Palestinian Walks: Notes on a vanishing landscape, By Raja Shehadeh (Profile £9.99)
Intensely political while avoiding the excesses of pure polemic, Shehadeh's account of six different Palestinian walks continually grapples with misconceptions and misinformation. Take the title, juxtaposing a place inseparable from images of war and terror with an activity middle-aged men and women in knee-length shorts like to enjoy. Walks in Palestine? Surely not without an AK-47. But walking, of the stroll in the countryside variety, is what Shehadeh has been doing since his first forays into the Palestinian hills in the late 1970s. The problem is that every year he's found his movements more restricted and the landscape further disrupted by Israeli settlers.
Apart from describing the landscape, full of wild flowers, pine trees and remote springs, Shehadeh uses the walks to pose questions. Why have Western writers vilified the area? Thackeray commented on a "landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate"; Mark Twain wrote: "Palestine is desolate and unlovely"; Melville noted " ...bleached-leprosy-encrustations of cursed old cheese – bones of rocks ". These descriptions are far removed from the beauty Shehadeh encounters. He blames Palestine's "centrality to the West's historical and biblical imagination".
Shehadeh is always engaging. There's such an eccentricity to his approach, commenting on dinosaur footprints in the rock one moment, challenging Israeli law the next; and, being a lawyer, his criticisms of policies are delivered with economy and precision.
It's a remarkable way of going about things, delivering what many activists neglect to mention: the odd, often slightly absurd details that really touch people; things that appear off-camera, away from news reports – things that seem real.
Seven Hundred Penguins, Introduced by Jim Stoddart (Penguin £20)
At a time when challenging new fiction is so hard to come by it's fascinating to see how publishers like to spend their money. Bloomsbury throws it into projects such as David Blunkett's memoirs; Penguin pats itself on the back with an enormous collection of book covers " hand-picked" from their archives around the world.
To be fair, most of the 700 jackets displayed here are fascinating images in their own right: ideal material for the kind of collage that's bound to get people talking. With just a few choice frames and a pair of scissors you could do kitsch (Honour Blackman's Book of Self Defence, featuring the actress executing a fine judo move in spite of her handbag); class (maybe a Nabokov, although the 1995 Lolita jacket may get you run out of town); or strange (Edward de Bono's study of "Children as Inventors", The Dog-Exercising Machine, shows a childishly rendered dog standing on a see-saw with a box at either end, each containing a "dummy cat"). On reflection it's a volume well worth the asking price.
Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia and the end of the Golden Age, By Robin Waterfield (Faber £9.99)
Robin Waterfield's description of how Xenophon, a young Greek soldier, led a defeated army home after their defeat at the battle of Cunaxa in 401BC is based on Xenophon's own work, The Expedition of Cyrus – "the western world's first eyewitness account of a military campaign". Rather than retell the whole story, however, Waterfield uses this book to explore parts of the expedition not mentioned by Xenophon. The " gruesome nature of ancient battle", for instance. To this end, there are detailed descriptions of what hoplites (Greek heavy infantry) wore, the weapons they fought with, and how both combined in hand-to-hand fighting that frequently involved biting and genital mutilation. Elsewhere the reader learns that the army train contained many non-combatants, including " women for personal or shared sexual use" and "teenage boys: they were valuable booty, as well as satisfying more immediate needs".
It's harder to pin down the value of "popular history" than it is, say, "popular science". Making it easy to understand why the universe is expanding is one thing; tarting up the past is quite another.
Kalooki Nights, By Howard Jacobson (Vintage £7.99)
Max Glickman is a controversial cartoonist whose work focuses on Jewish suffering – even though he has married outside the faith. Roped into a dubious TV project about a double killing committed by one of his childhood friends, he finds himself revisiting his youth in 1950s Manchester. His father was "a boxer whose nose bled easily, an atheist who railed at God, and a communist who liked to buy his wife expensive shoes"; his mother liked to play a card game called Kalooki. Also sharing the family home were his redoubtable sister and a sad character called Tsedraiter [imbecilic] Ike who cowered around the house clinging desperately to his faith.
It's a riotous world conjured up with devastating wit. Jacobson cleverly picks apart Jewish stereotypes and hones the text with nasty little truths: teenage boys getting aroused at pictures of naked women in a concentration camp, for example. Although it's impossible not to admire this book, it's hard to really love it. Jacobson's humour, intelligence and guts are overwhelming but in a particularly middle-aged, masculine way that might make some readers' scalps itch.
Imposture, By Benjamin Markovits (Faber £7.99)
Markovits's subtle, complex novel nearly has Lord Byron as its protagonist. The main character is, in fact, John Polidori, Byron's physician and the author of The Vampyre, a tale published with "suggestive anonymity" – the suggestion being that it was actually Byron's first work in three years. Enraged, Polidori visits the publisher, Colburn, and has an encounter there with a woman who assumes he is Byron. The two men were so alike that, on their first meeting, Byron is rumoured to have said "I like to admire myself... in a youthful mirror."
A relationship develops between the characters, Polidori maintaining the pretence he is Byron not so much to seduce the woman as because his own life adds up to nothing. As a doctor his patients die; as a writer his work is rejected. "Nobody gives a damn about Dr Polidori," Colburn tells him. "Shall I tell you a young man they might pay... to read about? Lord Byron."
Exploring themes of originality and celebrity this is, for all its period outfitting, a thoroughly modern book.Reuse content