Saturday 05 August 1995
Like a Ralph Lauren advert, something doesn't quite ring true about the sun-bleached landscapes of Michael Dorris's essays. Celebrating his native American ancestry, the joys of home life, and his role as sensitive man, Dorris's reflections have the distinct whiff of phoney baloney about them. His wife, the novelist Louise Erdrich, probably wishes he'd kept their evenings lost "in the foibles of intellectual geometry and romance" to their own front porch.
The Marble Kiss by Jay Rayner (Pan pounds 5.99)
It's 15th-century Tuscany, and Prince Bartolommeo dei Strossetti is pleasuring himself in time to his wife's labour pains. But just as his moment comes, the Princess haemorrhages to death in the room below. Five hundred years later, and the beautiful Princess - for whom the towers of San Giminigano once bowed down - still has men in the palm of her hand. And if you can ignore the purple prose, this book will make a surprisingly good companion for any hill-top holiday.
What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics by Adrienne Rich (Virago pounds 10.99)
30 years ago, recovering from a knee operation in a New York City hospital, the poet Adrienne Rich happened to tune in to a radio version of The Duchess of Malfi - all that talk of "worme-seed" and "phantastical puff- paste" cheered her up no end. Now in her late sixties, and still tramping the Mojave Desert for inspiration, Rich asks society to remember that what can salve the individual hurt, can also heal our collective pain.
Nothing is Black by Deirdre Madden (Faber pounds 5.99)
Eating fish and chips and Mars Bars is Nuala's secret protest against her comfortable life as an acclaimed Dublin restaurateur and happily married mother - she also likes to steal spoons from other people's tea trays. To understand the source of her unease, Nuala retreats to her cousin's white-washed cottage in Donegal to stare at the sea and look at art books. Heavy on exposition and insight, Madden's novel, like Nuala's cooking, could do with a dash of spice or spontaneity.
The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer (Penguin pounds 6.99)
Even as the Great War was being fought, people were working out how it would be remembered. The Cenotaph, the vast cemeteries of France and Belgium, the rolls of honour in schools and universities, all appeared with remarkable speed. In a fascinating and unusual essay - part historical, part impressionistic - Geoff Dyer makes the point that it's always easier to commemorate a war whose meaning is lost on everyone.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D Hedrick (Oxford pounds )
Once described by a visitor as "A wonderfully agile old lady, as fresh as a squirrel still, but with the face and air of a lion", Harriet Beecher Stowe, the best-selling author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was a formidable woman to the last. Considered a genius in a family of eccentrics, she prized individuality above all else, though it's her generalisations on class and race that anger critics today. The first biography of the novelist for 50 years, it's written, one suspects, by a kindred spirit.
Before I Get Old by Dave Marsh (Plexus pounds 12.99)
Tormented, tempestuous, irresistibly exciting: The Who make a superb subject for a pop biography. But this sprawling effort by a leading Rolling Stone writer is marred by incongruous Americanisms and inaccuracies, such as the reference to "blind pianist Russ Conway". Shoddily produced, the book is a reprint of the 1982 edition, so it jerks to a halt before the Broadway version of Tommy revived Pete Townshend's fortunes.
Profane Friendship by Harold Brodkey (Vintage pounds 5.99)
After decades of quiescence, the threat of illness prompted a late flowering in this New York novelist. As well as completing his decades-delayed saga The Runaway Soul, Brodkey produced this taut evocation of homosexual passion in a few months of 1992. Set against a crumbling Venetian backdrop, this tale of a brooding liaison between the son of a failed jazz-age writer and a slick, amoral Italian is a triumph.
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (Vintage pounds 8.99)
Until recently, America's fearsome Creationist lobby possessed a powerful weapon in that the processes of evolution had never been observed in action. But living proof is now accumulating in support of Darwin. Researching the finches of the Galapagos Islands, two UK academics have shown that beak shapes change in response to natural selection. A readable, richly intelligent, Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration.
A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis (Penguin pounds 7.99)
"You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." Legal flummery in all its rococo splendour piles up in this inventive satire of US jurisprudence. Gaddis's torrential dialogue is reminiscent of Joyce, not least in a dislike of inverted commas. This clever, if demanding, entertainment will have more appeal in lawyer-clogged America than here, where most folks steer well clear of m'learned friends.
Graham Greene: The Man Within by Michael Shelden (Minerva pounds 7.99)
When first published, this scandalous account of the reclusive novelist caused a stink with its account of Greene and his mistress "committing adultery behind every high altar in Italy". In fact, he made a speciality of coupling in unusual ways and locations (once on the Southend train). Ennui prompted such outre behaviour, though Shelden doubts that GG ever really tried Russian roulette.
The Far Corner by Harry Pearson (Warner pounds 5.99)
Hilarious and wonderful, this epic journey round the
wind-blasted soccer grounds of the north-east in the 93-94 season is imbued with Proustian resonance. The author muses on the oxymoronic Darlington chant "Quaker Aggro" and the fact that Billingham Synthonia is the only UK club named after a fertiliser. A really funny book, far too good for footer fans alone.
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