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!Various Miracles by Carol Shields, 4th Estate pounds 6.99. Carol Shields, like many who have reached the welcome but guilt-edged plateau of middle age, is beset by questions like Where Are We? and How Have We Got Here? As a result, her stories exhibit a rewarding creative tension between existential wobble and verbal poise. They observe Americans abroad, at home or in transit, becoming insecure and insignificant as they learn about competing cultures and points of view. The best tales have a sense of wonder at the "various miracles" of everyday experience which, in a young writer, might seem like gropings towards mysticism. Shields makes them seem entirely natural and, indeed, inevitable.

!The Coming Plague: Newly Emerged Diseases in a World out of Balance by Laurie Garrett, Penguin pounds 12.50. You microbes will want this book: it's a great morale-booster for your war against people. For a while we thought you were on the run, what with Salk's mass vaccinations making a turncoat of the polio virus and penicillin taking no prisoners on the TB front. But, as Garrett demonstrates, you're now fighting back hard, mutating faster than we can research. Ebola, Lassa, Legionnaire's Disease and HIV are new scourges, but equally hard-hitting are the revivals such as malaria, measles, whooping cough and pneumonia. In 1952 almost all staphylococcus infections were killed by penicillin. Thirty years later it could only touch a tenth of them, and will soon be completely useless, like all presently existing antibiotics. Wake up, young scientists! Microbiology needs YOU!

!The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk, trs Guneli Gun, Faber pounds 6.99. Like Joyce in Ulysses, Pamuk grafts a state-of-my-nation novel onto a loving, semi- ironic portrait of his native city: the cultural schizophrenia of Turkey, enlarged and inverted in the monstrous, sooty magnifying-glass of Istanbul life. Following the disappearance of his wife Ruya, Galip (Pamuk's protagonist) finds that Ruya's brother Jelal, a well-known columnist, has also gone missing. As he searches for clues, he is forced to confront the way his own identity has started to fuse with that of his fugitive brother-in- law. This ambitious novel, playful yet serious, is marvellously evocative, in spite of an occasionally stuttering translation.

!Lost in Music: A Pop Odyssey by Giles Smith, Picador pounds 5.99. Giles Smith's first pop hero was Marc Bolan. Well, as Freud would say, we all harbour shameful secrets, though many of us have the decency to tuck them away in the Unconscious. The bad luck of experiencing pop music during the early Seventies is exposed in the sorry admission: "I have spent more time listening to Whitney Houston than to Bob Dylan." There you have it: a troubled individual who spills his confessions with commendable honesty and insight. The rags-to-rags story of Smith's band Cleaners From Venus is particularly tragic but, if a Cleaners album should happen to have snuck into your collection, hang onto it: this classic case-history could make it a desirable little item one day.

!Prince Rupert: Portrait of a Soldier by Frank Kitson, Constable pounds 10.95. Prince Rupert appears in our national legend as a dashing commander of cavalry in set-piece battles such as Edgehill (which he won) and Marston Moor and Naseby (which he lost). General Kitson made his name as a theoretician of counter-insurgency and "low-intensity operations". Perhaps the attraction of Rupert for Kitson is the fact that, in the 17th century, all war was low-intensity. The forces Rupert commanded were rarely more than a few thousand strong, enabling him to play to his strengths: decision, courage and great tactical intelligence. This first of a projected two-volume study follows Rupert's early career as a soldier up to the end of the Civil War, showing him to be a remarkable all-rounder, particularly skilful in siege warfare.

!The Giraffe by Marie Nimier, trs Mary Feeney, Headline pounds 5.99. Joseph goes to work at Vincennes Zoo in Paris and falls in love with Solange, a giraffe. But before you say "Ahhh", this is no cuddly little Gerry Durrell tale. Joseph is a major-league psychopath who becomes so fixated on the giraffe that when he sees her covered by Beethoven, a male of her own species, he kills the love object in a fit of jealous disgust. And once he's committed girafficide, homicide is but a small step. This is fiction at its sickest, and I mean that as a compliment: it is horrifying and at times very funny.

!This Side of Peace: A Personal Account by Hanan Ashrawi, Pocket Books pounds 7.99. Ashrawi is the English literature professor who during the 1993- 4 peace process became the most recognisable and (to Israelis perhaps) the most acceptable public face of Palestinian nationalism. She is a Christian; her mother used to send American missionaries away by reminding them briskly: "We know Christianity. Jesus was born here, right next door." When her birthplace was occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War, nationalism became for Ashrawi a personal issue and her involvement in the peace talks make this book an important item of primary historical evidence. Despite the couture and media-friendly image, the fact that she refused a seat on Arafat's National Council marks Ashrawi as a maverick and relative hard- liner.

Blame it on Confucius: his doctrine of the malleability of man led to a programme of mass cultural indoctrination in China aimed to foster beneficial social attitudes with positive images. Chinese Propaganda Posters by Stefan Landsberger (Pepin Press pounds 30) focuses on the Eighties, when Western influences began to edge out the previous scenes of agrarian bliss. Healthy tots, beaming teens and happy elders abound, and the pious titles are priceless: "Serve customers in a cultured, civilised and enthusiastic manner"; "Respect social morality"; "Pay attention to boarding trains in a civilised way" and (left) "Party, Oh Party, Beloved Party"

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