14th July 1995 at 01:00
Nien Cheng was sitting in her study reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when the Red Guards burst into her home in Shanghai and proceeded systematically to destroy it. It was August 1966 and she had been picked out for punishment because her house was full of things belonging to the "old culture" - statues, porcelain and books that she had collected while living abroad with her diplomat husband.

She was arrested, interrogated, confined and tortured - but, as we see from her memoir of those years, Life and Death in Shanghai (Flamingo #163;7.99), her tormentors never succeeded in breaking her spirit. I doubt whether any of the books about China and Chairman Mao now pouring into the bookshops will replicate the success of Jung Chang's Wild Swans, but Cheng's book provides a quite different and no less gripping perspective on the Chinese Terror.

When Colin Thubron's Behind the Wall was first published in 1987, it was as if he had opened up China to the West, so full was his book of telling details and compassionate encounters. It is now reissued to coincide with the publication of Thubron's The Lost Heart of Asia (both Penguin #163;6.99 each), which takes us into those exotic sounding regions of the former Soviet Union - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan.

Once home to the Huns and Mongols who terrorised Western Europe, they are now impoverished and strangely subdued after 70 years of Soviet Communism. We follow Thubron into hotels where the bath "might have been designed for a cripple" and a "tiny rusted fridge doubled as a bedside table, and sighed disconsolately all night" and to the ruins of Bibi Khanum, built by Tamerlane as the greatest temple in Islam.

It will be difficult to forget those images of the BBC's John Simpson crouching in the bushes of a Bucharest hotel garden which were flashed on our television screens on Christmas Day 1989. But Romania soon slipped out of focus overtaken by events in the Soviet Union. Dan Antal, however, was also there, running down the street in a hospital dressing-gown and pyjamas. You can find out why in Out of Romania (Faber Pounds 6.99), his account of growing up under the Ceausescus.

The Cuban writer G Cabrera Infante left his native home in 1965, bitter that Castro was so comprehensively destroying the island which Columbus had described as "Paradise Green". What use is there "in teaching millions to read when only one man decides what you read?" he asks in an essay now collected in Mea Cuba (Faber #163;9.99). He has spent the last 30 years campaigning against Castro, as a kind of expiation for the guilt he feels at abandoning his country. All of which makes it sound as if these essays are earnest, dull, strident; on the contrary, they are surprisingly funny and filled with humanity.

Current events in Northern Ireland have led Robert Kee to revise his classic study, Ireland: A History (illustrated edition Abacus #163;12.99),which first appeared in 1980 to accompany the BBC television series. Kee's intention was to "ungarble" Ireland's history, and make sense of the killings. He therefore begins with Elizabeth l's declaration: "We will not suffer our subjects any longer to be oppressed by those vile rebels". His book should be compulsory reading.

Teachers who contemplate giving up would do well to take heed of what happened to Janet Frame when she walked out of her classroom in New Zealand one morning, never to return. She spent the next 10 years in a mental hospital, falsely diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and was only released when one of her doctors saw that a book written by her had won a prize. A haunting film was made of her experiences, An Angel At My Table, which was based on her autobiographical novellas. The Janet Frame Reader (edited by Carole Ferrier, The Women's Press #163;8.99) includes these memoirs as well as excerpts from other novels, which show her to be rather like a New Zealand version of Jean Rhys.

Did you know that the first airmail was carried by hot-air balloon during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870? Or that the first "moving" pictures were seen in 1710 when Reeves of London succeeded in creating some crudely animated lantern slides? Or even that the first paperback was published in 1841 by the Leipzig firm of Christian Bernard Tauchnitz? All this and more can be found in Melvin Harris's densely packed ITN Book of Firsts (Michael O'Mara Books #163;9.95).

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