Reviews of some books in brief...
(Bodley Head £5.99)
A slim volume, extracted from Quammen's longer book, Spillover, this is a timely update on the fight against the Ebola virus.
Ebola is a "zoonotic" virus: that is, it "hides" in the bodies of host animals, to which it is not fatal, but jumps across the species barrier given the opportunity - which is why it goes quiet for long periods and then flares up. If we could discover the host, we'd have a better chance of defeating it.
Quammen details the efforts of American, European and African researchers to find out more about the virus, working in jungles and laboratories, often at great personal risk. And much progress has been made. We still don't know the host animal, but the best guess is, it's a bat.
When I began reading Stasiland, I assumed it was a novel, or linked short stories. In fact, it is a superb piece of historical reportage on life in East Germany up to the fall of the Wall in 1989.
Funder skilfully deploys fictional techniques to make the material jump off the page: naturalistic dialogue, fully-realised characters with their own plotlines. Funder tours the prisons and torture chambers, and interviews the victims of the regime: a young woman whose husband died in custody; innocents imprisoned on the say-so of informers; a woman separated from her baby by the Wall.
She also talks to ex-Stasi men, all of whom appear unrepentant. It conveys a grim atmosphere - but there are flashes of humour too.
Byron: Life and Legend
(John Murray £16.99)
A magisterial account of Byron's life as a poet, public figure, and serial shagger, this 674-page biography is both scholarly and readable.
MacCarthy deals with Byron's homosexuality (repressed in England, indulged in Greece and Turkey), his seductions of just about every woman who crossed his path - from maidservants to Lady Caroline Lamb - his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta, and his cruel treatment of his wife Annabella.
An aristocrat with liberal principles, a bounder with a sensitive side, Byron isn't likeable, but he is fascinating. MacCarthy also pays due attention to the poetry, and charts his posthumous influence on figures as diverse as Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, and W H Auden.