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Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance by Lisa Jardine, Papermac pounds 12. This unusual perspective on Renaissance Europe uncovers the fiscal underbelly of history's sacred cow, and shows it to be flagrantly secular. Her iconological study of Crivelli's 1486 Annunciation shows the luxury goods surrounding the Virgin to be not so much saintly attributes as the proud announcement of "Italian access to markets from northern France to the Ottoman Empire". Religious considerations pale beside Mary's tapestry rugs imported from Arras and her crystal glasses from Murano. As for Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage, Jardine reinterprets this famous betrothal scene as a celebration of business interests and "of pride in possessions, from wife to pet, to bed-hangings and brasswork". Double-entry ledgers are accorded as much significance as Erasmus's oeuvres, who, by the way, is shown to be as much a wheeler-dealer as he was a philosopher. (Mass-produced books were commissioned, not to spread the Word, but to fill gaps in the market.) This is a hard, enthusiastic sell for a theory that posits the spread of acquisitiveness through the continent as the motivating force behind its cultural achievements. She concludes with a vision of "the world we inhabit today [in which] ruthless competitiveness, fierce consumerism, restless desire for ever-wider horizons ... [was] made in the Renaissance."

The Lady with the Laptop by Clive Sinclair, Picador pounds 6.99. Mr Wassef delights in the irony of his old-world seduction of the Toshiba-wielding Jew of the title, in the first of these witty stories. He wickedly treasures the thought of "this bluestocking returning from a conference on population control with a bellyful of Egyptian sperm", before realising that he, too, has been transformed by the "ferocious passion of an uncircumcised female". Sex, death and ineffective contraceptives play havoc with these characters' carefully structured lives and belief systems. Sinclair pays homage to Chekhov, be it the 19th-century playwright or the Polish lieutenant from Star Trek, and makes high culture play off low, and random accidents resonate with Chekhovian poignancy. Unthinkable unions are forged, and cultural prejudices are undermined in narratives, sometimes overburdened with symbolism and wordplay, but always cleverly subversive of the notion of cultural identity.

A Life of Picasso, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life by John Richardson, Pimlico pounds 20. The women in Richardson's biography of Picasso appear either on a plinth or as a doormat. But Pablo's legendary misogyny was tinged with tenderness and Richardson delineates its double-edged effect on his work, noting the interrelation between Picasso's stylistic developments and his changes of mistresses. He also reveals unexpected sources of inspiration: "Just as [Matisse's] Bonheur de vivre had fuelled Picasso's competitiveness, the Demoiselles fuelled Matisse's." - and so the world was in for some of the greatest point-scoring paintings of the 20th century. The Demoiselles d'Avignon is the focal point of this second volume of the projected four, and around it swirl cameos of Braque, Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein. Richardson recreates the drunken soirees of "la bande Picasso" in telling vignettes. (During an "evening of futurist music", the painter Alberto Savinio played the piano so ferociously "he ended up smashing the instrument and covering himself in blood".) Most of all, though, it is Richardson's 20-year friendship with Picasso that gives his account authority. Picasso once said: "It's not what an artist does that counts, it's what he is." Richardson makes us feel that necessary distinction.

The Faber Book of Treachery ed Nigel West, Faber pounds 9.99. If you want to know why, after the Second World War, Malcolm Muggeridge interrogated P G Wodehouse on behalf of MI5, read his anthology of writings by defectors, turncoats, collaborators, whistle-blowers and tricksters. Wodehouse's spoof broadcasts on German radio (reproduced here) definitely fall into the last of these categories, and Muggeridge concluded his hero had been foolish but not a traitor. (Not before he had been expelled by his London club, though, and his beloved school, Dulwich College, had removed his name from its roll of honour.) This ludicrous sense-of-humour failure reveals the grave consequences for those forced to betray their country. And West gives these unhappy men and women the chance to explain their difficult choice, and, in some cases, justify it.

Billy and Girl by Deborah Levy, Bloomsbury pounds 5.99. Billy England is a teenage "catastrophe theorist" looking for subjects to torture and memories to uncover. His demented sister, Girl, hunts down Prozac'd housewives, convinced they are her runaway mother. Pain has unanchored Billy and Girl, who "wears her famous tears like jewels. Like glass blown from grief." Pain also makes Levy eloquent: anguish, fury and dumb misery are the only emotions the terrible twosome know, but they give vent to each in prose that is visceral and ingenious. Levy raids the lexicon of self-lacerating agony to lay at their disposal, and convinces the reader to accept their flawed rationale and follow their warped, self-help programme to her wish- fulfilment happy ending.

The rich Buddhist culture of Tibet and Nepal is on display in Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment (Thames and Hudson pounds 14.95) by Denise Patry Leidy and Robert A F Thurman (Uma's dad). Above, a 13th- century Tibetan stupa

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