The Actual by Saul Bellow, Penguin pounds 5.99. "Write as short as you can," Saul Bellow once advised, and in this tightly constructed novella that is exactly what he did. Harry Trellman, a Jewish- American shady dealer in Asian objets, doesn't fit in. He's a loner, a drifter and has a queer "Chinese look" to him. This may be a result of some dodgy antique-dealing in the Far East, but he brings it back to his home town of Chicago, where he can be even more of an outsider, and wallow in memories of his high- school sweetheart, Amy. Except now she's a weathered matron. Magnanimous Harry loves her despite the swinging gait of her spreading hips and badly applied lipstick. But love never runs smoothly in Bellow's book. As usual, his hero is catatonically passive. Harry can only open up inwardly: even "a personal history amounts to - exile". It takes trillionaire, first- generation immigrant, Mr Adletsky (a taut, witty cameo), to act as matchmaker, and open Harry's emotional, sexual and spiritual floodgates. This should be relished, not just for its pithy Socratic quest, but for the familiar Bellow territory of lowlife crooks, multinational fat cats, and unlikely declarations of love.
The Commerce of Everyday Life: Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator ed Erin Mackie, Macmillan pounds 8.50. The historical emergence and development of Jurgen Habermas's "bourgeois public sphere" can be traced from the graceful, stately essays in this expertly edited anthology. At least, that's what its editor, Erin Mackie, tells us. But if you'd rather brush up on18th-century etiquette (duelling, paying visits, and courting are among the topics explored), her anthology presents Addison, Steele, John Gay and Defoe at their profound and sparkling best. When Addison writes on true and false wit, he is an exemplar of the former. He graciously dedicates his essay "for the Benefit of our modern Smatterers in Poetry", and, in particular, singles out "a young Poetical Lover" of his acquaintance who has threatened to "present his Mistress with a Copy of Verses made in the Shape of her Fan". Alas, the misguided young man had already finished the first three sticks of it before Addison's essay went to press. But no doubt he took his lesson to heart. Mackie arranges the essays thematically - commerce, standards of taste and conduct, and male/female relations - in order to highlight their social context and wide-reaching effects on a rapidly changing time.
The Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction ed Peter Kravitz, Picador pounds 8.99. If you haven't already overdosed on Glasgow tenements and Edinburghian drug dives, here is a bumper collection of stories intelligently put together to help push you over the edge. Inevitably, it includes Irvine Welsh (yet another extract from Trainspotting), but also less well-known Hibernian jinks from his contemporaries, James Kelman and Alisdair Gray. As different from each other - one anarchic, the other surreal - as it is possible to be, they display an exhilarating inventiveness and verve. …