Paperbacks: The Groucho<br/> Shakespeare & Co<br/>Why People Believe Weird<br/>The Complete Book of Aunts<br/>Planet of Slums<br/>Black Girl White Girl<br/>The Story of Blanche and Marie<br/>

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The Independent Culture

The Groucho Letters, by Groucho Marx

Though he probably did not wear his painted moustache while bashing out the missives, The Groucho Letters are a mirror image of the great man's screen persona. Abrasive, inventive and hilarious, he blurts out the things we all might write if we were brave (and clever) enough. He takes the chairman of a company to task for the directors' portraits in its annual report: "I would like to ask you about Marion Harper, Jr. I distrust any man who has the same name as his mother." His reply to Alistair Cooke's invitation to appear on a TV show could be utilised by any freelance: "I was a little disappointed to find no mention of money. I am, of course, an artist, with my head in the clouds. But my business manager, Mr Gummo Marx, has a passion for money." His sequence of letters to the po-faced lawyers of Warner Bros, who threatened legal action when A Night in Casablanca appeared five years after Bogart's Casablanca, merit £8.99 in themselves. The main difference between the screen Groucho and epistolary Groucho is that the latter emerges as a fan of the high arts. After swapping photos with TS Eliot, he declares "I had no idea you were so handsome" and expresses astonishment that the poet has not been "offered the lead in some sexy movies". CH

Shakespeare & Co., by Stanley Wells (Penguin £8.99)

In this highly readable, wonderfully rich panorama, Wells brings Shakespeare alive by looking at his audience – as a theatre term for standing audience, "groundlings" makes its sole appearance in Hamlet and originally meant small fish that live in mud – and his fellow playwrights. As Wells points out: "He was not a solitary genius." The young Shakespeare copied Marlowe's style (from All's Well That Ends Well: "Was this fair face the cause... why the Grecians sacked Troy?") but, fortunately, not the rackety behaviour that brought the 29-year-old Marlowe to his fatal encounter in Deptford. CH

Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer (Souvenir £12.99)

The editor of Skeptic magazine finds much scope for his professional debunking on the far side of the Atlantic. Fortunately, creationism, which Shermer demolishes in 25 brisk paragraphs, enjoys scant adherence in Britain. But how about ghosts, which are unarguably dismissed ("Ghosts never exist apart from their description by believers"), or the Holocaust denials of David Irving? This assault on "organised irrationalism" and "smart people believing weird things", such as the mathematics professor who claims to have proved that God and resurrection exist, is vital reading.CH

The Complete Book of Aunts, by Rupert Christiansen (Faber £8.99)

Part anthology, part literary ramble, this curiosity is an amiable celebration of the most idiosyncratic of relatives. Christiansen's trawl of aunts ranges from his own paradigmatically robust Aunt Janet (favourite phrase: "I have no time for such nonsense") and Syd Barrett's enigmatic "Gigolo Aunt" to X-rated aunts (a frisky spot of soft core from Apollinaire) and John Lennon's redoubtable Aunt Mimi. Invited to live in the Dakota Building, Mimi replied: "No fear, John... I have never liked Americans. And you shouldn't be there either, it's no good for you." CH

Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis (Verso £8.99)

Written in terse, staccato style, this account of some of the world's great slum metropolises is a tough read, urgent and fact-clogged – but what facts they are. The poor are ferociously overcrowded (there are four million in one megaslum in Mexico City) and often live on unstable geology or even rubbish dumps, such as the evocatively-named Quarantina outside Beirut. In Cairo, a million people live in the Mameluke Tombs. In Mumbai, an equal number live on the pavements. Some 99.4 per cent of the urban population of Ethiopia live in slums. It comes as no surprise to discover that Baghdad contains one of the world's biggest slum areas. CH

Black Girl White Girl, by Joyce Carol Oates (Harper Perennial £7.99)

Funny and unsettling, this study of guilt and betrayal slices through stereotypes in post-Vietnam America. Liberal white girl Genna befriends troubled black teenager Minette, but her woolly good intentions are frustrated. Fifteen years later, Genna blames herself for what happens. The novel shows that blame is more complicated than that. KG

The Story of Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist (Vintage £7.99)

Swedish master Enquist again electrifies the historical novel with a dazzling mosaic of passions and ideas that links scientific pioneer Marie Curie and "hysteric" Blanche Wittman in Paris a century ago. In Tiina Nunnally's fine translation, the birth of modern thought in physics and psychiatry is lit by bolts of Expressionist lightning. Love enters the lab as the ghost in our machines. BT

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