BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! One Hot Summer in St Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell, Vintage pounds 6.99. Fallowell originally went to Russia to try to write a novel. What he ended up with was this extraordinary portrait of one of the world's great cities in painful transition. It reads like a diary fuelled by vodka: unselfconscious, rambling and tear-stained, but surprisingly charming. We are told of his difficulties trying to sleep when it never gets dark, the effect on his bowels of the cholesterol-laden food, his feelings about the buildings, the politics and the people he meets, seduces or falls in love with. By the end you feel you've not only spent the summer in St Petersburg, but have also raced through a cracking novel and slept with the author.

! Profane Friendship by Harold Brodkey, Vintage pounds 5.99. Harold Brodkey famously took 20-odd years to complete his great American novel The Runaway Soul. This was knocked off by comparison, perhaps because he had been newly diagnosed with Aids. Set in Venice, the story charts the relationship from boyhood to old age between Nino and Onni, the former from a rich American family, the latter an ordinary Venetian. Told in retrospect by Nino, it fits the cliche: uptight American/Anglo-Saxon type discovers beauty/ truth/good technique after being taken in hand by swarthy/natural/uninhibited Mediterranean. But it's a lot more than that: Brodkey is obsessed with trying to capture each past and passing moment. It's an anxious and often prolix narrative, but also achingly intimate and stately.

! James Dean: Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Paul Alexander, Warner pounds 6.99. This "revisionist" biography of everybody's favourite road accident victim is heavy on the sex - gay sex. Even as a boy Jimmie was slipping round to the local Wesleyan minister, Mr DeWeerd, to watch old bullfighting films and indulge in a little tossing and goring. It's obviously well researched and good on the context: why Dean was the right rebel at the right time, why his claimed heterosexuality might be propagated by the studio. Where Alexander annoys is in his sometimes ludicrous reconstruction of dialogue and sex scenes and in the assumption that he can read Dean's mind, even his subconscious mind. Still lots of fun, though.

! Going into a Dark House by Jane Gardam, Abacus pounds 5.99. "Molly Fielding's mother had been a terrible woman born about the same time as Tennyson's Maud and as unapproachable." The opening words in the pithy title story of this new collection are sparked off by a sepia photograph of the not- so-dear departed. What unfolds - a theme repeated elsewhere in these stories - is a tale of women who fail to negotiate love and passion and who are doomed to be dismissed as mad spinsters or slatterns. Double Whitbread- winner Gardam writes and plots fluently, though she sometimes stumbles when venturing beyond the middle-classes and some of her twists are clever, rather than interesting.

! I'm Here I Think, Where Are You? (Letters from a Touring Actor) by Timothy West, Coronet pounds 5.99. Obviously it's all very luvvie, especially as the recipient of the letters is another luvvie, his wife Prunella Scales. But it's also very well observed and often hilarious. It stretches from West's days touring with the Prospect Theatre Company, when good lodgings were scarce and when particularly nasty ones brought forth the traditional revenge: sewing a kipper in the sofa. Then there's the other extreme, years later, when he's the British representative at the Pope's International Cultural Symposium and getting into an appalling mess with the props. Knighthoods and trebles all round.

! The Museum of Love by Steve Weiner, Bloomsbury pounds 5.99. It is 1954 in the town of St Croix on the edge of Lake Superior in Canada. Farmer Ed Glen has just shot a social worker; prior to that he's been digging up women from the Lutheran cemetery, covering them in resin and dressing them in his mother's shawls. Everywhere in this town of Indians, immigrants and half-breeds there are random acts of violence and explosions of madness, not to mention plagues of snails, hideous diseases and bouts of sadistic sex. All this works as a fantastical backdrop to, and projection of, the growing pains of our young narrator Jean-Michel Verhaeren. Puberty never looked so dangerous.

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