Books: Paperback roundup

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The Independent Culture
Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell, Vintage pounds 6.99. Joe Gould was a well-known New York eccentric from the 1920s through to the early 1950s - a toothless, bald, bearded little man who haunted cheap cafes and bohemian parties around Greenwich Village, cadging money and paying for food by declaiming from his writings or imitating a seagull. He had once been a journalist, and some of his early writings were published in the avant-garde journal The Dial - William Saroyan claimed to have been inspired by an early essay, which taught him that form was pointless. Gould came from a good family, but would not hold down a job because he was perpetually absorbed in his great obsession, An Oral History of Our Times, a vast - up to 9 million words - shapeless compendium of anecdotes, conversations, snatches of speech he had picked up around the city. Some New York literary figures were deeply impressed by the project, and lent him moral and financial support. Joseph Mitchell was a staff writer for the New Yorker for decades, latterly famous for his non-productivity. This book consists of two articles he wrote about Gould for the magazine, the first in 1942, the second in 1964, when Gould was dead. Their neat formality, written in that translucent, unfussy prose that characterises the best American journalism, makes a fascinating contrast with their subject. Taken together, the two are a masterly piece of reportage and confession, and a fascinating exploration of "objectivity" in journalism - their real theme the way that Mitchell is both drawn to and repelled by Gould and his shapeless, pointless life.

The Victorian World Picture by David Newsome, Fontana pounds 9.99. Something of a supermarket dash of a book, with Newsome racing his trolley round the aisles, grabbing a novel here, a painting there, a letter, an anecdote, a stray graph of history there to show how the Victorians thought and felt about themselves and the rest of the world. Wisely, Newsome doesn't even pretend that he can paint a coherent picture of such a diverse, boundlessly energetic age. An amazing amount is packed into this stupendously learned book, but he writes with the sort of lightness that comes from a lifetime immersed in his enthusiasms - never any straining for effect, any newfangled worries about a theoretical framework. In his gentle, anecdotal way, Newsome still manages to turn upside down the picture of the prim Victorian middle-classes, showing how haunted they were by fears of popular revolt, of drunkenness and sexual licence (or why did they write about the evils of such things all the time?).

The Homicidal Earl: The Life of Lord Cardigan by Saul David, Abacus pounds 10.99. Most people's view of Cardigan (the man who led the charge of the Light Brigade, not to be confused with Lord Lucan, who gave the order) was formed either by Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Reason Why or George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman at the Charge: as David summarises it, "an arrogant, homicidal snob with too much money and too few brains, as likely to be found aboard a woman as a horse". This book is a very mild corrective - David agrees with all of it except the brains, pointing out that he had a very good academic record at Harrow. After that, though, he devoted his life to hunting, duelling, adultery and humiliating his subordinates, making himself one of the most widely hated men in Britain. Nothing too controversial, then, but without the indignation that fuelled Woodham-Smith, Cardigan emerges as a monstrous kind of Mr Punch - so grotesquely oblivious to ordinary notions of good behaviour that you can't help feeling a sneaking sort of affection for him.

The Granta Book of the American Long Story ed Richard Ford, Granta pounds 12.99. A bumper collection of post-war novellas, except that Ford's introduction devotes a lot of time to explaining why he doesn't call them novellas - basically, the Germans laid down a lot of rules for the novella in the 19th century, and these don't fit any of them, except possibly Goethe's dictum that a novella should contain "one authentic unheard-of event". It's a satisfying mix of the absolute classic - Eudora Welty, William Styron, Philip Roth (represented by "Goodbye, Columbus"), Joyce Carol Oates - together with some less expected choices: Edwidge Danticat (whose "Caroline's Wedding" is really too short - only 30-odd pages - but what the heck) and, my personal favourite, Stanley Elkin's "The Making of Ashenden". This story about the obligations of aristocracy culminates in a description of sex with a bear that's so good you'll want to try it yourself.

Angel Bird by Sanjida O'Connell, Black Swan pounds 6.99. From the author of the Betty Trask Award-winning Theory of Mind: a zoologist goes to Northern Ireland to study the habits of magpies, and falls into a nest of sexual intrigue, getting involved with Eddie, chef at the local restaurant, and the wealthy and exotic Nadia Ismail. Meanwhile, places and names in the local countryside prompt a series of bizarre and vivid dreams. What can it all mean? The ornithological bits are convincingly done (apparently O'Connell has studied zoology), but you get the feeling that rather more intelligence went into writing it than comes out the other end.

The French Mathematician by Tom Petsinis, Penguin pounds 7.99. The short life of Evariste Galois (1811-32), killed in a duel at the age of 20, but not before more or less inventing an entire new branch of mathematics, Group Theory (no, don't ask me to explain). Petsinis's day-job is teaching pure mathematics, and the book started out as an academic project, a self- conscious attempt to unite fiction and numbers. The mathematical exposition is very well done, though not brilliantly integrated into the fabric of the narrative; there's not much novelty in the way the book characterises mathematics as a haven of purity and sanity in a confusing, hurly-burly world either. What is impressive is the way the first-person narrative turns people into abstract figures, less full-blooded and comprehensible than the numbers that obsess Galois.

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