BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Vintage pounds 6.99. Philip Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is coming to terms with encroaching old age and its seemingly inevitable companion, prostate cancer. Through a chance meeting with high-school hero Seymour "Swede" Levov, he is inspired to set down the story of this all-American, regular guy's life. Swede comes of age in triumphant, post-war Newark. The suburbs are peachy, his bride is Miss New Jersey, and business is good. The 1960s change all that. When his darling daughter turns to revolutionary terrorism, Swede's prelapsarian idyll crashes around him and a profound tragedy unfolds. Complacency is confronted with painful introspection, and Roth unleashes shattering insights, relentlessly chipping away at the foundations of the American Dream. Roth is master of the slow-burning narrative, and of all the "Great American Novels" that have been published in the past year, this one can surely lay claim to that title.

! Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah, Penguin pounds 6.99. Yen Mah has been called the "Chinese Cinderella". All the ingredients are there: a neglectful father, wicked stepmother and older, bullying siblings. Although she was born into an affluent family in 1930s Shanghai, Yen Mah was rejected by her family when her mother died in childbirth. Her father's marriage to a beautiful, racist Eurasian meant that neglect turned into abuse for the fifth child and youngest daughter. As Shanghai becomes caught up in the web of Communist China, Yen Mah's family is driven apart by feuds, and her life is made even more unbearable. Only her Aunt Baba gives her love and encouragement, which helps her in her quest "to make my parents proud of me". But this isn't just a heart-rending personal story; Yen Mah makes causal links between her family's violence and political upheaval in a fascinating piece of social history.

! Bad Chemistry by Gary Krist, Fourth Estate paperback original, pounds 9.99. A body in the woods leads a lonely, young hacker to ex-cop-turned-social worker Kate Baker. Meanwhile, the hermetic world of smart drugs and web- assisted crime exercises Kate's dormant skills as she investigates her missing husband's involvement with a ring of murderous, international drug-traffickers. She soon finds herself on the wrong side of the law she'd sworn to uphold. Krist is one of a growing band of American crime writers to tackle the latest outlet for criminal activity, and to explore the cynical compromises made by superannuated, pony-tailed hippies seduced by the lure of big money. It's fast-paced and convincing, and it could happen on a computer screen near you.

! Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971 by Jonathon Green, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Jonathon Green is England's leading lexicographer of slang, racially abusive epithets and jargon. In this mosaic of interviews, he turns his attention to the events surrounding "the Year of the Barricades", 1968. Of course, it was also the year of the Beatles' White Album, the My Lai Massacre and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Green argues that this was the decade that saw an outburst of creative energy and the emergence of an effective counterculture that set various politicians' teeth on edge like nothing else before.

! Mr In-Between by Neil Cross, Cape paperback original, pounds 9.99. Mr In- Between takes on extremes - extremes of violence, drug-taking, super- strength lager drinking and love. Jon Bennet professional hit man, is in moral and emotional limbo, killing and maiming with a corrosive detachment. Jon's work is all-consuming, his mates are sleazy, and Cross relishes the squalid detritus of their lives without exploiting it. Instead, he makes us feel compassion for them as they tread the hopeless round of pub and kebab house. When Jon is reunited with two old schoolfriends, married with a child, he is overwhelmed by the bonds of family life and friendship. And the consequences are fatal for all concerned. What could have been yet another Tarantinoesque foray into killer-chic, becomes a theological debate on the many roads to salvation that deliberately demythologises the sadistic acts of violence it describes. Cross's first novel displays a subtle mind grappling with a thrilling tale of perverse redemption.

Numbers The Universal Language by Denis Guedj (New Horizons pounds 6.95) is a glorious, exuberant celebration of numbers, their history and their multifarious uses. If you've ever pondered such concepts as infinity and zero, Guedj's information-crammed book will intrigue as it tackles these and other numerical conundrums with wit and wisdom. I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (above) painted by Charles Demuth (1883- 1936) is one of countless examples illustrating how numbers have fascinated thinkers over the centuries and affected all of our daily lives.

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