Paperbacks: The Diaries of Charles Greville<br/>On Literature<br/>Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body<br/>The Making of the Pope<br/>Coal: A Human History<br/>The Final Solution<br/>Saturday

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The Independent Culture

The Diaries of Charles Greville, edited by Edward Pearce (PIMLICO £9.99 (366pp))

These diaries are a real discovery. Through the dry, acerbic jottings of Charles Greville, the reader is plunged into the rackety high life of the early 19th century. What constantly surprises is how the record by this distant aristocrat mirrors our own times. Shortly before the annihilation of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, Greville comments: "I not only see no chance of getting out soon, but I do not feel the same confidence of everybody else that we are certain to carry it to a successful end." His account of George IV ("If he wants a glass of water, he won't stretch out a hand to get it") is reminiscent of rumours concerning the current heir. Greville dispassionately records the fire that destroyed Covent Garden Theatre, the looming threat of cholera and his own gambling addiction. One entry casually mentions winning £5,700 (around £280,000 in today's money) and losing £4,000 on the following day. Greville viewed the antics of his time with amusement. He tells a story of Lord Cockburn ("a very debauched fellow") who visited the same inn in Richmond on Sundays. The landlady remarked that "he always brought Lady Cockburn with him but she never saw a woman who looked so different on different days." CH

On Literature, by Umberto Eco (VINTAGE £8.99 (334pp))

Literature, but not as we know it. In this round-up of critical pieces, the sage of Bologna muses on works ranging from 17th-century arithmetical texts to Mein Kampf. Even with more mainstream subjects, Eco has a highly idiosyncratic approach, such as his two pages devoted to reversing Wilde's aphorisms. Does "Nothing succeeds like excess" really work as "Nothing succeeds like moderation"? Eco is also puzzling when discussing his hero Borges. Why did he make the villain of The Name of the Rose a blind librarian called Jorge? "I did not know what he would do." Bemusing but enjoyable. CH

Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, by James Hall (PIMLICO £16.99 (312pp))

Though he disdained conventional portraiture, Michelangelo was "the first artist to put the unadorned human body centre stage". In this revelatory reassessment, Hall probes the artist's obsession with the male nude. Even when discussing some of the best-known artworks in the world, Hall's writing is fresh and alive: "David's nipples are erect, and stand to electro-charged attention." Hall's psychological investigation extends to Michelangelo's pornography, but the practical concerns of the artist take centre stage. CH

The Making of the Pope, by Fr Andrew Greeley (LITTLE, BROWN £9.99 (254pp))

This diary-style account, by a man described as "a seasoned journalist and sociologist", of the selection of Pope Benedict has more than a bit of Father Ted about it. Musing on the conclave, he ponders: "Life is not easy. Humans must cope with disappointments, frustrations, blighted dreams..., dread, despair, hatred, lust for revenge, aging, ingratitude... and, of course, death. No, not easy at all." His solution: "The Pope... must be a hopeful holy man who smiles." The author's own unconscious humour may also prompt smiles, but that's no bad thing. CH

Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (ARROW £7.99 (337pp))

A quote from the Mail describes this as "the incredible story of Britain's black gold", but it's much more. Ranging from John Evelyn's anti-pollution tract Fumifugium to the Blair government's "low-carbon future", the British section is only half of this book. Freese also gives accounts of the Chinese coal industry and "King Coal" in America, where the industry that once fought the radical Molly Mcguires is now implacably opposed to greenhouse gas limits. Hearteningly, Freese praises Britain's energy path: "If the plan works the country that led the world into fossil fuels will have shown it a way out." CH

The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon (HARPER PERENNIAL £6.99 (127pp))

It takes some chutzpah to call a novel about a missing parrot "The Final Solution" - but Chabon has the talent to match it. His tale about a mute boy, an elderly beekeeper and a German-speaking parrot is much, much more than a murder mystery. It's about grief and loss and consolation and yes, obliquely, the Holocaust - and it's pretty much perfect. CP

Saturday, by Ian McEwan (VINTAGE £7.99 (279pp))

From science to poetry, family to food, McEwan's tale of a bad day in the life of a good doctor celebrates all the arts and skills of evolved culture - and asks if they can withstand the forces of chaos and time. War looms in Iraq; protesters clog London; but Dr Perowne blesses his happiness and his world. Then the devoted neurosurgeon has a car smash and finds he has to fight a shocking, private battle for civilisation. It's utterly gripping; deeply felt and thought; not nearly as smug as sceptics said. BT