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In The Rise of the Sixties (Everyman Art Library, pounds 7.99) Thomas Crow sketches a turbulent decade, drawing connections between art and politics. "The familiar role of the visionary artist [was] one more support for a complacent, self-congratulatory high culture," says Crow in his introduction. "[No] single artist, whatever his or her gifts may be, can synthesize more than a fraction of the dialogue." His overview accordingly features a multiplicity of viewpoints, but there's still room for entertaining anecdotes, like the doyen of Land Art Richard Long as a student telling his teacher Anthony Caro that a few bits of twig represented one half of a two-part work. "Show me the other half," demanded Caro. "It's on top of Ben Nevis," replied Long.

Left, Roy Lichtenstein's "M-Maybe (A Girl's Picture)", 1965.

K: A Biography of Kafka by Ronald Hayman, Phoenix pounds 12.99. The obsessive subject of Kafka's bulletins to the outside world, whether in fiction, journal, letters or (it seems) conversation, was the inner self that lived within the fortress walls of his personality. Those walls were formidably defended, making it almost impossible to separate the natural from the factitious. Hayman posts a long and well-researched report, anxious as any land-surveyor to get definition and objectivity. But Kafka emerges precisely as he wished to be seen: a dithering, provisional, contradictory neurotic. You are forced to conclude that, despite a long stay in the region, Hayman never finally got into that castle at all.

The Afterlife and Other Stories by John Updike, Penguin pounds 6.99. Having long been the prose bard of materialism, sex and marriage in America, Updike has evolved into a harbinger of death. The characters in these stories - most of them male and in their late fifties and sixties - look forward to extinction with mixed feelings but spend more time looking regretfully back. In "Brother Grasshopper", the protagonist re-evaluates a lifetime's chalk-and-cheese relationship with his brother-in-law and realises for the first time his dependence on him. In "A Sandstone Farmhouse", a similar perception attaches to a childhood home, previously associated only with asthma and distress. Perhaps there's an evenness of temper in these stories and not enough rage at the dying of the light. But there's always Updike's tirelessly inventive language to savour.

A Diving Rock on the Hudson by Henry Roth, Phoenix pounds 6.99. In 1934 Roth published a best-selling autobiographical novel, Call It Sleep, about growing up an immigrant Jew in the Lower East Side. Then, after years of writer's block, he re-emerged aged 88 with a novel-sequence, Mercy of a Rude Stream, chronicling the life of a writer, Ira Stigman. The novels are just as closely based on the life of Roth himself as their 40-year- old predecessor, and even more explicitly a homage (or challenge?) to James Joyce, his literary hero. The "modernist" device of frequent authorial commentary (old Stigman chatting to his PC) was more devastatingly employed by Fielding in Tom Jones, but Roth's narrative gift comes through in this second volume, which takes Ira from High School to College and his first published work. He managed to finish four more volumes before his death.

Inventing Wonderful: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J M Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A A Milne by Jackie Wullschlager, Methuen pounds 12.99. The thesis here is that "the origin of English children's books lies in the Victorian romance with childhood". Its subjects - oddballs every one of them - are five out of a dozen writers born in the 19th century who collectively invented a new genre of fantasy, nonsense and inverted logic, and so gave children a powerful counterforce to the didacticism they'd previously been expected to enjoy. Children's books could never credibly return to the days when fairy tales were condemned for violence, absurdity and bad example. Wullschlager tells the writers' lives with a largely sympathetic eye to the fiction. They all suffered as children, but the differences between them give this incisive book its breadth.

Fascism: A History by Roger Eatwell, Vintage pounds 8.99. Fascism being a widely misunderstood (and so misused) word, there is certainly room for a general narrative history of the phenomenon. This one confines itself to the politics of Italy, Germany, France and Britain, yet at the outset there is strain as Eatwell attempts to boil down the origins of fascist theory to a mere nine pages - little more than an A-level history crib. Thousands of books have been written on the rise and fall of Hitler, so to tell the tale in 65 pages presupposes a narrative and synoptic gift to rival A J P Taylor's. Eatwell does not rise to these heights, nor does he seem reliable in coming up to date, if his description of the modern Tory Party is a guide: he treats it as if there were no real internal argument going on about Europe. Where has he been?

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery by Jeanette Winterson, Vintage pounds 5.99. The first essay describes how Winterson walked past an art shop in Amsterdam one day, glimpsed a picture in the window, staggered back - and fell in love. She did not merely love the subject of the painting; in whole-hearted, Hazlitt style, Winterson had fallen in love with Art itself. Her ardour for art (whether verbal, visual or aural) and her belief in its sovereign powers are everywhere apparent. She anxiously protects the loved one - to make sure it is not mistaken for other mucky characters such as Life or Sex - and collects books and pictures with driven reverence. And at times her incantations are powerful enough to make you see what she's on about.

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