David Self

To Orthodox Jews, she is simply "that woman". To others, Rabbi Julia Neuberger is primarily a source of good quotes, such as: "Sexual delight is what the sabbath is all about." On Being Jewish (Mandarin Pounds 6.99) is part of her autobiography (she begins with a delightful evocation of a largely unworried childhood in north London) but it is mainly a series of wise, loving essays on such matters as sex and death (abortion is never murder in Judaism).

She writes also about the legacy of the Holocaust, and about differences and oppression within Jewry (Jewish gays are condemned by the Orthodox). And she does have all the right friends. A family snapshot in the book just happens to have been taken by the Bishop of Oxford.

Having once made a television series with her, I can guess what she might think of the New Christian movement. This is described with remarkable objectivity and patience by Ian Cotton in The Hallelujah Revolution (Warner Pounds 7.99). Only occasionally does his charity falter as when (in the course of his research) he has to sing the vacuous "Shine, Jesus, shine" for the 540th time or when the emotionalism becomes just too much. "Appalled, I shoot out of the hall."

He may compare such services to a mixture of a New Labour rally and the Eurovision Song Contest, but he is remarkably fair to the rapidly growing numbers of gullible, naive and utterly dedicated Christians who can be labelled as "evangelicalcharismatic".

It's the sort of phenomenon to make Richard Hoggart grumpy. Mind you, he's grumpy enough in The Way We Live Now (Pimlico Pounds 7.99), a sour and somewhat cynical sequel to his 1957 classic, The Uses of Literacy. He was critical then of a "candy floss world"; he's now positively savage about the erosion of "core values" everywhere from education to the BBC and from arts funding to, well, the BBC. ("The monarchy hardly needs to be mentioned").

He can also be nostalgic. "The old Direct Grant system had a lot to be said for it." He's satirical about those who buy private education so their children will have "the right sort of friends" and he's depressed about how the rise of vocational education has made it fashionable to say, "Don't teach my son poetry. He's going to be a grocer."

Thank heaven we still have some poets and dreamers. In The Practice of Writing (Secker and Warburg Pounds 12.99) David Lodge collects together some of his "occasional pieces" (recyclable lectures and journalism) about novels, novelists and the process of adaptation. There's also his highly entertaining diary about the production of his one stage play. It's quite enough to deter any lesser known writer from ever trying to get something up and running in the theatre.

Of the writing of literary biographies there's no end. Mandarin has just reprinted A N Wilson's surprisingly sympathetic Life of John Milton (written when he was more favourably inclined towards Christianity) and also his less reverential Life of Walter Scott (Pounds 7.99 each). Elizabeth Jenkins' Jane Austen: A Biography (Indigo Pounds 7.99) is itself something of a classic. First published in 1938, it makes no revelations but is a good story in its own right.

Lesser lives might make more seasonal reading. The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries, edited by Hugh Massingberd (Pan Pounds 6.99) could serve as a Christmas present with attitude. Its subjects range from Russell Harty (whose father "introduced the avocado pear to Blackburn market") to Judge Melford Stevenson who was soft on a rapist because he came from Slough ("It's a terrible place").

Then there's Major Betty Hunter Cowan (of the WRAC) who lives on Cyprus with the "feisty" Major Phyllis Heymann. Nicknamed "the Cavemen", they sound as if they'd be good for a drink. At the very least.

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