Paperbacks: Mothers and Sons<br/>Bar Flaubert<br/>Black Girl White Girl<br/>Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to his Life and Work<br/>Marco Polo

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The Independent Culture

Mothers and Sons, By Colm Tóibí (Picador £7.99) fourstar

These short stories show an author prepared to work outside modern conventions. They have the epiphanies and compressed time frames expected these days but, from within them, longer narratives lope away, leading the reader off on subtle explorations of place and character. There is a premise behind the collection but it's trite and best forgotten: each story includes a moment where the relationship between a mother and her son changes. What really impresses is the depth and emotional charge of the writing.

These qualities combine memorably in the first piece, "The Use of Reason ". A criminal takes great pride in his skill as a thief – a talent honed on the sharp sense of suspicion he developed the first time he was imprisoned: "When he was finally let out... he brought with him the feeling that behind everything lay something else, a hidden motive perhaps, or something unimaginable and dark, that the person on display was merely a disguise for another person." It's a compelling story made stronger by Tóibí*'s ability to size up quickly the tone of a place. The city is "a great emptiness" ringed by suburban houses, and there are " sad attics, empty as well".

Occasionally Tóibí*'s extended narratives can offer the reader too much information. "Famous Blue Raincoat" tells of a woman who discovers her teenage son is making CDs of recordings made by her old band many years previously. The son assumes she's reluctant to listen to the music because she thinks it doesn't sound good; the truth is more complex, but hardly requires the detailed and predictable band history that follows. Even here though, in the weakest story, the prose is so haunting it's impossible to feel short-changed.

Bar Flaubert, By Alexis Stamatis (Arcadia £11.99) threestar

Sometimes the first scene of a novel tells you all you need to know about it. Alexis Stamatis's story of a personal quest begins with his protagonist, Yannis Loukas, performing cunnilingus on his girlfriend. Pondering mathematical sequences to keep himself in the "erotic flow", Loukas reflects that it's a good way of "being there and not there" with his partner. Stamatis seems similarly detached; frequently working up towards something exciting, but repeatedly failing to ring any bells.

Set in the present day, Loukas's quest begins while he's helping his famous author father complete an autobiography. Looking through some old files he discovers an unpublished manuscript by a young Greek man who spent time in the US with the beat writers Ginsberg and Burroughs. Loukas's father is adamant that the novel has no literary merit, but Loukas is enthralled. Perhaps in the original Greek the sections of the lost masterpiece quoted at length allowed Stamatis to flaunt extraordinary literary talents; if so, they must have expired during translation. Loukas, however, is so inspired that he embarks on an exhaustive search for the writer.

Black Girl White Girl, By Joyce Carol Oates (Harper Perennial £7.99) fourstar

Written from the perspective of Genna Meade, the middle-aged daughter of a notorious ex-hippy lawyer, this novel begins with a simple statement of fact: 15 years previously Genna's college roommate, a young black woman named Minette Swift, died mysteriously. To try and work out exactly what happened, Genna retraces the events of their sophomore year.

Minette, daughter of a firebrand preacher, attended college on a scholarship – her father expected her to become a tax lawyer representing his church. From the start she did nothing to ingratiate herself with the other girls, spurning anyone who tried to make friends with her including, at first, Genna. She was suspicious, but apparently without cause; then the reasons came: her property was damaged and racist insults scrawled on the furniture.

It is a complex novel; Oates is such an intelligent writer, and one who is also always highly readable. It's intriguing to see what happens when an author of her calibre starts to dismantle stereotypes and probe the combination of fear, ignorance and miscommunication that leads inevitably to a tragedy like Minette's.

Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to his Life and Work, By Gary Lachman (Floris £9.99) twostar

Attempting to read Steiner first-hand is no easy task, but maybe Gary Lachman should have avoided dwelling on this in his introduction. It's one thing to hint that a thinker might be difficult to stomach intellectually (Steiner wrote about the Buddha's work on Mars), another to quote a Steiner devotee such as Friedrich Rittelmeyer admitting that "a feeling of nausea" came over him whenever he tried to read the original texts. Fortunately, enough of a legacy survives (including the schools, biodynamic farming and pioneering work into holistic health) to make the idea of getting to know Steiner compelling, however many obstacles he or his biographer have put in the way.

If you can get past the author's florid style, this enthusiastic work does serve as a sound introduction to Steiner. On the other hand, so would an afternoon on the internet. Books like this may be full of heart and good intentions, but they need more than that if they are to be authoritative.

Marco Polo, By Jonathan Clements (Haus £9.99) fourstar

In 1271, 24 years after leaving Europe on a trading mission for his father, Marco Polo returned home almost unrecognisable to those who'd known him. It was only when he showed his family the riches he'd accumulated on his travels that they welcomed him back into the fold. Some time later, while imprisoned, he wrote his memoirs with the help of an author of Arthurian romances called Rustichello – who may well have embellished the tale.

The resulting book, A Description of the World (more commonly known as The Travels), seemed to fulfil two roles. Marco Polo may have wanted to write a trader's guide to operating in foreign markets, but Rustichello appears to have been keener to write a popular dramatic saga. It's the tension between these two very different positions, Jonathan Clements suggests, which has led to so much subsequent confusion over Marco Polo's travels – and questions over their authenticity.

A lucid, lively account supported by many useful and evocative illustrations.