BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! Debatable Land by Candia McWilliam, Picador pounds 5.99. In McWilliam's moody and powerful third novel Alec Dundas, a disillusioned, middle-aged Edinburgh man, signs on for a passage from Tahiti to New Zealand in a boat owned by an eccentric American and crewed by his unhappy wife and a trio of assorted yachties. Novelists enjoy using an ocean voyage to confine and intensify life's essence, but this is also a memory-novel in which Alec searches his life history for a key to his discontents. McWilliam acknowledges Stevenson but in her fine handling of characters and the ocean - and the ocean-as-a-character - it is Conrad who springs to mind.

! Gordon: The Man Behind the Legend by John Pollock, Lion pounds 8.99. But of course, as Pollock admits, there's more than one legend of General Gordon. Lytton's Strachey's Eminent Victorians contained the definitive debunk, mocking imperialism by painting Gordon as a loony and a drunk. In his time he was seen as a brilliant military colonialist with a tendency to go native, though political enemies like Gladstone found the man a meddling nuisance and his brand of Christianity an embarrassment. Yet in popular imagination his exploits had that mystical against-the-grain appeal which would later attach to T E Lawrence. This rehabilitation is as straight as Strachey was ironical, but today we are all post-imperial enough to grasp the ironies without being prodded.

! Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany & Japan by Ian Buruma, Vintage pounds 8.99. In this examination of post-war guilt, the psychological health of the German and Japanese nations are assessed and contrasted. Buruma finds Germany still to some extent suffering from an "inability to mourn", while the Japanese adopt a more robust refusal to do so. But should they? Haven't they already atoned, compensated? Buruma believes that if they could mourn (their own dead? their victims? he isn't exactly clear about this) they could finally outgrow the "infantilism" which was the legacy of defeat. Many viewpoints are canvassed, anecdotes retailed, insights achieved - but one feels impressions have predominated over analysis and that a sequence of different visits might have brought another conclusion.

! Signals of Distress by Jim Crace, Penguin pounds 5.99. In 1836, two fateful influences coincide in the isolated Cornish kelping community of Wherrytown. The first of them is a ship, on her way to America until she beaches in a storm and must be refitted by the town before resuming her voyage. The second is the weak, well-meaning and virginal Aymer Smith, soap-maker, who brings the dire news that the town's staple product of soda ash is no longer required by modern soap manufacture. Historical fiction like this needs to be richly imagined and Crace doesn't disappoint. His vision is ironic, but it picks out detail after detail with unflagging precision.

! Made In America by Bill Bryson, Minerva pounds 6.99. The produce here explored is language. American English is above all aggressive and acquisitive, it's sassy and grabby, the linguistic branchline that became the mainline for reasons not linguistic but social and commercial. So Bryson's word- history is also a discursive account of the socio-economic progress of the pilgrims' and their successors, from pioneer trucking and trading via the addictiveness of euphemism, jargon, slang and illiterate spelling to their modern phobia about gender-specific terms. In short, this is an untidy but engaging A-thru-Zee of American life.

! Graham Greene: The Man Within by Michael Shelden, Mandarin pounds 7.99. This book regards everything about Graham Greene as suspect. From the playing of Russian roulette (Shelden says he used blanks) to Catholicism and communism, Greene posed as a man of action, religion and ideas but was really a lubricious, sentimental, sinister, grasping, double-dealing, anti-Semitic, self-serving betrayer. There is prurience throughout: the exposure of Greene's "fondness for anal sex" is warranted important enough to be in the index. Shelden knows a lot about his subject, but he indulges in too much finger-wagging and crabby sardonics. Greene was a more considerable figure than this.

! The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner, Vintage pounds 8.99. Weiner's elegant Pulitzer prizewinner tells the story of Peter and Rosemary Grant, scientists working in the Galapagos. It was the islands' biological diversity that first inspired HMS Beagle's naturalist to enquire into the origin of species - notably the differences in finch beak-shapes - and the Grants have been vindicating the old man by measuring those same beaks for the last 20 years. The result is an object lesson in natural selection. After a drought year, the beak of the average surviving finch was half a millimetre longer, while after floods the beaks were shorter - changes favoured by feeding conditions and all accessible to the vigilant scientist. Creationism is exposed, by comparison, as mere armchair work.

When Australian artist Thea Proctor arrived in London in 1903, she became friendly with George Lambert, then a highly fashionable painter, and his wife Amy. The relationship between the three remains mysterious, but their closeness is evident in Thea's portrait of Amy (above) with her son Constant - later a celebrated composer, conductor and founder of the Royal Ballet. The brilliant, sad, ramshackle lives of George, Constant and Constant's son Kit, manager of The Who, are told in Andrew Motion's triple biography The Lamberts (Faber pounds 9.99) which spans three generations to portray the century from its opening to the decadence of the Sixties.

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