Books: Paperbacks

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The Oxford Book of English Short Stories edited by A S Byatt OUP, pounds 11.99, 439pp A COLLECTION of English short stories is bound to be a strange beast. Lots of people write in English, lots of people write about Englishness. In her role as editor of the OUP collection, Antonia Byatt has applied stringent Home Office guidelines. Entrants must have been born and bred in England - even if they end their days with a balcony view of the Riviera.

Byatt has also been strict with herself. Tempted to produce an academic primer of a book (to include English folk tales, Canterbury Tales and offerings from the 17th and 18th centuries), she has curbed her more donnish inclinations and sided with H E Bates's definition of the modern short story as an invention of the 19th century. The result is a Westminster Abbey roll-call of a contents page: Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Wodehouse, Waugh, Greene and Elizabeth Taylor, and - rather gratifyingly for them - Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Philip Hensher.

Unlike equivalent American short story collections, in which the up-and- coming generation is given top billing, England's younger practitioners of the genre - Will Self, Helen Simpson - are conspicuous for their absence. Not that you can accuse Byatt of being a fuddy-duddy. Her quarrel seems not so much with young Turks as with young bores, and the Iowa Workshop school of short-story writing in which the "fleeting impression," takes centre stage. Byatt's preference is for stories that, in defiance of the form's constricting length, make "unexpected twists and then twist again."

This results in a scalp-prickling collection which reflects, even more than our preoccupation with class, a very English taste for the shocking - from the ghost stories of Dickens, M R James, Rudyard Kipling and T H White to the surreal fantasies of William Gilbert and Leonora Carrington.

The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style

by Tom Paulin,

Faber, pounds 10.99, 382pp

NOT A biography, more than lit crit, Paulin's book celebrates a wonderful stylist: "Sinewy, muscular, vigorous, strong". Our finest radical writer, Hazlitt also wrote superbly about art, prize-fighting and, on his deathbed at 52, his fatal illness. Scathing about "the vacuum of abstract reasoning", Hazlitt was quintessentially English in the physicality of his prose. Echoing his hero's writing, Paulin's book has the animation of a river in spate.

Vivienne Westwood: an unfashionable life

by Jane Mulvagh

HarperCollins, pounds 8.99, 402pp

MULVAGH EXPLAINS that Westwood's success ("her clothes expressed supreme self-confidence... customers emphasised how sexually powerful they felt") stems from her wild contrariness. A "satirical iconoclast", she is also "utterly humourless". Striving for sexual shock, she is "relatively monogamous". "Free from self-doubt", she relies on spooky gurus to furnish her "blotting paper mind". This fine book merits a readership far beyond frock fanciers.

Delphinium Blues

by Stevie Morgan,

Flame, pounds 6.99, 282pp

JESS SOMETIMES wonders if her marriage would have lasted longer if she'd worn Janet Reger instead of Gap. Not that she has time to ponder - left with two children, a mortgage and nothing on her CV but cake crumbs. She has to reinvent herself, fast. Not hard, as Jess is as multi-talented as her creator, Independent columnist and zoologist, Stevie Morgan. It's not long before old men, gay men and, eventually, the right man, come tapping at her door.

Faust's Metropolis: a history of Berlin

by Alexandra Richie

HarperCollins, pounds 14.99, 1107pp

EVERY PAGE of this titanic volume plunges the reader into Europe's most intriguing capital. Richie devotes the bulk of her book to its terrible apotheosis in this century: the modernist capital described by Leger as "a single block of light"; the bloody birthplace of the Thousand Year Reich; the final days of Nazism - "a sea of crime, violence, rape and murder"; the wall and the "barren and empty thoroughfares" of East Berlin. It is a staggering story, superbly told.