Paperbacks: Even as We Speak: New Essays<br></br>Reefer Madness<br></br>On Blondes<br></br>Freedom Evolves<br></br>Who Is a Dandy?<br></br>House of Sand and Fog<br></br>The Kalahari Typing School

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The Independent Culture

Even as We Speak: New Essays by Clive James (PICADOR £7.99 (381pp))

Clive James falls into two periods. Young Clive was a world-class gagster and wordspinner. Old Clive is a cultural moralist, delivering lucubrations on topics at a length that only The New Yorker permits. He praises Orwell's "anti-style", extols Fellini's "elation of the spirit". Most of these pieces are excellent. Yet the rhetorical flourishes that make his prose so enjoyable also occasionally produce phrases that do not stand up to close scrutiny: "If Philip Larkin made racist remarks in order to be outrageous, then he was no racist. A racist makes racist remarks because he thinks they are true." This might form the basis for a question in a philosophy exam, but most people would see it as pretty dubious logic. James's rhetorical showmanship reached an apogee in his celebrated cri de coeur at the death of Princess Diana: "It was the first sound of that cataclysmic Sunday morning: 'no' pronounced through an ascending sob... the pure wail of lament." In a postscript, he weirdly defends his hysteria: "I saw strong, respected men looking as if one of their children had died in their arms." Such impassioned overstatement weakens James's position as a Johnsonian enemy of cant. It comes as a relief to encounter the Young Clive, effervescent, deadpan and hilarious, making a welcome re-appearance in his excellent articles on the 2002 Sydney Olympics. CH

Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser (PENGUIN £7.99 (310pp))

The author of Fast Food Nation takes another swipe at America's underbelly with an examination of three areas of the underground economy: marijuana, porn and migrant workers. The dope story is the most mind-boggling. Despite punitive penalties, the US marijuana crop may be worth $25bn. The value of corn, the biggest legal crop, is $18bn. However, corn sells for $2 a bushel, while marijuana sells for $70,000. What makes Schlosser's yarn so gripping are his vivid cameos of the characters involved on both sides. Drug enforcement agent Steve White says: "What I want is bodies. I don't give a damn about the dope." CH

On Blondes by Joanna Pitman (PENGUIN £8.99 (292pp))

This is an entrancing book about a deception. One in three female heads in Britain is dyed blonde. The appeal of golden locks goes back to Greece. Cleopatra was, rather oddly, portrayed as blonde. So were Botticelli's Venus, Elizabeth I (though she started off as auburn) and Alice in Wonderland. The Romans used pigeon dung, while medieval Venetians preferred horse urine. In Sixties California, bleach was followed by coffee, then clove oil (to hide the smell). Whatever the method, it works. Pitman says that male staff at the London Library "vaulted over the counter" during her temporary blondeness. CH

Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett (PENGUIN £8.99 (347pp))

The most forthright and readable of the neo-Darwinians has let fly another book-shaped salvo. Though scientific advance may have detonated the concept of the soul, Dennett insists that free will remains valid. It is not, however, an eternal gift. It evolved as a result of evolution. "The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us." His lucid argument emphasises the difference between human and animal voluntary actions: "We are transformers. That's what a mind is, as contrasted to a mere brain." In characterising our responsibilities to the planet, Dennett cites another archaic but valid concept: noblesse oblige. CH

Who Is a Dandy? by George Walden (GIBSON SQUARE £7.99 (180pp))

Walden buttonholes the reader with a striking description of "an obese loon in tattered clothes" cadging food in Caen. This was Beau Brummell, erstwhile prince of fashion, whose gambling debts prompted his seedy exile in the 1830s. Yet this decrepit figure must have retained some charisma, for he inspired Jean-Amédée Barbey to write a "penetrating and original study" of dandyism, that most English of traits. Walden's extended introduction wittily explores Brummell's legacy. Unfortunately, textual blemishes (such as a reference to the English designer "Stella McCarthy") would not have escaped Brummell's eagle eye. CH

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (VINTAGE £6.99 (365pp))

American novels, which often overdose on pathos, seldom scale the heights of real tragedy. This one does. Now an Oscar-nominated film, Dubus's San Francisco-set drama ratchets up the conflict between its proud, injured protagonists to a near-unbearable pitch. Behrani, an exiled Iranian officer, buys the house forfeited by the chaotic ex-alcoholic, Kathy. With this Hardy-esque plot device, property triggers passions that can only end in calamity. Dubus crafts the voices of his lost souls with sympathy and subtlety. BT

The Kalahari Typing School... by Alexander McCall Smith (ABACUS £6.99 (210pp))

In this, the fourth book in McCall Smith's bestselling series, Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's leading - and only - female private detective, finds herself facing unexpected competition. Meanwhile, her assistant, Mma Makutsi, hits on the idea of a typing school for men. She finds love as well as money, but complications ensue. McCall Smith's gentle morality tale teems with unlikely coincidences and clunking plot twists, but it's hard not to be swept away by its sweetness and charm. CP