hesperus, £ 2.95) by Elizabeth Gaskell exhibits to the full the author’s magic gifts of story-telling, as well as her deep commitment to the truths, agonies and cruelties of human experience. These attributes endeared her to her more famous contemporary, Charles Dickens, for whose periodicals she wrote regularly. The story of Lois is more the unfolding of ignorance, fear, blindness and selfishness than an account of fantastic experiences. Gaskell’s powerful grasp of psychology and her interest in history, sociology and, in this particular case, the Salem witch trials, make Lois’s story a triumph of shorter fiction.

Across the great divide: the band and America (Pimlico, £7.95) by Barney Hoskyns tells the story of the growth of a strange group of four Canadians and a boy from Arkansas into The Band, called by George Harrison “the best band in the history of the universe”. A meticulous and loving record, the book is enriched by Hoskyns’s obvious enjoyment of his subject. It is almost as if the vibrancy of The Band’s music is echoed by the author’s lively style. This does not diminish the seriousness of Hoskyns’s judgments which help in assessing and locating this extraordinary group whose first two albums changed the course of rock music in America. It is not just Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Rick Danko who figure in the book, but also the whole world of American rock, soul and country, jazz and gospel, Dylan Thomas, Billy Graham, Janis Joplin and U2 — that is also the world of The Band.

The Indus Civilization: a contemporary perspective Vistaar, Rs 495)by Gregory L. Possehl brings together the most recent findings on the Indus civilization and presents them in an accessible form. Graphs, maps, diagrams, plans and illustrations make the book invaluable for the understanding of even the interested layman, while for the scholar this is a useful reference guide. Possehl, one of the best known Indus scholars from America, has carefully distributed the available material on the economic, architectural, social, aesthetic and religious aspects of the lost civilization among chapters and sub-sections, while tracing the rise and fall of this culture straddling the borders of what are now India and Pakistan.

Ambrosia for afters (Penguin, Rs 250) by Kalpana Swaminathan is a growing-up tale, inwoven with strange memories and retellings of fairy tales heard in childhood. How a fifteen-year-old negotiates the perilous region between reason and imagination, reality and fantasy, growing-up and running-backwards, is always a bit of a mystery, and trying to tell it as it is is quite an unnerving task. Swaminathan attempts to solve the problem with an approach through fairy-tales, having honed her touch with a number of books for children. But it is as much an adult’s tale as a teenager’s, because the uncertainly mediated world that the fifteen-year-old responds to is very much an adult world.

Fanie De Villers: Portrait of a test bowler (Penguin, Rs 450) by Trevor Chesterfield is the biography of the South African “quick” who was christened Petrus Stephanus de Villiers. The book comes at a time when South Africa has more or less lost its place as a team which can give Australians a run for their money. De Villiers, who started off in rugby and javelin throwing before making up the fearsome opening attack with Alan Donald, was among the few who in the true sense of the term helped South African cricket come back after its isolation for over two decades. He has worked relentlessly to promote the game among the less privileged sections. What will be of great interest to readers is de Villiers’s no-holds-barred views on Hansie Cronje: “I believe South African cricket has paid the price for allowing Hansie too much power.”

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