Book review: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Roger Fishbite

by Emily Prager

Vintage pounds 6.99

From the very first cute-kid witticism, Prager makes it clear that this is a child's-eye view of Nabokov's Lolita. Lucky Lady Linderhof is the unlucky girl with the abusive stepfather and the wilfully blind mother. She narrates this pastiche with a heart on its sleeve from within her holding-cell at the local youth facility. Prager brilliantly captures the horrific precocity of this poor little rich girl, but she should have stopped when the going was good. The book is too long, considering the inevitable outcome of the story and the (necessarily) juvenile characterisation. The knowing tone begins to pall, the pastiche strays into surreal farce and Prager lacks the literary sleight of hand necessary to switch genres and keep her readers involved.

The Wild Blue Yonder

edited by Graham Coster

Picador pounds 8.99

A brave publishing move, considering the recent spate of commercial aviation disasters, but this compendium is built more along the lines of extolling the derring do pioneers than commiserating with the lot of those in steerage. Roald Dahl's exhilarating, terse account of the 12 British fighter pilots left to defend Greek air space alone in the Battle of Athens typifies the celebratory style of prose to be found here. Classic aviators such as Guy Gibson of the Dambusters, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and Beryl Markham and Saint-Exupery are the book's heroes. But Richard Hillary's brief "Of Crashes" is the most poignant contribution, considering as it does the implications of flight for mere mortals.

Collected Stories

by Tennessee Williams

Vintage pounds 8.99

One of America's most distinguished playwrights, Williams also published four volumes of short stories. Gore Vidal introduces this anthology by recalling how he celebrated Williams's 37th birthday with the man himself. He draws our attention to characters from Williams's early life: the lobotomised sister, the hard-drinking father, the hopelessly refined mother and their sissy son. The stories play with these cards over and over again, but never to dull effect. As Vidal says: "There used to be two streetcars in New Orleans. One was named Desire and the other was called Cemeteries. To get where you were going, you changed from the first to the second. In these stories, Tennessee validated with his genius our common ticket of transfer."

The Cult of Elizabeth

by Roy Strong

Pimlico pounds 12.50

This study of 16th-century painting is the culmination of a lifetime's research into the subject, made accessible to the general reader. Strong articulates an iconography centring on the queen's image, and convincingly reconstructs groups of pictures around particular artists including anyone of any importance up to 1625. But, he is quick to admit, it is still a work in progress, and, any year now, we can expect a further volume that will consider the use of allegory, pictorial space and order, and their connections with the wider world of poetic imagery. Until then, consider Shakespeare's "unspotted lily" that is Elizabeth as she is interred in her grave in 1603, and, with that ingenious segue, Sir Roy Strong's authoritative ruminations thereon.


by Penelope Lively

Penguin pounds 6.99

A great stalwart of contemporary English fiction, Penelope Lively has sired many prizewinning novels. She is a clever, subtle writer who likes to play with ideas in her eminently rewarding fiction. Here, her heroine is Stella, a social anthropologist whose life has been devoted to studying why people get on, if indeed they do. Now she is 65 and, perforce, must retire. She reluctantly accedes to the biological imperative and sets herself the task of settling into a rural community. Her inability to pick up on basic social/sexual signals leads poor Stella to question the merit of her previous scholarly existence, and Lively to construct a cruel and comic vision of English village life.