Paperback roundup

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The Independent Culture
Class Trip by Emmanuel Carrere, translated by Linda Coverdale, Quartet pounds 6. Ten-year-old Nicolas, puny, shy and unpopular, is dreading the school ski-trip. His father, indifferent to his son's social unease, makes matters worse by refusing to let him travel on the school coach, and taking him to the chalet himself. Nicolas thus arrives a day late, and his father drives off before he can retrieve his suitcase from the boot. This wouldn't be so bad, but Nicolas is a bed-wetter, and is forced to borrow pyjamas from the school bully. From inauspicious beginnings, Carrere's disciplined, expertly paced novella (which won the prestigious Prix Femina in France) develops into the enthralling story of an unloved child and his deeply dysfunctional family. The injustices wrought upon a small boy are presented with a psychological acuity that renders the terrible events that take place amid the deep hush of a snowed-in village all the more sinister and convincing.

Virgin Islands: Essays 1992-1997 by Gore Vidal, Abacus pounds 7.99. Grand master of the thumbnail portrait Gore Vidal pronounces on presidential, sorry, prime ministerial candidate Tony Blair to great effect in this latest collection of essays. "The dark hair does not entirely convince ... Lips pressed tight together cause his nostrils to flare as he tries to get enough air in. The speech, his programme, was written, we have been told - as if it were from the hand of St John of Patmos - in his own garden in his own longhand. As it turns out he has no programme. But things will be better, he tells us." Other victims are Clinton, John Updike and the CIA. He also defends Mark Twain's reputation from Freudian critics intent on exposing his racism, misogyny and impotence. But the main thrust in these essays is to show up the democratic shortfalls of both American and British electoral systems, thereby revealing that his political bark is far worse than his satirical bite.

Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, Flamingo pounds 6.99. What do Generation Xers do when they grow tired of deadpan irony? In the case of Douglas Coupland, inventor of the McJob, they become deadly earnest in their search for a deeper meaning. Coupland plunges his cast of American teen queens and kings into the flower-powered idyll of the 1970s. Karen, the titular girlfriend, attends a party with Richard, her ineffectual boyfriend (who is too busy narrating to convince as a major protagonist), plump but brainy Wendy, fledgeling supermodel Pam, and two other bozos who live life too much to the full. Karen is on a diet of vodka and Valium so it isn't long before she falls into a coma. The rest are left frozen in a state of emotional apathy for the next 20 years. The somewhat turgid detailing of their self-obsessed, empty lives takes a turn for the fantastical when Karen awakens from her coma, and becomes a sub-Dickensian Spirit of What Could Have Been. She is shocked by the "hardness I'm seeing in modern people", and prophesies an end to life as we know it. And lo! Coupland fast- forwards planet earth to apocalypse, leaving the gang, as sole survivors, with a mission. As "pioneers of the New World", they must renounce their gizmos to wander the streets in rags proclaiming the truth. Coupland should have stuck with dissolute slackers, because the heady New Age ideology he espouses never amounts to any kind of truth.

20 Maresfield Gardens: A Guide to The Freud Museum by the curators of the Freud Museum, Serpent's Tail pounds 15. In flight from the Nazis, Freud arrived in London in June 1938. He lived in Hampstead with his family until his death a year later. His art collection, his couch, many unique documents, photographs and family film footage live on in Maresfield Gardens. And in her deeply reverential preface Marina Warner describes the Freud Museum as a "vibrantly living organism". Meanwhile, in the main body of the guide, visitors are encouraged to "free-associate on the images and objects on display" in the study. These include the aforementioned symbol of psychoanalysis, the couch; the specially commissioned chair, designed to facilitate Freud's favourite reading posture; and his desk, heaving with bric-a-brac and ashtrays. A print of Leonardo's Virgin and Child prompts the authors to refer us to Freud's biography of the artist and his background reading on the subject found on shelves in his library. The strength of his personality leaves its ghostly imprint on each cherished objet; and this detailed map lovingly charts the contribution each artefact made to Freud's work.

Blue Mondays by Arnon Grunberg, translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans, Vintage pounds 5.99. 22-year-old Arnon Grunberg wrote this best-selling novel as a dare, and created a hero, also called Arnon, as clever, bored and disillusioned as himself. Arnon is on the run from a dead-end job and a moribund father, and cheers himself up with visits to prostitutes and slumming it on the streets of Amsterdam. In clinically exact and understated prose, Arnon the author draws a thin line for his alter ego to tread between cynicism and immorality. However, the lack of moral distance between author and narrator undermines the pathos for which the former strives.

Footballers' Wives Tell Their Tales by Shelley Webb, Yellow Jersey Press pounds 10. They live in mock-Tudor mansions, wear their hair blonde and keep their midriffs permanently exposed and tanned. They dance around handbags in glitzy nightclubs, and wouldn't recognise an offside trap if Tony Adams jumped up and bit them on the nose whilst explaining the intricacies of his rhythm method. Not so, says Shelley Webb, wife of ex-footie player Neil, and Radio 5 Live producer and journalist. Webb interviews 14 "fascinating and diverse" women and comes to the conclusion that "they are inspirational". For example, Suzi Walker (married to Tottenham's Ian, who was so impressed with her Page Three presence that he insisted on meeting her) is no blonde bimbo: "Huh, I come from Surrey and I now live in Hertfordshire so there's no hint of Essex!" She even had a go at a career in cable TV, presenting Hiya! (no longer showing). So there. Although Suzi likes her independence she no longer works, and that seems to be the case for most of these women, who dedicate themselves to the demands and vagaries of their husbands' careers. All very commendable, but hardly of much interest to anyone else.

Lilian Pizzichini

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