Book reviews: The Ecstasy of Influence | The Origins Of Sex | One Million Tiny Plays About Britain

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A round-up of the latest paperback releases

The Ecstasy of Influence

by Jonathan Lethem

(Vintage, £9.99) ****

Jonathan Lethem, the New York novelist, writes superb essays – about his childhood, his hippy parents, his teenage status (a geek, but cool), the books he reads, and what he was doing when the planes hit the Twin Towers. There are 70-odd pieces here. There’s a lovely one about how, as a horny adolescent, he sat in on his father’s life drawing classes. Young Jonathan explains, with lovely subtlety, how the bodies of the models were different, in his mind’s eye, from those of the girls he fancied. On 10 September 2001, he was out on the town with Bret Easton Ellis and describes memorably how he processed his thoughts the next day.

The Origins Of Sex

by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

(Penguin, £10.99) ****

If you think the sexual revolution was something that took place in the 1960s, you’ve got it all wrong, says Dabhoiwala, an Oxford academic: the first really significant one happened in the 17th century. Before this, in the Middle Ages, people were put to death for adultery, all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state, and ordinary people devoted huge efforts to suppressing it. But gradually, people became freer – starting with rich men, of course. This account is full of facts, anecdotes and analysis, and there are quite a few surprises. Jeremy Bentham, for example, thought we should be more tolerant of sodomy – because this might put a dent in the bigger scourge of masturbation.

One Million Tiny Plays About Britain

by Craig Taylor

(Bloomsbury, £7.99) ***

Obviously, there are not a million plays in this book: there are only 94, which means they’re very short. Two women talk to each other in a queue about someone’s horrible husband. A woman in a job interview is asked what her weakness is and she says she’s a perfectionist – but she obviously hasn’t prepared for the interview. Two cars bash into each other. The drivers have an angry conversation about music. Two men talk about pornography in the City. Or, rather, they don’t talk about it. A family chunters on in a restaurant in Rotherham. There is bickering over a bill in Lichfield. Nuanced, slyly funny, very readable.