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The English by Jeremy Paxman, Penguin £7.99

The English by Jeremy Paxman, Penguin £7.99

The contention behind this book is that the English used to know who they were and don't any longer. I'm not sure that the answers were ever that clear-cut, or that they're in such a muddle today; but the question of Englishness keeps coming up, and if you want to get a grip on it, this is the most incisive and entertaining primer you will find. Paxman has a brisk, no-nonsense style which means that he sometimes misses the nuances (Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts and Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage are both enlisted as examples of nostalgia for village life, when both are, in their ways, ironic, critical evocations of a tradition). But he makes up in range and readability anything he lacks in subtlety.

England, England by Julian Barnes Picador £6.99

Surprisingly, the writer who springs to mind most often on reading Barnes's satire on Heritage Britain is Orwell: his picture of a Britain where history and memory have been erased, and replaced with a National Trust tea-towel version, has echoes of both The Lion and the Unicorn and Nineteen Eighty-Four. You probably know the basic plot of this one: millionaire businessman buys up the Isle of Wight and transforms it into a vision of Albion to satisfy the tourist - red telephone boxes, warm beer, Doctor Johnson bellowing apercus in the tavern ... It's a bludgeoning conceit; but Barnes writes with an attractively worldweary sharpness, the unforced wisdom of somebody who's learnt through disappointment.

The Tragic Menagerie by Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal Northwestern £11.99

Knowing that Zinovieva-Annibal died in 1907, knowing that she was a literary hostess in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, I guess you might expect something Chekhovian in spirit. But these stories, translated by Jane Costlow, are thoroughly unexpected: visionary, at times quite violently coloured pictures of childhood, sometimes accompanied by bluntly Freudian imagery. The more conventional stories are set in a boarding school where Vera, the heroine, is rebellious and unhappy. But these are contrasted with happier times living in the forests, where her fascination with nature produces descriptions of bear-cubs, baby cranes, wolves, frogs' eggs. "Elemental realism" suggests the blurb, and that's as good a description as any.

Gates of Eden by Ethan Coen Anchor £6.99

As you might expect from one of the Coen Brothers, this collection of short stories and sketches shows a nifty line in unexpected twists on genres. The opener, "Destiny", begins by reading like the treatment for an old-fashioned boxing film (loser finds himself in hock to the Mob, but fights on to regain his pride); but it turns out to be narrated by a Barton Fink-like nerd, who was only trying to gain a little experience of low-life and didn't expect to get hurt. Elsewhere there are tales of growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood, comic Mafia sagas, film noir gumshoe capers, gabbling stream-of-consciousness narrations of LA life. Nothing deep, but skilful and funny.

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