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The Independent Culture
The revised and expanded edition of Mary Ellen Miller's The Art of Mesoamerica: From the Olmec to Aztec (Thames & Hudson pounds 6.95) encompasses not only recent discoveries but also changes in the readership - a newly knowledgeable breed of 'travellers, armchair archaeologists and museum- goers'. Among its fine illustrations is this mask made in the ancient high-altitude city of Teotihuacan

The Book of Colour by Julia Blackburn, Vintage pounds 5.99. After two striking non-fiction titles concerned with imperial outposts, Blackburn's first novel, set in the Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles and Mauritius, maintains the theme, telling of the narrator's family and its founding great-grandfather, a hell-fire missionary bent on eradicating fornication and witchcraft among the local people despite his own marriage to a black islander. In the social system of the proselytising colonials colour is destiny, and a mixed-race child conceived in the missionary position is imbued with a compulsive fear of evil and a debilitating awareness of race. The narrative slips easily between memories and dreams, phantasmagoric yet believable. Family and imperial history unfold in parallel, passing down obsessions, depressions, terrors and furies like hereditary disease.

Stalin & the Bomb by David Holloway, Yale pounds 12.50. It has always been possible to write NATO's nuclear history as an interplay between scientific, political and military interests. The Soviet side was a different matter, because the three sectors of interest were opaque to historians while the USSR existed. But the story can now be told, making this groundbreaking history. It explores not just how the Russians made the bomb and the missiles to deliver it, but the relationship of Soviet ideology to science. In theory, at least, scientists were communism's equivalent of a priesthood. In practice they were torn between genuine patriotism, fear, dislike of Uncle Joe's brutal simplicities and an impulse towards scientific internationalism. In the end the patriotism and fear triumphed over the dislike and the internationalism. The Cold War was then inescapable.

Envy at the Cheese Handout by Lynne Bryan, Faber pounds 5.99. A clear contender for the year's most intriguing title, Bryan's first collection of stories interests itself in essentially good people whose minds let them down. She is often concerned with domestic lives intensified to ludicrous extremes - a woman's failed marriage and capsized therapy lead her to live as a hermit in a cave, another's baby never sleeps, a third sheds her despair in the local launderette. Bryan revels also in near-parodic distortions of wedlock. One has a woman, for the best of motives, making her man pay cash for sex. Another gently stretches the traditional notion of marriage when an alcoholically wasted teenage runaway is cared for by a self-appointed young nerd.

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, Picador pounds 5.99. About Mariette, the beautiful postulant, no one in the convent is neutral: either they're in love with her or they hate the ground she kneels on. But the flutter among the nuns twists into a mini tornado when Mariette starts to bleed from hands, feet and side. Are these the puzzling wounds of a stigmata, or is Mariette a fake? With surprising sympathy and conviction - but with pricking shards of irony too - Ron Hansen's novel penetrates the world of an enclosed order of nuns at the beginning of the century, revealing its peculiar and authentic compound of spirituality and smugness, sincerity and deceit. A fascinating, challenging read.

Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir by Margaret Forster, Penguin pounds 6.99. This is a splendid three-generational history of the author's family on the female side. Great-grandmother Margaret Ann was a domestic servant in Carlisle who married a butcher and moved a few degrees up the social scale. But she had a couple of shameful secrets in the past and her origins were never discussed. Forster's research fills the gaps with much interesting social detail before moving on to her first-hand memories of her unhappy mother, who married "below herself" and struggled throughout life with her fear of poverty and a yearning for genteel respectability. Finally, Forster tells of her own early life from pigtails to pregnancy, via Grammar School and Oxford, upwardly mobile again and looking back with affectionate, intelligent exasperation.

The Jesuit Mystique by Douglas Letson & Michael Higgins, Fount pounds 8.99. I recently heard an elderly Jesuit say that, of his generation's entry into the Society of Jesus, some 30 had been murdered (he didn't say martyred). Any organisation so unpopular is a force to be reckoned with, and this pro-Jesuit account sets out to show why the Society has always been just that - the SAS of the counter-reformation, subtle in debate but vigorous in pursuit of converts. The Spiritual Exercises of the founder, Ignatius of Loyola, is a ferocious training manual which, according to this book, is now gaining favour beyond Catholicism. Meanwhile, modern Jesuits tend to be anti-reactionary liberation theologians with attitude.

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