HOLIDAY READING

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The Independent Culture
Sophisticates toting their Louis Vuittons, slackers with backpacks - everyone needs a book to read on holiday. And luckily, this looks like being a vintage year. Whether it's yuppie-in-peril thrillers, heavy biographies, poignant memoirs or cutting-edge contemporary fiction, this choice of 1997 should provide something you'll be talking about long after you get home

FICTION

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday pounds 15.99. Atkinson's follow-up to the Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes in the Museum; a camped-up slice of domestic Gothic, complete with "the aunt from hell", Shakespeare's ghost, and a lodger who turns into a fly.

The Untouchable by John Banville, Picador pounds 15.99. A dead ringer for Anthony Blunt, Banville's narrator, Victor Maskell, is a connoisseur, a courtier, a spy and a complete shit. This story of his life is another strong showing from the expert Irish novelist, mixing public histories and secret psyches with literary aplomb.

Skin by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix House pounds 16.99. Beautiful and rich, Adele is a famous writer of feminist Y-front rippers. But time's assault on her body is increasingly hard to repel. In part a fable about artistic control, the book wallows happily in the physical side of sex and cosmetic surgery - plenty of slice 'n' squelch for those who can stand it.

The Dumb House by John Burnside, Cape pounds 9.99. Burnside, a poet, explores the inner life of a madman in his first prose work. His narrator impregnates a homeless woman, then brings up her twins on his own. Deprived of language, the twins sing, at which point the narrator "enacts an ugly surgical revenge".

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau, trs Rose-Myriam Rejouis & Val Vinokurov, Granta pounds 15.99. A vast, historico-fictional study of the French-Caribbean colony of Martinique, set in a tiny shanty town named after the local oil depot. After scandalising the French Academy because it was half- written in Creole French, Texaco nevertheless scooped the Prix Goncourt and went on to sell over half a million copies in France alone. Though translated into 14 languages, this is - amazingly - the first appearance in English of a world-class talent.

The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe, Viking pounds 16.99. Coe's follow-up to What a Carve-Up! sees a group of old university friends rediscovering each other in a clinic for the treatment of their various sleep disorders. Farcical, disturbing and full of trainspotterish cineastic jokes.

Quarantine by Jim Crace, Viking pounds 16.99. In a biblical desert scorched by sun and drought, a disparate group of characters faces the ultimate test. One - "the Gally" - has arrived from Nazareth to prepare for life as a wandering rabbi; a squabbling married couple are marooned by a passing caravan; a barren woman prays for a child, or will die in the attempt. These figures interact in a powerfully drawn landscape.

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk, Picador pounds 15.99. Stella, a 29-year-old solicitor, decides to leave her life for a carer's job with a disabled boy in the country. She makes a total mess of the project, in Cusk's uniquely elegant, highly comic way.

The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer, Secker pounds 12.99. This exuberant comic novel, full of fantastic events, conjurings and bizarre consequences, is narrated by a garrulous, anecdotal and spiteful piece of pottery, rare, precious and as old as time but presently residing at the flat of a valuer with a London saleroom: imagine the confessions of Aladdin's lamp, or E Nesbit on mescalin.

The Memory Game by Nicci French, Heinemann pounds 12.99. Husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French collaborated to write this story of Jane, who recklessly marries into the fascinating and dangerous Martellos, the family of her childhood best friend, who is now dead. Soon Jane finds that she must embark on a fraught and suspenseful journey of self-discovery.

Gaglow by Esther Freud, Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99. Freud's narrative switches between the present, in which a London painter's daughter poses for her portrait, and the increasingly vivid past life of a German estate, Gaglow, once owned by the painter's family. Battered by the designs and accidents of war and history, the family is seen as a wounded entity, nursed to survival by the tenacity of its female members.

Rancid Aluminium by James Hawes, Cape pounds 9.99. A London-based yuppie-crisis novel by a literary Tarantino; "a vodka-soaked fantasy caper of Loaded proportions", according to our reviewer, with a protagonist who upbraids himself for being "saaad".

The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy, Abacus pounds 16.99. A ferociously plotted, hip and funny thriller in which a frayed New York lawyer downshifts by murdering an obnoxious photographer and taking on his identity.

Confessions of a Flesh-Eater by David Madsen, Dedalus pounds 7.99. Going to Rome? Don't eat at Il Giardino, the outrageous new restaurant where meat's marinated in body fluids and you never know where the chef's hands have been. The pseudonymous author of Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf returns with a nasty tale of culinary perversion.

Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle, Hamish Hamilton pounds 15.99. Hello! meets Ab Fab in the character of Camila Boot and her super-mag DQ (motto: "never, ever say a nasty word about anybody", or flattery will get you everywhere). This flimsy art-scam thriller opens in New York and moves to (where else?) Provence as Mayle introduces a range of flaky characters about whom he fails to take Ms Boot's advice.

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. Two novels plaited into one in this Orange Prize winner - the stories of Jakob, a wartime refugee to Canada, who suffered much in his flight to freedom, and the much younger Ben, the son of parents who suffered but cannot speak of their suffering. Beautiful, haunting prose from a Canadian poet.

Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller, Sceptre pounds 14.99. James Dyer is an 18th- century man with a problem: he feels no pain, physical, mental or moral. Starting from the dissection of its hero's corpse and progressing in reverse to his conception, Miller's debut knows its Age of Reason backwards.

The Life of Insects by Victor Pelevin, trs Andrew Bromfield, Harbord pounds 8.99. A Kafkaesque incursion over the human-insect border. This Russian novel joins the game with its story of a Black Sea resort in a Soviet- style future, where human beings become mosquitoes, cicadas, dungbeetles and, in one well-stoned incident, hemp bugs. Clever, caustic, humane, entomologically exact.

The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips, Faber pounds 15.99. A multi-timescale novel about race and culture in Europe, which casts back from a liberated extermination camp in 1945 to Venice in the 15th century, where a certain black mercenary marries a beautiful white girl, and on to modern-day Israel. Serious, challenging and finely written.

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, Cape pounds 16.99. Tearing themselves from their Web pages, Pynchon culties now have something new to read after 25 years. This formidable novel of slavery and surveying tells of the famous duo who created the 244-mile line dividing Pennsylvania and Maryland and, more to the point, separating the free from the enslaved. They were both English, and their story is freighted with massive authorial research and Pynchon's range of literary styles.

Impossible Saints by Michele Roberts, Little, Brown pounds 14.99. Imitating old Lives of the Saints - women dismembered, shut away and variously tortured for the Faith - Roberts explores the uncomfortable phenomenon of "modern" sainthood through five fractured but entwined narratives which are rich, lyrical, thought-provoking and playful.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Cape pounds 15.99. Roth's version of pastoral, all irony, is embodied in Seymour "Swede" Levov, a Jewish American whose suffering at the hands of a regiment of women is chronicled by the author's long-time alter ego, sixtyish and increasingly decrepit Nathan Zuckerman. Welcome back to Roth country.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo pounds 15.99. Kerala, southern India, is the setting for this elaborate memory-novel, in which a pair of twins revisit, as adults, the scene of a watery tragedy which they experienced as children. The cost of the disaster: "Two lives. Two children's childhoods. And a history lesson for future offenders." Roy's lush, creamy prose makes this a delight.

Great Apes by Will Self, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. Humans and chimps swap places in this satire on human folly, which aims a heat-seeking missile up the fundament of every bourgeois comfort Self can call to mind.

A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson, Faber pounds 15.99. Simpson's topic is the childlike hippy mentality and its consequences for real children. Set in California, it's the story of 10-year-old Jane, with a barefoot mother and an absent, ex-hippy father, now an inventor - a dense, complex, idiosyncratic work.

The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 15.99. "This novel has a sparkle of sunlight on water," said Michele Roberts of this love story narrated by a 13-year-old boy on his first visit to Paris. While his mother works, he wanders the streets alone, smelling the fresh bread, drinking in the street life and falling desperately in love.

These Demented Lands by Alan Warner, Cape pounds 15.99. Not an instant classic like his debut, Morvern Callar, but still a moving evocation of post- apocalyptic rave culture in the West Highlands of contemporary Scotland.

The Farewell Symphony by Edmund White, Chatto pounds 16.99. The erotic quasi- autobiographical world of the prominent US gay writer, promiscuous and poetic. A classic of viscerally carnal writing, which gradually and inevitably becomes a meditation on HIV and Aids.

Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson, Granta pounds 15.99. As the heroine, Alluvia, falls in love with a physicist called Jove and Stella, his stellar wife, at the same time, and the hauntingly emblematic narrative reaches its denouement on a latter-day Ship of Fools. A baroque extravaganza, in which the Cabbala meets up with post-Stephen Hawking cosmology: GUTs ("Grand Unified Theories") also standing, rather obviously, for guts.

SHORT STORIES

Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra, Faber pounds 12.99. Another surfer on the extraordinary wave of English-language Indian fiction of the past two decades, Chandra's collection is vibrant yet cool and confident, distilling essentials from the dusty whirl of everyday subcontinental life.

Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore, Viking pounds 16. "Men with thick, springy flesh ... men whose flesh she can wallow in ... there is nothing so sleep- giving as the shoulder of a fat man." Warm, funny stories by the poet- novelist who won the Orange prize last year.

Op Non Cit by Alan Isler, Cape pounds 12.99. Comedy tangles with tragedy in these four extended stories, in which Jews of different epochs - one a merchant of Venice - find themselves awkwardly athwart Gentile culture.

Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture by Jonathan Keates, Chatto pounds 12.99. A stylish gay couple dream of the glamour they are convinced will come their way; a homosexual art historian watches his wealthy patroness as she awaits his love. Exquisite miniatures from a writer working in the twin traditions of Tennessee Williams and Henry James.

Original Bliss by A L Kennedy, Cape pounds 14.99. The loving relationships in these stories, the hangups and emotional dysfunctions, and especially the dynamics of sex, are wittily and yet angrily handled, all with Kennedy's usual meticulous attention to detail.

A Hand at the Shutter by Francis King, Constable pounds 15.99. Brief, suave stories by a veteran writer who has been called a follower of E M Forster: obsession, class and culture clash in settings as far-flung and disparate as Seoul and Kensington.

Love in a Blue Time by Hanif Kureishi, Faber pounds 9.99. In which Hanif explores the famous mid-life crisis, as it hits well- to-do West London bohemian men. Distressingly often, the men attempt to drown their sorrows by leching after teenage girls. A bleak but frequently enlightening read.

Beyond the Blue Mountains by Penelope Lively, Penguin pounds 14.99. Downbeat situations involving middle-aged women from various strata of London life, these stories read much better than that sounds, thanks to Lively's humour and her crafty commonsense.

Tell Her That You Love Her by Bridget O'Connor, Picador pounds 6.99. O'Connor's comedy is hectic. Most of the men are wimps; the women are driven by obsessions which seem trivial to the outsider. But the reader is made an insider, aware of how desperate these people are to enlarge, transform, disguise or glamorise themselves.

NON-FICTION

The Playful Self: Why Women Need Play in their Lives by Rebecca Abrams, Fourth Estate pounds 12.99. An appropriately holiday-ish title to demonstrate that Abrams has done the near-impossible: that is, found a new and as yet untracked area of sexual inequality. The right to play is what women lack, apparently, for reasons that are to do with work, stress, psychology and economic insecurity. The third part tells us how to redress the balance.

Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster by Steven Biel, Norton pounds 18.99. The doomed ship obsesses as many buffs, bores and single-issue moralists as the JFK conspiracy. Biel analyses the myriad batty ideas and connections that have bubbled up from the Atlantic floor.

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, Picador pounds 12.99. To "proustify", according to Proust's own friends, was to put on "a slightly too conscious attitude to geniality, together with what would vulgarly be called affectations, interminable and delicious". Which is exactly what de Botton does in this enjoyable lit-crit jeu d'esprit, following the manner of Marcel.

The Selected Letters of D H Lawrence ed James T Boulton, CUP pounds 12.95. Five thousand letters cram the eight-volume Cambridge edition of Lawrence's correspondence. So this selection, representing the full range of Lawrence's influential acquaintance, is welcome. Angry, combative, scurrilous, the letters are also sometimes uniquely lyrical.

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century by John Brewer, HarperCollins pounds 30. The coffee-house conviviality of 18th- century England revisited with thoroughness and panache. A solid cultural history which only falters slightly towards the end, with the suggestion that a firm line can be drawn between the Age of Reason and the Romanticism to come.

Signalling from Mars: The Letters of Arthur Ransome ed Hugh Brogan, Cape pounds 17.99. Eye-witness to the Russian Revolution, the author of Swallows and Amazons lived an adventurous life before starting his famous series of children's novels. These letters reflect both the cutting-edge reporter and the middle-aged storyteller.

With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer by Susannah Clapp, Cape pounds 15.99. Chatwin's golden-boy reputation as a travel writer has suffered from publication of too many posthumous remnants; there have been homophobic attacks as well. This biographer is an old friend who proves adept at reconstructing the famous charm in a way that is both frank and reliably sympathetic.

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson, HarperCollins pounds 25. "Model democracy", or model for sensualists everywhere? Ancient Athens - or at least its ruling class - took its pleasures very seriously, and this highly enjoyable study concentrates on the important things in life: food, drink and sex. Ambidextrous sexuality was the norm among upper-class males (there are fascinating details here about both prostitution and the hetaeras); some of Davidson's most amusing passages tell of the faux-respectable interpretations put, by prudish scholars, on frankly pornographic vase paintings and verses. And if games like "kottabus" (chucking wine-dregs at a target) seem mystifying, what about the sexual position known as the "lion on the cheese-grater"? For all its entertainment value, this is a serious contribution to classical studies.

Huxley: Evolution's High Priest by Adrian Desmond, Michael Joseph pounds 20. A second volume (following The Devil's Disciple of three years ago) on the man who took Darwin to the masses, and took the half-bricks and rotten vegetables back in return. A bit of a High Tory, Huxley was by the end of his life keen to promote agnosticism as a rival sect to Anglicanism.

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski, Granta pounds 14.99. Diski jouneys back into what turns out to have been a horribly disturbed London girlhood, as she visits for the first time the frozen blankness of the south. An original and striking memoir, cool but authentic, filled with emotional imagery and insight that is all the more resonant for its restraint.

W B Yeats: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 by R F Foster, OUP pounds 25. The first volume of this authorised biog sees WBY up to the age of 49, a pivotal date for the poet. Behind him was the Celtic Twilight; ahead the new dawn of war, rebellion and monkey glands. In this mighty book Foster, the Irish historian, seems as much at home with textual variants and sexual psychology as with the social and political background.

This extraordinary year for Yeatsians also offers Keith Alldritt's W B Yeats: The Man and the Milieu (John Murray pounds 25) and Stephen Coote's W B Yeats; A Life (Hodder pounds 25); both spanking new, one-volume lives that attempt alternative views of the great Irish writer.

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hadju, Granta pounds 16.99. Strayhorn was the gay black intellectual musician who became Duke Ellington's unsung arranger. According to Hadju, he actually wrote much of the Duke's later work, impregnating it with his love of Debussy and Ravel. An impressive, important rehabilitation.

Hitler and Geli by Ronald Hayman, Bloomsbury pounds 17.99. A forensic examination of the violent death in 1931 of Geli Raubal, Hitler's step-niece and mistress (she called him "Uncle Alf"). It opens out to reveal the Fuhrer's range of sexual proclivities, and examines his habit of rubbing out any woman who might go public about them.

Cyril Connolly: A Life by Jeremy Lewis, Cape pounds 25. He wanted to be one of those "great, lonely, formal artists who spit in the eye of their century" but ended up "a low-slung basset who hunts scent and keeps his nose to the ground". The poor-Cyril story is told not for the first or no doubt the last time, but racily and very well.

Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America by Christopher Matthews, Simon & Schuster pounds 16.99. The story of the greatest political rivalry in postwar America. Kennedy was always the guy in the white hat: Nixon was the bad hat. But, as this revisionist study shows, JFK had as many hat-boxes full of black Stetsons as Nixon did; he was just careful not to wear them in public.

W H Auden, Prose 1926-38: Essays Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse ed Edward Mendelson, Faber pounds 40. This collection by the "English Auden", mostly from the "low, dishonest" 1930s, complements the concerns of the verse he was writing at the time, often point for point, and sometimes with greater depth and seriousness.

As If by Blake Morrison, Granta pounds 14.99. This is Morrison's report from the 1993 proceedings at the Preston Crown Court against the juvenile killers of little James Bulger. It's a sensitive exploration of the author's feelings about the encounter of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables with the English judicial process, intermixed with the deep and resonant personal introspection which has become Morrison's hallmark.

Hystories by Elaine Showalter, Picador pounds 16.99. What do alien abductions, ME, anorexia satanic abuse and gulf war syndrome have in common? They're all manifestations of hysteria, says Showalter: cooked up by therapists, seized on by the media, endorsed by tame scientists. The furore Showalter stirred up in her native US (and to a lesser extent here) might cloud the fact that this is a thought-provoking, well-argued and compassionate polemic.

Unnatural Murder by Anne Somerset, Weidenfeld pounds 20. The murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613 brought about the downfall of Robert Carr, the King's catamite, after a sensational trial. With its absorbing details of Jacobean politics, sex, law, medicine and witchcraft, this study is both true crime and true scholarship.

The Hacienda by Lisa St Aubin de Tern, Virago pounds 16.99. Subtitled My Venezuelan Years, this is the account of how the 17-year-old author travelled to the Andes with her avocado-farmer husband who, once back in his own country, showed every sign of being insane. Our heroine escapes to Blighty on the last page, small daughter in tow. With a life like that it's amazing that de Tern ever stoops to fiction, but in her new novel The Palace (Macmillan pounds 15.99), she whizzes up a tale of derring-do in Garibaldi's Italy. Young Gabriele del Campo awaits execution in a fetid cell. His thoughts go back to the fascinating noblewoman Donna Donatella, who never spared him a glance; then, suddenly, he finds himself free to pursue her once more, against the backdrop of corrupt Venice.

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? by John Sutherland, OUP pounds 4.99. Why does Crusoe discover only one footprint? Is Daniel Deronda circumcised? A second delightful collection of literary essays examining the puzzles and gaping holes in classic narratives.

Albert: Uncrowned King by Stanley Weintraub, John Murray pounds 25. It's been a long path back for Victoria and Albert from Lytton Strachey's witty debunking. Weintraub's biography gives a hefty boost to the consort as politician, industrial visionary and guiding spirit of the monarchy. Plus, the queen couldn't have enough of him in bed.

The Quest for Graham Greene by W J West, Weidenfeld pounds 20. Foxy, secretive GG, with his involvement in espionage, his tangled sex life and his dodgy political contacts, is a perfect vehicle for a "quest" book. Virtually a series of biographical essays, this one burrows out several valuable addenda to the story.

Rhodes: The Race for Africa by Anthony Thomas, BBC pounds 17.99. This good biography does not deserve to be dragged under by the TV drama flop to which it was tied.

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A N Wilson, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 17.99. In his earlier study of the life of Jesus, Wilson accused Paul of misogyny. He now recants from this, downgrading Christ to "Galilean exorcist" status, upgrading Paul to more or less sole founder of the Christian Church. Though wilfully controversialist in places, Wilson is still a solid and engaging historian. The socio-political background to early Christianity is vivid and strong.

John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity by Garry Wills, Faber pounds 20. "Why him?" Wills, a serious US political historian, begins by asking. "Yet," he claims, "it is a very narrow definition of politics that would deny John Wayne's political importance": and we're not just talking about the cultural imperialism of Wayne's Western or WWII films. Newt Gingrich, apparently, tries to walk like Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. A model cultural-history book.

The People's Party: The History of the Labour Party by Tony Wright & Matt Carter, Thames and Hudson pounds 18.85/ pounds 12.95. Born in 1900 in a smoky room on London's Farringdon Road, Labour rose meteorically to government at the age of 25, and later went on to free India and revolutionise healthcare. Its Seventies and Eighties were rocky, but pushing towards the centenary, there's new confidence. This succinct Life is introduced by Tony Blair.

INDIA

The 50th anniversary of Independence in India has been marked by a bumper crop of books about the sub-continent. For matters both literary and (in the broad sense) political, one of the most informative, as well as enjoyable, is The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-97, edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West (Vintage pounds 7.99). Rushdie's fine introduction to this compendium of contemporary Indian prose boldly puts forward an AngloIndian canon, and, in exploring the phenomenon of Indian English, digresses fascinatingly on polylingualism, identity and dislocation. He tackles the whole knotty question of whose language it is anyway, with a fine appreciation of the decision by multilingual individuals to communicate in one language rather than another. Perhaps more contentious is Rushdie's claim that no translated contribution lives up to the standard of those originally written in Indian English, leaving no doubt about the editorial thrust of the collection that follows. The authors of these 30-plus stories and extracts include many familiar names - Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Amit Chaudhri, R K Narayan, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, Vikram Chandra and Rohinton Mistry, to name only a few - but the range is wide enough to allow discovery of some unexpected voices: try, for instance, Padma Perora, or the pithy Githa Hariharan.

! NEXT WEEK: More holiday reading choices - travel, poetry, paperbacks

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