Paperbacks: The Confessions of Max Tivoli<br/>Free World<br/>Lucky Girls<br/>Something Beginning with<br/>Watching the English<br/>Wilt in Nowhere<br/>Gods and Monsters

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The idea that a woman might give birth to a fully-grown man has exercised the imaginations of several American novelists from Scott Fitzgerald through to Gabriel Brownstein.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer (FABER £7.99 (267pp))

The idea that a woman might give birth to a fully-grown man has exercised the imaginations of several American novelists from Scott Fitzgerald through to Gabriel Brownstein. The bearded baby makes a no less shocking appearance in Andrew Sean Greer's ingenious second novel. Max Tivoli is a self-styled "monster". Born in San Francisco in 1871, he has the misfortune to look like a 70-year old. It soon becomes apparent that he's destined to live his life in reverse. While his body grows ever younger, his "mind and soul" mature at a normal rate. Thus, at 57, Max has the body of a middle-aged man, but the passions of an insecure teen: not such an unimaginable state of affairs. Max's unusual physiological trajectory does at least offer one advantage. Aged 17, he falls in love with Alice Levy, a charismatic 14-year-old neighbour. After some bumbling advances - and an affair with her heavily corseted mother - he's able to handle rejection, knowing that he has been mistaken for a dirty old man. Over the next 40 years their paths cross, until finally, aged ten, Max gets to nestle in his beloved's lap. A Gothic San Francisco provides the backdrop to this emotionally charged novel about mistimed desire. Fast-forward or rewind, the course of true love never does runs smooth. EH

Free World, by Timothy Garton Ash (PENGUIN £7.99 (317pp))

As pre-poll campaigning bogs down in local spats, read Garton Ash for the big, and encouraging picture. He begins at home, in cosmopolitan Putney, where Levellers demanded democracy in 1647. Then his vision widens to take in Britain (torn between Channel and Atlantic), European dilemmas, US superpower confusions, the challenges of poverty, war and terror. Yet political freedom - and the struggle to extend it - always remains centre-stage. Garton Ash is a genial social-democratic optimist, and his readable insider's survey offers a rare song of hope. You may doubt his vehicle and destination, but not the pleasure of the voyage. BT

Lucky Girls, by Nell Freudenberger (PICADOR £7.99 (225pp))

Largely set in India and South-east Asia, the debut collection of short stories by Nell Freudenberger charts the romantic histories of five Americans. Usually en route to somewhere else, these well-heeled young women look to unfamiliar men and landscapes to feed their imaginations. More inclined to navel-gazing than Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's more optimistic globe-hoppers, Freudenberger's heroines give us blow-by-blow accounts of their fleeting relationships and possible travel itineraries. An elegantly written but slightly eneravating window on to the restless existence of the world traveller. EH

Something Beginning with, by Sarah Salway (BLOOMSBURY £6.99 (178pp))

In this literary equivalent of painting by numbers, Sarah Salway has arranged the chapter headings according to the alphabet. The book's young narrator, Verity Bell, is sleeping with (J)ohn, who happens to be married to (K)ate, who may just be an (L)esbian, but who is definitely not having (S)ex with her husband. What starts as a gimmicky lexicon of love soon becomes more profound, as the author shows herself an astringent observer of the teenage state. Low self-esteem is a consistent theme: "If I looked like Gwyneth Paltrow, nothing else could possibly go wrong in my life." EH

Watching the English, by Kate Fox (HODDER £8.99 (424pp))

Witty, brisk, mischievous, entertaining, Kate Fox's study of the natives may make some readers lose their English cool. The title gets it wrong: Fox, a social anthropologist, sidesteps all the usual wrangles over identity and community by treating "Englishness" as a set of (semi-dysfunctional) learned behaviours. It's nothing to do with ancestry. Folk with any origin can and do pick up and exhibit those sad symptoms of "social dis-ease" that she views as the bashful, humorous, clumsy, boozy core of Englishness: a "sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia". It may not quite explain the whole country, but it works a treat for The Office. BT

Wilt in Nowhere, by Tom Sharpe (ARROW £5.99 (278pp))

Husband to demanding Eva, father of quadruplets, lecturer (Grade 2) at Fenland College of Arts and Technology, Henry Wilt is one of Tom Sharpe's best-loved comic creations. The mediocre academic here makes a return after 20 years. But it's not only his specs that have a feel of The Two Ronnies. Embarked on an ill-conceived walking tour of Olde England (which lands him trouserless in a sink estate), he rants anachronistically against political correctness and militant women. A comic hero who, for the time being, has lost his way. EH

Gods and Monsters, by Peter Biskind (BLOOMSBURY£8.99 (362pp))

Lucky Peter Biskind: the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls now gets to reprint half his cuttings-file from years as a jobbing movie critic. In fact, it's an intriguing trip as the earnest, radical film buff of the 1970s grows glam and gossipy, finally drowning in "celebrity ooze". The long journey from Godfather I to Top Gun means we start with solemn prose about great films and end up with riveting scandal about utter trash and its makers. Gods and monsters, indeed. BT

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