Paperbacks: The Last Leopard<br></br>'Do You, Mr Jones?'<br></br>Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy<br></br>Virgins of Venice<br></br>The Last Journey of William Huskisson

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The Independent Culture

The Last Leopard by David Gilmour (Harvill, £14, 223pp)

This welcome reissue is a life of the reclusive bibliophile, Sicilian aristocrat and, finally, novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. After half a century spent indulging his passion for reading, the taciturn Anglophile (he admired such passé English virtues as self-deprecation, understatement and concern for the underdog) was prompted into writing his masterpiece, The Leopard, by the arrogance of Italian writers at a literary conference. As Gilmour notes, "He believed, rightly as it turned out, that he could write prose as well as any of the literati."

Lampedusa was blessed with a rich subject, the last gasp of feudalism and the rise of a new vulgarity in 19th-century Sicily. He was particularly inspired by nostalgia for his family's grand properties lost through neglect and Allied bombing. Asked what he was doing when he started scribbling in his late fifties, Lampedusa replied, "Enjoying myself," though he spent four months on the opening chapter. The Leopard went on to sell a million copies in its first 20 years. Lampedusa died before publication.

This ponderous, profoundly shy, chain-smoking figure is brilliantly realised by Gilmour. He might, however, have said more about Feltrinelli, the publisher who eventually snapped up The Leopard. Gilmour doesn't mention how, after making his fortune with this study of aristocratic torpor, Feltrinelli turned to radical activism, eventually blowing himself up while attempting to destroy an electricity pylon.

'Do You, Mr Jones?' edited by Neil Corcoran (Pimlico, £10, 378pp)

Exegesis of Bob Dylan has been a major industry for years. This eclectic anthology - how could it be otherwise, covering "an oeuvre as extensive, diverse and axiomatically self-contradictory as Bob Dylan's"? - includes studies of the Bob's humour, obsession with names and shifting identities. Simon Armitage reminisces irrelevantly about Bridlington before offering a seven-page analysis of "Tangled Up In Blue". The book contains some silly bits ("Why boots? Why Spanish?"), but you can always sing the quotes: "Well, if I go down dyin', you know she bound to put a blanket on my bed."

Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy by Ian Ridpath (Oxford, £8.99, 518pp)

Know the difference between Galaxy and galaxy? The upper-case is our own, containing the Sun and all stars visible to the naked eye. The lower-case covers all the rest, including quasars (quasi-stellar radio sources) once mistaken for stars. Though elucidating the household words of the universe, this dictionary is lacking in poetry. We're told that Aldebaran is a "K5 giant", but not that it takes its name from Arabic for "the follower" (of the Pliades). We're told why Sirius is the Dog Star (it's in Canis Major), but not that its rising gave the name to the dog days of summer.

Virgins of Venice by Mary Laven (Penguin, £7.99, 284pp)

During the Renaissance, surplus females of the Venetian gentry (rendered "unmarriageable" for lack of dowry) were incarcerated in nunneries. In the 16th century, they ran foul of the counter-reformation for such modern-sounding excesses as free-range chickens and high heels. This absorbing book conveys the nature of the "forced vocation" and the efforts of these lively women to circumvent the strictures forced upon them. Touchingly, they "dispatched hats and hankies as ambassadors to the outside world." An engaging tribute to the female spirit.

The Last Journey of William Huskisson by Simon Garfield (Faber & Faber,) £8.99, 244pp

As vivid as a panorama by Frith, Garfield's excellent narrative concerns the first and best known of all railway casualties. An ambitious but accident-prone politician, William Huskisson was a great supporter of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway. His fatal accident during the ceremonial opening in 1830 was due partly to his keenness to meet the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, who had sacked him from the Cabinet two years earlier and partly due to an optical misapprehension. In the early days of rail people couldn't believe that trains were getting nearer as they got bigger.