Books: Paperbacks

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The Journalist by Harry Matthews, Dalkey Archive pounds 8.99. Harry Matthews was the only American member of OuLiPo (le Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), a Paris-based group of writers founded in 1961 by Raymond Queneau, and including Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. The group's raison d'etre was the study of "constrictive form", and Matthews went at it with a vengeance. The Journalist is the most accessible of this cult writer's works and in it his narrator is recovering from a breakdown. In an attempt to make sense of his life, he starts a journal. The result is psycho-slapstick taken to extremes: the daily events of his life are split into two categories: "A (verifiable) and B (subjective)", but these splinter into endless sub- divisions as his concern for order evolves into mania, and his journal gradually takes over his life. Wife, mistress, friends and colleagues recede into the background, and he fails to pick up on the bedroom farce that is being played around him. "I may be nuts," he concludes as the borders between life and literature blur. Matthews's acute sense of the absurd makes this a hilarious novel of mathematically calculated paranoia written with acidic insight and uncharacteristic opacity.

On Pilgrimage by Jennifer Lash, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. In 1986, after 28 years of family life in which she raised seven children and wrote four novels, Jennifer Lash learned she had cancer. She decided to embark on a solitary pilgrimage through France to Santiago de Compostela. Her journey was arduous and full of pain, but, after years of caring for others, it led her back to her self: "Perhaps the interior way is the one that counts in the end. No journey can be more dark and difficult, unexpected and hazardous than that." But she also finds room for a variety of myths, legends, bones, springs, saints and fellow travellers, and is always ready to stop and contemplate the silence and spaces that surround them. On her return, she brought back the knowledge that: "It is not enough to seek and care; to pay lip service to all manner of ideals. Real witness is what counts." This is a moving account of her indomitable faith and enduring sense of awe.

The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti by eds Gardner Jackson and Marion D Frankfurter, Penguin pounds 8.99. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were immigrant anarchists who, in 1927, were electrocuted in Boston's State Prison for the held-up murder they had allegedly committed seven years before. Their executions ended the most controversial criminal case in American judicial history, and their letters represent one of the great personal documents of the 20th century. No credible evidence linked the two men to the crime, and for many, as John Dos Passos wrote, "There will never be any justice in American again." This collection was first published in 1928, and includes the kind of political rhetoric that inevitably provoked suspicion - "To progress, even a little, we have to destroy a world." But, at heart, they were idealists, and as Vanzetti declared: "Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by accident."

Raising Holy Hell by Bruce Olds, Quartet pounds 7. Religious fundamentalist, flagellant, family man and cold-blooded murderer, John Brown is a difficult American hero. An ardent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, he killed many innocent people but also became a martyr to the cause. Bruce Olds uses newspaper reports, presidential speeches, memoirs, scriptures and oral testimony to bring him back to life, and ensuring that different contexts are explored, and that the ambivalence of feeling towards him is retained. His son recalls that during one of his many whippings, his father demanded they change place: "He paid off the balance of my account. I, of course, had played the role of Sinful Mankind. He was the role of Christ." But Old's framework is only partly successful, as the fragmentary narrative fails to cohere and Brown's extraordinary story is lost in the melange. As an experiment in historical fiction, though, it is extremely effective.

The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War by Samuel Hynes, Pimlico pounds 10. Hynes has gathered stories about war written by those who fought in the two World Wars and Vietnam, as well as their victims. He chose these myth-generating conflicts because they have "given war the meaning it has" for this century's historians, and he chose personal memoirs over authorised accounts for their immediacy and unmediated humanity. In true soldierly fashion, the tone of these stories is blunt and unembellished, apart from the odd literary flourish from the likes of T E Lawrence. What Hynes tells us is the human tale of war, of men killing and being killed.

In 1916, the grand innovator of the abstract Kazimir Malevich asserted, 'Until now there was a realism of objects but not of painted units of colour ... Each form is free and individual. Each form is a world.' Thus freed from the conventions of how to represent nature, he explored Suprematism through dazzling combinations of pure colour. By 1928 he was questioning whether progress and modernity should be construed as reduction, and simplification.The re-appearance of the human form in paintings such as 'Torso: Half-Figure with a Pink Face', painted after Stalin's first five-year economic plan, reveals a mistrust of technology's increasing dominance and his belief in the necessity of human cooperation and interaction. Kazimir Malevich: The Climax of Disclosure by Ranier Crone and David Moos (Reaktion Books pounds 19.95).

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