Hephzibah Anderson reviews the latest paperback books.
For those strong enough to survive them, dysfunctional childhoods provide some of the best stories. The American novelist Donald Antrim's early years were full of them, as he recounts in this questing memoir, whose chapters each take their cue from the quirks and faded dreams of a particular relative. He began these familial sketches in the winter of 2000, shortly after his mother Louanne's death. To describe Louanne Antrim as difficult would be a chronic understatement. Growing up in Tennessee and Florida, she was half of a golden high-school couple who married young, and went on to become an artist, teacher and fearsomely volatile alcoholic, divorced, remarried and divorced again by Antrim's father. In her final days, stricken by lung cancer, she became paranoid, conversed with figures from mythology and the Virgin Mary, and dressed in outlandish, hand-tailored garments adorned with tassels and totem objects. Louanne's ghost hovers over the book, and Antrim offers sidelong glimpses of her via introduction to the likes of his gentle, taciturn grandfather and his eccentric uncle Eldridge, whose car was a teenage boy's dream. Devastatingly deadpan and admirably tender, it is propelled throughout by rigorous candour.
Smart Sadeem, plucky Lamees, homely Gamrah and half-American Michelle are the kind of girls who'll be first in line for the new Sex and the City movie. Pampered young 20-somethings, they date, shop and gossip about men and lip gloss. The key difference between them and their on-screen heroines is that they live in Saudi Arabia. They cannot drive or meet unrelated men in public, and their choices in love are dictated not only by their families, but also by strict tribal codes governing purity of blood as well as virtue. They may pepper their musings with English pop lyrics, Lebanese slang, and chat room idioms, but when it comes to the crunch, tradition overrules their enchantment with modernity - especially in relationships. For Michelle, this means that she may never get to spend her life with her high-born beloved. For Sadeem, it is a lesson learnt the hard way, after she decides to give into her fiancé's flirtatious demands, only to find herself ditched by him for doing precisely that. Meanwhile, Gamrah is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Even as it chips away at one set of traditions, this controversial bestseller conforms to another set - those of chick-lit, in all its confiding, readable, yet ultimately unsatisfying frothiness.
It all begins with a party - a small party, since Jack and Charlie's creaking, cramped apartment isn't an ideal space for entertaining, and their college-kid budget can stretch only to home-brewed beer. They get around the problems of space by inviting only the girls from the downstairs apartment, Harriet, Mary-Beth and Caroline. The beer seems just fine - or at least, it does the trick, assisted by a well-timed power cut and a violent storm that results in confused teenage fumblings and gaping memory gaps the next morning. But it doesn't end there. In the bleary aftermath, tiny Mary-Beth stumbles out of bed and manages to wrench her door off its hinges, and student hack Harriet finds herself completely invisible. Charlie, who had managed to lure Caroline into his bed, can read people's minds, thus hearing loud and clear all Caroline's unvoiced regrets. Caroline, for her part, discovers she can fly. And Jack? Jack can move fast as a speeding bullet. This smart, big-hearted coming-of-age comedy blends college japes and with elements of classic superhero myths, as David J. Schwartz's quintet decide they must live up to their gifts and become costumed crime-fighters. There is a more thoughtful element, too, since its action just so happens to be set in the months leading up to September 11, 2001.