Books: Paperbacks

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Joe Gould's Secret

by Joseph Mitchell,

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 186pp

ABSOLUTELY NOT to be missed, these two absorbing essays, about a bohemian who was eccentric even by Manhattan standards, date from the heyday of the New Yorker. In 1942, Mitchell profiled Gould, aka Professor Seagull, a bearded weirdo who enlivened literary shindigs with birdcalls and claimed to be writing a limitless oral history. Twenty-two years later, Mitchell returned to the same topic. In some ways, the amazing truth about Gould recalls Stephen King's The Shining. Sympathetic and patient, Mitchell was a giant of journalism. His classic collection, McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, equally cries out for reprinting.

First Frost

edited by Charlotte Cole,

The Women's Press, pounds 8, 198pp

EXTREMES IN weather seem to bring out the best in writers, and Charlotte Cole's anthology of winter readings includes some real goodies. Set in a chilly Montreal, Carol Shields's story "Chemistry" explores the emotional configurations of an Early Music recorder group; while Margaret Atwood's story of a boozy work lunch is set against an urban winterscape of blowy subways and dingy bars. Closer to home, Ali Smith remembers Scottish school days, and a Christmas concert; and A L Kennedy's mischievous story "Cap O'Rushes" recounts how a wife leaves her "goblin husband" after a bout of flu.

Questioning the Millennium

by Stephen Jay Gould,

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 190pp

USED TO probing aeons of geological time, Gould now turns his gaze on a mere 6,000 years. This is the age of the universe according to Archbishop Usher, who claimed everything came into being at noon on 23 October, 4004 BC. Gould notes that upheavals caused by millen- narians range from the Peasants' Revolt to the Battle of Wounded Knee. The confusion over whether we should party on 31 December 1999 or a year later is due to a sixth-century monk called Dionysius Exiguus (Little Dennis), who miscalculated the birth of Christ by four years and forgot about the year zero. Bringing a light touch to such weighty topics, Gould is a class act.

In Search of the Impotent Man

by Gaby Hauptmann,

Virago, pounds 9.99, 312pp

IMPOTENT GERMANS may not sound much of a turn-on - possibly even dangerous - but Hauptmann somehow makes these leiderhosened lotharios interesting. Unlike Bridget Jones, German insurance broker Carmen Legg has a satisfactory sex life. A red-haired uber-babe with a BMW and long legs, Carmen's only problem is keeping the men away. Fed up with the their over-enthusiastic demands, she takes out a lonely hearts ad for an intelligent, but impotent lover. Not rising to the occasion are a Bavarian count and a balding giant. The style isn't great, but the Teutonic setting gives the sex an interesting edge.

Philip of Spain

by Henry Kamen, Yale, pounds 9.95, 384pp

ACCLAIMED FOR its scholarship, this first full biography of Mary I's consort is also wonderfully readable, from the oddly familiar account of his youth ("it is difficult to believe that Philip had any real experience of childhood or domestic affection") to his gruesome death. Bogged down in paperwork, Philip applied his passion for accountancy to his vast collection of relics: 10 whole bodies, 144 heads, 306 limbs... Though he abandoned Spain's "refreshing absence of repression", Philip encouraged the Inquisition for political not spiritual reasons. Scotching long-established myths, Kamen has produced a penetrating portrait of a driven man.


by Matt Thorne,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99, 233pp

THE TWINKLING arcades of Western-Super-Mare provide the backdrop to Matt Thorne's accomplished first novel. When ex-student Sarah lands herself a job selling neon displays to local businessmen, she also ends up a regular visitor to her boss's marital bed. She's also sleeping with an old man called Henry, but is coming to like Neil, her summer student help. Occupying an emotional no-man's land between Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Wish You Were Here, Thorne describes sex, boredom and a lifetime of morning-afters in a British seaside town. Particularly good on girls' nights out.

Voices from the Great War

edited by Peter Vansittart,

Pimlico, pounds 10, 303pp

THIS ENTHRALLING scrapbook illuminates unexpected facets of a conflict where mechanised armies meshed like locked gears. The chivalry which led so many to volunteer can also be seen in the wreaths dropped by Allied aviators on the airfield of a dead German ace and the fags and chocolate thrown by Tommies to German POWs in 1918. The word pictures of Mayakovsky and Apollinaire remind us that the First World War was the birthplace of modernism. But it is the horrific images of Owen ("Gas! Quick boys! An ecstasy of fumbling") and Kipling ("eye-pecking gulls") which haunt the mind.

Angel Bird

by Sanjida O'Connell, Black Swan pounds 6.99 283pp

EVERYTHING A GIRL could wish for in a novel: good food, good scenery and kissing in the stables. Niall is a Cambridge-trained zoologist who decamps to rural Northern Ireland to study the mating patterns of magpies. But as he roams the country round his new home, he is distracted by another kind of local inhabitant: Eddie, a dope-smoking vegetarian cook and Nadia, a raven-haired beauty (who likes to dress up in scarlet cloaks). Winner of a Betty Trask Award for her first novel Theory of Mind, O'Connell tempers her vivid prose with a sensible helping of well-explained science.

Confessions of a Wine Lover

by Jancis Robinson,

Penguin, pounds 7.99, 376pp

SHE IS a beautiful high-flyer, a non-pareil in her field, ceaselessly productive. She wins over the sniffy proprietor of Cheval Blanc by identifying the two vintages served at dinner (1971 and 1964). With so much going for her, Jancis Robinson should be intolerable. Sorry, but this memoir is irrisistibly charming. No wonder that in just two years, 1975 to 1977, Robinson rose from Hirondelle to Chateau Petrus '45. She has kippers and Krug with Arlott; Coppola pitches a deal while she samples his own-label Zinfandel ("hearty and gutsy"). The same goes for this sparkling book.

The Street Lawyer

by John Grisham,

Century, pounds 10, 348pp

THE GIANT Washington law firm Drake and Sweeny has everything an ambitious young lawyer could want (except Ally McBeal). But then a homeless person drops into the company's offices with a gun, and blows his head off in the oak-panelled conference room. A Grisham novel with an agenda (rich people should help the homeless), it tells the story of Michael, three years away from partnership, who witnesses the head-blowing incident and down- shifts for a new career in legal aid. Never a hair out of place, or a sentence too many, Grisham sets the world to rights, if not alight.