<preform>Paperbacks: Tilt<br>The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde<br>Nobody's Perfect<br>Words and Music<br>John F Kennedy: an unfinished life<br>The Lucky Ones<br>A Life in Letters</preform>

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The Independent Culture

Nobody's Perfect by Anthony Lane PICADOR £9.99 (752pp)

Tilt by Nicholas Shrady POCKET £7.99 (161pp)

The story of the Tower of Pisa is told in an appropriately quirky book. Though it reached four storeys by 1178 - a drawing shows "a slight, but unmistakable, inclination" - construction was only completed in the 1360s, when a fresco shows it to be "noticeably askew". The tower remained happily wonky for 500 years (there is no evidence that Galileo's experiment on falling bodies took place), but the collapse of Venice's campanile in 1902 prompted ruinous rescue attempts. Ironically, US soldiers ordered to destroy the building in the war actually saved it. Thanks to an English professor, this symbol of "all that is wondrous and strange" is now safe. CH

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna ARROW £8.99 (717pp)

The first major Wilde biography from a gay perspective muses on the subtext of Wilde giving cigarette cases to young men. "They were the sterling equivalent of an erotic compact," writes McKenna, before giving a more explicit explanation of the metaphor. The nuts and bolts of Wilde's couplings are explored in detail. Whether Oscar would approve is a moot point. He was Victorian enough to want a veil drawn over his bedroom preferences. Offered "some nice fish" by a waiter, he said: "If you knew the breeding habits of fish, you would scarcely call them nice." CH

Nobody's Perfect by Anthony Lane PICADOR £9.99 (752pp)

For two decades, The New Yorker's film critic was Pauline Kael. Vehement, verbose and polemical, she was passionate about American cinema. It is hardly surprising, then, that her replacement in this unparalleled critical pulpit by an arch ironist, an Englishman living in Cambridge, has raised hackles among certain cineastes. Lane's admission in the introduction to this hefty collection of reviews that he is stirred more by still images (Rothko, Balthus, Walker Evans) than movies will not have gone down well with Kael devotees. Moreover, Lane is a humourist - no joke is knowingly overlooked - of a type found more often in the early years of The New Yorker. His speciality is incongruous association, as perfected by Woody Allen. He notes, for example, that Godzilla "clears immigration with suspicious ease". Reviewing a terrible version of The Scarlet Letter, Lane points out that Robert Duvall is "taken prisoner by the fearsome Tarrantine tribe, presumably ruled by one Reservoir Dog". Such levity is not surprising considering the quality of the product under review. While Kael's tenure coincided with the American New Wave (Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola), Lane is saddled with Charlie's Angels and The Nutty Professor II. CH

Words and Music by Paul Morley BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (361pp)

Revelatory/ opaque, beguiling/ offputting, the missing link between JG Ballard and Greil Marcus - any review of this torrent from the motormouth of pop-crit will sound like the work itself. A fragmentary narrative about Kylie metamorphoses into a lash-up of cultural chronologies, rambling footnotes, imaginary soundtracks and lists of greatest albums. There is a host of embarrassing twaddle ("Satisfaction" becomes "a clitoris in song form"), but it is also full of interest. This book is destined to be a cult classic among nerdy know-alls. Women will think it bosh. CH

John F Kennedy: an unfinished life by Robert Dallek PENGUIN £9.99 (838pp)

Forty years on, JFK remains a glamorous figure. After detailing his sexual antics and rocky marriage, Dallek insists Kennedy's "dalliances were no impediment" to effectiveness. The book's major revelations concern the host of life-threatening ailments that may have propelled his libido. Dallek explains why we should still lament his loss. In particular, JFK's actions and statements on Vietnam "are suggestive of a carefully managed stand-down". He concludes that Kennedy's 1,000-day presidency demonstrated that "America was the last best hope of mankind". CH

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk HARPERPERENNIAL £7.99 (228pp)

Cusk's fourth novel is no action-packed drama, but a series of interlocking glimpses of different states of mind. Here are parents agonising over absent babies and women musing on childlessness. Here, too, most vividly, is Mrs Daley, "who liked to see her children tied down by their children". When not weighed down by her own stylistic excesses, Cusk writes with extraordinary perception about the compromises and confusions of love. CP

A Life in Letters by Anton Chekhov PENGUIN CLASSICS £12.99 (552pp)

Chekhov - who died 100 years ago next week - penned witty, vivid and often moving letters throughout his too-short life as doctor, journalist, fiction-writer and playwright. This fabulous selection of 370 gems is the first uncensored volume in English (Soviet-era scholars had to bury his earthier side). Translators Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips capture Chekhov's warmth, humour and insight, whether he's visiting a Japanese brothel in Russia's far east, giving a pet mongoose to Moscow zoo - or mocking death for his beloved wife, Olga. BT

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