PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press by John St Jorre, Pimlico pounds 10. During the "shambling, pungent, easy-going" Fourth Republic, advances from publisher Maurice Girodias for titles like I'm For Hire, Bottom's Up and There's a Whip In My Luggage seem to have kept bohemian Paris financially afloat. Olympia Press authors included Nabokov, Burroughs and Becket; their "dirty books" were witty, highly literate and diverse. They were also harbingers of the libertarianism which exploded a decade later. Among many good things in this absorbing slice of literary history is the unmasking of Pauline Reage, author of The Story of O.

! The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS by Simon Garfield, Faber pounds 7.99. The world's earliest known case of Aids was in Liverpool, 1959 - not a first one feels like celebrating jingoistically. Garfield's is the most substantial chronicle yet written of the HIV virus in this country: the public response, the calamitous effects. Garfield seeks out scientists, medics, victims and relatives and, on a subject that has provoked enough political and media hot air, provides a phenomenally solid audit of human misery, resolute in its refusal to pontificate. Always aware of the multiple ironies and multiplying tragedies of Aids, he lets events do the talking.

! The Penguin Book of Contemporary Women's Stories edited and introduced by Susan Hill, pounds 6.99. Hill suggests the quality defining these as women's writing is an "indefinable, yet definite sixth sense at work; probing, identifying ... and finally understanding". Haven't we now done with paranormal fantasies about the female psyche? And isn't "understanding" what writers of both sexes are trying for? Never mind, this is an excellent selection of 24 writers ranging from old hands like Daphne Du Maurier and Alice Munro to Janice Galloway and newcomer Leonora Brito.

! Crazy Paving by Louise Doughty, Touchstone pounds 5.99. To write about what you know is good advice, but few writers take it literally or there'd be many more novels like this one - about office life. Set among the staff of London's transport authority, it tracks the interactions, observes the foibles and eavesdrops on the thoughts of half-a-dozen surveyors and secretaries until, after 60 pages or so, you realise you've been drawn into intimacy with them. This stealthy characterisation is the outstanding pleasure of the book and makes the neo-Dickensian plot (romance, blackmail, revenge) particularly compelling. The denouement may be a bit overdetermined and televisual, but this is a very good debut novel indeed.

! The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda by Amitai Etzioni, Fontana pounds 7.99. American communitarianism is a sort of right-wing Green movement for the soul, "dedicated to the betterment of our moral, social and political environment". It corrects the Reagan/Thatcher denial of society with a call not just for Family but for Civic Values in a way that sounds great to all but the craziest rednecks.Yet it's a conjuring trick. Etzioni baits liberals for preferring rights to responsibility and talks about self-reliance, while simultaneously decrying "excessive individualism" and promoting community service for criminals and planned "shared social space" in all neighbourhoods. Blairism might like this, but the voters of Lytham St Anne's won't reckon much to it. If they cheer Etzioni's call for National Service, they'll pipe down when they read the small print: he only means CSV.

! The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, Papermac pounds 9. When, very rarely, a recently dead person comes up for canonisation, the Vatican begins a minute, interminable and very private sifting of the candidate's life and character. The poet Sylvia Plath - in many minds a martyr and secular saint - has received comparable scrutiny, but it has been in public and with plenty of witnesses ready to see their evidence printed. Was this a vindictive bitch who tried to upstage her more successful husband by killing herself? Or a sacrificial victim of triumphalist male art? Or something in between? Malcolm's brilliant piece of reporting is neither biography nor a comprehensive look at the evidence. It is an outsider's inquisition of the motives and methods of all those involved in the controversy and it mercilessly exposes the pathos and the absurdity of it all.

! A History Maker by Alasdair Gray, Penguin pounds 5.99. Gray imagines Scottish society 200 years hence, a matriarchy in which men have little to do but work off their testosterone by stylised tribal warfare in front of future Des Lynams. All requisites, from Prozac and gin to instructional reading, can be obtained via a quasi-divine source located in the home - a kind of internet shopping terminal for human needs. The malcontent hero, Wat Dryhope, is nostalgic for days when "folk thought they were making a better world" and is tempted towards revolt. Despite the large scale of its themes, the novel is done in a comparatively low and minor key. It has Gray's customary pictorial and typographical delights.

! The Ottomans: Dissolving Images by Andrew Wheatcroft, Penguin pounds 8.99. Our idea of Ottoman culture is all too fragmented. Of Turkish militarism we can understand (if not forgive) the cruelties of imperial conquest and repression. We have an idea of Levantine politics and the machinations of powerful interest groups such as the Janissaries or the Sultan's mother. And we can enjoy the architecture of Sinan (Istanbul's Wren), the strange rituals of the dervishes, the thousands of artefacts on view in Topkapi Saray. It can be hard to see the interconnections which make all this into a whole, so a short, synoptic treatment like this one - accessible and elegant in style - is of great use. Wheatcroft narrates and glosses key episodes in Ottoman history, but is specially illuminating on how the West's view of the East is coloured by the West's own cultural assumptions. One for mini-breakers to Istanbul.

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