BOOKS / Paperbacks

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Erich Honecker reaches for a pen and picks up a missile: this 'desk set', made from plastic, brass and paper, was a 60th-birthday present for the late East German leader from a Soviet comrade. GDR Souvenirs by Andreas Michaelis (Taschen, pounds 11.99) is a finely illustrated history, in English, German and French, of the strangely kitsch gifts presented to East German politicians by Communists the world over, in mutual celebration of an ideology whose iconography comprised fists, sickles, tanks and rockets.

The Bible According to Spike Milligan: The Old Testament, Penguin pounds 4.99. The sheer output of jokes in Milligan's new spoof is astounding - there are literally hundreds of them. Many are on the same formula, mixing the biblical original with modern bathos: 'And lo the children of Israel went into Egypt, where there was a higher rate of pay, better working conditions and BUPA.' But Milligan is our greatest living clown and is sometimes touched with genius even when potboiling: 'And they knew that they were naked and Adam said to her, 'Stand back, I don't know how big this is going to get.' '

The Talisman and Other Tales by Viktoria Tokareva, trs Rosamund Bartlett, Picador pounds 6.99. These stories, mostly written in Soviet Russia, celebrate the operation of chance, coincidence and the occasional flicker of magic in everyday life. Crushed into the domestic margins by the State, human wit survives, love scratches an existence, wishes grow wild. Tokareva is also a well-known screenwriter and, as in a lot of Brezhnevite cinema, her sly pokes at the system are never explicitly critical, which gives the prose a genuine universality. The stories are well served by their translator, who hardly ever gets in the way.

Snowstop by Alan Sillitoe, Flamingo pounds 5.99. Having been in at the start of Sixties realism, and with almost half a page in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sillitoe now attempts a trashy old-fashioned group- jeopardy novel. The result is bizarre. A snowstorm brings assorted strangers to a lonely country hotel for shelter. One of them is a terrorist with a timebomb and, as it ticks, the characters exchange weird dialogue, some of it reading like translated Latvian. Nor are they like the clientele of your local laundromat. The women will sleep with complete strangers after a few minutes' acquaintance. Four of the men (quite separately) are desperate criminals. A trio of bikers, supposedly aged 30, talk like robotic teenage vandals, except when laying down chunks of moral philosophy and introspection. Is Sillitoe having us on? If you can believe he is, the book will yield a perverse pleasure while you wait for the bang.

Gray's Anatomy by Spalding Gray, Picador pounds 4.99. This is the transcript of a stand-up comedy routine about Gray's recent illness - a 'macula pucker', or disorder of the retina which made him half-blind. Terrified of eye surgery, he recounts his search for alternative therapies. But Gray is cursed by scepticism and, while a part of him envies those with faith and no sense of humour, he comes reeling back from gruelling sessions of psychic surgery, healing rocks, radical nutritionism and other New Age comforts. Like marks of quality, the monologue reveals a complete array of neuroses familiar from other good American comedians (Woody Allen, Jack Benny): inverted superstition, extreme hypochondria, punctured vanity, the fear of attachment and, equally, of being alone.

Peter Fuller's Modern Painters: Reflections of British Art by Peter Fuller, Methuen pounds 9.99. Peter Fuller, who died four years ago, is described by his editor as one who 'delighted in transgressing the unspoken laws of art fashion.' On the face of it, the fogeyism is off-putting. Here are Ruskin, medievalism, moralism, spirituality, all brought to bear on Fuller's chosen targets. But what deserving targets they turn out to be - Warhol, Gilbert and George, Richard Long and other ugly/vacuous spin-offs from (as he saw it) Marxist thinking. Fuller is always prepared to write confessionally, knowing that critics who hide from their readers are cowards, and his well-aimed prose, though courteous throughout, carries a deadly kick. His untimely loss would seem to have been a very great one.

Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell edited by Regina Marler, Bloomsbury pounds 12.99. These letters chronicle the writer's domestic existence, family affections and social enjoyment in such a warm, unpretentious voice that you begin to see why the published papers of the Bloomsbury set have had great appeal. They make a kind of soap opera. Some of the characters are clearly posturing, vain, fatuous, promiscuous. Others are profoundly sympathetic - or empathetic - and on the evidence here the painter Vanessa Bell was pre-eminent among the latter. Her personality (which inspires real vicarious fondness) was self-effacing, though she could also be tough and self-willed when necessary. Maternal and sisterly, hardly ever censorious, and an adroit domestic manager, she was a proper Jill Archer in her way. And that's before you even begin to consider her painting.

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