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The Independent Culture
The Alan Coren Omnibus (Robson, pounds 12.99) Expect no will-o'-the- wisp whims from the outstanding humorist of the day. Staggeringly inventive, Coren generates pungent, heavy-duty chortles. Comparisons with the great Perelman are not far out, but Coren is ruder and has better punch-lines. This haul of 72 gems from 35 years has a dangerously high laugh-out-loud quotient, exemplified by Highgrove vegetables ruminating on Prince Charles ("'One of nature's gentlemen', said the sprout. 'You'd never think the bastard was a vegetarian'") and an Aussie Oedipus ("I've only gone and married me flaming mummy"). But why are they undated? This is social history hidden in the guise of a gag.

The Body Emblazoned by Jonathan Sawday (Routledge, pounds 12.99) Under the punning title - "blazon" also meant to hack apart in Elizabethan England - Sawday has written a dazzling, scholarly work about the dark Renaissance obsession with dissection. He reveals the parallels between Donne's eroticism ("License my roaving hands...") and early anatomical works in which the surgeon is portrayed giving "a gesture of ownership." Female bodies were particularly sought after in order to probe "the rebellious nature of womankind." From these gory eviscerations came the first recognition of "selfhood." The metaphor of dissection was central to our greatest literary era. Sawday's disturbing, revelatory work is a triumph.

Boychiks in the Hood by Robert Eisenberg (Quartet, pounds 9.00) While secular Jews continue to assimilate, the ultra-orthodox Hasidim are thriving. In a century's time, they may be the only significant Jewish communities outside Israel. This snappy tour (by a secular Californian Jew) of fundamentalist communities from Brooklyn to Belgium reveals them to be far more approachable and buoyant than their austere appearance suggests. From the wealthy Hasidim of Los Angeles, he moves to the tough remnants of Polish Jewry ("the human embodiments of beef jerky") and, finally, Gateshead, the "intellectual solar plexus" of United Kingdom orthodoxy. Funny, if occasionally aggravating, Eisenberg is an engaging guide.

Granta 5: Childhood (pounds 7.99) The latest number of the book-length literary magazine is devoted to the subject of childhood and parenting. Thirteen writers and a photographer provide an excellent mix of memoirs, fiction and reportage. Adam Mars-Jones's biographical study of his mother is as beautifully constructed as a great short story; Blake Morrison offers a frank and controversial exploration of childhood and sexuality; and Tony Gould recalls his masochistic relationship with a bullying prefect in a painful account of his days at public school. On the fiction side, an extract from a forthcoming novel by Jayne Anne Phillips whets the appetite with its raw, uncompromising exploration of motherhood and birth.

Mr Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos (Bloomsbury pounds 5.99) Unbearably sad, movingly understated novel set in New York. The hero is an advertising executive whose modest ambition is to lead a happy and stable family life. When his teenage son is murdered in particularly meaningless circumstances by a poor young Puerto Rican, the bereaved father reveals a capacity for forgiveness and a moral strength which are anything but ordinary. Don't be put off by the fact that the central character is so uncomplicatedly good - there's nothing gratuitously sentimental about this parable of grief, loss and atonement.

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