BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! 'Why Is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond, Phoenix pounds 5.99. Fun? Fun? Not the word I'd have chosen myself, though I can see that from the marketing angle "Why Is Sex a Boiling Puddle of Trauma and Confusion?" wouldn't look good on the jacket. As it turns out, Diamond's account of the evolution of human sexuality steers clear of fun - you won't, for instance, find "orgasm" in the index. What he does do is isolate those aspects of our sex lives that seem most glaringly anomalous to biologists (such as concealed ovulation, the menopause and the outlandishly large penis), suggest reasons why they might have developed the way they did, and ponder the effects they may have had on the way we conduct our lives. This approach leaves hanging in the air all sorts of interesting questions about why we do the things we do, but those answers he does come up with are well reasoned and readable.

! 'Four Jacobean Sex Tragedies ed Martin Wiggins, Oxford pounds 7.99. More than a few people, Wiggins notes in his excellent introduction, will pick up this collection of plays because of purely prurient interest. How right he is - I mean, The Insatiate Countess, phwoaar, eh? On the other hand, what will keep them reading is the way that trouble and desire are pushed to their limits, and dark forces are on the trail of sex - as one character in The Insatiate Countess remarks, "Murder's the shadow of adultery". That play (by William Barksted and Lewis Machin, from a draft by John Marston) is the real find - a maddeningly incomplete but satisfyingly lewd and riotous medley of nymphomania, hesitant chastity, revenge and some of the smuttiest puns you will encounter outside the work of Talbot Rothwell (author of, among other classics, Carry on up the Khyber and Carry on Cleo). The others - less louche, more obviously moral and staid but still well worth a go - are Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, Middleton's The Maiden's Tragedy and John Fletcher's Tragedy of Valentinian.

! 'Great Apes by Will Self, Penguin pounds 6.99. Simon Dykes goes to sleep a man, and awakes to find that everybody, himself included, has turned into a chimpanzee. Self's vision of a world gone ape

is impressively sustained and internally consistent, and his matter-of- fact descriptions of chimp social interaction - arse-licking, mutual grooming, casual violence, chucking food around, group sex and incest - are often deliriously strange and funny. They ram home more effectively than Diamond's book the oddity of human sexuality. There are passages so leaden with effort, though, that they practically drop off the page (people playing with pocket computer-games are described as "tossing off ... miniature plastic clitorises"); and the whole thing goes on for 400 pages, which is about 150 pages too many. Too often, the satire fails to stick - these chimps are too far from humans for their lives to have any bearing. But there are one or two telling moments when the ape covering peels away and you are suddenly left staring at the naked absurdity of our own world. For the honesty and wit of those moments you can forgive a lot.

! 'How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, Picador pounds 5.99. In this good-humoured, sensible guide to better living, de Botton takes the most inward-looking, seemingly unworldly of authors and, by close reading of both the fiction and the life, shows how Proust in fact offers strategies and maxims for our own lives. Chapters include "How to To Express Your Emotions", "How to be a Good Friend" and "How to Be Happy in Love". To be entirely honest, as a self-help manual it is probably less useful than Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, but de Botton's prose style has the edge. What I like most about it, though, is that it reinforces the truth (too infrequently spoken) that if art is to have lasting value it must tell us something about life: that art for art's sake is a game for ostriches.

! 'Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore, Penguin pounds 6.99. Elusive, spare short stories by the poet and former winner of the Orange Prize (for her novel A Spell of Winter). The best ones are set in Scandinavia, and have the sort of uncluttered elegance you associate with Finnish furniture. It may be that it's the unfamiliarity of the territory that gives them an air of conviction; when she moves closer to home - particularly when she dives down among the underclass - she seems much less sure-footed. As long as she stays abroad, though, her domestic interiors have an airy, bleak atmosphere that's both worrying and calming. Individual stories lack any obvious shape, so that the sense is of dipping into fragments of some larger, lost story. She conjures up well the terrors, shames and anxieties that loved ones inspire in us.

The Face in the Corner by Robin Gibson (NPG pounds 7.50) is full of delightful facts about the animals and their owners whose portraits are in the National Portrait Gallery's collection. Dogs lived in the royal nurseries to draw fevers and parasites away from the children and to act as hot-water bottles : Charles II as a baby (1630, above)

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