Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
! The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips, Faber pounds 6.99. Phillips is not afraid to take on stories familiar to the Western canon and re- work them so that he achieves an emotional rawness that is sustained throughout the slow-burn of his narrative structure, and contained by writing that is cool yet shot through with stunningly sensual images. The central protagonists in his sixth novel are Eva, who survives the Jewish holocaust but not its memories; Othello, who comes to Renaissance Venice to repel a Turkish attack, and Servadio, a Jewish moneylender accused of ritually murdering a Christian child. Eva's voice is a poignant study of trauma and psychological disintegration. Othello's - well, we know the story, but Phillips reacquaints us with the outsider's need to blend with the host culture at the expense of his own. Servadio's story highlights the hypocrisy and savagery of a society that can only define itself through another's sacrifices. Blood and its disintegration into ashes serves as a motif that escapsulates the ubiquity of racial persecution and the conflicting need to forget while preserving and commemorating the past.

! Tracks by Robyn Davidson, Picador pounds 6.99. "They are the most intelligent creatures I know except for dogs and I would give them an IQ rating roughly equivalent to eight-year-old children. They are affectionate, cheeky and playful, witty, yes witty, self-possessed, patient, hard-working and endlessly interesting and charming." Camels, that is. Their admirer is Robyn Davidson, who won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for this account of her 17,000- mile trek across the Australian desert accompanied only by her beloved camels and Diggity the dog. As she walks across increasingly difficult terrain, Davidson becomes intensely involved with it, so much so that it becomes "an animate being of which I was part". This kind of travel writing is not so much concerned with the explorer's quest to learn about her environment, but about what her environment can teach her about herself. And camels, of course.

! Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller, Sceptre pounds 6.99. In the tradition of Patrick Suskind's Perfume, Andrew Miller's highly praised first novel portrays the rise, fall and redemption of the brilliant but heartless 18th-century surgeon, James Dyer, a man born unable to feel pain. Miller takes us through Europe's Enlightenment at a time when it was poised between the science of Newton and Rousseau's romanticism. His understanding of contemporary mores is thorough, the period detail precisely evoked, and his characters come alive with flashes of humour and compassion. Dyer, whose fame is such that he is sent to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress Catherine against smallpox, eventually meets his match in a woman whose supernatural healing powers introduce him to pain. The shock sends him reeling back to England and the Bedlam hospital for the insane. But love heals, and Miller's dispassionate, clinical prose ensures that sentimentality is kept at bay.

! The Pimlico Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters by Bill O'Neal, Pimlico pounds 12.50. O'Neal delivers 255 gunmen, relieved of their arms but with their reputation intact, on to your bookshelves. And he delivers the facts, not the legends. So we learn that the guerrilla soldier, bank and train robber, Jesse James, was a devout Christian. He is also credited with "the first daylight bank robbery in America during peacetime - the plunder of $60,000 from the Clay County Savings Bank on February 13, 1866". After his death (shot by a fellow gang member), Jesse's grieving but canny mother sold pebbles from his grave at a quarter each, regularly replenishing them from a nearby creek. And there's "Wild Bill" Longley, indiscriminate "nigger killer" who 'fessed: "My first step was disobedience next whisky- drinking; next carrying pistols, next gambling and then murder, and I suppose next will be the gallows." He was right.

! The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, Vintage pounds 5.99. Peter Matthiessen's classic work of travel literature is as much the chronicle of an inner journey as it is the learned recording of an unfamiliar territory. His many expeditions to the wilderness areas of the world have been retold in other volumes, but this is the seminal one. In it he climbs the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas. His aim is to glimpse the snow leopard, a creature so rare and so revered that it is worshipped as a Buddhist emblem. In language that blends the spiritual with the earthly, Matthiessen provides a "map of the sacred" and a timeless account of this remote region.

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