Paperbacks: I Am Charlotte Simmons <br></br> Before I Forget <br></br> Waterborne <br></br> Like Nowhere <br></br> V S Pritchett: A working life <br></br> An Honourable Deception? <br></br> A Reason for Everything

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The Independent Culture

Every decade, Tom Wolfe trains his journalistic eye on a new of stratum of American society. His latest novel takes the campus novel in a new direction, giving the jocks as much air time as the leading lights of the English department. Set in the well-manicured grounds of Dupont University, a fictional Ivy League campus in Pennsylvania, Wolfe's book describes a student body divided by class and race and driven by pheromones. "Sex! Sex! It was in the air like nitrogen and oxygen!" writes Wolfe with dandified abandon. "The whole campus was humid with it! Tumid with it! Lubricated with it!" Our guide through the hyped-up halls of residence is Charlotte Simmons, a pretty freshman from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her virginal air attracts male attention. Student factions are represented by Jojo Johansen, a basketball star; Adam Gellin, a "dorky" journalist and Hoyt Thorpe, a "second generation snob". As the book progresses, the three suitors are united by a sex scandal involving Lewinsky-style favours in gardens. Wolfe's "Animal House" Bildungsroman runs the risk of reading like a slice of groovy sociology. But it's research enlivened by bold imaginative swoops. Not every 75-year-old writer could capture how it feels for a young woman to brave a co-ed bathroom with only a new plaid dressing-gown for protection. EH

Before I Forget, by Andre Brink (VINTAGE £7.99 (312pp))

Chris Minnaar is a 78-year-old South African writer whose relationship with a young married sculptress, Rachel, gives shape and meaning to his declining years. It's Rachel, however, who pops her clogs first - the victim of a random act of violence. Minnaar recalls their affair in an erotic memoir that also remembers his previous girlfriends, and his tortured friendship with Rachel's husband. While Brink's novel convincingly explores the sexual personae of the Afrikaner male, his writing is not without a high "ick" content. At one point the narrator compares his memoirs to a collection of "moon cloths" (menstrual rags), and his womanising to the invasion of Baghdad. EH

Waterborne, by Bruce Murkoff (VINTAGE £7.99 (397pp))

Not all American engineering projects are doomed. Bruce Murkoff's historical-fiction debut is set around the construction of one of the last century's more ambitious creations - the Boulder Dam. Brought together by the hope of employment, the novel's leading characters arrive in the Nevada desert suffering from various degrees of malnutrition and heartache. Filius Poe, a decent, stoical engineer, falls for Lena McCardell, a mother on the run from a bigamist husband; while Lew Beck, the diminutive villain of the piece, adds emotional grit to an already monumental drama. Murkoff's memorable epic breathes new life into the sepia-tinted faces of the Great Depression. Louis L'Amour for the literati. EH

Like Nowhere Else, by Denyse Woods (PENGUIN IRELAND £9.99 (410pp))

The garrulous narrator of Wood's third novel, Vivien Quish, would have all the makings of a fine comic creation if she weren't taken seriously as a romantic heroine. Since her teens, Dublin-based Vivien has been obsessed with the Yemen. She decides to rekindle her dreams of travel, and, wrapped in a concealing headscarf, heads for the stinging heat of the desert. Ready to seduce her is the anthropologist Christian, a man who may, or may not, have seduced her best friend. Like a latter-day Gertrude Bell, Vivien sidesteps life's more dangerous romantic minefields without a second thought. EH

V S Pritchett: A working life, by Jeremy Treglown (PIMLICO £12.99 (308pp))

Gore Vidal spoke for every lover of simple excellence in fiction and criticism when he said that "it would be nice" if V S Pritchett "lived for ever". Sir Victor didn't quite achieve that, but his long and productive life (1900-97) left a vast legacy of perfect stories, vivid travel books, enduring memoirs and (not least) the 60-year harvest of essays that fix in fine prose the qualities of writers from Cervantes to Rushdie. Was this keen-eyed, kind-souled suburban Solomon ever cheap, ever prolix, ever wrong? Treglown's life of the ultimate pro, written with a Pritchettian blend of sympathy, humour and economy, paints this small, modest man as even more of a literary giant than his many fans have thought. BT

An Honourable Deception? By Clare Short (FREE PRESS £7.99 (319pp))

From one of Blair's most respected ex-ministers comes this resonant indictment of the Iraq débâcle and the abuse of power that the war served. There's deep sorrow here, but rising anger, too, as a firm pillar of the Labour state grows "ashamed of and disenchanted with" its regime of spin and fib. A bitterly revealing exposé from one of the rare politicians ever to make good on a belief in politics as "a moral calling". BT

A Reason for Everything, by Marek Kohn (FABER £9.99 (392pp))

If the evolution of evolution has baffled you, Kohn offers a tonic packed with flavour and energy. His study of "natural selection and the English imagination" melds biology with biography, tracing the rise of Darwinist thought via wittily expert sketches of the key figures from Wallace to Dawkins. "Evolutionary theory now looks like life," he concedes, "complicated and diverse". Elegant and enlightening, this book clarifies both its patterns and passions. BT

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