Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Pompey by Jonathan Meades, Vintage pounds 5.99. Gleefully scatological, shamelessly overwritten black comedy preoccupied with 'the terminal Englishness whose highest virtues are found in unrocked boats, in what's beneath the carpet'. The complicated plot (the variously disgusting or disastrous lives of Pompey, a fireworks manufacturer from Portsmouth, and his four illegitimate children) provides limitless scope for what Meades does best: misanthropy. Colostomy bags, crotch-rot, sleaze, venality, lubricity and Amisian phrase-making yield impressive pyrotechnics; while faint glimmers of pathos and compassion make this piledriver of a book more than merely a rant.

A Labour of Love: The Experience of Parenthood in Britain 1900-1950 by Steve Humphries & Pamela Gordon, Sidgwick pounds 9.99. The book of the TV series, but freestanding and fascinating. This is high-class oral history, accounts of a recent past that often seems unimaginably remote: the working-class girl who 'didn't associate the fun I'd had with my husband with childbirth at all'; the Wiltshire bank manager's wife who had six servants, 'never went near the kitchen' and took no part in her children's upbringing; the rag-and-bone man's daughter, born in a Lancashire workhouse and informally adopted by a shopkeeping couple able to supply undreamt-of luxuries: 'A bed's a bed to everybody but to me it were heaven'. Moving, revealing and salutary.

Going West by Maurice Gee, Faber pounds 5.99. Quietly excellent novel from one of New Zealand's best. When poet Rex Petley drowns in a fishing accident, his boyhood friend and rival Jack Skeat sets out to discover why. The investigation leads to the gradual excavation of unimagined amatory secrets, violence, murder and madness. Gripping and compassionate, with outstandingly fresh evocations of landscape and - in the extracts from the dead man's notebooks - of a convincing poet's voice.

African Art by Frank Willett, Thames & Hudson pounds 6.95. Revised edition of this excellent old favourite, a compact but generously illustrated survey which slices through stereotypes to reveal the diversity and particularity of the continent's painting, sculpture and architecture, and reminds us that, just as African art influenced Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and other European masters, the exchange is now a two-way affair. Above: Brass figure found at Ife, c 12th century.

The Mermaids in the Basement by Marina Warner, Vintage pounds 5.99. Hugely enjoyable collection of folklore-inspired short stories (by this year's Reith lecturer) that combine sensuous imagery, rich allusiveness and a bracingly intelligent scrutiny of immutable sexual politics. Acres of nubile flesh are quiveringly manifest in Warner's reinventions of the likes of Eve and Ariadne, Noah fiddles with himself disgracefully and a Muslim version of Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba pivots mischievously on the hairiness of Her Majesty's legs. Elegant, funny, fresh and provocative.

Delacroix: A Life by Timothy Wilson-Smith, Constable pounds 10.95. The artist's death-laden and steamily erotic paintings sit oddly with the dapper anglophile persona, the lifelong (and always disappointed) craving for respectability. This well-researched Life guides us skilfully through the reversals of 19th century French history, as well as the deaths of the artist's parents and brother, the loss of his inheritance, his affection for Chopin and George Sand, and his numerous semi-detached affairs. But the book never quite explains the enigma of Delacroix's emotional life, or the volcanic flame that made struggle the constant subject of his art.

The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon by Daniel Farson, Vintage pounds 6.99. Arguably slight, certainly unscholarly but wholly riveting biography by a friend who, from their meeting in the Fifties, shared the boozy Soho lunches, rent boy pick-ups and outrageous parties. Despite interesting sidelights on the childhood (loveless parents, doting nanny) and the work, Farson's trump card is eye-witness veracity. With inimitable anecdotes, he perfectly conveys the fun of Bacon's company and their louche joint adventures: Bacon appearing in full maquillage at Farson's Devon village pub, or booing when Princess Margaret sang at a party, or remarking, when deluged with flowers on his 80th birthday, 'I'm not the sort of person who has vases'.

Cuba: A Journey by Jacobo Timerman, Picador pounds 4.99. First British publication for this impassioned if lightning appraisal - by a Ukrainian-born South American journalist and lifelong socialist - of an all-but destroyed country. Timerman writes as he finds: of political paranoia, indoctrination and repression; of Castro's ludicrous Rectification of Errors campaign (designed, the author concludes, to find someone else to blame for the disastrous results of his own rule); of grinding deprivation and economic ruin; but also of the people's indomitable vigour and 'fresh, ingenuous eroticism'.

Culture & Imperialism by Edward W Said, Vintage pounds 8.99. Characteristically fierce and opinionated analysis that divided critics between rage and praise. Said's contentions about the near-ineradicability of the imperial mind-set may be hard for British readers to consider objectively, though there are holes in his argument. If the imperialist era saw 'virtual unanimity that subject races should be ruled', how do we account for the anti-slavery movement? All the same, an important and wide-ranging addition to the literature of cultural identity.

The Faber Book of America ed Christopher Ricks & William L Vance, pounds 9.99. In 1888 Matthew Arnold said the Americans had tacitly agreed 'to cover their defects by boasting'; in 1919 Woodrow Wilson seemed to prove the point with his assertion that America was 'the only idealistic nation in the world'. They were both right, of course - and the achievement of this fat and illuminating anthology, which ranges invigoratingly over literature, politics, landscape, art and sport, is that, even while exposing the manifold contradictions of this most diverse of nations, it leaves us with a profound sense that there is such a thing as Americanness, and that it is unignorably interesting and significant.

The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed Peter Fallon & Derek Mahon, pounds 7.99. Capacious and democratic selection ranging from the elegiac Anglo-Irishness of Richard Murphy to the postmodernist ironies of Paul Muldoon, from Medbh McGuckian's haunting obliquities to Paul Durcan's satirical fantasies. The dominant mood, unsurprisingly perhaps, is melancholy, shot through with a sense of dislocation, estrangement, discontinuity. As Michael Smith puts it: 'Such roots as we have / we carry with us / in suitcases'. For most Irish poets, even their language is borrowed, a fact that John Montague calls 'as / harsh a humiliation / as twice to be born', but maybe it is this inhabiting of two languages simultaneously that gives such peculiarly intense verbal self-consciousness.

(Photograph omitted)