Books: Paperbacks

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The River at the Centre of the World by Simon Winchester (Penguin, pounds 7.99)

No shortage of material for Winchester in his epic exploration of the 4,000-mile Yangtse - if the valley were a country, it would be the second most populous in the world. He deftly sketches in the hidden history underlying today's tumult. From Shanghai ("nowadays a city fully awake all the time"), he chugs upriver to the site of the Three Gorges Dam scheme, which will involve moving 1.25 million people. In many ways, however, China is slow to change. Reaching Tibet, Winchester travels on a road repaired by chain gangs of "hundreds of men and women lashed together". His book is a tremendous voyage for the armchair traveller.

Great Irish Humorous Stories by Peter Haining (Souvenir, pounds 8.99)

The guffawing Guinness slurper on the cover and the elbow-nudging sub- title "An Anthology of Laughter & Wit" suggests that this will be a snippetty trawl of gags and after-dinner yarns. In fact, there is plenty of good literary meat here, from Swift's ruthless Modest Proposal to a droll chunk of Beckett (some may be surprised to find him filed under "Belly Laughs"). Curiously, there is nothing by Shaw and the Joyce selection is below-par doggerel. Though inaccurately described as "without equal in recent comic fiction", MacLaverty's Phonefun Limited is a deeply poignant highlight.

The Pleasures of the Past by David Cannadine (Penguin, pounds 8.99)

A sparkling display of reviews "produced in idle moments" by an historian at the peak of his powers. Writing in 1986, he percipiently notes of the Royal Family: "The pomp will take care of itself, what we need is a little more circumspection." He is withering about the passion for nostalgia displayed by chroniclers of England's architectural heritage and wittily demolishes the vacillating figure of Lord Mountbatten: "He played the part of the Grand Old Duke of York with the panache of Prince Rupert." Stimulating stuff, pithily expressed - but why is there nothing after 1987? Even the classier sort of journalism rapidly turns musty.

Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus (Picador, pounds 6.99)

An exemplary, if exhausting, critique of the "Basement Tapes" recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band in 1967. Though Dylan going electric in 1965 drew a savage response from folkies (particularly in the UK), Marcus ironically notes that these 100 songs and fragments were part of a long-standing tradition, "an omphalos... around which the American past and future slowly turned". After reeling back the years to tease out the resonances in Dylan's work (a hillbilly songster called Dock Boggs was a major influence), Marcus fast-forwards to a murder in 1994 which is somehow significant. Outsiders may be bewildered, but Dylanologists will love it.

The Gatecrasher by Madeleine Wickham (Black Swan, pounds 6.99)

Always read the Hatches, Matches and Dispatches columns of The Times, Mary Wesley advised in one of her novels, you never know when the information might not come in handy. It certainly does for Fleur Daxeny, the heroine of Madeleine Wickham's latest novel, who has made it her (lucrative) business to attend the posher kind of funeral and seduce the wealthy widowers to be found there. But, at the memorial service for his wife, Fleur meets Richard, a dull, golfing businessman whose dysfunctional family and large Surrey mansion prove strangely irresistible. Wickham is perceptive about family relationships - teenage angst and filial jealousy - but Richard is so very dull, and his Surrey social life so very unpalatable, that in the end, you can only urge Fleur to take the money and run as quick as she can.

For all their Modernist principles, the chaps in charge at the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany steered gifted women students into fabrics and fashion rather than shiny architecture. This applique by Ida Kerkovius is from Bauhaus Textiles: women artists and the weaving workshop by Sigrid Wortmann Weltge (Thames & Hudson, pounds 15.95)

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