BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! Heart Songs by E Annie Proulx, 4th Estate pounds 6.99. So energised are these 11 stories by the freshness of Proulx's imagery that they thrum, like her bestselling novel The Shipping News with life and grace, even when their subject is revenge, grief, frustration and the bitter, secret sins of rusticity. This is no townie's fantasy of country living. Proulx's characters are slow-thinking, painstaking, grudge-bearing New England folk; updated Andrew Wyeth types if you like, but far from sentimental figures. Under that big sky, the landscape they inhabit is littered with country junk and seethes with human cupidity.

! Electricity by Victoria Glendinning, Arrow pounds 5.99. Set at the fag-end of the Victorian era, when electrification is coming to the cities, this is the story of Charlotte, who grows up in lower middle-class London with few expectations until a young lodger Peter comes into her life. He is one of a new breed of electrical technicians, full of rational optimism for the infinite promise of technology, and the flash of electricity between the pair is thrilling and illuminating. Marrying her young sparks, Charlotte goes on to discover a different kind of charge in adultery, one she believes, mistakenly, she can control. It is an exceptionally satisfying book, playing variations on its theme with wit and profound sympathy.

! John Keats: A Life by Stephen Coote, Sceptre pounds 7.99. Coote points out in this very readable biography that the poet was at times given to moods of "barely suppressed, irrational spite". Perhaps Keats didn't live long enough to develop this nasty side; he has come down to us as one of the sweetest-natured of the great poets. Always one to confront any problem in his own character, such as an intense unease in the presence of women, he gives an impression of emotional nakedness which is very attractive. Keats's cleverness is less celebrated, but an early maturing sensibility led him towards novelties of thought that make his poems so intellectually surprising and elegant. Coote throughout tends to give us his subject's best side but that is, in itself, a large and worthwhile subject.

! The Game by Frances Liardet, Picador pounds 5.99. There's so much packed into this ambitious first novel that it is hard to know where to begin. It begins half way through a driving lesson in Portsmouth, with teenage Sarah glimpsing by the roadside a figure resembling her eccentric French aunt, now dead but still the object of Sarah's passionate, unspoken guilt. This vision is the first gust of an emotional storm that will bring memories spooling out of Sarah, largely centred on her explosive friendship with this aunt: family dramas, scrapes and escapades, a disrupted education, holidays in the Languedoc, intermingled with her aunt's two lovers, her violent husband, a gun, a murder and a suicide. Meanwhile Sarah and her friends demonstrate against the Falklands War while her father prepares to sail with the Task Force. The structure is gothic and the outcome lurid, but Liardet is an undoubted stylist.

! Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II by Andy Marino, Big Time Press pounds 12.95. Herschel, a young Jew who "personally declared war on Hitler", walked into the Reich's Paris embassy in November 1938 and shot an official called von Rath. This incident precipitated the wave of anti-Jewish violence known as Kristallnacht but Marino doesn't claim that Herschel's act triggered the war. It was, he thinks, simply the first shot fired. Herschel was kept on remand by France while the Nazi state bayed for his blood. Then, after the fall of France he entered a new and most peculiar phase of imprisonment in Berlin before disappearing from the historical record without trace. Marino's narrative follows all the twists and ironies of this very singular case - not the least being the possibility that von Rath was a French agent all along.

! Sa Femme or The Other Woman by Emmanuele Bernheim, trs Shaun Whiteside, Penguin pounds 5.99. This ultra-slim novella is said to have sold across the channel like hot hats in Alaska. It tells of a beautiful young doctor setting up her one-woman practice in a strange neighbourhood. Soon she has whisked up an affair with the gaffer from the building site, obsessively hoarding the foil wrappers of the condoms he so thoughtfully uses when they meet. The sentences are minimally expressive; in fact, the novel reads like a movie by one of the more emotionally restricted nouvelle vague directors. Thin on excitement, but that's just my word against 150,000 French readers.

! The Rise and Fall of Popular Music by Donald Clarke, Penguin pounds 9.99. Judgements of quality in popular culture are staggeringly relative, and one cat's Jelly Roll is another dude's Ice-T. Clarke's own music is decisive in forming this book's thesis that the musical mass market declined steeply between the Fifties and the Seventies, rocking from popular to pop and then rolling into pap, the musician selling out to the record producer, the disc-jockey to the automated playlist. In the process any pretence to soul, let alone skill, was lost. So if you prefer King Crimson to Nat King Cole, or Little Angels to Little Richard, this indignant book is not for you.

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