J F K: Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton, Arrow pounds 9.99. Forensic if admiring attempt to dismantle one of modern America's most potent myths and discover what really made Kennedy tick. Using previously unpublished letters, Hamilton paints a bleak picture of private horror and pretence: Kennedy pere ludicrously plotting to displace Roosevelt, and buying and bullying his son's way into Congress; Kennedy mere a miserable, repressed and icy disciplinarian; Jack's own lifelong ill-health and desire for compensating 'fun' in the shape of lots of girls. Little here to support the author's claim that JFK escaped the family net of bigotry and found true idealism. Vol 2 may supply the proof.
Wilfred Owen: The Last Year by Dominic Hibberd, Constable pounds 9.95. Concise, intelligent, richly illustrated account of the packed and poignant final months of the best-loved of the First World War poets. A century after Owen's birth, Hibberd remains coy about the homosexuality, but the important meeting with Siegfried Sassoon, the London encounters with such figures as Scott-Moncrieff and Robert Ross, the Yorkshire cottage where he wrote the poems that made his reputation and the return to France where, soaked in the blood of his servant, he captured an enemy machine gun - five weeks later he was dead - are vividly realised.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison, Picador pounds 4.99. The new Nobel Prize-winner's provocative essay arguing that race has always been a central metaphor in American literature. Morrison claims that the unfree, far from being ignored by the great white writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, played powerfully on their creative imaginations, helping to shape their narratives, ideas and language - and that the concept of whiteness as value remains fully alive in American culture. Her re-readings of Cather, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, James and Hemingway are often unsettling, sometimes shaming, usually illuminating - and even her meticulous deference to politically correct jargon cannot quite mask the energy and passion that make her own fiction so memorable.
The Fall of Yugoslavia by Misha Glenny, Penguin pounds 6.99. Revised version of an excellent account of Balkan hostilities by a BBC correspondent whose long service in the region makes him adept at unravelling old bitterness and new intransigence. A personalised but even-handed record that wears its mass of information lightly and paints sharp pictures of the leading personalities and places in this most terrible of modern conflicts.
Nelson Mandela Speaks, Pathfinder pounds 12.45. Mandela's recent speeches, together with occasional interviews, make remarkable reading, not because they map South Africa's shaky progress towards democracy (though they do) but for the sheer, lucid integrity of much of the language. It's so long since you could safely assume that British politicians said what they meant and meant what they said that Mandela's oratory, though it contains little not already widely reported by the media, comes across as almost shockingly fresh.
Greetings from Earth by Scott Bradfield, Picador pounds 5.99. Short stories that combine classic American realism with haunting renderings of interior life, the characters' fantasies fed by ordinariness - boxes of letters, inherited trinkets, shopping malls become doorways to liberating other worlds. A teenager left alone when her mother goes into hospital develops an oddly passionate relationship with her home; the inoffensive Dolores murders as nonchalantly as though fixing a milkshake. Each story is a complete world, precisely and humorously captured.
Hunted through Central Asia by Paul Nazaroff, trs Malcolm Burr, OUP pounds 6.99. Welcome reissue of a 1930s classic of real-life derring-do. The author, ringleader of a 1918 plot to overthrow the Bolsheviks, was betrayed to Lenin's men and forced to flee. Nazaroff's nail-biting adventures on the run 'over the Himalayas to the plains of Hindustan' are a beguiling mix of Geoffrey Household thrills and quaint travelogue ('The valley of the Chu . . . is uncommonly fertile. Nowhere else have I seen . . . such
immense potatoes'). But, 60 years on, the reminder of the sheer hugeness and strangeness of the continent is as pertinent as ever.
The Penguin Book of Fights, Feuds and Heartfelt Hatreds ed Philip Kerr, pounds 11. 'There is no surfeiting on gall,' according to Hazlitt, but 500 pages is more than enough. The problem with this anthology is not the famous antipathies it documents - everything from Hitler vs Jews to Joan Crawford vs Bette Davis - but the lacklustre prose: Swift, Knox, Hemingway and Whistler supply bracing doses of spleen, but elsewhere the reliance on hack writers and routine showbiz biographies makes for dull reading and there are few shock revelations to compensate: hopes that in private Mrs Simpson and the Queen Mother scratched and spat are sorely disappointed.
Arabella Boxer's Book of English Food, Penguin pounds 9.99. No olive oil, no sun-dried tomatoes, no salades tiedes, no dinky little diamonds of fried polenta - it's a wonder our parents and grandparents didn't starve. Arabella Boxer has never achieved the iconic status of Elizabeth David, but she is a perceptive writer and an unpretentious cook whose now classic First Slice Your Cookbook has rescued many a dinner party. Here she rehabilitates British food from between the wars, setting sound but wonderfully nostalgic recipes (seed cake, potted shrimps, Bakewell tart, watercress and walnut sandwiches) in an evocative, delightfully gossipy social context. The Bloomsbury set's dietary habits are laid bare and we learn that one day in 1924 Siegfried Sassoon had haddock and baked apple, but still found himself bolting tea and three sponge cakes at 4am.
Leporello by William Palmer, Minerva pounds 5.99. The Don Giovanni legend as reinvented by his faithful pimp and servant casts the Don himself as an Enlightenment sympathiser, and Leporello as a God-fearing peasant who first recounts his master's libidinous adventures with voyeuristic delight, then watches in dismay as the reformed reprobate struggles to accept grief, old age and a syphilitic demise. Intelligent and perceptive, but, despite the picaresque energy, this novel never quite transcends the ordinary.
Obabakoak by Bernardo Axtaga, Vintage pounds 5.99. A rousing and multi- faceted celebration of the short story; 26 linked tales and parodies which pluck the reader back from a state of fairy-tale timelessness for a quick analysis of the symbolism so far. Set in the Basque village of Obaba, the stories are peopled by convincing rascals, intellectuals, innocents, hunters, village idiots and creatures of superstition. Axtaga has awakened the 'hedgehog' of his native Basque language, and has brought it into the context of his own wide and idiosyncratic reading of world literature.
Judy Garland by David Shipman, HarperCollins pounds 7.99. A trouper at 10, a star at 16, a has-been at 26 and dead from an overdose at 47, Judy Garland lived life on fast forward. This biography, steering a tactful course between realism and adoration, chronicles it all - the unhappiness, the five marriages (three to gay men), the near-nymphomania, the Monroe-rivalling unreliability, the pills sewn into the hems of dresses, the compulsive lying; but also the enormous talent, charm, self- knowledge and humour - several friends recall laughing more with Garland than with anyone else they knew - and the vulnerability, all amounting to a kind of valiant grace.