Paperbacks: Strangers<br/>Baggage: My Childhood<br/>The Alice B Toklas Cookbook<br/>Themes and Projects<br/>The Garden of Hermetic Dreams<br/>Snowleg<br/>Paris Tales

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The Independent Culture

The acclaimed biographer of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud tackles the topic of "homosexual love in the 19th century" with surprising results.

Strangers by Graham Robb (PICADOR £8.99 (342pp))

The acclaimed biographer of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud tackles the topic of "homosexual love in the 19th century" with surprising results. Not only is this book highly readable, it is great fun. Robb makes the point that the Victorians were actually fairly tolerant of homosexuality. In big cities, there were certain areas where gays could congregate with "relative safety", such as the area around the Achilles statue in Hyde Park. In Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, one character says: "The things that go on in front of that statue are quite appalling." One unexpected rendezvous was the Temperance Hall in Hulme, Manchester. When it was raided, a detective observed the cancan being danced. As Robb points out, "this can hardly be performed without some joie de vivre." This laissez-faire attitude to homosexuality was reflected in literature. As early as 1748, a character in Smollett's Roderick Random argued for "the wisdom and excellence of homosexual man". Robb makes a powerful case for the homosexuality of Sherlock Holmes. "Without the tense, suppressed passion, Holmes is just a man with an interesting hobby." The book concludes with a hilarious account of a 1939 film called The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, which features a police inspector who rehearses "a chorus line of sturdy policemen dressed in tutus". CH

Baggage: My Childhood by Janet Street-Porter (HEADLINE £7.99 (278pp))

There she is on the cover aged about 12, looking exactly the same as she does today: bright as a button, chock full of beans, obviously about to let forth at considerable length and volume. This book is a stirring display of pyrotechnics by the force of nature known as Janet. Famously growing up in a household with "three Welsh speakers and a budgie", Street-Porter verbally demolishes her father ("mini-dictator") and mother ("YOU MISERABLE OLD COW!"), and literally tries to eliminate her sister. You read every page entertained, mesmerised and amazed. CH

The Alice B Toklas Cookbook by Alice B Toklas (SERIF £9.99 (288pp))

Though of debatable practicality ("Put 100 frogs' legs into frying pan with a quarter cup of butter over medium heat"), this is one of the most irresistible cookbooks ever written. We can savour the laurel soup of Picasso's mistress, Dora Marr, though it is probably better to read about Brion Gysin's haschich fudge ("which anyone could whip up on a rainy day") than eat it. The recipes are interspersed with memories of Alice's companion, Gertrude Stein. Bird's nest soup is introduced via an encounter with an escaped murderer in Detroit, while a Resistance ambush of 700 Germans prefaces chicken a l'estragon. CH

Themes and Projects by John Pawson (PHAIDON £9.95 (127pp))

If you can't afford Pawson the architect, at least you can get Pawson the book for a tenner. Each elegant, empty picture seduces with Pawson's elegant, empty designs: a heavenly rooftop in Tunis, an infinity pool in Majorca, a wall-sized window (with a staring horse inches away) in an Essex barn conversion. The work of the minimalist maestro is described by critics ("its power is in its startling beauty and ability to communicate"), owners and even a neighbour, who notices that the "moss on the shower room floor... took on its own beautiful significance." CH

The Garden of Hermetic Dreams, Ed. Gary Lachman (DEDALUS £9.99 (368pp))

The first item, from William Beckford's Vathek, indicates the feverish imaginings gathered in this "occult reader". It encompasses drugs, sacrifice, a genii and an Indian who becomes irresistibly arousing by transforming himself into a ball. ETA Hoffman's The Golden Flower Pot shows how this writer's fertile imagination can animate even everyday objects, as in his best-known work, The Nutcracker. But the oddest example is the most recent. From 1999, Robert Irwin's explicit account of cult sexual initiation somehow involves "The Gambols" cartoon strip from the Daily Express. CH

Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare (VINTAGE £7.99 (387pp))

There are endless thrillers about Hitler, of course, but very little British fiction tackling the complex subject of Germany's more recent history. In Snowleg, rightly long-listed for the Booker, Shakespeare manages to combine a convincing portrait of Cold War Leipzig with a compelling contemporary love story. Full of fascinating detail about the Stasi and their methods, it's also an absorbing exploration of identity, contemporary chivalric codes and a mid-life moral crisis. CP

Paris Tales, Trans Helen Constantine (OUP £7.99 (243pp))

More Bastille than Pigalle, this smartly mixed cocktail of 22 Parisian tales by French writers may appeal more to modish bar-hoppers than nostalgists in search of Seine-side schmaltz or scandal. The tone of Constantine's translations is streetwise, with wit and grit aplenty but tourist-trap romance in short supply. Balzac, Zola and Colette all take a bow, but in a context that presents them as tough-but-tender ancestors of modern voices such as Jean Echenoz, Frédéric Beigbeider and Vincent Ravalec. BT

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