All Must Have Prizes by Melanie Phillips, Little, Brown pounds 6.99. Melanie Phillips's polemic on our education system is, as her critics noted, often shrill and hysterical, far too reliant on hearsay, unsupported assertion, grumpy interpretation and hyperbole. But at the same time she adduces evidence, difficult to contradict, that muddled thinking and institutionalised cowardice have damaged, even wrecked our education system, as abstract principles - in science, mathematics, language - have been replaced by a narrow interest in competence at a purely practical level. So university teachers come out with stories of students who have an A in A-level German and are great at ordering meals, but can't distinguish between the sentences "He is a bad teacher" and "He has a bad teacher". We probably ought to listen.
One World, Ready or Not by William Greider, Penguin pounds 9.99. Greider, a journalist for Rolling Stone - a job title that always sounds so impressive until you remember it was what John Travolta's character did in Perfect - roams the world looking at the fall-out from the global economy. The collapse of traditional trade barriers has meant extraordinary prosperity for some, including some of the poorest, but the continual upheaval it has generated is being accompanied by social dislocation, chronic economic instability and the decay of national autonomy. What Greider doesn't have is any overarching grasp of the phenomena he is enumerating; but he is refreshingly honest about the lack of any noticeable connection between the free market and political democracy, and he has a good eye for the telling example.
Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings by Alexander Pushkin, Penguin pounds 7.99 It is always said that Pushkin doesn't travel well - that he is too wedded to the Russian language, too much is lost in translation, for a foreigner ever to appreciate the genius of his poetry. Perhaps that is a good reason for reading this entertaining selection of unpoetic, uninflected short stories and sketches - not just prose, but deliberately and mercilessly prosaic. The Tales of Belkin are jolly but unexceptional stories of provincial life, with a very understated parodic edge; the volume also includes "The History of the Village of Goryukhino", a surprisingly modern-feeling exercise in mock history, and Pushkin's dry observations from campaigning with the Russian army in Transcaucasia.
The Proper Study of Mankind by Isaiah Berlin, Pimlico pounds 15. With melancholy good timing, this selection of essays was first published a few months before Berlin's death last November, and it now comes as an eloquent obituary. Henry Hardy has assembled pretty much the definitive anthology; it includes all the most famous stuff - "Two Concepts of Liberty" and his disquisition on Tolstoy's philosophy, "The Hedgehog and the Fox" - together with some lesser-known pieces on a variety of topics: "scientific history", the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Nationalism, Machiavelli and intellectual sketches of two heroes, "Winston Churchill in 1940" and "President Franklin Delano Roosevelt". The Churchill essay is particularly intriguing - a persuasive attempt to explain what made him the ideal wartime leader in terms of his literary output and historical imagination. But that is of a piece. As arranged here, what is striking is not the variety of Berlin's thought but the unity: all of these pieces deal, one way or another, with the conflicting importance of reason and history, the contrast between our tidy ideals and the rich mess of experience.
Layers of language and storytelling are vividly illustrated in The Compleat Moonshadow by John Marc DeMatteis, illus Jon J Muth (Titan pounds 24.99) - the entire series of Moonshadow's odyssey through alien worlds which includes the prose sequel, Farewell Moonshadow. We have five copies to give away to the first five to write in: send your name and address on a postcard to 'Moonshadow'/Books Desk, IoS, One Canada Square, London E14 5DLReuse content