Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
By Christopher Hirst and Emma Hagestadt

The Irish Male at Home and Abroad by Joseph O'Connor (Minerva, pounds 6.99) According to Joseph O'Connor Irish males are ''wet-arsed'', non- communicative, drunken ''eejits''. Nothing new here, and not much new to be found in this collection of journalism swiped from O'Connor's regular column in Ireland's Sunday Tribune along with articles from the pages of Cosmo and Elle. Thoughts on flavoured condoms (''a reusable alternative to chewing gum''), a trip to Nice (not "nice"), and the post-coital delights of curry chips are served up alongside more serious reflections on ''New Man" and the state of Lord Archer's bathrooms - nice fittings, no bog rolls.

Lifting the Taboo, Women, Death and Dying by Sally Cline (Abacus, pounds 7.99) ''There is no assurance that you will live to read the whole of this book.'' Not a comforting opening thought, and not a comforting book. Sally Cline's exploration of the sexual politics of death throws up some interesting ideas about women's relationship with the Grim Reaper. More likely to meet the end with a sense of commitments unfulfilled, women worry as much about being buried alive, as who will cook their hubbie's dinner after they've gone. Useful advice on dying at home, and insights from female undertakers you'll wish you'd rather not read.

G, a Novel by John Berger (Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99) Winner of the 1972 Booker Prize, John Berger's once-trendy novel is a lot more entertaining than some of his more recent ones. Set against an operatic background of risorgimento Italy and country-house England, it tells the story of G, the illegitimate son of a candied-fruit merchant and his early introduction to the sins of the flesh. Seemingly profound pronouncements on sex, love and death nestle around Berger's sensuous set pieces like the wrappers around a Baci chocolate. Turn of the century melodrama for Seventies hipsters.

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (Penguin, pounds 5.99) Set in the depths of plague-ridden Yorkshire, Unsworth's medieval whodunit tells the story of Nicholas Barber, a lustful young cleric who abandons his calling to join a group of travelling players and once more smell the ''budding hawthorn''. A decision he never regrets, especially after he and the players help solve a murder and save a woman's life. With its cast of slatternly wenchs and snooping monks, this is about as entertaining as your average Father Cadfael mystery.

Primary Colors by Anonymous (Vintage, pounds 6.99) It doesn't take long to realise why this foul-mouthed, but probably word-perfect, fictional take on the Clintons and their entourage rocketed to the top of the bestsellers. On page 16, we are givena character analysis of the central figure: "Jack Stanton could be a great man, if he wasn't such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganised, undisciplined shit." And that's his wife talking. An acid comedy of modern political manners, which will still be read when the Clinton administration is a distant memory.

The Habsburgs by Andrew Wheatcroft (Penguin, pounds 8.99) A thrilling panoramic history - though rather old-fashioned in being more concerned with personality and "the mystical power of lineage" than the cold facts of economy. Wheatcroft unspools his vivid diorama of Europe's greatest dynasty from early luminaries such as Frederick the Fat (he died from a surfeit of melons) through the lonely, belligerent Philip II of Spain and ill-fated Maximilian of Mexico, to the last remnants of the line, who lead "respectable, boring lives", hoping to be called back to rule.

The Periodic Kingdom by Peter Atkins (Phoenix, pounds 5.99) This surprisingly readable account of the building blocks of the universe utilises the metaphor of a travel guide. With the help of Atkins' lively sales patter, the "glittering, lustrous" desert of metals becomes a tempting destination. The names are particularly interesting: Atkins notes that "bromine" and "argon" derive from Greek words for "stench" and "lazy". He points out that helium, which makes up 25 per cent of the universe, was only found in 1868 and then on the sun. Also, it's not profitable to go prospecting for francium - only 17 atoms of it exist on earth.

The Race Gallery by Marek Kohn (Vintage, pounds 7.99) Boasting a collection of 25,000 skeletons, a Race Gallery actually exists in Vienna's Natural History Museum. Kohn uses this poignant display of human differences as a starting point for an exploration of our muddled thinking on the peculiarly sensitive issue of race. While he effectively scuppers the views of modern hereditarians - in particular, The Bell Curve - for their mangling of recent genetic findings, he insists that race can no longer remain a no- go area for mainstream science. In reaching this radical conclusion, he has produced a vital work of scientific commentary.

On Being Jewish by Julia Neuberger (Mandarin, pounds 6.99) This book's solipsist tone is set on the first page, when the author gives her reason for writing it: "There is no book...by me on the subject." So, while we learn much about Judaism, we're told even more about Neuberger. Often this combination is fascinating, as when a Boston pharmicist recognises the name on her credit card because her grandmother was active among Jewish refugees in England. But for a greater insight into the astonishing richness of Britain's Jewish community, readers should seek out Stephen Brooks' The Club.

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