There's a brutal irony to the fact that the genial smile and gently smoking pipe of Ken Saro-Wiwa have become world-famous since his summary execution last year, along with eight other Ogoni campaigners. Now we have A Month and a Day (Penguin Pounds 6.99), his account of an earlier spell of imprisonment in 1993, which was also for organising non-violent protests against the Nigerian government and the international oil companies who, he claims, have destroyed his homeland.
What shines through this catalogue of petty officialdom and gross stupidity is Saro-Wiwa's sterling personality, never wavering from his determination to put an end to the exploitation of Nigeria and the thuggery that goes on there in the name of government. If nothing else, this book should make us think of him every time we fill up our cars with petrol.
Sadly, I doubt whether his name will linger so evocatively in the imagination as that of T E Lawrence, about whom the myth-making still continues, 60-odd years after his death in that fatal motorbike accident in May 1935. Was he a spy for MI5? A charlatan? A sordid sadomasochist? Or a true king of the desert? We shall never know now for sure, for as T E himself said, "There is no absolute". But Lawrence James has made a valiant attempt to produce a readable and yet fulsome portrait of the hero and the man in The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (Abacus Pounds 9.99).
When Alexander von Humboldt set out from Spain in June 1799 to explore the "Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent", he was determined not to employ the imagination, but rather to provide a detailed and scientific account of what he found on his travels. His was not to be a gentlemanly Grand Tour, bewailing the ignorance, dirt and disease of the natives and his own dyspepsia and dietary discomforts. He wanted instead to "throw light on the history of nations, and on our knowledge about nature".
On his return, after five years travelling through Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Cuba, the German explorer who gave us the term "jurassic" produced 30 volumes of notes and observations, which have been abridged and translated by Jason Wilson for a new Penguin Classics edition. Personal Narrative (Pounds 7.99) tells of his struggles by boat and dug-out canoe, on horseback and on foot, up the Orinoco and across the Andes, collecting on the way 35 cases full of "botanical, astronomical and geological treasures". It was an amazing achievement, and established von Humboldt as a legendary figure in the 19th century, inspiring and influencing such disparate figures as Darwin and Balzac.
When Imogen Lycett Green went back to India in 1991 in her Grandmother's Footsteps (Pan Pounds 5.99), she sought to re-create a past age of travel that of the 1920s when her grandmother, Penelope Betjeman, was sent out to the subcontinent to cure her of an ill-fated love affair. The cure worked but not quite as designed, for the future wife of the Poet Laureate had fallen in love with India instead. This endearing account of cooking macaroni cheese followed by Bird's banana custard over a chula (a clay oven) seven thousand feet up a Himalayan peak is both a tribute to a much-loved grandmother and an idiosyncratic view of India.
The beach at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight seems an unlikely source of inspiration for that quintessential Russian novel, Fathers and Sons. But the new Norton Critical Edition of Turgenev's novel (W W Norton Pounds 7.95), includes a fragment of autobiography from the Russian author, which suggests that the character of the nihilist Bazarov was based on a "certain Russian gifted with extremely fine tastes and a remarkable sensitivity to . . . the 'Waft' of the ear" whom Turgenev met while on holiday in the English resort. This fine new translation by Michael R Katz is complemented by contemporary letters and essays on Turgenev's fiction as well as modern reinterpretations by, among others, Isaiah Berlin and Mikhail Bakhtin.
Finally, brief mention of The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (Virago Pounds 12.99), which provide an extraordinary glimpse into the life of that most unusual novelist and musicologist. She herself wrote in 1953 that "An old teapot, used daily, can tell me more of my past than anything I recorded of it". But she began writing a daily journal in 1927 and kept it up (with only a few breaks) until her death in 1978. Reading its entries now about frozen pipes and a bath draped with icicles, fields of cowslips, and the irascible but ever-loved Valentine Ackland is like recapturing a "mysterious Past, forever gone, forever real, whose footsteps I see on every page, invisible to other eyes".