Books: Paperbacks

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The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, ed Anthony Thwaite, Faber pounds 12.99. The noise of an icon cracking? Variously described as cruel, addictively funny, over-revealing, depressing, scintillating, misogynist, inspirational or downright racist, these letters sparked a long-running battle over the poet's reputation. A perfect present for all who agree with Larkin that 'Happy Christmas', like 'young poet', is a contradiction in terms.

From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market by Peter Watson, Vintage pounds 9.99. 'Nearly everyone in it is awful, and as a consequence riveting' wrote Sir Roy Strong about this insider's study of art, money and manipulation. Watson begins with Van Gogh's suicide in 1890, and carries his intriguing story through to the day, 100 years later, when the picture Van Gogh had finished just before his death was sold for dollars 82.5 million.

Warrior Marks by Alice Walker & Pratibha Parmar, Vintage pounds 14.99. The book of the film Walker and Parmar made about female genital mutilation in Africa. The interviews with victims and witnesses are as harrowing on the page as on the screen and should disabuse anyone who doubts that such appalling practices still go on. Whether the book's other ingredients - Walker's diary entries about the minutiae of planning the film, mutually congratulatory letters between the authors - are of more than casual interest is another matter.

Bad News by Edward St Aubyn, Minerva pounds 5.99. Patrick's last stay in New York began in a suite 'with as much chinoiserie as anyone could be expected to take', and ended at the bottom of a garbage-filled well-shaft on Eighth Street with a dollars 5000-a-week drugs habit; his present trip, though, is to pick up the corpse of his father. Patrick hated his father. That's just the beginning. St Aubyn's farce is bleakish but not the darkest black; an easy to read, always entertaining novel.

Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles 1968-1993 by Paul Bew & Gordon Gillespie, Gill & Macmillan pounds 8.99. A meticulous and cool- headed account of 25 shameful years of British and Irish history, plus brief explanatory essays about such key events as Bloody Sunday, the 1981 hunger strikes and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The final entries are for June this year - the murder of a Catholic lorry driver in Belfast, and a prayer for peace and unity by the visiting Mother Teresa. More recent atrocities would hardly have caused the authors to change their assertion that 'the intractability of the problem remains its most marked feature'.

Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China by Sterling Seagrave, Papermac pounds 14.99. Seagrave sets out to tell us that the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, otherwise known as the Old Buddha or Susie, and the last great Manchu ruler of China, was not an evil, sex- crazed tryant who poisoned and manipulated her way to power, crushing China's first attempt at modernisation and stirring up the Boxers. No, she was a lovely lady, an innocent manipulated by others, a victim of black propaganda from the ousted reformers and that English fantasist and fraudster, Sir Edmund Backhouse.

The Circle of Life, ed David Cohen, Aquarian pounds 12.99. A large and glossy selection of magnificent photographs that chronicle the ceremonies and rituals of life in cultures across the globe (above, Congolese Kota boys with faces painted for their manhood rites). The pictures are often as bizarre as they are spectacular: in Northern Spain, a man leaps over newborn babies spread out on the ground (why?); in a remote part of rural Italy, an adolescent's initiation involves splitting in half the trunk of a sapling and rubbing the boy sideways in it, like a saw. Everywhere, marriage rites seem mad: a 7-year-old bridal couple in India; a Balinese bride's tooth- filing. After a while, even the very familiar starts to seem outlandish: perhaps that's the point. A beautiful book, and superb value.

The Penguin Book of 19th Century Australian Literature, ed Michael Ackland, pounds 7.99. 'Under feelings of the most intense interest and excitement I take up my pen to write the account of this day; we are laying to within sight of the Australian shores.' The journal of one Louisa Clifton shows what it was to cross the world, in 1841, protected by family and reasonable wealth; other pieces in this rich anthology ('The Convict Laundress') reveal a harsher reality. From the tough lyricism evoked by the 'Challenge of a New Landscape' on to more complex social issues, the writers here - most of them unknown in Britain - show a huge range of subject matter and style. Immensely interesting, especially if you think that Patrick White was the first Australian to own a pen.

The New Emperors: Mao and Deng by Harrison E Salisbury, HarperCollins pounds 8.99. Harrison Salisbury's intention is to paint that old monster Mao Tse-tung an even darker shade of vermillion. The Great Helmsman had a passion for ballroom dancing, and for taking dips, Tiberius- style, with the local sychronised swimming team, who tickled his balls under water. That's the fun side. The reverse was an opium-addicted madman, fearful of assassination, constipated for weeks on end, vindictive, devious and politically irresponsible. Salisbury was fed his line by Mao's victims, the men in power in Peking today. When they go, expect the story to be rewritten.

Careless Talk by James Friel, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Entertaining fictional memoirs of Mabel Bancroft, Isle of Wight hotelier who, aggrieved when war and barbed wire disrupt her idyllic life, arms herself with secateurs and a dog called Hitler and becomes an enemy of the people. Like the masterly Alan Bennett, Friel has a sure eye for that peculiarly English brand of pathetic dottiness, and there's a welcome hard edge that rescues his writing from the school of Dad's Army.

Central Asia: A Traveller's Companion by Kathleen Hopkirk, John Murray pounds 11.99. To the edges of the Chinese Empire and into Central Asia - if you're looking for a potted history of the region this is your book. There are no tips on how to get around this vast swathe of territory between the Caspian Sea and Mongolia, nor an up-to-date account of what you might meet. But don't be put off by such comments as: 'At first glance Tashkent . . . seems of little interest . . .' - the author creates a series of elegant essays on the main cities, some in a state of ruin, some not: this book is a worthwhile companion, either on the road or in an armchair.

The Stories of Edith Wharton, selected by Anita Brookner, Simon & Schuster, 2 vols, pounds 5.99 each. With the movie of her novel The Age of Innocence, the rise and rise of Edith Wharton continues apace. This selection of her sharp, ironic and well-crafted stories will probably most appeal to those already converted to Wharton's sometimes over-arch locutions, but it should interest everyone as an outstanding picture of cosmopolitan New York and European society at the turn of the century, as suffocating and restrictive as it was luxurious and innovating.

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