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The Independent Culture
Woody Allen on Woody Allen by Stig Bjorkman (Faber, pounds 8.99)

Considering the fact that their relationship atomised during the interviews for this film-by-film retrospective, Woody Allen is academically objective about Mia Farrow: "a good actress ... very photogenic, very beautiful on screen". Faced with an informed inquisitor, Allen is fascinating about his extensive oeuvre and cinema in general. But his irony has rusted - at one point he says, completely seriously: "I'm very generous."

Age of Extremes 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm (Abacus, pounds 9.99)

Hobsbawm triumphantly negotiates the home stretch of a historical quartet which has explored modern times (from 1789) with consummate erudition. In this massive conclusion - an ideal desert island choice for scope and stimulation - he adopts a broadly thematic approach. More about ideas than personalities, the book explores the three great phases of our century: catastrophe, post-war boom and current uncertainty.

Living Islam by Akbar S. Ahmed (Penguin/BBC, pounds 6.99)

Akbar Ahmed stresses the enlightened basis of this burgeoning faith - which is now embracing a billion in highly diverse societies. His analysis of the Rushdie case is instructive, yet he fails to address many concerns. Why should Muslim women have to embrace the "modesty" that Ahmed blithely accepts on their behalf? His explanation of the brutal punishments inflicted by a small number of regimes is sketchy and unconvincing.

Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light by Ivan Klima (Granta, pounds 5.99)

Distanced by his lens, Czech cameraman Pavel observes the events of 1989: demonstrations, speeches and the collapse of atrophied authority. He carries a film in his head, a Tarkovsky-like narrative of repression and escape, but it comes no nearer being made after the Velvet Revolution. Laced with black humour, this former dissident's novel about fallibility and vacillation is much in tune with our times.

The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes by Michael Mason (Oxford, pounds 8.99)

Mason proposes that the powerful 19th-century urge to take the pleasure out of sex (which he terms "anti-sensualism") had secular, even radical, origins rather than a religious cause. There was also a host of individuals, some engagingly cranky, who opposed the prevailing orthodoxy. An absorbing subject, scrupulously researched, but marred by Mason's overly scholastic style and abstruse arguments.

In Search of Tusitala by Gavin Bell (Picador, pounds 6.99)

In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson bowed his head before "the romance of destiny" and set sail for the South Seas. One hundred years on, fellow Scot and romantic Gavin Bell goes in search of his own treasure island. An exhilarating read that finds Gavin Bell (and Stevenson) pounded by monster waves, shivering on "accursed" beaches and uneasily recalling a time "when the living ate the dead".

Alec Guinness by Garry O'Connor (Sceptre, pounds 6.99)

It always seems a little impolite for biographers of the still living to pontificate too seriously on the psychological make-up of their subjects. In this most recent biography, Alec Guinness is painted as a man obsessed by his illegitimate origins, hungry for acceptance and uneasy with the "feminine within". But if you can skip the amateur psychoanalysis, there are some nice luvvie anecdotes to be gleaned.

Grandmother's Footsteps by Imogen Lycett Green (Pan, pounds 5.99)

With her helmet-head of silver hair and legs like a grand piano's, Penelope Betjeman was every bit as substantial a figure to her grandchildren as their grandfather was to the outside world. When she died at the age of 73 on a Himalayan mountain-side, her granddaughter decided to relive her last journey to her beloved "Injer". A spirited book that remembers a woman, who, if this were E.M. Forster, would be Mrs Moore.

From Our Own Correspondent edited by Misha Glenny (Pan Books, pounds 9.99)

Radio 4 listeners may be surprised to hear that From Our Own Correspondent has been running for 40 years. This collection from the series includes such gems as Gerald Priestland reporting from inside a pantry in Ragoon and Stephen Jessel on the disposal of Parisian dog shit; but whether it's 1955 or 1993, the BBC correspondent's tone of measured good sense and understated emotion remains uncannily unchanged.

The Priest: A Gothic Romance by Thomas M. Disch (Orion, pounds 5.99)

In the Roman Catholic church of Thomas M. Disch's imagination, priests ritually molest altar boys, kidnap young girls from abortion clinics and hire hoods to do their dirty work - they also like to hang out with really satanic tattoo artists. An unsteadying mix of Lewis's The Monk and Puzo's The Godfather, but so absorbingly told you don't even have to have your doubts about the Catholic Church to embrace it.

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