Books: Paperback round-up

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The Independent Culture
The Brontes: A Life in Letters, ed Juliet Barker, Viking pounds 9.99. Biographer Juliet Barker has assembled some of the invaluable source material of her prize-winning biography of the Brontes in this fat collection of the family's correspondence. In it, letters that were not meant for publication but dashed off in the heat of the moment, offer great insight into the emotional lives of their authors. It also traces the development of their several writing styles. Far from repressing their overwrought feelings, the Bronte girls display an emotional frankness that contradicts the received mythology of a dour, repressive father who censored their moods and fevered imaginings. We also learn from the Admissions Register of the Clergy Daughters' School in Cowan Bridge, that Charlotte's "acquirements on entry" were uncharitably recorded thus: "Reads tolerably - Writes indifferently." Emily fared slightly better: "Reads very prettily and Works a little." The two girls' education prepared them, famously, for the dreary life of a governess. And we have further evidence of the harsh treatment and wretched solitude that helped shape their sense of social injustice: "I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil." This excellent work of archival scholarship is not just for the Brontephile, it is a moving social document and offers moments - such as Charlotte's discovery of a manuscript of Emily's verse - of "peculiar music - wild, melancholy and elevating".

A Hard Time To Be a Father by Fay Weldon, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Fay Weldon has, perhaps rightly, become better known for her controversial, off- the-cuff remarks giving during interviews than for her fluently written, cruelly ironic stories. Her latest collection shows no abatement in her special brand of withering sarcasm. One feels she could go on for ever, putting the boot into both men and women, for their selfishness, folie de grandeur and ineptitude. In fact, her very prolificacy (22 novels, four volumes of short stories) makes the reader suspicious. But if you have recently been left for a younger model, embarked on an affair with a married man, crave the seed of a perfect male specimen, or turn for solace to New Age therapy, then this could be a salutary read. For those wiser to Weldon's usual targets (emotionally absent fathers and emotionally demanding mothers), but keen to see how she has developed a dystopian vision of the computer age, you will be pleased to discover she has lost none of her appetite for wicked one- liners or dispensed with twist-in-the-tail moral comeuppances.

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies by Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson, Faber pounds 14.99. Based on the BBC2 documentary series, Scorsese's generously illustrated account of one of the world's largest and most powerful film industries is a genuinely personal voyage of discovery around the films that shaped his artistic vision. Through an examination of Hollywood's most enduring genres - westerns, musicals, films noirs and gangster films - he itemises those that have made the fullest use of the medium's potential, and shows us how their directors achieved these effects. The book's greatest value is in discussing movies that have been unfairly overlooked, such as Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941) which tells the classic story of a director caught between the forces of art and commerce. Perhaps the only way you can win, Scorsese hazards, is to make one movie for "them" and one for yourself.

Acts of Mutiny by Derek Beaven, Fourth Estate pounds 6.99. Derek Beaven's absorbing second novel is a bold attempt to structure a complete narrative out of the "glittering, dangerous fragments" of a story as it is recalled by his amnesiac narrator, Ralph. Traumatised by his experiences in the Falklands War, Ralph returns to the lost innocence and repressed memories of his childhood, when in 1959 he accompanied his mother to Australia on an ocean liner. The inquisitive, lonely boy is privy to her adulterous dallyings and other furtive goings-on. But forbidden sexual passion and lascivious gossip aren't the only hidden cargo on board. As the narrator warns, "You are cast adrift with me now, and must trust my navigation." Ralph's mysterious world slowly and dramatically reveals itself, and Beaven's oppressive settings and subtle use of symbolism show a distinctive novelist at work.

Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age by Esther Dyson, Penguin pounds 6.99. "The most powerful woman in the `Net-erati'", or "The First Lady of the internet", as Esther Dyson is variously known, puts pen to paper to explode the myths surrounding digitalia. "Intellectual property is dead; long live intellectual process" is one of her catchier soundbites, but she does make a genuine effort to sort the goodies from the baddies in her discussion of the conflicts between censorship and commerce, security and freedom. Her aim is to spark a debate on the legal and commercial infrastructure necessary to make the internet deliver on its promise of a better life.

This Place You Return to Is Home by Kirsty Gunn, Granta Paperback Original pounds 9.99. In these 11 stories novelist Kirsty Gunn (whose The Keepsake was a glorious exercise in sensuous prose and sinister imagery), explores the paradox of home as both a place of departure and return. This is familiar terrain for Gunn, whose obsessive relationship with her mother and her own past is food for fiction. And it is this painfully acquired knowledge of the ambivalences of the parent-child relationship that gives her stories their emotional power and compelling narrative drive. It is the same story told over and over again, but each time she confronts our needs and fears, and gives us some sense of satisfaction.

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