Paperback roundup

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Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader, Penguin pounds 14.99. "A Biography" because Reader treats Africa as a single entity. This is not simply a chronicle of historical events, but an attempt to show how the lives of people, and the history of all mankind, have been shaped by Africa's geographical realities: the heat, the aridity of much of its area, the abundance of wildlife, the prevalence of disease, the sheer vastness (a useful map at the back shows all the countries you could fit inside Africa - India, for instance, sits very comfortably inside the Horn of Africa). What's most impressive is Reader's determination to make sure you understand everything: he veers off into lively, concise lectures on the genetic variability of arable crops, language groups, recent developments in evolutionary theory, elephant population (competition with the elephant has placed strict limits on sub-Saharan agriculture). And, naturally, he has to take time out to attack the Eurocentric assumptions that have dogged past historians of Africa - the obvious ones, about a dark continent inhabited by primitive, warring tribes, but also more subtle ones, about complex and viable modes of social organisation which simply haven't fitted into our conceptions of "civilisation". It's an amazingly ambitious book, always readable; Reader shows that the darkness of the dark continent is the product of our ignorance, and he goes a long way towards dispelling it.

Victor Hugo by Graham Robb, Picador pounds 8.99. Hugo was a monster of egotism; and this is a monstrous biography to match him. You get the impression that Robb - who got last year's Whitbread Biography Award for this - isn't necessarily very fond of his subject, but he does enjoy him: there's a sense of outraged, amused pleasure in his accounts of Hugo's gargantuan literary and political ambitions (his response to the debacle of the Franco- Prussian war was to propose that France should invade Germany right back), his constant rewriting of his own life as a fable of romantic genius. As a critic, he helps the reader to admire the energy and poetry bursting through Hugo's writing, but he never plays down the clumsiness and the cliches. Top of the range.

Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society eds Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen, Penguin pounds 7.99. This is the book that caused such an uproar when it was published earlier this year because of the perceived anti-Diana tendencies in Anthony O'Hear's essay on her death - Tony Blair (says the blurb) even interrupted a tour of the Middle East to condemn it. In fact, O'Hear's essay is fairly pussyfooting. Among other things he says that "Di was in many ways a creation of the tabloids", but that she also manipulated them for her own ends; that she portrayed herself as an ordinary person, but by virtue of her wealth and position was very unordinary; and a number of other, similarly uncontroversial - even incontrovertible - things. The real problem with the book, though, is that what the editors mean by "sentimentality" isn't clear. Ian Robinson quotes DH Lawrence's definition, "working off on yourself feelings you haven't really got", which is good (the rest of Robinson's essay, attacking political correctness in Alice Walker, cleverness in Martin Amis and gush in Iris Murdoch, is disappointingly ineffectual). Elsewhere, most of the writers seem to have adopted as their working definition of sentimentality "Trendy nonsense that I don't like" - in other words, they are working off on themselves a rather fogeyish set of prejudices. There's quite a lot of common sense buried in here, but you sure have to dig.

The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Oxford pounds 6.99. From the author of Lady Audley's Secret, a rewrite of Madame Bovary, but without the "hideous immorality" Braddon found in Flaubert's original (surprising, given that at the time she was the mistress of a married man and mother of his child). This doctor's wife manages to keep her relations with her wealthy lover on a platonic level, and while I don't want to give away the plot, I can say that squeamish readers don't have to worry about all the vomiting and spasms that accompanied Emma Bovary's demise. Not exactly a World's Classic, but a neat illustration of some of the channels that divide England from France.

Complete Prose by Woody Allen, Picador pounds 7.95. All three of his collections of skits and sketches ("Without Feathers", "Side Effects" and "Getting Even") in one volume for the first time. Reading it all in one go, you realise how far he relies on one basic shtick: juxtaposing high-flown pretensions (the language of romance or the Old Testament, meditations on high art and the meaning of life) with such everyday, earthbound matters as trousers, shaving and rabbis (example: "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends"). Take it slowly, though, and you can convince yourself he's the natural heir to SJ Perelman - surreal, sharply aware of contemporary cliches, and sometimes very funny.

The R Crumb Coffee Table Art Book ed Peter Poplaski, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99. It's hard to think of many artists who have plumbed their own psyches quite as relentlessly as Robert Crumb, and even harder to think of any who were as screwed up as him to begin with - liberated from his repressed Catholic boyhood by prolonged experimentation with LSD and quantities of sex with star-struck hippy-chicks who wanted to make it with the creator of Fritz the Cat. Alongside highlights of his cartooning career, this anthology offers you - presses on you - a tour of Crumb's inner life: if you can't guess it from the cartoons, it revolves largely around women with buttocks you could park a tea-tray on. He whinges on about how ugly he is, what a terrible person he is, and it gets very wearing. But just once in a while (as in the story "A Bitchin' Bod'!", in which the usual weed is given a headless woman as plaything), he touches a nerve and you realise, yes, he is some kind of genius. Not a nice kind, but some kind.

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