PAPERBACKS

Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism by Neal Ascherson, Vintage pounds 7.99. Neal Ascherson won the Saltire Award for best Scottish book of the year for this, though there is nothing particularly Scottish about it beyond the author's birthplace. He writes: "My sense of Black Sea life, a sad one, is that latent mistrust between different cultures is immortal" - a comment that would do for Anglo-Scots relations too. Black Sea belongs to a genre of what might be called geo-stationary studies, where a patch of the earth is examined in terms of geology, biology, history, politics and so on. Learned, elegant and highly readable, it concentrates especially on the Sea's former Soviet coastline but I can't think of a better companion for those travelling to, or interested in, any part of the region.

The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, Vintage pounds 6.99. The greatest novelist to have received a death sentence is Dostoevsky and this, the first novel completed by Rushdie in the shadow of his fatwa, is also much concerned with crime and punishment. But there comparison must end, because Slavic gloom has no place in this chronicle of a 20th-century, multi-ethnic Bombay trading dynasty. Full of light and comic exuberance, of parodies, puns and puncturing ironies, of semantic elasticity and metaphorical bounce, it is narrated by Abraham Zogoiby, half-Jew, half-Christian and scion of a spice-fortune built up to toppling height by his father, whose interests embrace bent banking, precarious property and dodgy chemicals. The family history is fantastical and hilarious - the women especially are extraordinary - but beneath everything is Mother India herself, "with her garishness and her inexhaustible motion". A brilliant rebuff to killjoys everywhere.

Charles Darwin: Voyaging by Janet Brown, Pimlico pounds 12.50. This biography of Darwin, first of a projected two, takes the father of modern life sciences up his 47th year when, after long hesitation, he decides to lay out his ideas about evolution by natural selection in a book, The Origin of Species. "His story is the story of the era," asserts Brown, and her insistence that the theory and its progenitor are alike the products of their age has the effect of slightly diminishing the notion of Darwin's singularity and, perhaps, of his greatness. There have been a number of heavyweight Lives of the man in recent years. This one is a perfectly decent contender, though to claim that it is definitive - as the publishers do - seems over the top.

The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom, trs Ina Rilke, Harvill pounds 5.99. Dutch literature might as well not exist for all the notice it gets in Britain. But, after years of distinction in his own country, Cees Nooteboom has commanded attention with this gentle, European Literature Prize-winning story of an elderly classics teacher, setting sail in his ship of death with memories of old books and failed love. His definition, "time is the system that must prevent everything from happening at once,", with its provocative "must", would have delighted Nabokov, since it enables time to be subverted, switched off or rewired just like any other system. And Nooteboom is in many ways Nabokov's disciple: precise and particular but playing all the time a universal game.

Streets Ahead: Life After City Lights by Keith Waterhouse, Sceptre pounds 6.99. Pubs and drinkers loom large in the second volume of memoirs by Britain's senior tabloid columnist. An early chapter on Fleet Street's Fifties watering holes is a slice of highly informative industrial history but, with many a paragraph beginning in the style "From the Kismet we might drift on to ...", the fond descriptions of long-ago pub crawls become wearisome. And once Waterhouse drifts on from the staff of the Mirror to write freelance, the wet rot spreads through the edifice of his book as it becomes an encomium to his theatrical work - celebrity names reeled off, gushing reviews quoted and crashing failures glossed over. Fans have learned to accept a certain unevenness, but his best writing is still the very best.

Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality by Andrew Sullivan, Picador pounds 6.99. The ancient Greeks thought highly of homosexuality, other cultures have been tolerant, but the Christian tradition has always swung between rabid abhorrence and polite regret. Sullivan, who resigned as editor of the American political weekly New Republic after announcing he was HIV positive, provides a balanced and at times moving account of the problems of being gay in the modern world. A conservative, he attacks American liberals with their affirmative action programmes whilst insisting on deregulation - the removal of discriminatory laws, the recognition of same-sex marriage - as the main plank in his platform.

Small Holdings by Nicola Barker, Faber pounds 5.99. A park in London's Palmer's Green is the setting for this crisp allegory populated by deep-dyed eccentrics. The park is privatised but also under-financed, under threat and over budget. The workers - Phil, Doug, Ray, Nancy and one-legged Saleem - are fighting to save their management franchise, so wherein lies their salvation - a bandstand? Crazy golf? Phil shaving off his facial hair? This funny, punkily unsentimental novel comes from a very talented hand.

The Beethoven Compendium ed Barry Cooper, Thames & Hudson pounds 16.95. If Beethoven were a city this would be your Baedeker. It gives a Who's Who of his contemporaries, a chronology and a complete list of works, as well as informed background detail on such subjects as how music was performed in Ludwig's day, the documentary records for his life, what he read, the progress of his deafness and plenty more. The one missing element is a survey of recordings, but otherwise this reference book is admirable, as is the uniform volume on Mozart at the same price.

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