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Yemen: travels in dictionary land

by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Picador, pounds 7.99, 280pp

IT IS surely no coincidence that two of the best travel books of recent years are both about Yemen and written by long-term residents of its medieval capital, San'a. Tim Mackintosh-Smith pops up as a character in Kevin Rushby's excellent Eating the Flowers of Paradise, while Rushby makes an ignoble guest appearance ("I'm bursting for a piss") in M-S's impressive . The sub-title derives from the contradictory definitions of many Arabic words. The adjective akra, for example, means both "fond of trotters" and "thin in the shank," while the verb karrash is defined as "to prepare a haggis" or "to contract your face".

M-S's obsession with Arabic prompted his visit to San'a in 1982 - and he's still there, in a clay city "more baked than built". Like his chum Rushby, M-S is an advocate of gat, the drug which has been the Yemeni's favourite pastime since the 14th century. Though the journalist and possible spy David Holden claimed that gat chewers "doze and dribble like cretinous infants with a packet of bull's eyes", M-S insists that the herb "enhances your perception by rooting you in one place".

His combination of adventure and recondite history is reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermor, but M-S adds his own engaging humour. A sixth-century assassin who hid a stiletto in his shoe was "like James Bond's adversary Rosa Klebb". He describes an artillery shell passing through the mud walls of a Yemeni house "like a country house ghost". M-S notes that the long line of Yemeni imams was weakened by an incumbent addicted to morphine and Heinz Russian Salad. The last imam died in 1996 in the "bosky purlieus of Bromley". This book is a classic, but the fine etchings by Martin Yeoman are badly served in this edition. Why not lash out pounds 18 on the original hardback from Murray?

Another World

by Pat Barker,

Penguin, pounds 6.99, 278pp

BEST KNOWN for her First World War trilogy based on the lives of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Owen and Robert Graves, Pat Barker turns her attention to the domestic battlefield - almost as nightmarish a place to be. She tells the story of a Newcastle family through the eyes of three generations: great-grandfather Geordie, 101 and reliving the trenches; to his grandson's monstrous step-son who runs other people's toothbrushes round the toilet bowl for kicks. Contemporary family life as real as it comes, Barker cuts through the ties that bind with customary vigour.

Death in Summer

by William Trevor

Penguin, pounds 6.99, 214pp

THE CHARACTERS in William Trevor's latest novel are either very posh or very common, and wouldn't sound amiss in an Ealing Comedy. Thaddeus Davenant is a widower living in a wisteria-clad pile in deepest Essex. Pettie is a needy runaway, as anaemic as the Wimpy burgers that nourish her. Turned down as nanny to Thaddeus's baby daughter, she takes to lurking in the hollyhocks. Trevor's elegant writing joins a plot that might have been lifted from Ruth Rendell.

Marcel Duchamp

by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins,

T & H, pounds 7.95, 224pp

THOUGH AN unequalled influence upon artists of the Sensation generation, Duchamp (born 1887) was moulded by inconceivably different factors. Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) was inspired by Burne-Jones, while the sexual blasphemy of The Bride Stripped Bare (1923) reacted against his Catholic upbringing. The authors insist that his final work, a keyhole view on which he spent 20 years, is "the most complete" manifestation of his philosophy.

The Wedding Girl

by Madeleine Wickham

Black Swan, pounds 6.99, 320pp

IF THE works of Joanna Trollope, Madeleine Wickham and Bel Mooney are anything to go by, needy, middle-aged singletons should head straight to Bath, where the streets are full of rich, older men. Wickham's fifth novel centres round a Bath wedding, a mother and a daughter and a dark secret that threatens to wreck the longed-for day. Wickham propels a slightly hackneyed plot forward with a gutsy prose style and an excellent ear for social comedy.