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Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

At seventeen you are not serious

New writing 12 (Picador, £ 8.99) edited by Diran Adebayo, Blake Morrison and Jane Rogers is an absorbing selection of literary gobbets. The writers are mostly from Britain (“based in London or its surrounds”), but also include Ireland, South America, Nigeria and Somalia. The editorial emphasis is on “voices”: “imagined voices, authentic (seemingly tape recorded) voices, voices which come at us from unfamiliar places, voices which shock and move”. The editors also identify Seven Great Themes: love, loss, sex, hunger, laughter, justice, a sense of place. There are short stories, extracts from novels, non-fiction, autobiography and some excellent poems, especially “The Wait” by Alan Jenkins and Tim Liardet’s “Madam Sasoo Goes Bathing”.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures (Arrow, £ 4.55) by Carl Zimmer is a National Geographic-style exploration of the world, mostly microscopic, of parasitic life forms. It begins: “In the beginning there was fever. There was bloody urine. There were long quivering strings of flesh that spooled out of the skin. There was a sleepy death in the wake of biting flies.” Then there are the filarial worms, “which can make the scrotum swell up until it can fill up a wheelbarrow”. It is astonishing how quickly one can get used to this. There is philosophy at the end: “There’s no shame in being a parasite...But we are clumsy in the parasitic way of life...If we want to succeed as parasites, we need to learn from the masters.”

Waterlines: the penguin book of river writings (Penguin, Rs 295) edited by Amita Baviskar is a beautiful anthology compiled by an environmental sociologist. The intimate presence of rivers in the imaginary, spiritual and everyday lives of Indians, over the ages, and the various forms of expression this has been given are the subjects of this collection. There are poems by Bhartrihari and A.K. Ramanujan, Tagore’s “Ghater Katha”, and varied pieces by Arundhati Roy, Jim Corbett, Mukul Sharma, Ruchir Joshi, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and others. “Hope is a river/ Whose water is desire,/ Whose waves are craving./ Passions are crocodiles,/ Conjectures are birds/ Destroying the tree of resolve./ Anxiety carves a deep ravine/ And the whirlpool of delusion/ Makes it difficult to ford./ Let ascetics who cross/ To the opposite shore/ Exult in their purified minds.” (Bhartrihari, Satakatrayam,173.)

Zastrozzi (Hesperus, £ 6.99) by Percy Bysshe Shelley is “a Gothic novel written by a schoolboy”, as Germaine Greer writes in her self-consciously outrageous foreword. Published when Shelley was barely 18, this romance is a Sturm-und-Drang mix of Etonian sado-masochism and “Monk”-Lewis-inspired pastiche, set in dark, old Castello dei Laurentini. Greer reads it as a treatment of “a love that still dare not speak its name, the love of a juvenile for adult women”.

Freshers (Jonathan Cape, £ 5.80) by Kevin Sampson quotes Rimbaud as epigraph, “At seventeen you are not serious”, to which Sampson’s protagonist, Kit Hannah, replies, “I fucking am.” He is in first-year university, cocky, popular, but actually frightened out of his wits to start life away from home. His gang includes a posh psychologist, a pathological liar, a fitness fanatic, an American exchange student and sundry other endearingly maladjusted young persons. Petra wants Kit, but Kit wants her to just be his friend. Kit likes Colette, but can’t quite make a definite move. “Which young person who works hard, drinks, takes drugs, stays out late, eats a bad diet and doesn’t get their full quota of sleep does not display symptoms of listlessness, low motivation, anxiety and so on'”

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