Paperbacks: Conversation<br/>John Osborne<br/> Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy<br/> Shadow of the Silk Road<br/> Don't Mention The War<br/> The Ruby in Her Navel<br/> I Think the Nurses are Stealing My Clothes

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The Independent Culture

Conversation, By Stephen Miller (Yale £12.99)

"If I hear someone say modernity, dialectical or psychoanalytical, I can no longer pay attention, for I am thinking... that this person is going to bore me to death." Befitting a celebratory history of conversation, this book is rich in authorial opinion. Miller traces the history of the discursive verbal exchange from Plato's Symposium to Eminem, who is not seen as a great conversationalist: "His rapping is so histrionic that it seems unconnected with reality." We learn that such disparate figures as Anthony Blunt, Darwin, Virginia Woolf and Charles II were good conversationalists, but not Browning ("studiously commonplace," wrote a contemporary) or Churchill. The heart of this idiosyncratic, discursive book concerns the great talkers of the 18th-century. Though both Hume and Johnson believed that Britain would be embroiled in violent discord if the educated classes ignored the art of conversation, the two men did not get on. Hume declared: "Johnson is abusive in Company." Among many reasons cited for the modern decline in conversation are Dale Carnegie, The Jerry Springer Show, Norman Mailer and Easy Rider. Miller rightly views "the heroes of the counterculture" as "grunters, mumblers, ranters and cursers", but is wrong to say that protagonists of Easy Rider had a bad trip "on cocaine in New Orleans". It was LSD. CH

John Osborne, By John Heilpern (Vintage £9.99)

Since Osborne wrote the most enthralling theatrical autobiography, his biographer was presented with a unique challenge. Happily, this high-octane account of the startlingly talented, unnerving, ferocious Osborne is a 24-carat blockbuster. In a book that is consistently lively, hilarious (coitus interruptus prompted by arguments over syntax is a highlight) and often shocking, Heilpern explores the no-holds-barred feuds with showbiz colleagues and festering marriages. Osborne's last partner Helen sums up this extraordinary man: "He never stopped fighting. Fighting the world, fighting life, fighting death at the end.". CH

Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy, By Ian Ridpath (OUP £11.99)

Though some of the 4,200 entries are black holes for the non-mathematical, this book is rich in peculiarities for the interested observer. Did you know that the largest craters on Oberon, second largest satellite of Uranus, are called Macbeth and Hamlet? Or that the Pipe Nebula in Ophiuchus (a constellation of a man holding a serpent) is "a dark nebula with the curving shape of a pipe"? Amid a host of sexy jargon ("hyperbolic velocity", "spectroscopic parallax"), we meet the Beagle ("British-built Mars lander... no signals were received from it"), but not, oddly, the Eagle for which it was rhymed. CH

Shadow of the Silk Road, By Colin Thubron (Vintage £8.99)

Thubron's luminous saga of a meandering journey, east to west, along the Silk Road is one of the finest travel books of recent years. The pages are packed with interest, moving from his arrest during a SARS scare ("The symptoms were bannered: dry coughs, malaise, headaches – but they were all afflictions that routinely accompany travel in China") to an eerily preserved 2,000-year-old sacrifice: "a baby boy, his cheeks still smeared with mucus and tears." Thubron brings his experiences, transporting and grisly (an oral abscess drained without anaesthetic), vividly to life for the less adventurous. CH

Don't Mention The War, By John Ramsden (Abacus £10.99)

In a book as entertaining as it is revealing, Ramsden reveals the deep roots of Britain's obsessive distrust of Germany. "No traveller did more to entrench stereotypes than Jerome K Jerome" (though his account of Germany is still amusing), while Queen Victoria thought Wilhelm "dreadfully vulgar". Even Isherwood's Berlin stories "suggested that the Germans were not very good at democracy". Figures as disparate as AJP Taylor and Noël Coward were as keen to put the boot in as present-day football fans. "The defeat of Germany," concludes Ramsden, seems "still to be essential to the English sense of who they are." CH

The Ruby in Her Navel, By Barry Unsworth (Penguin £7.99)

In 12th century Palermo, the Norman king of Sicily presides over a realm where arts and learning flourish in a rich, uneasy mix of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Into this gloriously evoked milieu Unsworth sends a naive knight from the English north. This subtle and gripping historical novel is a triumph from a master of the form: from faith to food, dancing to mosaics, his Sicily shines and sizzles. BT

I Think the Nurses are Stealing My Clothes, By Linda Smith (Hodder £8.99)

Edited by her partner and with comments from her greatest friends, this collection reminds us why we miss Linda Smith - as if we had forgotten. Blair, she said, made her old bête noire Neil Kinnock "look like Spartacus". Sadly, we can only imagine what this kindly, caustic wit would have made of the Brown years. KG

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