Books: Paperbacks

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Miles Davis: the definitive biography

by Ian Carr

HarperCollins, pounds 8.99, 660pp

ON A visit to New York in the Seventies, Miles Davis's house was pointed out to me. Superb African carvings decorated the walls, but inside, as this excellent book reveals, it was "neglected and filthy." Davis was indulging in an extended alcohol and cocaine binge. This oscillation between magnificent achievement and self-destruction was a recurring pattern.

A fellow trumpeter, Carr has written an absorbing account of perhaps the most vital musical personality of this century. Born in 1926, this Juilliard-trained son of a dentist was playing with Charlie Parker by the age of 19. Four years later, the stainless image tarnished. Addicted to heroin, Davis pursued an alternative career as a pimp. Following a cold turkey cure, he made an astonishing return. In the seven years up to 1960, the trumpeter "showed a sustained creativity rarely equalled in jazz or any other 20th century music".

Edgy, insecure, Miles was subject to repeated police harassment. Carr also reveals that he was bisexual, but this does not account for his serial unfaithfulness to his wives. Such material is skilfully integrated, but this is essentially a book about Miles the musician. The answer is here for anyone who wonders why Davis never repeated Kind of Blue, his triumph of 1957. "I have to change," he said. "It's like a curse."

Davis pioneered a new ambient jazz with In a Silent Way. Its patchily brilliant successor Bitch's Brew was given an additional edginess by Davis having a ferocious row with his producer. Before his death in 1991, he came to incorporate dance rhythms in performance. Though successful, he was shunned by jazz fans. It is a tribute to Carr's appreciation that he holds these final works in high regard. He notes that Miles, Ellington and Yeats each "created some of his most moving work in the last decade of his life." CH

Dorothy Hodgkin: a life

by Georgina Ferry

Granta, pounds 9.99, 423pp

MORE PEOPLE would know about the only British female scientist to win a Nobel Prize if she had not worked in the recondite field of crystallography. Ferry works wonders in elucidating her contributions in exploring penicillin, insulin and vitamin B12. The iron will hidden behind Hodgkin's gentle persona was shown by a visit to Vietnam in 1971. With her belief in free love and "slightly chaotic" lifestyle, Hodgkin makes a splendidly unconventional protagonist. Ferry does her proud.

The Hours

by Michael Cunningham

Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99, 228pp

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel opens with a description of Virginia Woolf's last wade towards oblivion. It then goes on to describe a day in the life of two contemporary women - Clarissa, a Nineties New Yorker with a party to give, and Laura, a Forties hausfrau and mother - both of whom share interior lives every bit as demanding as the doomed novelist's. A writerly homage to Mrs Dalloway, but a distinctive one, alive with New World energy and emotional heat.

Buxton Spice

by Oonya Kempadoo

Phoenix, pounds 5.99, 184pp

SET IN Seventies Guyana, Oonya Kempadoo's semi-autobiographical first novel is narrated by a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Intrigued by her budding body, and those of her friends', she spends hot afternoons wondering about the size of other people's "bumseys" and "bubbies", and decoding the activities of the villager's randier adults. A familiar coming of age story - tinged with intimations of racial and political unrest - and unusual for its frankness on the subject of girlhood sexuality.

A Slight and Delicate Creature

by Margaret Cook

Orion, pounds 6.99, 307pp

THE FAMOUS bust-up occurs in the prologue. For the next 274 pages, the book plods through a happy childhood, medical school and her relationship with a horse called Phyllis. It gains momentum as her marriage deteriorates: "I found him flat out on the dining room floor with a brandy bottle." This slow fuse produces a satisfactory bang on page 275, when Margaret seethes at Gaynor, now the chatelaine of Chevening, eating food she bought: "I hope the thought gives her indigestion."