Prospect, 1 January 2012

January is the month of transition, at least if we follow its name to the Roman god Janus, whose two faces look back to the old year and ahead to the future. So in keeping with the dual nature of the month, the book world has turned out an array of books which play on double-nationalities and dual categories.

Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in Surrey with her mother, while her father, the anti-corruption activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was campaigning in Nigeria. She spent her summer holidays there, and hated it. Then her father was executed, and not unreasonably, she didn’t want to go back again. But Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (Granta, £14.99) makes me glad she changed her mind. She explores the Christian south and the Muslim north, the history, geography and corruption which characterise a place she suggests may have had fewer voluntary visitors than outer space. She’s sharp and funny, both frustrated and charmed by Nigeria. Her interest is just as piqued by the lives of students exhibiting dogs at Ibadan University dog show as it is by the efforts to introduce more effective farming methods to Kwara. She may not make you rush out to book a flight to Lagos, but she certainly brings a new perspective to a little-seen side of Nigeria.

Krys Lee’s short story collection, Drifting House (Faber and Faber, £12.99), is a less grounded, earthy book altogether. Her characters are Korean or Korean-American, as is she: born in South Korea, she was raised in California, then moved back to Seoul. Her characters have an almost ghostly quality – a bullied child in Los Angeles, a ping-pong-obsessed widower, a pair of abandoned brothers trying to escape a horrific famine in North Korea. She captures the debilitating trauma of sudden unemployment in a culture fixated on work in The Salaryman. But perhaps the most touching story is The Goose Father, about a man working away from his family. He acquires a young tenant with a pet goose in tow, and his life changes for ever.

The Misfortunates (Portobello, £12.99) occupies a strange double-ground as both novel and memoir, set in rural Flanders. Dimitri Verhulst chronicles his deeply dysfunctional upbringing, surrounded by a father and uncles who are all hopeless alcoholics. The grinding misogyny which they – and he – often express gets a bit much at times, and there are chunks that you would do well to avoid if you are of a nervous or nauseous disposition. But his gift for imagery is impressive: ‘a stew… from which countless globs of fat looked up like so many eyes, as if Argus had been liquefied.’ And while his humour is pitch-black, even by Belgian standards, it is nonetheless very funny. When reunited with a childhood friend whose outward vacuity masks a repulsive hobby, Verhulst muses on his need to bear a grudge. ‘ “Man, it’s been a bloody long time,” he said, and I felt again that I could accept nothing less than his complete destruction.’

Colin Meloy is better known as the singer/songwriter for the kooky indie band, The Decemberists. And his first book, Wildwood (Canongate, £10.00) is an equally kooky children’s novel, filled with talking owls, invisible bridges, coyote soldiers and evil ivy. He is so open about his influences that he has a quote from Lemony Snicket on the back cover. And if Wildwood lacks some of the anarchic horribleness of the unparalleled Snicket, it makes up for it by being a genuinely lovely object. It is illustrated by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, with beautifully delicate pictures and maps, and follows the adventures of Prue, a girl whose baby brother is kidnapped by crows and taken into the Impassable Wilderness near Portland, Oregon, where she lives. Prue risks her life to retrieve him, and in doing so finds out more about her family than she ever expected to know.

Calories and Corsets (Profile, £14.99) is a book of such relentless good sense that I can only recommend it, especially if you’re considering a post-festive-binge diet. Louise Foxcroft has a PhD in the history of medicine, and a cheery scepticism in the face of the twin evils of fad diets and slimming hokum. She has distilled 2000 years of dieting into just over 200 pages: exactly the kind of restraint that keeps a person slender. But she has still found space to include an extract from the diary of Lord Byron, who always struggled with his weight: ‘Invited him to dine with me tomorrow. Did not invite him for today, because there was a small turbot, which I wanted to eat all myself. Ate it’. This book reveals that diets and dieting have been around for literally thousands of years, and that over-eating is as much a part of society as eating. So no wonder the obesity epidemic is proving hard to fix with a few skipped lunches and long walks.