BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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! Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond, Vintage pounds 8.99. What with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the accompanying decline in the reputation of Marxist history, shares in historical contingency have been trading at an all-time high in recent years. But lately, it looks as if contingency might have been over-valued (witness Niall Ferguson's slack collection of "counterfactuals", Virtual History), and old-fashioned determinism is starting to look like an attractive proposition again. The motto for this punchy account of the clash of civilisations could be "Geography Decides History". Diamond is, among other things, an evolutionary biologist, and here he sets out to explain in scientific terms why it is that Europeans have managed to exploit practically everybody else on the planet. Among the many intriguing issues raised are: why agriculture never got established in Australia; why Native Americans succumbed to European microbes, but not vice versa; and why it is that some animals got domesticated but not others. Always plausible, often persuasive: essential.

! Skin by Tobias Hill, Faber pounds 6.99. Have you noticed how writers seem to be getting younger these days? Maybe publishers have come to an unwritten agreement that they won't publish first fictions by anybody over the age of 30 (and if you do get into print, you can kiss good-bye to your chances of getting reviewed). In this context, Tobias Hill - born 1970 - looks like a veteran and more to the point, he also reads like one. These short stories show a confidence, an eye for off-beat detail, a classical sense of restraint, and a globe-trotting ambition that put him far ahead of most of his contemporaries. The title story alone is worth the cover price: a beautifully compressed, elegiac tale which leaps 50 years, without apparent effort, to recount the history of a young boy who grows up to be a yakuza, and the policeman who sets out to track down his supposed killer. After this thundering challenge, the others look frailer, but still eloquent and sure-footed.

! From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, Flamingo pounds 8.99. A journey through the Near East in the footsteps of the sixth-century monk John Moschos, whose book The Spiritual Meadow is an account of a long trek in search of the desert sages and saints of the Byzantine Empire. But Dalrymple's pilgrimage turns into a melancholy stocktaking of the remnants of Eastern Christianity, as communities getting on for 2,000-years-old, face extinction thanks to the rise of a new Islamic nationalism. Dalrymple has attracted wild praise for this and his first two travel books, In Xanadu and City of Djinns. I'm a little sceptical myself - there's a fogyish edge to his writing which is off-putting, and his repor- tage is too self-conscious. But he is very good at showing how ancient history casts its shadow on the present. All in all, highly educational and eminently readable.

! The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe, Penguin pounds 6.99. What A Carve Up!, Coe's last novel, was an extraordinary book: in it he managed to combine multiple narratives, a dense system of allusions to cinema and the pulp novels of Frank King, a savagely indignant assault on Thatcherite morals, and a tightly-woven farce. The result was both intellectually dazzling and blithely hilarious. How could he follow that? Why, by writing another novel that combines multiple narratives, a dense system of allusions to cinema and the pulp novels of Frank King, a savagely indignant assault on Thatcherite morals, and a tightly-woven farce. Naturally, there's a sense of let-down the second time around; and even if you haven't read What A Carve Up! (and you really should), you will still be dissatisfied by the rather schematic games with sleep disorders, gender roles and film- reviewing that Coe plays. But there are very funny moments and the sheer formal complexity means you never get bored.

! Larry's Party by Carol Shields, Fourth Estate pounds 6.99. Larry is Larry Weller, a Winnipeg flower arranger turned maze designer: Shields takes us from his early twenties, through two failed marriages and a health crisis, to a prosperous but wistful middle age. It reads something like a kinder, gentler version of Updike's Rabbit novels, and while Shields doesn't have his acuity, she also doesn't have his oppressive need to describe, his mania for squeezing meaning out of every commonplace. She is a generous, likeable writer, and generally she gets Larry's voice surprisingly well. But there are awkward moments along the way - a chapter devoted to Larry's relationship with his penis is embarrassingly wide of the mark, and at one point she dwells on the loopy idea that "the most obvious rhyme" for Larry is "ordinary", which even in a Canadian accent is nonsense. A warm, fuzzy near miss.

The World Press Photo Yearbook 1998, edited by Ben Ten Berge and Kari Lundelin (Thames & Hudson pounds 12.95), contains the finest press photographs from 1997. They're the prizewinners from the 41st World Press Photo Contest and were selected from 36,000 images, shot by 3,500 photographers. Howard Schatz received an 'Honorable Mention: Stories' for his work with dancers (above)

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