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Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson, Fontana Press pounds 9.99. "The world is full of pleasures," Davidson remarks towards the end of this book; and that seems to sum up the very practical appreciation of indulgence that makes this such an engaging read. Delving through a mass of disparate sources (classical comedies, fragments of sex-manuals and cookery books, politicians' speeches) Davidson tries to pin down what the Athenians thought and did about food, drink and sex. Along the way he glances at such issues as, why the heroes of the Iliad lived on meat when there was plenty of fish available, and what the sexual position known as "lion on a cheese-grater" actually looked like. It's a fearsome task - imagine trying to reconstruct late 20th-century attitudes to sex out of Ray Cooney scripts and selections from Hansard - and the subject has been obscured by the biases of modern commentators such as Foucault. Among other things, heterosexual relationships have been largely ignored in favour of homosexuality. But battling through all these difficulties, Davidson presents a convincing picture - alien in some ways, in others utterly familiar.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Vintage pounds 5.99. More alien pleasures in this blockbuster of a novel, an exhaustive portrait of life in the Gion district of Kyoto, the centre of the geisha world in the Thirties and Forties, seen through the eyes of a young geisha called Sayuri. It's shamelessly and sometimes tediously didactic, plot and prose style taking second place to filling the reader in on all the things a geisha has to know - how to dance, how to play the shamisen, how to pour tea, how to look at a man so as to inflame his desire. But what Golden lacks in flair he makes up for in hard work, and the sheer superabundance of detail carries you along.

The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant, Granta pounds 6.99. Grant's first novel is a great narrative whoosh, sweeping through the middle years of the century via the story of pretty, vain Sybil Ross, the daughter of a Jewish father - a "rootless cosmopolitan" - and a German mother. Fleeing her cushy background in Liverpool, she follows her half-caste, bisexual boyfriend to New York. There she discovers commitment for the first time in her life, joining the Communist Party and packing potato chips in a factory in Minnesota to serve the cause, but eventually drifting away from that, too. Grant is a journalist, and it shows - not because she's shallow or opinionated or over-simplistic, or any of the other things that journalists are sometimes guilty of, but because she understands that you need to draw the reader in, and knows how to do it. Her writing is journalistic in another sense, too: she builds on facts, never letting ideas float off on their own; as a result, The Cast Iron Shore is a riveting demonstration of how private life and ideology inflect one another. Finally, her writing is subtle, poised and fluent. Do you need to know any more?

Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe, Penguin pounds 5.99. Cynical, would-be worldly Dave sets out to travel round India in his year off, in the hope of copping off with his travelling companion, the astoundingly sexy Liz. But the holiday develops into a sorry pilgrimage through squalor, heat, intestinal disorders, sexual rejection and bigotry. The follow-up to New Boy is a vicious and very funny satire of feckless middle-class youth, roaming the world in search of unspecified "experience", too intent on personal development to notice what's happening to anyone else. Some of the more extreme critics have compared Sutcliffe to Wilde, which seems bizarre - he doesn't have a moral vision, just a highly developed sense of absurdity, so that the satire crashes around in the bush like a rogue elephant, occasionally trampling on something. But he times his jokes superbly, and there are enough moments of sheer, undiluted hilarity for you to overlook the fundamental hollowness of the exercise - such as the encounter with the Sloanes who have just left a leper colony ("How did you get a place there?" Liz asks. "I mean I've heard it's quite competitive"). Repulsively brilliant.

Killing Rage by Eamon Collins with Mick McGovern, Granta pounds 6.99. The phrase "banality of evil" is a cliche, but it's hard to think of another phrase half so apt for Collins's account of his years in the IRA. As an intelligence officer for the IRA in Newry, Collins was for some years responsible for setting up a number of assassinations and bombings, before being smitten by his conscience and turning supergrass. This is evidently straight-from-the-horse's-mouth stuff, and packed with startling details, but its hard to warm to Collins in either of his phases, fanatic and self- apologist. Now that some sort of peace has come to Northern Ireland, perhaps the best thing would be to put this book on a high shelf and forget about it.

The Guinness Book Of Advertising by Jim Davies (Guinness Publishing pounds 20) examines how toucans, seals, and campaigns like 'Guinness is good for you', all contributed to the strength of an extraordinary brand. Guinness's advertising has a long-standing policy of wooing women drinkers (see 1954 showcard, left), and emphasising its nutritional value. John Gilroy (1934 poster, below), whose illustrations define for many Guinness's image, also broke new

advertising ground. For instance, his poster to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the first British poster to have neither copy nor any reference to the product.