Hip Hop America By Nelson George | Eating the Cheshire Cat By Helen Ellis | British Cinema of the 90s ed Robert Murphy | New Writing 9 ed AL Kennedy & John Fowles | Once Upon a Number By John Allen Paulos
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The Independent Culture

Hip Hop America By Nelson George (Penguin £7.99) A passionate, free-wheeling account of hip hop culture in all its forms from one of the first music journalists to comment on the phenomenon. Delineating the major influences and critiqu-ing key records, George also makes original and perceptive connections (proclaiming Mike Tyson as the embodiment of 1980s hip hop and uncovering the homoeroticism in rap's machismo). He offers a level-headed assessment of the tragic East/West Coast feud (actually a continuation of the long-established antagonism between New York and the rest of the country). A little too uncritical of the culture's worst excesses, but still by far the best account I've come across.

Eating the Cheshire Cat By Helen Ellis (Virago £9.99) The tragicomic story of three girls from Alabama whose lives intertwine during the competit-ive years from summer camp to university sororities. They vary in looks and temperament, from ugly, bed-wetting misfit to bitchy Homecoming queen, and their fates range from semi-content domesticity to suicidal depress-ion. I won't tell you who gets which come-uppance: suffice it to say that Ellis's excellent debut deconstructs the Southern Belle myth with a scalpel-sharp wit, exposing the naked ambition beneath the rigid social structure, as a young mother force-feeds her 13-year-old daughter alcohol, then breaks her little fingers so they will be re-set and straightened.

British Cinema of the 90s ed Robert Murphy (BFI £14.99) This important, comprehensive survey splits roughly in half between a meticulous analysis of key texts along lines of gender, class, sexuality, age, genre and heritage, and an ambivalent look to the future. It addresses the current state of the industry, the nature of Lottery funding, recent government policy, the "McDonaldisation" of distribution through American-owned multiplexes, and the fact that all the profit from "British" successes like The Full Monty went back to their US financiers. Murphy typifies the endearingly guarded and qualified optimism of these academics, concluding that it is once again "possible to look forward to things getting better rather than worse".

New Writing 9 ed AL Kennedy & John Fowles (Vintage £7.99) A collection of 50-odd short stories, extracts, poems and essays surveying the contemporary literature scene, compiled in no discernible order, by two members of that scene with no discernible connection. If any conclusions can be drawn, they would be that sex, death and childhood are informing today's writers more than ever; that the trendy Brit Lit crowd has some strong competition on its tail and that sub-divided short stories are a bit passé now. It also includes Louis de Berniÿres's foray into poetry, "London Voices", in which he struggles to find a convincing poetic or cockney voice. It's either a pastiche of the poetry found in the Big Issue, or just really poor.

Once Upon a Number By John Allen Paulos (Penguin £6.99) Paulos continues his quest to bridge the gap between CP Snow's "two cultures": specifically the literary and the scientific. Keeping the equations to an easy-to-understand minimum and drawing on references ranging from classical mythology to contemporary comedy routines, he teases out the connection between narratives and statist-ical mathematics. Despairing of the layman's misunderstanding of the laws of probability and their misapplication in everyday life, Paulos counters with everything from a proof of Murphy's Law in relation to post-office queues, to a mathematical substantiation of minorities' claims of perceived prejudice.