BOOKS / Paperbacks

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Diaries by Alan Clark, Phoenix pounds 6.99. A horse's-mouth document of the Thatcher Government by a conformist rebel who charmed his way into a minister's chair and used it (as far as one can tell) primarily to enjoy himself. Clark describes 'the roughest game at the biggest table' with so little of the usual politician's cant that you can suspend judgement on his callousness, his lechery and even the hinted-at admiration for Hitler. But did he celebrate his ministerial elevation by bedding a 'coven' of young women at the Ritz? Does Hurd deserve to be called an 'arsehole' and Tebbit a 'schizophrenic'? Did Edith Cresson really make a play for him after a Council of Ministers? A riveting read from an attractive, nasty man.

On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored by Adam Phillips, Faber pounds 6.99. If psychoanalysis is, as Phillips paraphrases Freud, a 'telephone of unconscious communication', it sometimes seems, these days, to be the old pre-digital kind. Phillips, a child psychotherapist, tries to bring new life to an enterprise which he feels has become strangled in its own scientism and solemnity. He is good on the necessity of boredom in childhood, asserting that boredom is itself an activity, and one in which 'a child discovers a capacity for . . . fantasy'. Other ideas are similarly turned on their heads to our pleasure and profit, even if, just occasionally, the effect is spoiled by gnomic phrasing.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Phoenix pounds 8.99. The celebrated 1,500-page novel you can live in. In range and ambition Seth's story of a young girl's search for a 'suitable' husband and, around it, of India's emerging political system in the 1950s bears comparison with Thackeray. Many people said that this book, though not even Booker-shortlisted, should have been the winner.

Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life by Andrew Motion, Faber pounds 10.99. The most admired and controversial biography of last year was full of unsettling surprises. The revelation that the Hermit of Hull enjoyed a turbulent private life (a clutch of adoring lovers and a taste for porn) would alone have been enough to ruffle preconceptions; the exposure of the mild-mannered librarian's snarling prejudices - his racism may have been unexceptional among his generation but is none the prettier for that - provoked howls of denial. In fact, though this absorbing book makes clear that in Larkin 'the flower of art grew on a long stalk' out of some pretty mucky stuff, Motion's sympathy for his subject is unwavering, his shrewd and touching account of the painful making of the poetry consistently illuminating.

The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling by Angus Wilson, Pimlico pounds 10. Wilson suggests that Kipling, like his greatest creation, Kim, never really knew who he was. Born in Bombay in 1865, he was left at the age of six with strange guardians in Southsea. His parents stayed away for six years, and the experience had a lasting impact on his life: he never regained equilibrium, never settled, and India and childhood became major preoccupations of his art. Kipling remains a mystery even to Wilson, but perhaps this lovingly written critical biography gets as close as anyone ever will to a man who, far from being a mere jingoist, was himself an outsider.

Britons; Forging the Nation 1707-1837 by Linda Colley, Picador pounds 10. A scintillating account of the way in which a sense of British identity was born of Britain's religious, commercial and military conflicts, above all with France. Colley is a superb storyteller who can capture the attention of the historian and lay reader alike; perhaps her most impressive achievement is not to have set patriotism centre-stage, and to have suggested, in the subtlest way, just how fragile Britain's identity actually is.

Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri, Vintage pounds 5.99. Okri's novel begins where the Booker-winning The Famished Road left off: once again Nigerian peasant life is refracted through the weird poetic consciousness of Azaro, the spirit child, although this time Azaro is himself the narrator. Shorter than its predecessor, Songs of Enchantment is both a love story and an account of the conflict between the parties of the Rich and Poor. Okri's visionary prose- poetic style can become at points rather monotonous, but his voice is all his own.

The Foul and The Fragrant: Odour and the Social Imagination by Alain Corbin, Picador pounds 6.99. While most history tends to come with air-freshener, Corbin sets out to put the smell back into the past. In fact, Corbin's book is narrower than its title would suggest. It traces the assault on bad smells - especially those associated with poverty, sex and mortality - in 18th and 19th century France: 'Far from the odour of the masses, the bourgeoisie set out to purify the breath of the house: rooms had to be aired after the maid had stayed in them for an extended period of time, after a peasant women had called, or after a worker's delegation had passed through'. Yet Corbin also offers new perspectives on historical developments both within France and beyond it, and makes our horror of human smell seem itself a little odious.

Roots Schmoots by Howard Jacobson, Penguin pounds 6.99. In the course of his 'Jewjewjourney' around the world, Jacobson encounters gay Jews in New York, Christian Jews in Los Angeles, racist Jews in West Jerusalem, left-wing Jews in East Jerusalem and forgotten Jews in Lithuania. Paradoxically, he is struck by what Jews share and the experience deepens his own secular, sceptical, and ironic version of Jewishness - a version that finds witty and unsentimental expression in this travelogue.

The Imaginary Monkey by Sean French, Granta pounds 5.99. When fat Greg is rejected by plump Susan in favour of thinner, suaver Tony, he wills his own transformation into a migratory bird - or, as it turns out, a monkey. This permits Greg to enter into a relationship with Susan again, although as a family pet. As an allegory on jealousy and obsession, French's first novel is a little thin, but it is funny, fast-moving and short, and a delight to read.