Paperbacks: The Anatomy of Fascism<br/>The Wisdom of Crowds<br/>Opening Skinner's Box<br/>Emperors of Dreams<br/>How Israel Lost<br/>Venus As A Boy<br/>Three Trapped Tigers

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The Independent Culture

Though no one could say that fascism is an underexplored subject, many pages of this lucid, learned and highly readable analysis contain surprises.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O Paxton (PENGUIN £8.99 (321pp)

Though no one could say that fascism is an underexplored subject, many pages of this lucid, learned and highly readable analysis contain surprises. We learn, for example, that such was the level of zealous denunciations that Nazi Germany only required one policeman for every 15,000 citizens. The next time you hear extreme measures advocated by the health police of our own time, it is worth bearing in mind that "medical professionals... cooperated with the Nazi regime with alarming alacrity". Paxton brilliantly analyses the attraction of "the major political innovation of the 20th century", despite its lack of a coherent philosophy. Its popular appeal depended on "the leader's mystical union with historic destiny", along with carefully stage-managed ceremonies. It drew intellectuals by its "scorn for bourgeois taste". Paxton pursues these themes in an absorbing account that interweaves Mussolini and Hitler. Both "deliberately chose war as a necessary step in realising the full potential of their regimes". In case this all sounds too distant to be of any relevance, Paxton notes that the warning signs of "the fascist cycle" include a readiness "to give up due process and the rule of law". The defeat of the Blair government on this very matter provides a degree of reassurance. CH

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki (ABACUS £7.99 (295pp))

In this engaging study, the New Yorker columnist explores a curious phenomenon that has immense implications for the business world and beyond. You would not, however, guess this from the first example given in the book: a competition to guess the weight of an ox in 1906. The mean average of the estimates was 1,197lb. The real weight was 1,198lb. Somehow, humanity thinks better en masse. Surowiecki's exposition ranges from the congestion charge to the discovery of the Sars virus, but primarily his book is a vindication of democracy. CH

Opening Skinner's Box by Lauren Slater (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (276pp))

The premise of this book is brilliant. Slater investigates 10 of the most influential psychological experiments of the 20th century. These range from Stanley Milgram's notorious electric-shock machine (even after 40 years, a participant curses "the damn experimenter") to David Rosenhan's evaluation of psychiatric diagnosis by placing sane people in mental institutions. The result should be profoundly interesting, but Slater's book is diminished by her emotional intrusiveness. Do we really need to know that she bought gas masks for herself and her child after September 11? CH

Emperors of Dreams by Mike Jay (DEDALUS £9.99 (277pp))

This is a cool, intelligent book on a feverish subject: drugs in the 19th century. Jay notes that the "dark, visionary and romantic" image of opium is due to Thomas de Quincey, though it is "broadly the same" as heroin. We also discover that the notion of hashish stemming from a tribe known as Assassins or Hashishin is baloney; it's "a derogatory epithet meaning outcast peasants". The Victorians displayed admirable fortitude. Despite causing blistered lips and a hangover lasting for days, ether was "one of the most widely used recreational drugs of the era". CH

How Israel Lost by Richard Ben Cramer (FREE PRESS £6.99 (307pp))

The starting point for this excoriating critique of the Israeli state is the one-ton bomb dropped in 2002 on the Gaza house of Hamas's military leader, Sheikh Salah Shahada. It killed him, along with 15 civilians and 11 children. An Israeli general said: "Professionally, and in retrospect, too, it was a most correct decision." Cramer maintains that the mutation of Israel stems from its occupation of territory won in the Six Day War, though he is scathing about the late Yasser Arafat: "The conflict is his life. It's his métier." At the end of this rumbustious book, Cramer offers a ray of light: "Arafat might get hit by a bus." He's gone, but will the métier change? CH

Venus As A Boy by Luke Sutherland (BLOOMSBURY £6.99 (146pp))

Sutherland's first novel, Jelly Roll, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award. On the strength of this, his third one, it's not hard to see why. Told in the voice of a man with a gift for sex that verges on the transcendental - a man who claims to be turning into gold - it switches between a traumatic childhood in Orkney and an adulthood as a pre-op sex slave in Soho. This astonishing mix of brutality and poetry makes for a moving modern-day myth. CP

Three Trapped Tigers by G Cabrera Infante (DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS £9.99 (487pp))

Cabrera Infante died last month after 40 years of exile in London. He was the brilliant prankster of Cuban literature, and this is his Tristram Shandy. Written in the mid-Sixties, when he fled Castro's regime, the novel stages a gaudy carnival of wordplay, parody and verbal riffs to summon up the steamy, sexy Havana nights of his 1950s youth. Translators Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine capture the pyrotechnics of a language Carlos Fuentes once labelled "Spunish". BT

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