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The Independent Culture
8 The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey, Faber pounds 5.99. For this novel, Carey has taken an eraser to the 20th-century globe, rubbed out Australasia, America and Southern Africa, and drawn in their place Ifaca, an island group lying somewhere "between the Tropic of Capricorn and the 30th Parallel", and a northern superstate called Voorstand. These two incompatible civilisations - the one a confluence of Aussie and Creole, the other a Yankee-Yarpie cross - are crucial to the destiny of misshapen dwarf Tristan, who tells the story of his and his family's bumpy, jumpy life and adventures in both countries with singular vitality. The comparison with Tristram Shandy, clearly invited by Carey, is not entirely preposterous.

8 Bunuel by John Baxter, 4th Estate pounds 8.99. "An aggressive young man with a bruiser's glare" is how Baxter describes Bunuel in his mid-20s. He looks just that in Dali's portrait on the cover, with the addition of an indefinable Iberian melancholy. Inside we learn that the combative surrealist director was also subject to sadistic sex fantasies, which he sublimated into foot fetishism - obsessive themes and images which flowed through his films. Bunuel's contacts among European intellectuals were formidable, but as a film-maker he knew movie stars too. Chaplin invited him to an orgy but the invited women refused to take part, since they couldn't agree which of them would have Chaplin. It's a scene Bunuel himself should have filmed.

8 Pierrot Lunaire by Helen Stevenson, Sceptre pounds 5.99. The McGuffin in this intriguing comedy is an unpublished novel by a young writer killed in the Spanish Civil War. At his French chateau Talbot Hardy is turning the book into a screenplay, little realising what secrets it has to shed. Stevenson has a way of sticking her characters with an unexpected phrase to make you stop and take notice. Hardy dresses "as though he were playing a Shakespearean character in modern dress". And Ludmilla Pike, the aged piano teacher who once knew Flynn, "didn't look at him while she spoke, as though she were lifting dumbells and couldn't spare the effort".

8 The Jesus Conspiracy: The Turin Shroud & the Truth About the Resurrection by Holger Kersten & Elmar R Gruber, Element pounds 4.99. This title will attract gullible armchair theorists and repel historians. Yet the authors, perfectly reasonably, want to look sceptically into all the facts about the radiocarbon dating of the Shroud, previously believed to be Jesus's winding sheet but in 1989 "exposed" as a 14th-century artefact. And their final allegation is at least consistent with the Vatican's history of pulling no punches in the fight against deviance: that samples dated in '89 were deliberately switched to cover up the "fact" that the cloth's image is of a living man. Heresy!

8 When the World was Steady by Claire Messud, Granta pounds 6.99. This first novel presents the interleaved stories of two middle-aged sisters - Ginny in London, Emmy Sydney-based but on holiday in Bali. Self-pitying Ginny is dull, dowdy, tense, a member of a Bible study-group, the carer of their cantankerous mother. Priggish Emmy, on the other hand, thinks of herself as a free spirit. For her, Bali is a touch "spoiled" - though she is not averse to helping the process by searching out its unspoiled attractions. With that wry moral up-twitch which for some readers is the essence of fiction, both sisters have learned a degree of generosity before the end.

8 The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom, Papermac pounds 10. This 500-page reading list is based on the idea that the Canon of great writers has "created us". It's become more acceptable in academia to believe that what used to be called "high" culture - books, paintings, sculpture, string quartets - is little different from mousetraps and marmalade: artefacts made to the prescription of society and commerce. Bloom has no time for this. For him great literature really exists - Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, he rounds up the usual suspects - and it comes from proactive writers who create new forms, new thoughts, new consciousness.

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