Paperbacks: The Irish Peacock and Scarlett Marquess

In the Beginning was the Worm

Love and Dirt

Heart

52 Ways of Looking at a Poem

The Half Brother

Reading Chekhov

The Irish Peacock and Scarlett Marquess by Merlin Holland (FOURTH ESTATE £8.99 (340pp))

In 2000, the full transcript of Oscar Wilde's trial in 1895 mysteriously surfaced for the first time. Almost three times the length of that text, this remarkable record is printed here with exemplary footnotes by Wilde's grandson, Holland. It is enthralling for any number of reasons: like his plays, Wilde's wit remains sparklingly alive; the physical world in which he moved (Tite Street, the Savoy, Kettner's) is still familiar; the thrusts and parries between Wilde and his prosecutor, Edward Carson, make riveting theatre.

Prosecuted by a formidable Irish barrister, the case against Wilde displays the British Establishment at its most fiercely vindictive. Yet who would disagree with Holland's view of his grandfather's libel action as "insanely quixotic"? Wilde, who even charmed Bosie's father, the choleric Marquess of Queensbury, persuaded himself that no jury could resist his verbal magic. As the trial progresses, we can see his instinct to amuse gathering disastrous momentum. Wilde came unstuck with his flip response to Carson's allegation that he kissed a servant: "Oh, no, never in my life; he was a peculiarly plain boy." Realising his mistake, Wilde desperately attempted to retrench, but it was too late. Bankruptcy, loss of his children and the prison cell lay ahead. CH

In the Beginning was the Worm by Andrew Brown (POCKET BOOKS £7.99 (244pp))

This gripping book concerns a creature described by Lewis Wolpert as "the most boring animal imaginable". The nematode worm was the first animal to have its genome sequenced, winning a Nobel for the scientists involved. Brown explains not only the intellectual challenge of this epic task but its physical problems, such as how to slice a half-millimetre worm into 3,000 sections. He provides a compelling portrait of scientists who "turn their back on great wealth to share their discoveries". Such an attitude remains a mystery to advocates of university top-up fees. CH

Love and Dirt by Diane Atkinson (PAN £8.99 (365pp))

Like many Victorians, Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick recorded their relationship at great length, but their liaison was doubly extraordinary. Not only did it bridge an impassable social gulf - he was a barrister and poet, she was a scullery maid - but it also transgressed sexual norms. Munby had an obsession with working women, getting particularly hot under the collar when they were dirty from their labours. Cullwick eagerly blacked up for him and wore his "slave collar" for 20 years. Diane Atkinson's reconstruction of their 50-year affair and secret marriage reveals much about the unexpectedly lively sexuality of the era. CH

Heart by Gail Godwin (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (269pp))

The appearance of this memoir-cum- commonplace book a few days before St Valentine's arouses suspicions and its initial pages, including a letter from Godwin to a dead cat, make you fear the worst. But it's worth pressing on. A breakneck tour of religions reveals the recurring theme of the heart across millennia. We explore the heart, or lack thereof, in writers from Henry James to Charles Dickens (Bitzer, Gradgrind's star pupil, declares: "No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey... can doubt I have a heart"). For all its excesses, a rich and thoughtful celebration. CH

52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel (VINTAGE £7.99 (272pp))

This book forms a persuasive manifesto for today's poetry. Padel has selected a year's worth of poems that buttonhole, intrigue and reveal. Most of all, they innovate. Christopher Reid's "Tin Lily" is a totalitarian loudspeaker. Seamus Heaney's glimpse of a "glamorous, ordinary, mysterious skunk" reminds him of his wife rummaging for a "black, plunge-line nightdress". Padel brilliantly elucidates these glowing messages. She says Reid's poem concerns "the fire-power of words", while Heaney's "hinges on the smutty sensuality of that central word, California". CH

The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen (VINTAGE £7.99 (764pp))

A total knock-out of a novel from Norway. Christensen's Nordic prize-winning family epic about semi-siblings in post-war Oslo - a boxer and a scriptwriter - meshes pathos, humour, tragedy and social history with a punch that leaves the likes of Jonathan Franzen on the canvas. The two kids, Fred and Barnum, children of war and trauma, grow up dividing the worlds of body and brain, action and reflection, between them. They need to fuse, not fight, as does their entire culture. The high-octane narrative sparkles like sunlit snow in Kenneth Steven's pacy, muscular translation. BT

Reading Chekhov by Janet Malcolm (GRANTA £8.99 (210pp))

One of the smartest and most supple non-fiction writers at work today, Malcolm has always dodged labels and mingled genres. This typically acute, engrossing quest for Chekhov merges criticism and biography with travelogue, never losing sight of the ironic Russian master. Granta has also re-published Malcolm's classic studies In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer: humbling and salutary reading for all shrinks and hacks, respectively. BT

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