Books: Paperbacks

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99)

"Perfect" is used here in a technical sense, meaning "a storm that could not have possibly been worse". In this extraordinary work, Junger explores the fatal impact of one such fury - the Halloween storm of 1991 - upon the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a US swordfishing boat. Junger braids a host of material into his account - the worldwide increase in wave heights may be due to tightened laws reducing the amount of spilled oil which once calmed troubled waters - but the book's irresistible hook is a painstaking reconstruction of the crew's experiences up to and including the moment of drowning. This Conradian work about the human price of fish is immensely impressive.

A Skin Diary by John Fuller (Vintage, pounds 5.99)

Poet John Fuller's latest offering - the diary entries of a 19th-century foetus - is less pretentious than it sounds. A celebration of birth and creation, and the mysterious vocabulary of the Welsh hills, Fuller's hands- on prose splits cells and metaphors with elemental ease. This nine-month stay in a farm girl's womb is best read aloud, preferably when pregnant or hormonally high.

Duchamp: a biography by Calvin Tomkins (Pimlico, pounds 15)

The New Yorker's veteran observer of the art scene has written an absorbing life of the great Marcel which ranks alongside Richardson's four-volume Picasso for its detailed portrayal of both man and milieu. So how did he manage to compress Duchamp, arguably this century's most influential artist, into one bulky tome? The reason is that Duchamp's career (unlike his ardent sex life) virtually ceased at the age of 36 when he switched to chess. But his small corpus is so richly potent that the ever-readable Tomkins has no shortage of material. His analysis of The Bride Stripped Bare ("Basically a motor", explained the artist, "running on love gasoline") is a treat.

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (Faber, pounds 6.99)

Clever, imaginative and a more enjoyable read than his best known novel, Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey's latest book (an historical thriller set in 1830s London) tells the intriguing tale of Jack Maggs - a deported criminal recently returned to England to settle some old, and mysterious, scores. Newly illuminated by gas-light, and populated by such Dickensian- sounding characters as Percy Buckle, Miss Halfstairs and Henry Phipps, Carey's London throws up con-men and debt-collectors at every corner.

Jane Austen by David Nokes (Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99)

In this engaging and persuasive reinterpretation, Nokes suggests that, in a similar way to Shelley, Jane Austen's surprisingly sanguine character ("I am a wild beast. I cannot help it") was posthumously etiolated by her starchy relatives. Nokes reveals that the flesh-and-blood Jane "always loved to shock people and took a wicked girlish delight in saying the unsayable". Far from being a wallflower, she threw herself into "concerts, fireworks, shopping and scandal", and fell for a dashing young Irishman until his family kibboshed the affair. Nokes's prose fizzes in pursuit of his entertaining, slightly improper heroine who was "a connoisseur of human curiosities".

The Cafes of Paris by Christine Graf (Constable, pounds 8.99)

If you're planning a few days in the City of Light, this enjoyable tour of zinc bars, salons de the and other places of refreshment makes a lot more sense than a ponderous cultural guide. You could plan your trip round legendary drinking holes: the Procope, where Robespierre directed the terror; the Brasserie Lipp, where Henry Miller's lectures on prostitution provoked a fellow American to remark, "For Christ's sake, Hank, why don't you write a book?"; and Maxim's, where the farceur Feydeau responded to the explanation that his single-clawed lobster had been in a fight with the line: "Then bring me the winner!" An even better idea would be to follow Graf's suggestions of more humble joints where real people go.

The Farewell Symphony by Edmund White

(Vintage, pounds 6.99)

The third in a series of autobiographical novels, The Farewell Symphony finds writer Edmund White fast approaching 30 - still unpublished, unloved, and about to leave New York for Paris. Raunchy, philosophical and always kind, White records the intimate history of that generation of gay men who came of age in the Fifties, came out in the Sixties and lived long enough to die of Aids in the Nineties. At his funniest on French snobs and American fogies.

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