Books: Paperback roundup

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. Iain Banks suddenly lays claim to his Scottishness, as do Candia McWilliam, Allan Massie and Andrew O'Hagan, but the anthology profits from their maturer voices imparting a sense of eulogy as well as revolt. And the variety of style, subject and pace makes for an exhilarating read.

The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought ed Stuart Sim, Icon pounds 14.99. According to Stuart Sim, "postmodern" is one of the most used, and abused, words in the language. Hence the need for a critical dictionary. But if there are no more metanarratives, or universalising theories, then how can we build a definition of a resistant and amorphous trend of thought? Sim tackles this by farming out the various bits and bobs of postmodernism (critical theory, aesthetics, popular culture) to contributors, thus ensuring a democratic, and dissenting, if necessary, discourse. A N Wilson's enthusiastic endorsement on the cover ("I recommend every household to buy two copies of this exemplary compendium") is, methinks, ironic. Certainly, without the framework of postmodernism, the dictionary is a bog-standard collection of essays on the major players in the second half of 20th-century thought. They tend to have one thing in common, as summed up by American author Donald Barthelme: "As soon as I hear a proposition I immediately consider its opposite. A double-minded man - makes for mixtures."

All Grown Up by Sophie Parkin, Headline pounds 6.99. Coco (she would be called Coco) is the daughter of hard-drinking, swinging Ricki Johnson, a wildly unconventional Sixties actress. Funnily enough, Sophie Parkin is the daughter of hard-drinking, swinging Molly Parkin - a "flamboyant media personality" as her publishers put it. As a picaresque stroll down memory lane, in this case, Chelsea's King Road, it is everything it should be. Parkin writes with gay abandon of her giddy adolescence. Her descriptions of the alcoholic mother ("Only we're not to call it drunk," slurs Coco, but rather, "merry") are amazingly free of rancour, and full of fun and charm. This girl about town takes overdoses, no food in the house and divorce in her stride, until one divorce too many lands her, bedraggled and bemused, in India. It takes motherhood (after all, she's been caring for her own mother all her life) to bring her round, and give her the means of survival.

In the Psychiatrist's Chair III by Anthony Clare, Chatto pounds 12.99. Since 1982 Anthony Clare has been riding the airwaves as Radio 4's resident analyst. He's had Yehudi Menuhin, Ann Widdicombe, Stephen Fry and the violinist formerly known as Nigel Kennedy in the back of his metaphorical cab, and here, amongst the other celebs he's picked over, he transcribes their interviews. Widdicombe is a fascinating personality, prickly, defensive, yet claiming to be open. When Clare dares to mention sex, sparks fly (and it isn't sexual chemistry). His prefatory essays offer insights into his patient's attitudes and defensive ploys, but also offer his own psyche up for inspection.

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