A Week In Books: Give your stocking a treat

By Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 14 December 2002 01:00

Nothing brings out my inner Scrooge like the array of vacuous volumes stacked up beside the till in every bookshop for a month prior to Christmas. In the trade, the elastic concept of the "stocking-filler" stretches to cover an inferno of sins. It wraps around cheap-and-nasty "funny" books, acres of sub-undergraduate satire, lumbering jests about the science of Christmas, and (a fresh torment, this) lame crime yarns with a schmaltzy seasonal pay-off by hard-boiled novelists who need to show their runnier side. Yes, Janet Evanovich and David Baldacci, we do mean you.

Even the Worst Case Survival Handbook series, which once instructed us how to beat off enraged cobras or leap safely out of aircraft, has now sunk to the level of a silver-jacketed compendium of reindeer gags. Most of these cynical throwaways would have given more midwinter pleasure had they stuck to their vocation as Scandinavian conifers. But not all: there follows The Independent's choice of small tokens of esteem to grace the most stylish of stockings. Some modest literary packages do boast more than a meagre portion of publishers' humbug.

* African Diary by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, £7.99) On behalf of CARE International (who receive the entire proceeds), the portly laugh-machine went to Africa for the first time to report on the charity's projects in Kenya. Bryson sends himself up merrily enough, and even manages to slip in hard information about aid, tourism, corruption, disease and development in between his customary cracks.

* A Brief History of Thyme by Miranda Seymour (John Murray, £9.99). Originally a column in The Independent, these erudite and charming essays on herbs more than merit hard covers. Seymour's explorations of 45 weeds we should heed mix snippets of herbal history and mythology with medical and culinary wisdom. Intriguing folklore from the past blends with sound advice for the present, though exactly where to place George Washington's enthusiasm for Cannabis sativa ("Make the most of the Indian hemp seed and sow it everywhere") remains entirely up to you.

* Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews (Profile, £9.99). Almost 40 years ago, Crews mocked postwar academic fashions in The Pooh Perplex, a set of spoof scholarly essays on A A Milne's Great Bear. Now Bear and Dons are back for a fresh dose of pin-sharp parody, with Crews – via tenured poseurs such as Das Nuffa Dat and Carla Gulag – eviscerating the corpse of many defunct campus theories. A guilty treat for all survivors of post-1970s arts degrees.

* Pleased to See Me: 69 very sexy poems, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe, £6.99). In which the canny publisher of Bloodaxe weaves a chain of modern poems – sensuous, erotic or seductive – into a stimulating bardic circle-jerk. Enjoy every style of literary love, from D H Lawrence to Carol Ann Duffy. Great to see that Fleur Adcock, too often featured in anthologies only for her pro-masturbation verse "Against Coupling", crops up here with a piece about how "Madmen" make perfectly sane (if routine) lovers. But the "Arsehole" attributed to Craig Raine is, of course, really just Verlaine and Rimbaud's French "Arsehole" in translation.

* Schott's Original Miscellany by Ben Schott (Bloomsbury, £9.99). Who is Ben Schott? And why has he compiled the most hopelessly addictive collection of trivia lists ever to waste a busy reader's time? Bond movies, chat-room acronyms and "Some notable Belgians", you could forgive; but the exact ingredients of the Big Mac, "Curious deaths of some Burmese kings" and "I love you" in more than 40 languages? The mysterious Mr Schott even descends to Christmas No 1 singles since 1969 – Rolf to Robbie. LOL, many times over.

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