PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! From Cold War to Hot Peace: UN Interventions 1947-1994 by Anthony Parsons, Penguin pounds 7.99. This thumbnail history of post-war global flashpoints is told in the seen-it-all tone of a jaded probation officer. Parsons sets out to draw lessons from "conflicts which have preoccupied the Security Council" and finds that naughty nations are incurably recidivist. The UN, which never even tried to mediate in the Cold War, is seen as largely a "decolonisation machine". It has managed to delay or defuse disputes, though never by its own efforts solve them. Strangely, it has been consistently drawn to whatever interests the permanent seats on the Security Council. Thus Korea and Egypt had much UN time and money spent on them, while the Ayatollah's Iran and East Timor had none. Parsons ascribes recent debacles like Somalia to low financing, confused leadership and poor anticipation. Like John of Gaunt, he ends with a prophecy: the tendency of nation states to fragment will continue; the Russian Federation will fall apart.

! Louis MacNeice by Jon Stallworthy, Faber pounds 12.99. With Yeats, he was one of the two "greatest Irish poets of our century", but the posthumous reputation of this English-educated son of a Protestant bishop was culvert- bombed by the late Sixties come-back of Irish nationalism. In at last reasserting MacNeice's Irishness, this overdue first biography shows how sectarianism repeatedly rocked the MacNeices. But his own instincts were non-sectarian and he never felt less the Irishman for living in England and working at the BBC. He was a womaniser who regularly drank 20 pints of stout with whiskey chasers on an empty stomach, yet a conscientious and prolific writer. His intellect was of the kind he ascribed to Auden: a man to whom "ideas were friendly - they came and ate out of his hand". If this biography has a fault it is that it doesn't adequately explain why the friendship was mutual.

! The Riders by Tim Winton, Picador pounds 5.99. The first of the'95 Booker shortlist to doff its hard covers is part rumination on male insecurity and part romantic mystery story. The lovable stumblebum Australian hero Scully works his nuts off to get a derelict Irish cottage ready for the arrival of his cool, sexy wife and six-year-old daughter. But, meeting the plane from London, he finds only his child disembarking. Scully at once hares off on a mad Citytours quest - Athens, Florence, Paris, Amsterdam - where he is always a step or three behind the fugitive and, for that matter, the rest of us. The mystery's solution arrives tamely and without a twist; the bigger puzzle is how this sweet, marshmallow novel, with its self-consciously poetic passages, ever reached the shortlist.

! Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow, Vintage pounds 8.99. The Welles family once considered sending their precocious offspring to the North Western Military Academy: as Simon Callow speculates, "how different might the history of 20th century warfare have been". That is not a joke: given the right stimulus (WW2) and with his genius for inspiring others while integrating their talents into his own, Welles would have been an unstoppable general. In this first volume of biography he directs Shakespeare at 13, acts professionally at 16, writes and directs plays on CBS radio and for Federal Theatre Project at 21 and signs that contract with RKO which was to produce the most extraordinary feature film debut on record. But within the Rise are the lineaments of the Fall and, at the time of Welles's death, two issues dominated the obituaries: (a) what went wrong after Citizen Kane? and (b) why did Orson get so fat? These questions are the pith of Callow's still-awaited Volume 2, but the pips of their answers are already here.

! Schrodinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality by John Gribbin, Phoenix pounds 6.99. Schrodinger's cat-in-a-box was the paradoxical animal which - in the famous quantum thought experiment - is simultaneously both alive and dead, just as long as we don't check by opening the box. She was the eponymous heroine of a fine popular explanation of quantum physics by Dr Gribbin, to which this is a sequel. It looks at an aspect of quantum theory not covered earlier: non-locality. The kittens are representative of quantum particles (eg photons) which can be in two places at once and "communicate" (in defiance of Einstein) faster than the speed of light. The subject is worth grappling with if you care to consider how lasers, microchips and DNA (just for starters) actually work: Gribbin proves yet again that he is an outstanding communicator of difficult ideas.

! The Run of the Country by Shane Connaughton, Penguin pounds 5.99. Do not be misled by any lukewarm film reviews. This is a novel, and it is magnificent. It was first published three years ago, but this film tie-in edition is another welcome chance to buy it. Set around the border of Fermanagh and Cavan, the Fifties setting (inexcusably updated for the film) is perfectly recreated for a rites-of-passage story of a country police sergeant's 17-year-old son who, after his mother's agonising death, now feels imprisoned in the police house under his father's angry eye. So he takes off, with his friend Prunty, a loquacious chancer, on a voyage through the virginity barrier and back again, where a reckoning with his Da awaits him. Behind this lies the ghost of Synge (and beyond that a misty Oedipus) so, yes, we've read it all before. But this has such pace, warmth, poetry and finely- judged pathos that you will rarely find the themes better handled.

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