BOOK REVIEW: Paperback Classics

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The Independent Culture
A Reed Shaken by the Wind by Gavin Maxwell, Eland pounds 8.99. As Saddam Hussein remorselessly drains the swamps of southern Iraq, this reissue of Maxwell's 1955 account of his journey with Wilfred Thesiger is timely. Unlike his mentor, who by this time knew and was known by the Marsh Arabs intimately, Maxwell went among the Ma'dan in the spirit of adventure. His account of how he learnt to eat, sleep, travel, hunt and relax the Ma'dan way is humorous, wise and involving, his appreciation of wildlife perceptive and compassionate. And his adoption of an otter cub was to lead to even greater, if more sentimental, literary triumphs.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt, Penguin 20th Century Classics pounds 6.99. This is no ordinary piece of reportage, although it was originally written for the New Yorker in 1964. Eichmann, long believed to be the organiser of the Jewish Holocaust, had been kidnapped by Mossad from his post-war Argentinian refuge and placed on trial in Jerusalem. Arendt's purpose, as a political philosopher covering the trial, was to trace Eichmann's wartime career as it emerged in evidence, to chronicle the main events of the Holocaust and to uncover the Israeli government's political reasons for staging what was essentially a show trial. If the outcome was anticlimactic - Eichmann's role turned out to have been 'wildly exaggerated' - the exercise did serve to underline 'the fearful, word-and- thought-defying banality of evil'.

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis, Warner pounds 6.99. These memoirs, written 60 years ago, convey both the excitement and the horror of a very young man who unexpectedly got a bird's-eye view of trench warfare. Lewis was a pilot in the fledgling Royal Flying Corps which, during the Battle of the Somme, was charged with observing troop movements and spotting artillery targets. It was dangerous work: aircraft were commonly knocked out of the sky by their own side's long-range shells. Later, as a fighter pilot, Lewis joined such aces as Ball and McCudden and describes dog-fights with accurate relish. Part Biggles, part Rupert Brooke, Lewis is a fascinating character.

Three Great Novels by Wilkie Collins, Oxford pounds 8.99. The Woman in White and The Moonstone are genuine classics, the latter among the most charming and interesting of all novels and, a rare thing among mystery stories, wonderful to re-read. In addition to his astute servant's view of country house life, Collins spawned, with Sergeant Cuff, a line of supersleuths which stretches all the way from Holmes to V I Warshawski. The third of Collins's 21 novels included here is The Law and the Lady, a late murder mystery featuring a female detective, but the plotting is strained and (aside from a legless villain) the characters dull - a bit of a disappointment.

Ake/Isara: Memoirs of a Nigerian Childhood by Wole Soyinka, Minerva pounds 7.99. For more than 30 years Soyinka has been the epitome of an African man of letters: he was the first African to win the Nobel Prize, in 1986. His British-style education (he was a teacher's son) gave him a hybrid sensibility, full of European as well as African references. In these memoirs he exposes the unlikely accommodation which existed between African pantheism and Christian civics during the colonial period - the tree-spirit co- existing with the bishop and the sanitary inspector. In their subject these memoirs are both personal and political; in style they are fluent and funny.

Bird Lives] by Ross Russell, Quartet pounds 10. Charlie Parker, the Sepia Saxman, would still only be 74 if he had lived, and although he belongs to the distant age of 78 rpm and racial segregation, the Yardbird remains a role model for many late-20th-century males: black, cool, careless of his gifts, promiscuous, charming, forceful, drug-taking, unshackled. But it has always been a challenge to make jazz interesting on the page, and one does not expect too much of a biographer who is billed as 'President of Dial Records' and 'Charlie Parker's personal manager'. Yet from page one you cast the doubts aside. Russell turns out to be a natural writer, well capable of bringing Parker's world to life. The result is one of the best ever biographies of a jazzman.

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, Minerva pounds 5.99. This novel, another reissued Pulitzer prizewinner, is just 10 years old and so sits only provisionally on the classic shelf, but Lurie's wit is tough and her themes are timeless. The novel follows a couple of American academics on furlough in London - he a handsome young researcher on The Beggars' Opera, she a dowdyish, fiftyish nursery rhyme specialist - and the love affairs in which they separately become ensnared. Not as light and fluffy as it appears at first.

August 1914 by Barbara Tuchman, Papermac pounds 14.99. This study of the first 30 days of the First World War, originally published in 1962, won for Tuchman the first of her two Pulitzer Prizes. Her gifts as a historian did not come from dry analysis and the careful sifting of fact: she was passionately involved in the past, and if the result is occasionally novelistic, this is nothing but a help to the non-specialist reader. She is equally clear-sighted about the noble and the farcical aspects of men riding off to war; if the farcical tends to prevail, that does not undercut the sense of anger. Great stuff.

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