BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Reading for pleasure? Our writers choose the titles they most admired and enjoyed this year; on the next few pages, a wide range of ideas about what to give this Christmas
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The Independent Culture
CINEMA With all the furore about Crash, how gratifying to see that the film critic Kim Newman has got a grip on the situation. Veteran gore-hound and charming, olde-worlde figure at late-night screenings, he should by rights be the most depraved man in Britain. The BFI Companion to Horror (Cassell pounds 19.99), which he edited, says that Crash's director, David Cronenberg, "is one of the best advertisements the horror genre could have: working within it allows him to plunge without flinching into areas ... where mainstream film-makers dare not tread. And he finds not just truth, but a terrible beauty..." But the compendium acknowledges there are times when you'll happily eschew beauty for the truly terrible. Contributors include Christopher Frayling, Anne Billson, Mark Kermode and Neil Gaiman: a finer body of men and women you couldn't hope to meet on a dark night.

Now, if you want something really perverse and sexually degrading, try Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski (Bloomsbury pounds 11.99). There is a picture of Kinski as the Marquis de Sade, upon whom he seems to have based his writing style. This is the relentlessly boring saga of an erotomaniac, Leporello's catalogue with F-words. There are some amusing glimpses of life on the set of Aguirre, Wrath of God, but it loses in the translation (by Joachim Neugroschel): " `If you split, I'll ruin you!' says that wimp Herzog ... `Ruin me how, you bigmouth?'" His monstrous egotism is occasionally funny ("I dash out of Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum. I have to puke in the street. I mustn't end up like that!"), but unfortunately not often enough.

Hollywood's Chateau Marmont Hotel has seen plenty of movie-star bad-behaviour in its time. Hollywood Handbook (ed Andre Balazs, 4th Estate pounds 14.99), at first resembles the Hollywood Babylon books with its scissor-and-paste graphics, salacious pictures and emphasis on scandal ("Lana's Gangland Lover Slain!"), but with essays by the likes of Gore Vidal, Anthony Haden- Guest, Jay McInerney and Harold Brodkey, this looks like perfect present material for the cinephile.

The scandal-free Quinlan's Film Stars by David Quinlan (Batsford pounds 22.50) is bizarre guide to the appearance, as well as the filmography, of some 1,850 stars. This is not so much a book as a party-game. Identify the following: "tall, slim, erect and handsome in a taut and faintly forlorn- looking kind of way"; "dark, diminutive, dainty but solidly built British actress with wildly straggling brown hair"; "Brown-haired British actor of cocksure, slightly devious-looking handsomeness"; "flaxen-haired beauty with challenging come-hither gaze"; "tall, whippy, dark-haired Irish actor with sensitive mouth and small chin"; "visionary-looking brown-haired British actor with fine-grained features". Answers: Jeremy Irons, Helena Bonham-Carter, Colin Firth, Greta Scacchi, Liam Neeson; and Ralph Fiennes ("surname pronounced Fines"). As well as a description, each star gets a picture, often out of date. Quinlan is reasonably good on inter-star relations, though.

You can buy a copy of Hamlet for a few quid in any bookshop, but cough up pounds 12.99 and you can get the whole text, interspersed with maestro Ken Branagh's directions from the forthcoming four-hour film ("He throws the poisoned sword, javelin-like, across the Hall. Whoosh! It goes through Claudius and pins him to the back of the throne"), plus pics (Kate Winslet in a strait-jacket) and the inevitable film diary (not as good as Em's). The cover of this Chatto paperback does mention Shakespeare, but Branagh gets that all-important above-the-title billing.

David Bret is almost as much of a hack as Shakespeare, churning out star- biographies with aplomb. His subjects (Morrissey, Piaf, Dietrich, Grace Fields) often have gay, or at least camp appeal, and Tallulah Bankhead: A Scandalous Life (Robson pounds 17.95) is no exception. This is a tale full of sound and fury, told with great relish, though with little attempt to get under the skin. The wild and unruly offspring of a rich Alabama family, little Tallulah wet her pants at the first theatre show she was taken to: "I've never recovered" (from the excitement - certainly not the shame). She set herself up in New York aged 16, supported by an elderly aunt who didn't know half of what she was getting up to with celebrated Sapphics and well-endowed men (her male lovers had to be "hung like Barrymore"). We learn that Tallulah's celebrity was due to more than one slip of the tongue. Her reputation as a wit ("Cocaine isn't habit-forming, darling. I should know, I've been taking it for years") began by accident, when she remarked to Alexander Woollcott of a play: "There's less in this than meets the eye." This will keep you chortling into the New Year.

Much more serious stuff from Roger Lewis, biographer of Peter Sellers and now The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (Century pounds 17.99). Only buy this if you're up to the high standards Lewis expects of a reader. Not only must you be prepared to "tackle the formal density of my prose", but you should have limbered up by reading at least one other Olivier biog. "I told my editors they can tickle my tits until Friday and I'll still not insert a `potted history' of my subject," he chides. Despite the wilful eccentricity of his style, there are many original insights here.

The film book of the year, however, has got to be David Thomson's Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Little, Brown pounds 20): brilliantly written, full of insight, whimsical, unique. Make that the book of the year.

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