The week in books

January 1, 2009

Smoot's Ear by Robert Tavernor, professor of architecture and urban design, London School of Economics. Yale University Press, £10.99, ISBN 9780300143348

"Tavernor's engaging, quirky study explores the ongoing battle between measurement based on humanity (the foot) and scientific rationalism (the metre). In the same year (1793) that the metre was introduced, Louis XVI was decapitated by a machine that utilised the traditional measurements of the 'king's foot' (pied du Roi). Tavernor's insistence that 'our bodies require a positive relation with the natural world' may explain why plane and train seats are increasingly unsuited to human occupants."

Christopher Hirst, The Independent

Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley, professor of English, Roehampton University. Methuen Press, £17.99, ISBN 9780413776433

"Jenny Hartley's brilliant book fills a gap in Dickens studies. Vivid, intelligent and enthralling, it is about his setting up in Shepherd's Bush - this is 1847, when Shepherd's Bush was farming land outside London - a house in which girls from the streets, the prisons and the workhouses, girls who stole and prostituted themselves, wrecking their own lives and seemingly helpless to save themselves, might be changed through kindness and discipline, and so prepared for new lives in the colonies."

Claire Tomalin, The Guardian

Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory by Peter Read, professor of French, University of Kent, Canterbury. University of California Press, £29.95, ISBN 9780520243613

"Although Read, a specialist in and translator of Apollinaire's work, is generally even-handed in his treatment of the dynamics of this friendship, it is clear where his real loyalties lie in the end ... His Apollinaire feels at times like a curiously flattened and even sanitised version of the man, a generous spirit whose capacity for befriending others made him vulnerable to their subsequent betrayals. Read makes no mention of the murkier aspects of Apollinaire's relationship with Gery Pieret for example, and his craven incrimination of Picasso before the judge is quickly glossed over."

Justin Beplate, The Times Literary Supplement

Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life by Warren D. Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution and professor in the department of earth and atmospheric sciences, Cornell University; Patricia H. Kelley, professor of geology at the University of North Carolina; Robert M. Ross, associate director for outreach, Paleontological Research Institution. Oxford University Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780195373202

"Reflections is a Festschrift of sorts. Among the praise, there is no shortage of negative comment on the hero's work or polemic about just what he was trying to say. A dozen or more of Gould's ex-students and colleagues assess his science, standing and personality, six years after his untimely death. He emerges as a genius of sorts, but - appropriately for his geologist beginnings - with feet not unmarked by clay."

Steve Jones, Nature.

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