A rather different portrait of the super-efficient, super-rich, super sophisticated Japanese has emerged recently, what with the chaos of the earthquake in Kobe, and the terrifying pictures of the nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway. It's an alternative image that is graphically underlined by Karl Taro Greenfeld's Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble (Boxtree pound;7.99).
Half-American, half-Japanese, Greenfeld went to Tokyo to write about the "bubble days" of 1985-91, when the value of Japan's assets increased by 80 per cent in just six years. But his friendship with an English "hostess" in a downtown bar led him down alleyways not normally visited by Western reporters. Here, in this collection of interviews, are the failed students, drop-outs and motorcycle gangs ("speed tribes") who terrorise the Japanese capital; here, too, are the "true believers" - members of Tokyo's fast-multiplying variety of cults and extremist groups.
The women of Egypt were the envy of the classical world - allowed to divorce and given equality before the law when dividing the spoils, free to trade (while the men stayed at home weaving), and remarkably free-spoken about sex. In Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt (Penguin pound;7.99), Joyce Tyldesley sifts through the archaeological evidence to decipher just how liberated were the women of the Nile. Of course, we can never know for sure, but her illuminating - and very readable - book is packed full of new perspectives on the home life of the Egyptians.
The Founders of America (W W Norton pound;11.95), Francis Jennings's study of the first settlers of the North American continent, also looks at history from a different angle. He ignores the usual chronology of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Pilgrim Fathers and investigates instead the American cultures that predated those of the European colonists. Here we learn about the Tenochtitl n of Mexico, who punished their recalcitrant teenagers by scratching them with thorns until blood was drawn (an effective short, sharp shock treatment?), and the prehistoric trails of the shell traders of California.
When Hunter S Thompson went to Washington DC to cover the presidential campaign of 1972, he determined to learn as much as possible about the reality behind those catchy soundbites, clouds of balloons and endless smiles. Thompson had made his name as a columnist on Rolling Stone magazine, and his intention was to apply the same gritty vocabulary and subversive attitudes to his expose of the American political system. The result, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (Flamingo pound;6.99), is both a devastating insight into the shenanigans of the NixonMcGovern campaigns, and a rip-roaring read. First published in 1973, this is its first appearance in paperback in Britain and comes with illustrations by Ralph Steadman.
Bob Brunning is now the head teacher of a London school, but back in the Sixties he was a bass guitarist with Fleetwood Mac. He still plays gigs, and has just written a history of the British blues. Blues in Britain (Blandford pound;12.99) takes us from the early days of the 1950s when Lonnie Donegan had a hit with "Rock Island Line", via Georgie Fame, Chris Farlow, Spencer Davis and Chicken Shack to Derby's Swamp Club in 1994.
Still in Britain, but offering a rather different view of this scepter'd isle is Oliver Rackham's The History of the Countryside (Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson pound;12.99). His study of the landscape, its flora and fauna, was first published in 1986 but has already become a classic. Rackham asks why fields are of odd shapes, why lanes are sunken, why roads bend where they do. On the way he reveals not only that 150 years ago the ubiquitous purplish-pink flowers of the rosebay willow herb were a rare sight, but also that the spreading chestnut tree is not native - it was introduced by the Romans.
Finally, an invaluable reference tool. The Chronology of British History (Century pound;12.99), compiled by Alan and Veronica Palmer, takes us from 250,000 BC (the date of the first human skull found at Swanscombe in Kent) to the IRA bomb in the City of London in April 1992, charting kings and queens, battles lost and won, as well as key figures in the arts, alongside contemporary events from around the world.