BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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8Dr Johnson & Mr Savage by Richard Holmes, Flamingo £6.99. Johnson, the subject of one pioneering biography, was the author of another, his Life of Savage. Even by the standards of 18th-century Grub Street, Richard Savage - poet and murderer - was recklessly, even ludicrously unsuccessful. His death (in prison) in 1743 gave the 32-year- old Johnson the chance to write a book that was (in Holmes's words) ``a new hybrid non-fiction form of enormous energy and potential''. The unlikely friendship between the roaring old radical and the eager but lumpish young critic, brought together by shared loneliness and pov- erty, provides the raw material for this highly atmospheric study of the biographer's art.

8Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Pan £5.99. The first two volumes of this superior family-at-war saga, taking the upper-middle- class Cazalets from from Munich to Dunkirk, each cover a year. This third (of a projected four) goes at a brisker pace, ending with VE Day, when public peace leaves many more personal conflicts unresolved. Howard's chief protagonists are the gang of young cousins who shelter for the duration under their grandparents' large and increasingly leaky roof. She is particularly good at catching the inner strength of the young as, in their individual ways, they suffer simultaneously the muddle of war and the hell of adolescence.

8Millroy the Magician by Paul Theroux, Penguin £5.99. Jilly, the thumbsucking 14-year-old who narrates this novel, is picked up by a huckster magician at a county fair and ``swallowed up'' by him. She becomes his assistant, and her new life in Millroy's Airstream trailer certainly seems more fulfilling than her old one with the drunken father and the grandmother who beat her. But Millroy is also an evangelist for a better way of eating, who founds a cult and becomes wanted by the police. The novel is like a strange reworking of Lolita, with Humbert Humbert's pompous obsession for nymphet sex replaced by Millroy's alimentary angst.

8The Road to San Giovanni by Italo Calvino, trs Tim Parks, Vintage £5.99. Although the comparison may seem odious, the career of Italo Calvino, who died in 1985, makes him look like an Italian George Orwell: early realistic and political novels giving way to more celebrated later fables and fantasies. Calvino, too, was a skilled essayist, but less the polemicist than Orwell. In these five posthumous ruminations on his father, going to the cinema, the rituals associated with putting out the rubbish, the 3-dimensionality of experience and a wartime partisan operation in which Calvino fought, the humour is of the gentle kind and the humanity likewise.

8English Our English (And How To Sing It) by Keith Waterhouse, Penguin £5.99. Two questions. What's orange, got three legs and eats melons? What's wrong with the other question? Waterhouse - who winced when he saw the former in an advert on the London Tube - is hardly original in seeing the English language as a rained-on birthday cake, dissolving before his eyes into a slurry of disgusting imprecision. Nor is he the first to try to do something about it by writing a manual. The unpalatable truth is that aberrant apostrophes, confused homonyms, out of control exclamation marks and all the horrors of chewing-gum language cause pain only to those who know ``correct'' grammar. The rest don't give a toss. So perhaps the 70s English-teaching mob had a point: lets kind of forget about rule's, the hole things boring right!

8The Vision of the Fool by Cecil Collins, ed Brian Keeble, Golgonooza Press £14.95. Cecil Collins is an artist of the William Blake school of symbolism: angels, children, Christ figures and visionary women with streaming hair people his glowing, numinous paintings, of which a selection is reproduced to illustrate these ``writings''. And, like Blake, Collins favours the enigmatic epigram: ``Intelligence is divine''; ``Man has not yet become converted to life''. Clearly some kind of Blakean synthesis of word and image is being attempted in these delightfully batty essays and pronouncements, which communicate a mystical sense of calling in vivid prose.

8Martyr's Day: Chronicle of a Small War by Michael Kelly, Picador £6.99. At the start of the small conflict in question - Operation Desert Storm - Kelly, an American journalist, was in Baghdad; he returned later to travel all over the theatre of war. This collection of pieces captures well those aspects of the war which we prisoners of the three-minute news could not fully understand: the ``mad arrogance of the Kuwaitis, the greedy thuggery of the Iraqis and the wicked wanton waste of it all''. All reporters simplify, and the bald horror of war is given to us largely unqualified, in eyewitness statements wherever possible. And the book covers a lot of ground: the bombardment of Baghdad, Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, the Allies' ``turkey shoot'' on the Basra road, scuds over Israel and the war in the Kurdish north.

8Mothertime by Gillian White, Phoenix £5.99. Is it Freud's fault that inadequate, guilty parenthood has become one of the prime subjects of post-war middle-class English fiction? In this latest examination of the theme, White has created a truly grotesque mother in the alcoholic ex-actress Caroline. Suddenly one Christmas her children, led by 12-year-old Vanessa, rebel. They imprison Caroline in the basement sauna of their house and then pretend that life goes on as normal. Meanwhile, the rest of the adults - divorced father, mother's lover, au pair and Mrs Mop - try to figure out what's going on. A black comic melodrama that is also a compulsive read.

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