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The Independent Culture
! Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson, Bloomsbury pounds 8.99. How exactly was it that the "arrogant, disturbed, narcissistic" younger Beckett evolved into a good husband, fighter for the French Resistance and a man "noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity and almost saintly 'good works'?" The answers lend this biography an unusually deep and satisfying shape, and it's a marvellous work of literary criticism also, compendious, scrupulous and acute. Knowlson, a leading Beckett scholar, was given full access to Beckett's friends and family, to hitherto unseen diaries and - for only five months, sadly, before SB's death in 1989 - to the man's own memories. Our hero authorised Knowlson's researches thus: "To biography of me by you it's Yes."

! Fairy Tale by Alice Thomas Ellis, Penguin pounds 6.99. Mercilessly elitist, completely camp, a non-sufferer of fools and a brilliant trad-English cook: that's Alice Thomas Ellis, and that's why she's just about the best novelist ever to cheer you up on a blue and fluey afternoon. Like the Ellises which precede it, this one features a bunch of callow English townies adrift in rural Wales. "It wasn't fair," thinks Eloise. "She had sacrificed all the stimulus of city life for a cleaner, clearer existence, only to discover that nothing ever happened." And there's the sophisticated older woman, who speaks with the authentic Ellis voice: "She had no tender feelings for the upper classes, but on the whole perhaps they had done less harm than the merely wealthy." The plot, as usual, features some blithe New Age hanky-panky which shrivels, hilariously, under Ellis's basilisk eye, and she cooks up an excellent picnic for the finale.

! Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler, Vintage pounds 6.99. The ancient Greeks knew that Antarctica just had to be there. There had to be something at the bottom to balance the white expanse at the top. The medievals assumed it would be rich, fertile and full of people. As Captain Cook first reported, however, it turned out to be "cold hell". Wheeler undertook her southernmost travels in 1994, as Writer in Residence at the US South Pole Station, a male-dominated preserve. Her account is less arty than Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica or Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time (why the interest in ice all of a sudden? Is it something to do with the ozone hole?) but it's thoroughly engaging, and packed with wondrous anecdotes: the geologist, for example, who used live baby penguins as toilet paper (don't write in, please). And then there's Wheeler's present- day travelling companion who "married" his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a ceremony at his local bike shop. According to him, it happens all the time.

! Milton in America by Peter Ackroyd, Vintage pounds 6.99. John Milton, as we know, was a committed Roundhead. Things were getting tricky for him by 1660, with Charles II on his way back to London and the Commonwealth about to fail. So Ackroyd imagines him fleeing to America, in search of the brave new Puritan colonies, only to get shipwrecked on the way. The first half alternates between the voices of Milton - devout, grandiloquent, blind - and the helper he has brought with him from London, a rollickingly cheery lad called Goose. It moves deep into the poet's anguished visions as the newly-built Commonwealth of New Milton is threatened by Ralph Kempis, freshly arrived from England to found his own Roman Catholic settlement next door. The whole is a masterly pastiche of 17th-century literature, first comic, later tragic - inventive and brilliantly sustained, if a little obvious in places and thin.

! The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke, Flamingo pounds 5.99. William, a Manhattan actor, is 20 when he falls in love with Sarah, a shy and complicated girl who says things like "I wish I could spend my life in a room writing songs" ("She said this," William tells us, "with the air of someone who hadn't been invited to very many parties"). When their affair founders, William is left crazed with frustrated desire. A well-worn formula, perhaps, but one that Ethan Hawke (himself an A-list celebrity since his starring role in Before Sunrise) lifts into the first division. He manages to capture the cut-glass emotions of obsessive first love with exquisite precision and wit and the writing is refreshingly open, whether detailing the ups and downs of the affair or when casting back over William's childhood and memories of his parents' divorce.

Patagonia: Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth edited by Colin McEwan, Luis A Borrero and Alfredo Prieto (British Museum Press pounds 14.99) traces the history of the Patagonian people (whom Darwin unkindly dubbed 'the most miserable wretches on earth') from the arrival of the hunter-gatherer nomads some 10-14,000 years ago through their adaptation, survival and eventual extinction. Fascinating detail and illustrations include this group of Yamana women and girls at Bahia Orange, Isla Hoste, in 1882-3; the book accompanies an exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, London W1, from tomorrow until 31 December

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