Paperback roundup

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson, Phoenix pounds 12.99. "The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures," Johnson states in his opening sentence. That's probably a truism, but it doesn't do any harm to be reminded of the obvious once in a while. When it was published last year, Johnson's vast book attracted some ridicule for its factual clangers - among other things, apparently, Johnson claimed that Edison invented the telephone. To be fair, a book on this scale is bound to have a few mistakes: cf Norman Davies's Europe: A History. The important thing is getting them corrected, and not only does the Edison one not reappear in this edition, Johnson goes so far as to include his private address for any reader who wants to point out any other errors or take issue with his opinions. Now why would anybody want to do that?

In the preface Johnson boasts that, thanks to the inadequacies of the English educational system, he came to American history "completely fresh, with no schoolboy or student prejudices or antipathies"; as students of his work will realise, however, that still leaves an awful lot of other sorts of prejudices and antipathies to be accounted for. You could start with the title, and the question-begging assumption that the Americans are all one people. (Justifying this, Johnson says that he refuses to accept "the fly-blown phylacteries of Political Correctness"; and you don't even want to think about what a phylactery looks like when it's fly-blown.) Even if you are prepared to take that one on the chin and move on, you might pause at his characterisation of Watergate as "a media putsch which ... reversed the democratic verdict of a Nixon landslide", or his characterisation of the Reagan presidency: "It was not long before the American public began to sense that the dark days of the 1970s were over, and that the country was being led again". Elsewhere, though, he is often more reasonable than you would expect - Senator McCarthy gets a proper wigging, for instance - and his readiness to stick his neck out on all kinds of matters and his affection for his subject make up for a lot. By the way, in case it was starting to gnaw, it was Alexander Graham Bell.

Underworld by Don DeLillo, Picador pounds 10. Possibly America is too big for conventional narratives to take in; instead, it inspires encyclopaedic extravaganzas like Moby Dick or monstrous scrapbooks like John Dos Passos's USA. Underworld is a little like the latter. Taking as his starting point the Dodgers v Giants game of 3 October 1951, DeLillo tracks the historic baseball that Bobby Thomson hit into the stands to win the game for the Giants. Through the lives of the people who hold the ball and a succession of tangentially connected others (including J Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce and Frank Sinatra), he assembles, piecemeal, a kind of underground chronicle of pre-millennial America: a history grounded in nuclear warfare, consumer excess, waste disposal, black-outs, rumours and, running beneath it all, a weary, almost nostalgic longing for oblivion. It's a useful antidote to the optimistic, pioneering America that Paul Johnson offers, and (unless I'm forgetting something obvious) this decade's best stab at the Great American Novel.

Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes, Harvill pounds 6.99. Good to see back on the bookshelves this likeable polemic, first published in 1993, a long, controlled splutter of fury at the "the two PCs" - the Politically Correct and the Patriotically Correct - which in his view are destroying intellectual and political life in America. Hughes, art critic of Time and author of The Shock of the New, stamps his foot in fury all over modern American culture, and pretty well everybody gets their toes trodden on: the sheer bloody ignorance of Afrocentrism, the pointlessness of college quotas, the jargon-ridden insanities of postmodern academia; the complacency, philistinism and vicious moralising of the new Right. It's as bracing as a cold bath.

The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, Granta pounds 7.99. Sante is an immigrant to America - several times over, in fact. In his youth, his parents bobbed about between Belgium and America, and he ended up, mentally, somewhere in mid-Atlantic. I say "in fact", but facts are to be treated with caution here. The opening chapter, "Resume", contains nine different accounts of his early life, together cumulatively hilarious but also disconcerting: is there anything in this supposed memoir we can take literally? At one level, this book is more about Belgium than America, tackling such topics as the history of the Sante family since it was first recorded in 1221, the topography of the Ardennes, Belgium's influence on world culture. More to the point, it is about a crucial aspect of the American experience: having your roots in Europe while trying to be an American. Sante is at times almost distressingly clever; but he is also a natural charmer.

Toward the End of Time by John Updike, Penguin pounds 6.99. God save us from writers who think they understand modern physics. Nobody understands modern physics, and the sooner they stop fooling around with the collapse of the wave function and alternative realities, the better for us all. This chilly little number is set in 2020, when war with China has wrecked the American economy and government. The narrator, 66-year-old Ben Turnbull, marooned in a comfortable house in Massachusetts, staves off the twin ravages of old age and a decaying polity by paying a young prostitute and the second-rate hoods who run the protection rackets in his neighbourhood, meanwhile seeming to drift between alternative realities where he has and has not killed his wife. What can I say? Updike's always impressive, and here there's an eerie surrealism that's new. But he still can't suppress his mad urge to describe everything; and, you know, I really don't think he likes women that much.

Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska, Penguin pounds 6.99. Mad, flat-footed tales of the New York ghetto, about women trapped by poverty and ignorance and feeding on cheap romance: "'Oi weh! Light!' breathed Shenah Pessah, excitedly ..." Ignore the unintentionally funny introduction, a piece of witless postmodernism by Blanche H Gelfant (a name I strongly believe to be an alias). But enjoy the fusty prose and the atmosphere of repressed sexuality, fuelled by sightings of the new, opulent American woman: a swig of raw spirits.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam