Point to Point Navigation: A memoir, By Gore Vidal (Abacus 8.99)
Gore Vidal has always proclaimed himself a classical rather than Romantic writer. Like Juvenal, he spares no one; like Lucretius he's a materialist; like Callimachus (more perhaps than he'd like to admit) he hates everything public. But the air seems very thin up on Parnassus. I wondered if there really was a human heart beating in the breast of this prince among pythons. I never, in short, got the point of Gore Vidal. I do now.
This exquisite memoir, successor to the acclaimed Palimpsest, purports to pick up the story from 1964 to the present. It doesn't, of course. Instead, the author muses and snarls back and forth across the decades. He has known everyone, it seems, and everyone gets an anecdote. Characteristic is his description of a lunch held by his friend, the crown princess of Thailand. Barbara Cartland has also been invited. At a shared signal, Vidal and the princess start sweetly asking her about a Royal Wedding, knowing full well that she had not, to her deep chagrin, been invited.
His thought is impossible to summarise. Furious at Bush's hijacking of his beloved US, he also seems unimpressed by the US system in its essence, and never makes clear his preferred alternative. Some doubts remain: yes, the gems are marvellous, but I'm not so sure about their setting a sometimes leaden facetiousness. On the creative process, however, he is matchless.
Inevitably perhaps, the passages that linger most in the mind are those touching the death of Howard Auster, Vidal's companion for more than 50 years. As Vidal puts it, simply and powerfully, "'We' ceased to be and became 'I'". Vidal the narcissist is nowhere present here. He shows himself at his greatest when he dares to descend to the level of the rest of us benighted fellow-mammals.
The People of the Book: The forgotten history of Islam and the west, By Zachary Karabell (John Murray 9.99)
There is a canard that Christianity was spread by love and Islam by conquest. Zachary Karabell is quite alive to the bloodshed that has characterised relations between Islam and Christendom, but his business is with the lesser-known tale of tolerance and cultural exchange: the first Muslim caliphate of Spain proved a model of co-existence, as, in its more regimented way, did the Ottoman empire. Meanwhile the Crusaders are shown as often ordinary men struggling to match the claims of conscience with the defence of their faith.
Karabell isn't the first writer to point to a history of co-operation between the faiths, but he differs from some others in one respect. He is unromantic. The glorious periods of tolerance cannot be simply resurrected: the conditions under which they flourished no longer exist. Neither is Karabell a utopian. What he offers is a vision of sane, secular pluralism; of communities united by common economic interest. This might not be as glamorous as Moorish Spain or Ottoman Turkey, nor as dramatic as a world riven by sectarian hatred, but it's a sight more likely than the first, and infinitely preferable to the second.
The People of Paper, By Salvador Plascencia (Bloomsbury 7.99)
The master theme of the many themes in this novel is that the surest remedy for grief is to turn it into mythology. Federico de la Fe, the book's hero, is not, however, content with a remedy he wants a cure. Having inadvertently driven away his wife by his night-time incontinence, he and his daughter Merced leave their home town in Mexico and travel to California. In turn the narrative, told in many voices, proceeds into the kingdom of the wildly surreal.
Federico becomes the leader of a rag tag army of flower pickers with intent to attack the planet Saturn. From a Rabelaisian tale of courage, love and excess, the novel turns into a poignant epic in which the endlessly mucked-about characters round on the author himself. En route we encounter saints disguised as wrestlers, a cat brought to life with paper organs, and, indeed, a paper woman whose physical peculiarity leads to a truly painful sexual accident.
Very hard to follow, testing, teasing and often frankly annoying, The People of Paper still represents an extraordinary achievement. Few books so self-conscious are so affecting and so wise.
Granta 99: What Happened Next (Granta 8.99)
In 1983, the phrase "Dirty Realism" was coined by Granta magazine's editors to describe the prose stylists of Raymond Carver's generation. On the evidence of this collection, that tradition spare and almost relentlessly quotidian is very much alive.
So it seems right that an interview with Richard Ford should open this collection. He reveals a becoming blend of confidence and humility. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie's "Operation", a memorial to her friend Nnamdi, records, with great delicacy, their brief romance. Nell Freudenberger's "The Virgin of Esmereldas" is the abrupt coming-of-age story of Marisol, a tale which could have been yet another snoozefest of frustrated adolescence, but unrolls into a deeply engaging fable. Fascinating, too, is its depiction of a Latin America deep-dyed in the culture of its northern neighbour.
The non-fiction pieces here are, however, the strongest. Nony Singh's beautiful photo essay tells the story of her mother before and after Partition. Philip Hoare's "Whaling" is as witty as it is moving.
Katha: Short stories by Indian women, ed Urvashi Butalia (Telegram 8.99)
The first of these stories, in which a rich seam of folklore is always discernible, is Marija Sres's "How Kava Deceived Kavi and Defeated Her", which tells of how men won undeserved precedence over women by trickery. "The Story of a Poem", by Chandrika B., is perhaps the most poignant. Here, Sushama, a housewife, allows a poem to break into an otherwise ordinary day: between each chore writing down little lines of love and yearning. When her husband, who prides himself on having a wife who is neither a writer nor a feminist, returns at the end of the day, Sushama tears the poem up. This seemingly bleak ending is belied by an injunction to readers to piece the poem together for themselves.
The collection ends with a mini-masterpiece: "The Giantess" by Suniti Namjoshi is the tale of a country inhabited solely by men, ruled by a benevolent giantess. At the last, wearied by their childish demands, she leaves for the mountains, unmoved by their promises. It is a sombre, but not unfitting, conclusion.Reuse content