Spring Books: Paperbacks

Don Juan de la Mancha by Robert Menasse
An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson
A Dangerous Liaison by Carole Seymour-Jones
Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment by Bryan Garsten
Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Don Juan de la Mancha by Robert Menasse
Alma Books, 270pp, £8.99

Have you ever read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities? If so, you will enjoy Robert Menasse, a contemporary Austrian novelist who shares more than just the same initials with Musil. Menasse is a miniaturist who does not attempt to write on a Proustian scale, but he, too, has a gift for ironical observation and merciless mockery. Indeed, to judge from his latest novel, not much has changed in Vienna since Musil’s day. Menasse’s hero, Nathan, a melancholy magazine editor, spends most of his time hanging around in cafés, seducing or being seduced by a harem of more or less fatal femmes.

The trouble with this Viennese Venusberg is that poor Nathan is suffering from a seemingly terminal lack of desire, which prevents him enjoying his sybaritic life and for which even his formidable psychoanalyst Hannah can find no cure. In his dealings with women, Nathan is at once Don Juan and Don Quixote: outrageously cynical and idealistic to the point of lunacy. What he really craves, of course, is the tenderness he never received as a child from either parent. But Menasse debunks the Freudian fixation on infancy too: nothing is spared his scathing satire.

It is true that Menasse’s novel has no political and cultural hinterland of the kind that makes Musil so memorable. But then today’s Vienna is, alas, only a shadow of its Habsburg glory days. And how many readers have finished all three volumes of The Man Without Qualities? There is no such problem with Menasse, who tells you all you need to know about the hollow men of modern Vienna in a couple of hundred pages. One health warning: this is not a book to give as a present to a lady on whom you have romantic designs – unless, that is, you don’t mind her seeing through you.
Daniel Johnson

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson
Faber and Faber, 304pp, £7.99

Josephine Tey, the renowned Golden Age crime writer, has been transformed into a fictional heroine in this debut whodunnit. Elizabeth Mackintosh used the pseudonym for her popular mystery novels in the 1930s. She also wrote plays as Gordon Daviot, propelling herself and her leading man, John Gielgud, to stardom with Richard of Bordeaux.

Josephine is travelling to London to discuss the future of this play when a young girl she befriends on the train is murdered. Messages left at the scene convince Inspector Archie Penrose that Tey was the intended victim, his interrogations unfolding amidst the glamour and grit of 1930s theatreland.

Ms Upson avoids the Miss Marple comparisons – murder on a train and a female crime sleuth – by using Penrose, not Tey herself, as her detective. The play and its actors cleverly provide a plot packed with a labyrinth of secrets, betrayals and jealousies. The detailed evocation of the West End and of a generation still living in the shadow of the First World War adds to the book’s suspenseful quality. Intended as a series, this story promises further mysterious episodes.
Georgina Blackwell

A Dangerous Liaison by Carole Seymour-Jones
Arrow Books, 320pp, £8.99

Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre’s lives are among the most exhaustively catalogued of the 20th century. Beauvoir’s several volumes of memoirs were designed to construct a legend around their relationship. They wanted to live by their philosophical theories and form a new kind of relationship which would allow them both complete freedom. They would be each other’s “necessary” love, while other lovers would be merely “contingent”, and they would avoid “bad faith” by being completely honest with each other, narrating every last detail of their other sexual encounters.

Since their deaths in the 1980s, biographers have been revealing the rather sordid reality that lay behind this highly idealistic and much-feted arrangement. Carole Seymour-Jones is the latest, and goes the furthest yet in digging up the dirt.

She views the pair as an existentialist version of the cruel former lovers in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, who play games with young women for their own amusement, and exposes their attempt to live authentically as the very embodiment of bad faith.

In the attempt to banish jealousy and find a new more honest way of conducting relationships, they fell into some of the worst clichés of the bourgeois marriage they sought to avoid, with endless deception, jealousy and a string of discarded mistresses.

Seymour-Jones tells an entertaining story, but the amount of prurient detail leaves the reader feeling as voyeuristic as its subjects. She relies too heavily on reading their novels as thinly disguised autobiography – even Sartre and Beauvoir, who notoriously drew on their tangled lives for fiction, must be allowed some creative imagination.
Hannah Stone

Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment by Bryan Garsten

Harvard University Press, 290pp, £14.95:

When a leader makes a political judgment, for instance whether or not to go to war in Iraq, he or she is not always going to make the right decision. And the cost of each decision can be extremely high. In this book, Bryan Garsten claims that our fear of the uncertainties inherent in political judgment has led us to minimise the degree to which politicians can exercise their decision-making powers. Instead, we prefer to live in a society governed by rigid and often extremely damaging rules, which have their own high costs.

Crucially, and connected to this fear of judgment and its risks, we have an overriding suspicion of rhetoric. We have come to associate this fundamental political tool either with manipulation, a device used by silver-tongued politicians to trick us, or with pandering, whereby sycophantic politicians try to gain the favour of the electorate in order to increase their own influence.

However, in Garsten’s view genuine rhetoric is neither of these. Instead, it is that which actually persuades rather than coerces or charms us. When a leader uses genuine rhetoric, we are asked to engage with and confront unfamiliar political issues.

Garsten makes a clear and intelligent argument for the re-embracing of rhetoric. He champions it as a means of getting democratic countries out of the apathetic rut that they find themselves in – unless he’s just using clever language to deceive us, that is.
Frances Weaver

Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh
Profile Books, 218pp, £7.99

Almost everybody knows roughly where the West Bank is and why it is the key to solving or perpetuating the Israel-Palestine conflict. Very few of us, however, have a feel for the physical nature of the region, its hills, olive groves and wildlife. It used to be a tradition of the Palestinian Arabs to go on a sarha, a walk without a fixed route or destination lasting several days, almost like an Aboriginal walkabout. Raja Shehadeh, a well-known human rights lawyer from Ramallah, has made many sarha over the last 20-odd years, a period in which the West Bank has been drastically transformed by the Israeli occupation and the development of settlements. Shehadeh set himself the task of charting the gradual disappearance of a landscape which he adored and which he believes has now disappeared for ever. He has no love of Israel and what it has meant for his homeland but though his account of his many walks is often punctuated by anger, the overall tone is more melancholic and elegiac. His final chapters detail a meeting with a hashish-smoking young Israeli settler, which seems to offer a possible vision of future peaceful co-existence, and a frightening encounter with two young Palestinian toughs who make no bones about wanting to kill his young female companion, a Scottish peace activist, which provides a bleaker vision of the future.
Robert Low

The Secret Scripture
by Sebastian Barry
>Faber & Faber, 320pp, £7.99

In Sebastian Barry’s Costa Prize winning novel Roseanne, a very old inmate of a psychiatric hospital, tells the story of her life. Alongside her deeply moving and poetic account of youth in Sligo before the war there runs a parallel story in the form of the diaries of Dr Grene, the hospital psychiatrist, who takes a belated interest in her now that the hospital is about to close. Her childhood with a kindly Presbyterian father and a mother who eventually goes mad, her marriage to a jazz singer, a baby, disgrace and incarceration, are all played out against the background of the bitter politics of Ireland in the 1920s and ’30s. Dramatic incidents are relived and reimagined through the prism of childhood and old age – the book is as much about the unreliability of memory as anything. The contrast between these two first-person narratives, which both try to describe and make sense of the past, is one of the main flaws of the book: the doctor is a dullard by comparison with Roseanne and the story of his failed marriage remains curiously uninteresting. Indeed his main role seems to be to supply an unnecessarily melodramatic ending to the story (commented on by the Costa judges), the culmination of several irritatingly implausible plot twists.
Emily Read

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Sort Of, 265pp, £7.99

This novel, set in 1920s Vienna, has been described as a reworking of the Cinderella story, but the post office girl who is its heroine has rather more in common with Eliza Doolittle. Like Eliza, she is transported from a drab life of penny-pinching poverty into a glamorous whirl of wealth and luxury. And like her, she is transformed into an elegant beauty, becoming a huge social success. But there the resemblance ends. Stefan Zweig’s theme is the destructive legacy of the Great War. His girl is cast back into the hopeless, shabby environment from which she came – and for which she has now become totally unsuited. Once more she is transformed, this time into an angry, bitter woman, obsessed, as is the book’s other main character – a penniless war veteran-by the injustices of her world and her “stolen” youth.

Though Zweig didn’t submit it for publication, this novel, which came out in German in 1982 – 40 years after he committed suicide – is in no way inferior to his other works of fiction. It is written with a feverish urgency that makes it utterly compelling from first page to last. There is, in all Zweig’s stories, a tinge of melodrama that excludes him from the ranks of the very greatest novelists-but it is also what makes them so exciting.
Miriam Gross

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
Black Swan, 320pp, £7.99:

Re-released this year to coincide with its adaptation for the big screen, this chick-lit novel has become a classic of the genre and the first in a series of five Shopaholic books. It is a must-read for anybody who is feeling that credit-crunch guilt – the slightly sickening feeling you get when you know you’ve got a pile of unopened bank statements somewhere, and, by a strange coincidence, many, many pairs of pretty shoes stacked in the wardrobe.

Becky Bloomwood spends her working life as a financial journalist, writing articles about sensible saving, yet in her personal life she has to concoct increasingly absurd excuses in order to fend off the debt collectors after too many trips to the shops. As the series progresses, these excuses become slightly tiresome and annoyingly far-fetched, but in the original the humour rivals that of Bridget Jones’s Diary.

This piece of “shopping porn”, with its highly provocative descriptions of 100 per cent cashmere scarves and Manolo Blahnik high heels, is pleasing to anyone who loves the sound of a credit card being swiped. The romance is light and warming and crucially this is a book which, despite its gloomy relevance to the current economic climate, lifts the spirits rather than plunging the reader further into recession depression.
Frances Weaver

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"