BOOKS: PICK OF THE WEEK

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The Independent Culture
Alex Garland (below) pointed out at the Cheltenham Festival a few weeks ago that beginning to read a book is a rather like turning up in a foreign country. "That's why I've never written anything set in England," the bestselling young author of The Beach explained. "I quite like feeling alienated from my subject when I'm writing something. That way I'm in a similar mood to the reader, who is opening the book without any sense of what's about to come."

At the Birmingham Readers &Writers Festival tonight, Garland will be further narrowing the author/book-toting back-packer divide when he leads the way through the violent streets of Manila described in his new book, The Tesseract. A word of advice if you're hanging around the bookstall, however. "I often go into bookshops and kind of loiter around," Garland warns. "And what irritates the piss out of me is when I see people pick up my book, and then just put it straight back down again."

Closing the South Bank's Poetry International festival today, barbish poet and critic Sean O'Brien gives a coruscating lecture dissecting the contemporary poetry world - intriguing listening for anyone keen to weigh up the various candidates for the Poet Laureate. Then there's a far-too-rare chance to hear from Paul Muldoon, Northern Ireland's virtuoso lexical magician.

His new collection, Hay, is a harum-scarum daw's nest of shiny doodlebobs of words, which flash, hey ho, like a heliograph. "There's nothing to be ashamed of, using a dictionary," he advises, "but if you don't recognise a word, you can always just keep on moving. All poems are on the borderline of sense and nonsense, and some of these stray over the edge."

See Muldoon tonight, because, as your man says in his proverbially tricksy poem, Symposium: "Make hay while you can still hit the nail on the head/There's no smoke after the horse is gone."

Birmingham Readers & Writers Festival, MAC, Cannon Hill Park, Edgbaston Rd, Birmingham (0121-440 3838): Alex Garland in conversation with Jim Crace, tonight, 8pm; Shena Mackay and Mary Flanagan, tomorrow, 5.30pm.

Poetry International, Purcell Room, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) today: Sean O'Brien lecture "Waiting for the End", 1pm; Paul Muldoon reads with Tom Paulin and Olga Sedakova, 7.30pm Judith Palmer

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