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The Independent Culture
Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus, Picador pounds 6.99. The critic as mystic: what starts out as a commentary on those famous sessions in the summer of 1967, in the basement of a house in West Saugerties, upstate New York, rapidly becomes an underground history of the American soul as Marcus teases out the story that America tells itself. Dylan's music is treated as - how best to put this? - the plughole down which American history, literature and folklore swirl: Herman Melville and Alexis de Tocqueville bob around with Leadbelly, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and the West Virginia Mine War of the 1920s. It is undoubtedly pretentious; what`s remarkable about Marcus is his ability to live up to his pretensions, to persuade the reader to go along with extraordinary mythologising. The problem comes when you try to reconcile his ideas with the music. But if the music isn't worthy of the criticism, that isn't necessarily the critic's problem.

Early Christian Lives tr and ed by Carolinne White, Penguin pounds 7.99. Six chronicles of early saints, including St Antony, of temptation fame (written about by St Athanasius, of creed fame), St Martin of Tours, of dividing his cloak with a beggar fame, and St Benedict, of monks and liqueur fame. This collection is not without its tedious moments, and an air of almost insufferable smugness infects the whole enterprise - hence the phrase "holier than thou". But there is entertainment, too, in the accounts of solitary monks wrestling with the father of lies, of hippocentaurs and demons, of impossible regimes of self-mortification and prayer, of virginity miraculously preserved (hot tip from the life of Paul of Thebes: when being seduced maintain your purity by biting your own tongue out and spitting it in the harlot's face). Superstition, self-loathing and misogyny: purely from a PR point of view, you can't imagine this is the sort of book the Church of England wants to encourage.

Gaglow by Esther Freud, Penguin pounds 6.99. Freud's third novel blends two distantly related narratives. In contemporary London, Sarah, an out-of- work actress, poses for her painter father, gives birth to a son, and fights off the intermittent attentions of the boy's father; in Berlin around the time of the First World War, Sarah's grandmother, Eva, and her sisters snipe at the "vulgarity" of their mother, and worship their governess and their elder brother. Gaglow is the meeting-point for their stories, a country estate which was once the property of Eva's father and is now being restored to the family. The other elements that link the two strands are harder to quantify - Freud resists the temptation to show history repeating itself, or the sins of the fathers being visited on their children. Instead she finds larger, mistier patterns of love and disappointment, from which she derives a kind of hopeful fatalism: an awareness that happiness is fragile and ephemeral, but then, so is misery. The historical segments of the book are sharply imagined and full of a level-headed nostalgia; modern manners are pinpointed with lively humour , but never sent up: generosity is one of Freud's strengths, together with a quiet, unflappable intelligence. A lovely book.

The Feminisation of Nature by Deborah Cadbury, Penguin pounds 7.99. Cadbury produced the Emmy-winning Horizon programme "Assault on the Male" which first alerted the public to the global problem of shrinking sperm-counts, together with increasing incidence of genital abnormality and certain cancers in humans and even apparent sex changes in wildlife. Here she presents in greater depth, and with compelling logic, the case for believing that sexual development across a wide range of species, is being disrupted by synthetic chemicals which mimic the effects of oestrogen. What's more, there is no escape: traces of DDT, one of the main culprits, have been discovered high in the Himalayas and in Antarctic glaciers. It is passed on to children through breast milk (but don't think formula milk will help: soya contains natural chemicals which may be at least as disruptive). For a man, reading this book is unnerving enough to shrivel your balls and turn your voice high and squeaky.

The Bacon Fancier by Alan Isler, Vintage pounds 6.99. From the author of The Prince of West End Avenue, four longish short stories - previously published under the title Op Non Cit - literary-historical fancies about Jews at odds with a gentile world. In 17th-century Venice, an ageing Jewish money-lender (guess who?) meets the golem of Prague; in 18th-century Porlock, a violin-maker talks dulcimers and underground caverns with some poet or other; in 1881, a wealthy young man crosses the Atlantic with Oscar Wilde; in modern New York an unsuccessful actor nearly stars in a musical about the Dreyfus affair. At times, the literary roots of all four stories show rather too plainly, but more often the crosswordish wit and erudition is an effective counterpoint to the stories' implicit tragedy.

A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living With HIV by River Huston (Running Press pounds 25/pounds 14.99) candidly tells 30 women's stories and how they deal with their anger, fear and shame. Shana Tenendah (above) was infected by her lover who claimed that he'd tested negative for all STDs - he was lying. A sobering read but ultimately upbeat, it underlines the ordinariness of their experience and that we are all at risk.

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