PAPERBACKS

On Grief and Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky, Penguin pounds 9.99. What a marvellous, impish mind: "Since we are all moribund, and since reading books is time-consuming, we must devise a system that allows us a semblance of economy." Hence ... the need for a shortcut, from "How To Read A Book" - the tip is to read poetry, because it has a longer history than prose, and it's more concise. "As we gather here, in this attractive and well-lit room, to discuss the plight of the writer in exile, let us pause for a minute and think of ... Turkish Gastarbeiters, prowling the streets of West Germany" (from "The Condition We Call Exile": an essay which abandons the self-absorbed pomposity with which political-exile poets all too often express themselves). One minute, it's Rilke and Hardy, the next, it's Tarzan movies in post-war Leningrad. Brodsky (1940-1996: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1987) had a formidable reputation as a poet. If that reputation up to now has scared you, these sprightly, generous essays will help you change your mind.

Cocaine Nights by J G Ballard, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Ballard as country-house detective writer? Well, that's pretty much what he's up to here, and he does it rather well. Charles, the narrator, is a travel writer, working on a guide to - wait for it - the best brothels in the world. His brother, Frank, manages a posh Costa del Sol resort - and is awaiting trial for having burnt five people to death. The plot thickens, as is customary, with lashings of drugs, porn videos, fancy cars and half-naked, strangely numbed, women. And there are, as usual, plenty of Ballard's marvellously stunned, deadpan obiter dicta, this time on the topic of retirement complexes for the elderly rich, "the memory erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system ..." And so on. Ballard has now been scaring himself with much the same apocalyptic terrors for a good 30 years. This doesn't mean he's getting boring. But it does mean his novels are getting increasingly - and I think, deliberately - camp.

Life's Grandeur: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould, Vintage pounds 7.69. Stephen Jay Gould is a professor of zoology and palaeontology at Harvard. And yet, he's still the tough-talking, inquisitive, intellectually, combative working-class New Yorker he started out as, which is one reason he does pop-science writing so well. According to Gould, popular understandings of Darwinian evolution are half-baked and unscientific. Man is not and was never a pinnacle of natural selection. He's a minor evolutionary accident, surrounded by triumphantly breeding bacteria. Gould proves his thesis with a virtuoso critique of statistics. Chapter four tells of how he himself was diagnosed in 1982 as suffering from abdominal mesothelioma. The graphs say he should have been dead years ago. But that, Gould argues, only highlights the ways in which most of us read graphs wrongly.

Big Girls Don't Cry by Connie Briscoe, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. Why is women's potboiling fiction usually so depressing? Because it's all fantastic stuff and nonsense. This is one reason why buppy potboilers - the US fashion for easygoing success-stories written by and for professional black women - are an excellent thing. "I don't see the big deal about college," says young Naomi, in her late-1960s Afro-headed dropout phase. "I mean, why waste all that time and money when whites aren't going to give you a decent job?" "Because that's how it is," her mom says. "You're going to come up against this sort of thing all your life," her dad adds. "Learn to handle it now." Naomi's story, from Black Power boho thru to late Eighties businesswoman and philanthropist, is utterly formulaic, but in an ethically bracing way. I'd have learnt a lot from it when I was a teenager. And I liked it much better than many a fancier novel even now.

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