Books to pack

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
A week lounging on the sun-drenched beaches of the Versilian riviera can awaken the strangest of yearnings.

The Italian bourgeoisie at play, with their meticulous attention to dress, and their relentless sobriety, made me long for the company of pudgy-faced, scruffy, northern European inebriates. And Sammy fitted the bill precisely.

Sammy is the hero of James Kelman's Booker prize-winning novel How late it was, how late (Minerva, Pounds 6.99). He's a heavy-drinking Glaswegian tough guy who wakes up from an epic bender to find that a severe beating by the police has left him blinded. We watch him as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life. Those who are squeamish about foul language are urged to persevere, because Kelman's narrative has the clear ring of truth about it. And once you are attuned to Sammy's voice, its subversive humour and poignancy will carry you along at a rattling pace. It's a great anthem to the human spirit.

You miss the rich ethnic diversity of post-imperialist Britain in Italy, too. There's no Balti Bolognese. Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album (Faber and Faber, Pounds 5.99) brings it all to your deckchair with Shahid, his young, English-born Pakistani hero, looking at his menu of life choices. Right-wing yuppydom, clapped-out leftism, the hedonistic youth drug culture or Islamic fundamentalism? Kureishi gives us a tantalising taste of them all, introducing some of his best characters yet.

Bob Monkhouse's cheesy grin that beams out of the cover of his autobiography Crying with laughter (Arrow, Pounds 5.99) looks perfectly at home in Italy. It is a lively read, crammed with juicy anecdotes, including yet another account of his leg-over with Diana Dors. Bob does his best to tell us he's a warm genuine bloke, and I wanted to believe him, but I couldn't. Though for all that, his professionalism is rather admirable. And he can be very funny.

Howard Hannah is deputy-chief sub-editor of The TES

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