Still Life with a Bridle by Zbignew Herbert, Vintage pounds 4.99. In these 'Essays and Apocryphas', the great Polish poet builds a single, tightly constructed work from pieces which at first seem only loosely connected. Finding his subjects in the eerily flat country of Zeeland, and compelled by 'a never-ending need to reach a broader 'bird-like' perspective' that it continually denies, he studies paintings and the lives of their creators (Terborch and Torrentius), analyses aspects of Dutchness (tulips and frugality), and re-tells grisly little parable-histories (in the 'apocryphas'). The result is a profound meditation on life, art, death, you-name-it: a wonderful book, full of wonders.
Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag, Vintage pounds 5.99. Susan Sontag's second collection of essays (published in 1969) is less focused than her first (Against Interpretation), and more impressed by its own cleverness. It's also - in 'What's Happening in America' and 'Trip to Hanoi' - bound by its period for ill as well as for good. Still, Sontag is generally better than most at recognising the preoccupations of her age, and does so here in a sparkling section on film, and in the two magnificent essays, 'The Aesthetics of Silence' and 'The Pornographic Imagination'. Both these raise issues that swirl through her dark and driven 1967 novel, Death Kit (Vintage pounds 5.99), which is reissued simultaneously.
Safe in the Kitchen by Aisling Foster, Penguin pounds 5.99. This first novel is both rollicking and rigorous. The rollicking entails 1920s Irish politicians, a Russian delegation, jewels sewn into lingerie, lesbianism. The rigour involves issues of nationalism, family values and emotional expenditure. Foster is too entertaining a writer to let her serious themes become blatant, and too serious ever to let them disappear from our minds altogether. Her narrative, like her prose, represents an impressive combination: discreetly ambitious and fully achieved.
In Europe's Name by Timothy Garton Ash, Vintage pounds 9.99. The hardback publication of this monumental study could hardly have been better timed: hard on the heels of Germany's unification, it asked big questions about the foreign policies which had made this happen - Ostpolitik between 1966 and 1990. Garton Ash's skill in synthesising reflection, discussion and erudition is extraordinary. At the same time he is a properly doubting historian, whose conclusions are based on the widest possible range of evidence, drawn here from the dustiest of dusty files on one hand, and from Honecker himself on the other. Neal Ascherson called this 'the book of the moment'. It still is.
The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker, Penguin pounds 5.99. This is the sequel to the brilliantly evocative Regeneration, which introduced us to Siegfried Sassoon in Craiglockheart Hospital, where he was treated for shell-shock by Dr Rivers towards the end of the First World War. It's now 1918, and Barker is more concerned with Rivers than his patients - more involved, in fact, with the wide and general consequences of the war than the brutal facts of slaughter. Delicately and unostentatiously, she asks us to think about (among other things) gender-
definition, loyalty and writerly deception. A third novel in the series is promised. If it's as good as the first two, it will complete a modern classic.
Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes, Harvill pounds 8.99. This side of the Atlantic, most campaigners against political correctness have simply cobbled together stories of various linguistic and bureaucratic absurdities, then held them up for ridicule. It's a game from the makers of that other old favourite: 'Dotty Sprouts from Brussels'. In America, where PC is much more widespread and engrained than here, the counterblasters are correspondingly more articulate, and more heated. Robert Hughes is the most famously heated of them all - and his argument has the great advantage of realising that the whole gruesome tendency has its origins in America's admiration for therapy and litigation. That's partly why the issue is so complicated: from one angle PC is patently ridiculous; from another it reflects an appeal to individual needs and rights. Or to put it another way, PC is a hall of distorting mirrors in which liberal instincts promote illiberal censures. Hughes doesn't admit what a distinctly new kind of social disease this is, but his fiery and wide-ranging book is nevertheless deeply sympathetic.
Women of the Left Bank by Shari Benstock, Virago pounds 11.99. How publishers do love those early-modernist Parisian blues] Hardly a season goes by without another rehash of what Pablo did with Georges, what Ernest wrote to Ezra . . . Shari Benstock is obviously as bored with the old stories as most would-be-interested parties, and her book works hard and successfully to shatter familiar views. By exploring what impulses drew the likes of Stein, Toklas, Rhys and Wharton to Paris in the first place, she tells us a good deal about how early-century culture was shaped and financed, about who it made central (men), and about who it side-lined (you guessed). Her reading emphasises that modernism was a curiously accidental movement, and this makes its achievements seem accessible and fun, rather than daunting and programmatic.
Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon
by Neil Sheehan, Picador pounds 5.99. Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie is the definitive account of America's defeat in Vietnam. Here is the sequel - a long essay which tells us what he saw when he returned to Vietnam in 1989, 15 years after the war ended. Predictably enough, it paints a grim portrait of long-term trauma and deprivation. Less predictably, Sheehan rarely moralises or wags his finger - and his book is all the more moving for this restraint. From time to time, it looks as though he's going to persuade himself that the Vietcong's resilience is a match for the sadness of their plight. In the end, their put-upon sorrow seems beyond healing - and Sheehan's evocation a devastating indictment of his own country's policies.