Paperbacks: Hatless Jack

Antichrista

Ghosting

Two of Us

Occidentalism

The Book of Ash

The Jack in the title is John F Kennedy. His significance? Hat manufacturers apparently cite the fact he chose to go bareheaded as the reason why their industry failed. Steinberg chases down this proposition with a combination of thorough research and a fine turn of phrase. Kennedy chose not to wear a hat because, by the time he became president, "his face had filled out from age, the cortisone and steroids he took for his painful back, and a campaign trail diet of cheeseburgers and malteds". He knew that he looked ugly in a hat; furthermore, he'd seen the disastrous effects of hats on other politicians: Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson looked a fool wearing a cowboy outfit with a ten-gallon hat during the California primary, and Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver regretted being photographed in a coonskin cap at the height of a Davy Crockett craze. Kennedy, on the other hand, rode to the Whitehouse on the crest of his cool image: the image of a hatless man.

But as early as the mid-1930s, Steinberg points out, hatters had started to accept that the social norm of wearing a hat in public was becoming a thing of the past. Society had many reasons, from the popularity of the motor car and the end of mass pedestrianisation to the military associations of headgear, to go bareheaded. This book is a worthy project, a goldmine of trivia about the Kennedy era and a wonderful catalogue of the forgotten rituals and symbolism associated with hat-wearing.

Antichrista by Amélie Nothomb (FABER £9.99)

Blanche is the friendless, book-loving daughter of middle-class parents; Christa, a popular girl from what she calls "a disadvantaged background". Both girls attend the same university; but while Christa soon commands a group of friends, Blanche remains lonely and in awe of her. Nonetheless, Blanche gradually finds herself getting to know Christa and, learning that her new "friend" has to get up at four in the morning to attend classes on time, she suggests Christa stays with her one night a week.

Christa charms Blanche's parents and, full of admiration for this plucky young woman determined to rise above her unfortunate circumstances, they suggest she stays with them every weekday. By comparison, Blanche is a disappointment to them; a spoiled introvert with no ambition. In the end she has no alternative but to probe a little deeper into Christa's (or Antichrista's, as she comes to think of her) background.

Christa is a wonderful creation, a Machiavellian creature finely tuned to the tricks language offers. When she learns Blanche's favourite word is "bowshot" she says that hers is "equity". "You see... our choices are revealing: you like a word just for the love of that word; for me, coming from a disadvantaged background as I do, the word must be an idea, one that signifies commitment." Nothomb's wit is so dry, like smoke rising up off the charred remains of her characters' foibles; her intelligence is unnerving. She creates a very personal world, but few are more rewarding.

Ghosting by Jennie Erdal (CANONGATE £7.99)

Jennie Erdal's account of the 15 years she spent working as an editor for the flamboyant publishing tycoon she refers to only as "Tiger" (anyone with access to the internet will soon be able to track down the man's identity) is essential reading for anyone interested in the business of writing. Initially hired to handle a list of Russian books, she quickly gained Tiger's confidence and ended up ghostwriting the two novels he published under his own name. Revealing this has knocked a considerable dent in his reputation - so why do it? Throughout her time with him Erdal was loyal and attentive; more than that, anyone reading this book will recognise how she admired him in spite of his failings (extravagance, impatience and a gargantuan ego). In return, he behaved impeccably, even offering her a large, interest-free company loan so she could settle some debts. Right to the end of her employment there was never any real acrimony. So why publish this now? Erdal doesn't say.

That mystery aside, the book contains some extraordinary insights. Descriptions of the writing of the sex scenes Tiger demanded are amusing, even if the results are repulsive: "Her juices trickle down like a cluster of stars from the firmament." Elsewhere, she describes finding him sobbing uncontrollably, a broken man, at a time when the bank seemed liable at any time to seize his business. Comforting him, she learns his dog has died. A very funny, if sometimes unsettling account of a curious relationship.

Two of Us by Brendan Halpin (REVIEW £7.99)

When two lesbian mothers ("Mommy" and "Mom") are crushed by a lorryload of frozen poultry, their teenage daughter Rosalind is forced to live with Sean, the sperm donor who made her existence possible. But Rosalind would rather live with her aunt Karen, and refuses to communicate with Sean through anything other than emails and Post-It Notes. Readers of course are lucky enough to be able to follow Rosalind's grief journal, a focus for her angry thoughts suggested by her useless therapist Denise; and here we discover that, unsurprisingly, Rosalind hates everyone. Unable to cope with her grief, she gets into trouble and her schoolwork starts to suffer. Eventually she assaults a boy whom she overhears joking about a news report of her mothers' death ("I was laughing my ass off, two dykes crushed by meat"). Conveniently Sean works for a law firm ("I sue schools for a living") and the situation offers him a chance to shine.

This is an epistolary novel with the dubious addition of transcribed recordings, and Halpin appears so proud of the idea there's even a running joke about Minidiscs. The strength of this form should be its immediacy: presenting the characters' thoughts without an author getting in the way. Halpin, however, seems unable to do anything but get in the way. Why lesbians, and why a lorryload of poultry? "Two dykes crushed by meat" is not funny, but nor is the idea of an author apparently setting up a book just so this kind of gag works. None of the humour in this awful book is amusing; and all of the tragedy is predictable. Both are horribly contrived.

Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (ATLANTIC £8.99)

This isn't the first book entitled Occidentalism to appear in recent years; Couze Venn's pioneering and subtle analysis on the outcomes of European colonisation appeared in 2000. Judging from the footnotes, Buruma and Margalit don't appear to have read his work. It's a pity; Venn's arguments would have helped plug some of their book's holes.

They begin with a blunt assertion: "Our aim is ... to show that today's suicide bombers and holy warriors don't suffer from some unique pathology but are fired by ideas that have a history... without understanding those who hate the West, we cannot hope to stop them from destroying humanity." Buruma and Margalit try to demonstrate how anti-Western attitudes originated mainly in the West itself. It doesn't take a genius to realise that Marx had a profound effect outside his own culture, or that following the Meiji restoration in 1868, certain Western ideas were deliberately co-opted to strengthen the Japanese nation; but this approach, downplaying the importance of non-Western traditions and indigenous beliefs, reeks of hubris. At no point do the authors make a genuine attempt to examine what they mean by "the West" or to explain that curious appropriation of "humanity" in their initial assertion.

Jim Morrison may well have concluded that "The West is the Best", but he was a dopehead looking for a rhyme. You expect more from a couple of academics. There's something deeply unhealthy at the heart of Buruma and Margalit's project - it's the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime trying to unpick.

The Book of Ash by James Flint (PENGUIN £7.99)

The hero of Flint's third novel, Cooper James, grew up in the kind of grotesque middle-class commune where children are called things like Moon and Leaf. It wasn't a life he particularly enjoyed, especially when the complex free-love ethics practiced by his parents spilled over into acrimony and his American father, Jack Reever (loosely based on the artist James L Acord, who makes art out of nuclear waste), abandoned him and returned to the USA. Twenty years later, Cooper is working as a programmer at an American Military base in Yorkshire; his mother Stasie is sleeping with Moon; and Jack seems to be dead. That, at least, is the best conclusion Cooper can draw when a coffee tin decorated with the eye of Horus is delivered to him at work, containing what appear to be ashes and labelled with Jack's name. Having not seen or heard from him since the commune days, Cooper is understandably shocked, but to make matters worse, the tin with its suspicious contents triggers a full-scale evacuation of the base that leads to him being fired. Armed with his father's ashes Cooper heads off for the States to find out what his dad was doing for the last 20 years.

Cooper's road trip across America, supplemented by assorted fuzzy photographs and the occasional doodle, embraces art, the nuclear industry, and alchemy. Although Flint sometimes overwrites (rain on Cooper's neck becomes a "bunker-seeking precipitation missile"), he maintains the same course plotted in his previous books; this is a very intelligent, engaging novel blessed by a controlled passion for the perverse.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?