Paperbacks

Watermark by Joseph Brodsky (Penguin, pounds 6.99) For anyone going to Venice, this slim volume of shimmering prose deserves a place alongside J G Links's incomparable handbook. You would not, however, expect a poet's view of La Serenissima to serve quite the same function as an orthodox guide: "the eye, our only raw, fishlike internal organ, indeed swims here. It darts, flaps, oscillates, dives...". Brodsky's brilliant reflections are the distillation of almost two decades of annual visits, always in winter and up to a month in length. As in the city itself, you may lose your bearings, but the experience remains constantly entrancing.

Hanging Up by Delia Ephron (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99) A high-gloss take on a familiar American theme, the alcoholic parent. Based on Ephron's famous family, this novel largely consists of zappy dialogue, often via the phone, as when Eve, the narrator, mishears her father's slurred announcement of his first overdose as "I took No-Doz" (an over-the-counter stimulant). The terminal scenes in a geriatric clinic are vivid and moving, but much of the book consists of self-absorbed gabbing by Eve and her two sisters. An easy but shallow read, like flipping through a photo album. Unsurprisingly, the film rights have already been sold and sister Nora is slated to direct.

Flight Paths of the Emperor by Steven Heighton (Granta, pounds 8.99) A rather aimless collection of short stories which probes the gulf between Japan and the West, in particular Osaka and Canada. Often this divide is further emphasised by the generation gap. In one of the more telling fragments, a group of Japanese men move to defend a teenage girl of mixed race who is being attacked by a drunken westerner. "But I'm her father" he pleads. Heighton, who is also a poet, strives too hard for resonant effects: "men practising judo, their eyes and teeth glinting like fireflies in the dark, while singers in kimono rehearse mournful songs under the pines."

The Encyclopedia of Beatles People by Bill Harry (Blandford, pounds 14.99) A delight to those obsessed by the Fab Four but a mystery to the rest of us. Engagingly, many of those included come from the seedier end of the showbiz spectrum, such as Alfred Lennon, John's absent dad, who issued an "autobiographical record" called "It's My Life". We also learn that Darcy Bussell's father ran Apple Tailoring for its two-month existence in 1968 and that Dhani Harrison (born 1978), after "a somewhat cossetted life", now studies design technology. Despite his passion for minutiae, Harry omits the fact that Jagger and Richards were among the chorus for "All You Need is Love".

Uses and Abuses by Aldo Busi (Faber, pounds 7.99) Free of chapter breaks, Busi's magic carpet rolls seamlessly from Lugano to Brussels to "that hateful place" London (he was arrested for "indecent acts in public") to Reykavik to Caracas - and we're still only on page 57. While Busi's main object of interest is himself ("I feel a great love and tenderness for my sleeping body"), fortunately he is also intrigued by almost everyone else he meets. Genet-like, he is drawn to the underclass. While exulting in his homosexuality, Busi repeatedly reveals a keen eye for girls in tight black trousers. An odd, hilarious, angry book from this omnivorous, ceaselessly opinionated voyager.

The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber by Nicholson Baker (Vintage, pounds 7.99) This prose collection by the American novelist Nicholson Baker offers a rich intellectual omnium-gatherum of critical insights, word games, self-exploration and lateral thinking. In Baker's hands, nerdy, pedantic scholarship becomes exciting, witty and liberated. Literary and linguistic topics, such as the history of punctuation or the use of spatial metaphors for mental processes, get the best out of him, but even fingernail parings can inspire his curiosity. His urbane facility with language and ideas sometimes lapses into tricksiness, but his enthusiasm for such a wide range of literature - from Nabokov to Petrarch to Charlotte Bronte - makes up for the occasional cheap pun.

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