Saturday 08 June 1996
A Fool & His Money by Ann Wroe (Vintage, pounds 7.99) This vivid depiction of medieval life in the isolated town of Rodez in southern France focuses on a bizarre case involving a merchant, apparently suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, who forgot where he buried a pot of gold. Rodez was an unexceptional spot (even now its motto is "Ville Moven"), except it was partitioned into areas belonging to the local bishop (the City) and count (the Bourg). Though costly and inconvenient, these allegiances continued as does our own monarchy - because "it was all the people knew". Far livelier than "Montaillou", it's ideal intelligent reading for the hols.
Mapplethorpe - A Biography by Patricia Morrisroe (Papermac, pounds 12.00) After slipping the shackles of the suburbs, Mapplethorpe ardently pursued the dark pleasures of gay sadomasochism in NYC (though there was a vigorous heterosexual entr'acte with punk icon Patti Smith). "Whenever you make love," he declared, "there should be three people involved - you, the other person and the devil." Behind the lens, a different discipline took over, resulting in him being acclaimed as "the greatest studio photographer of his generation" before dying of AIDS at 42. Though 460 pages on him may be breaking a butterfly on a wheel, each one is packed with interest.
Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage, pounds 5.99) Lots of opining, next to no informing in these essays on art and literature. You can virtually hear the cogs of the author's mind grinding as she muses about what to say next. On art: "All painting is cave painting: painting on the low dark walls of you and me ..." On sex: "The artist imagines the forbidden because to her it is not forbidden." Though occasionally provoking - "I can find little to cheer me [by English language writers] between Four Quartets (1944) and Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (1967)" - these effusions from planet Winterson consist almost entirely of hot air. For fans only.
Season of Blood by Fergal Keane (Penguin, pounds 6.99) A tender, angry account of a terrible time by the BBC's man in Africa (now in Asia). Perhaps it is an exorcism - the events which took place in Rwanda in 1994 are seared on Keane's memory and dominate his dreams. He demands that his readers "never ever forget" that "in 100 Days up to 1 million people were hacked, shot, strangled, clubbed and burned to death". As well as being a scathing indictment - Keane says that the genocide inflicted on the Tutsis was planned well in advance by Hutu leaders - this is a graphic view of news- gathering in extremis. It deserves to become a classic .
The Afterlife by John Updike (Penguin, pounds 6.99) Hard on the heels of the publication of In the Beauty of the Lilies, Penguin have issued John Updike's latest collection of short stories which gleam with the finished polish of a well-loved piece of furniture. As usual, middle-aged men and their wives (second, third and sometimes fourth) are his subject matter, as too are their marital spats - most of which seem to happen on holiday. Vacations in Italy and Ireland are marred by rows over map-reading and macho driving, while a tale of shopping for antiques in Norfolk stimulates melancholy broodings on mortality and English weather. Classy writing from an old pro.
The Temporary by Rachel Cusk (Picador, pounds 5.99) A worthy successor to her Whitbread-winning first novel Saving Agnes, Rachel Cusk's second book is set in a twenty-something world of temporary secretarial jobs, temporary rentals and temporary relationships. Super temp Francine Snaith, secure in her good looks, but having confidence in little else, survives painful dinner dates and painful social gatherings in a determined search for love and attention. Corporate personnel departments, hum-drum tasks, tarted- up North London flats and the boys who live in them are Cusk's (and Francine's) targets. Read for the pleasure of recognition.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (Vintage, pounds 5.99) Possibly the only Pynchon novel you can read in one sitting (and without having the benefit of a graduate-level course on post-modern American fiction). Oedipa Maas is lost in Southern California, where her eccentric ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity (a cross between Howard Hughes and Ross Perot) has gone walk about. It's a place of singing surfers and a secret underground of conspirators known as the Trystero, who gobble up the meaning of everything (words, governments, post offices, stamp collections) when nobody's looking. A funny, knotty work of bizarre imaginings which requires close attention and a Thesaurus.
Plain Girl: A Life by Arthur Miller (Minerva, pounds 4.99) Arthur Miller's first piece of prose fiction in 20 years and, at just 76 pages long, proves that less is more. Set against the busy background traffic of Thirties New York, it tells the story of a young Jewish woman convinced that her plainess is preventing her from experiencing "anything miraculous ..." Seeking refuge with the "unhandsome" Sam Fink and his Communist commitments, she tries to hide herself (and her desires) from the world. A brilliant study in the pitfalls of female insecurity. Even Marilyn Monroe thought herself ugly.
Barbara Hepworth A Life of Forms by Sally Festing (Penguin, pounds 9.99) Among the inhabitants of the "salt-smelling" backstreets of St Ives, sculptor Barbara Hepworth is probably better known for the drama of her death than the achivements of her life. Regarded as an eccentric with a preference for black capes and the odd "tiddle", she completed the picture by burning herself to death in a blaze of terrifying ferocity. Sally Festing's passionate, though idiosyncratic biography, perhaps dwells a little unkindly on Hepworth's decline, but convincingly salvages her reputation from the shadow of Henry Moore's.
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