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The Calendar

by David Ewing Duncan,

Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99

360pp

WEARING ITS scholarship lightly, this is an absorbing account of the 8,000-year struggle to evolve a working calendar. Protagonists range from Julius Caesar, who introduced the 12-month year (July is named after him), to Dionysius Exiguus (Little Dennis), whose miscalculation of the birth of Christ means that our calendar is four years adrift. In an aside, Duncan notes that Emperor Constantine (responsible for the seven- day week) was a Serbian who "never hesitated to plunge the empire into war to further his personal ambitions."

Dark Horses

by Karl Miller,

Picador, pounds 7.99

389pp

THE MEMOIRS of a man of letters doesn't sound the most tempting book in the world. Yet these ruminations from the founding editor of the London Review of Books make juicy reading. They include a scathing put- down from Auden ("You're the man who's ruined The Listener"), an accusation of "systematic persecution for the past 20 years" from George Steiner, and lively thumb-nail sketches ranging from Brigid Brophy to Eric Cantona. It's particularly pleasing to hear of a threat (sadly unfulfilled) to A J Ayer by a Rangers fan at White Hart Lane.

Impressionism

by James H Rubin,

Phaidon, pounds 14.95

448pp

RUBIN HAS produced a lively, revelatory work on a hackneyed theme. In many ways, the Impressionists seem little different to today's young Turks. Manet's "deliberately provocative" Dejeuner sur l'herbe was a "self- promoting strategy". Monet's "series" paintings were an overt marketing exercise. Degas was an artistic revolutionary but a social reactionary. Sex was central to Renoir, who declared that he "painted with his prick". Oddly, the sumptuous illustrations exclude van Gogh, while Jackson Pollock gets a double-page spread.

Leading the Cheers

by Justin Cartwright,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99

272pp

LIKE JOHN Updike, Justin Cartwright has the knack of repackaging life's knottier emotions into "boxfresh" prose. Recently relieved of his job as a London advertising executive, Dan Silas returns to America's Mid-West for a high-school reunion. Among his former class-mates are cheerleader Gloria Swarthout (they did it in Jefferson's bed on a school trip to Monticello), and his best friend Gary Beaner, a tortured soul who believes he is the reincarnation of a Red Indian shaman. Winner of last year's Whitbread Novel of the Year award.

Tenter Hooks

by Suzannah Dunn,

Flamingo, pounds 6.99

247pp

EVEN A box of frozen spinach becomes an object of beauty in the sensuous hands of Susannah Dunn. Author of several well-received novels (including Blood Sugar, Quite Contrary and Venus Flaring), Dunn's short stories are bright with domestic detail. The interior lives of young women are given a good airing: from the 20-year-old about to face marriage with a man she no longer fancies, to the story of a provincial mother and daughter coming to terms with their new, but very gay, next-door neighbours.

Bitch: in praise of difficult women

by Elizabeth Wurtzel,

Quartet, pounds 8, 426pp

371pp

A FEMINIST not afraid to call Betty Friedan a frog, or Gloria Steinem a babe, Elizabeth Wurtzel's dazzling and at times confusing collection of essays on the history of female manipulation is littered with Seinfeld jokes and rock lyrics (of the Suzanne Vega ilk). Her thesis, that being a goodie two shoes is as dangerous as being a slut, is argued with inspiring clarity. Which makes this an empowering plea for women to stand up for their desires: whether for more chocolate, a Gucci bag or one last spin on the Rainbow Room dance floor.

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