Books: Paperback round-up

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The Independent Culture
The Last Resort by Alison Lurie, Vintage pounds 6.99. If Alison Lurie's characters fret about the disintegrating ozone layer, perishing rainforests and HIV, they do so in the context of a witty social comedy that undermines their own existence. In her first novel for 10 years, the former Pulitzer prize-winner sharpens her satirical skills on 46-year-old Jenny, a "walking anachronism" who has devoted her life to her naturalist husband, Wilkie Walker. In exchange, this almost stereotypically selfish male exploits her intelligence in his work without crediting her contributions. Lurie sets up a predatory-hetero, caring-homosexual dichotomy with a lesbian cat among the pigeons in the shape of Lee. At their age, they should all know better, but Lurie ensnares them in a folie a trois that subtly pinpoints the desperation underlying social relations. However, Lurie cannot live for too long in the shadows, and the transitory community of Florida's Key West gives "the world's most enjoyable author" plenty of room to manoeuvre in her tragi-comedy of love and mortality. Good- humoured self-awareness triumphs over all, and those characters mired in political correctness and self-importance receive a strong dose of Lurie's spiky irony.

Starman: The Truth behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Bloomsbury pounds 7.99. On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin, the son of a Russian peasant, became the first human in history to leave the Earth's atmosphere and venture into space. He became an instant 20th-century icon. He was also a danger to himself, a threat to the Soviet state and dead at 34. Apollo 11's landing on the moon was a symbolic moment in the Soviet Union's struggle for supremacy with the US, and Gagarin was set up as the antidote to Western decadence, a poor boy made spectacularly good, and the protege of Nikita Khrushchev. While Doran and Bizony enumerate his many cosmonautical qualities (principal of which was his short stature which fitted nicely into the rocket's tiny capsule), they fail to exploit the cultural implications of their material. After all, Gagarin represented everything that was good about Soviet manhood to the rest of the world. Even the Queen invited him to tea. But from tea to vodka, and lots of it, is the long and short of the rest of his career. His biographers succeed in revealing a man in turmoil, hopelessly unequipped for the pressures of the job. Gagarin fell to earth (all right, died) while flying a two-seater MiG-15 jet in what should have been a routine training flight in 1968. Visibility was bad, and the plane crashed into dense woodland. Gagarin was identified by a fragment from his neck. Thereafter no conspiracy theory has been left uncovered: some think it was a plot by Brezhnev to get rid of his predecessor's pet hero. Doran and Bizony conclude, along with the official theory, that it was a tragic accident. Although they have been criticised for their ignorance of the Soviet language and political scene, as an account of true-life star wars and the men who shine in them, they tell a thrilling tale of derring-do and fallibility.

The Sandglass by Romesh Gunesekera, Granta pounds 6.99. Sri Lankan-born Romesh Gunesekera writes about lost homelands and melancholic emigres. In his second novel, his narrator Chip is stranded in a hotel room, recalling a day spent with his friend, Prins Ducal, back in London for one night for his mother's funeral. The memories they uncover create a fragmented 100-year history of a family and a country. The tradition of oral history - the kind that begins at a grandmother's knee - is strong in Gunesekera, and here it is Pearl, the dead woman they are mourning, who is the font of family lore. As the title implies, time is running out for everyone, and the novel is sweetly evocative of the sadness that accompanies this knowledge.

The Playboy Guide to Jazz by Neil Tesser, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99. When Hugh Hefner founded Playboy, he described his readership as being men who liked women, cigars and the music of Miles Davis. Thus Neil Tesser, the magazine's jazz columnist, is sufficiently hip to the various scenes of the genre. It breaks down like this: a chapter on each movement (from honkytonk to the Marsalis clan) in two sections. The first provides the bluffer's guide, and the second details seminal albums by the major exponents, so you can show off your CD collection to your friends. Our guide is exuberant and full of insight for new converts, if not for the aficionado.

Arithmetic by Todd McEwen, Vintage pounds 5.99. Todd McEwen, author of two previous novels, has a reputation for being "difficult", ie linguistically challenging and uncompromisingly quirky. His latest is a boy's-eye view of adult machinations (Walt Disney Productions buys the land Joe's family lives on) and the ruthless subjection of individual will during maths lessons. But underneath the energetic one-liners and lighthearted treatment, there is the sense of a more mature psychology at work; one that invents brightly lit, cartoonish scenarios in order to show how scary real life really is. Arithmetic = Joe's "crappy feelings", but it also adds up to McEwen's mastery of the comic novel about childhood.

English Language for Beginners by Michelle Lowe and Ben Graham, Writers and Readers pounds 7.99. "Did you know that a child can recognise the mother's voice after less than a day? Or that the first English dictionary was published in 1604 to educate 'Ladies, Gentle women or any other unskilful persons'?" Michelle and Ben, as we are encouraged by their publishers to call them, are students, in Linguistics and Anthropology respectively, at Edinburgh University. It seems they decided to write a simple introduction to the English language that would incorporate entertaining, unconnected trivia with a serious attempt at analysing history, use and development. The "Beginners" documentary comic strips are constructed for people who like their knowledge compressed into speech bubbles. But taken in the spirit in which they are intended, they are harmless introductory texts for the light at heart and short of time. Basically, Lowe and Graham give the rundown on 5 million years of evolution, and the theories of language that have mushroomed along the way.

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