BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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Looking for George: Love & Death in Romania by Helena Drysdale, Picador pounds 6.99. As a fancy-free student, Helen Drysdale had travelled through Romania, then in the worst toils of tyranny. She became friends with a spoiled novice monk, Gheorghe Cupar, but left him behind on her return to England. But the flow of passionate letters he wrote her over the years inexplicably ran dry; their political indiscretions had probably led to his incarceration in a mental hospital. Drysdale's return to Romania after the fall of the Ceausescus to find out what happened to Gheorghe makes for an unusual travel book, so intense, personal and ultimately moving that one becomes deeply involved in the author's search for her long-lost friend.

! Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 6.99. Don't be misled by the title: Hughes's stories have little to do with domesticity or the anxieties that choke Dr Ruth's fax machine. Like his poetry, they are strongly interested in the outdoors, in hunting and organised killing. These blood rituals confirm his mystical faith in the continuity between natural and supernatural, life and death. Six of the nine inclusions were published in the 1960s in the hybrid verse/prose volume Wodwo, when Hughes was at his most Thoreauesque. I found the most recent inclusion - "The Deadfall", about a childhood hunting trip with his brother in the West Yorkshire Pennines - the most interesting. It is written with beautiful economy, in the same crisp, short sentences that Hughes was using in the late Fifties.

! The Rotten Heart of Europe : The Dirty War for Europe's Money by Bernard Connolly, Faber pounds 8.99. Connolly, until recently a British economic analyst close to the centre of the EU in Brussels, sees himself as something of a Martin Luther. In this book he has nailed his hatred of a single currency to the cathedral door and, as a result, received le sac. It is a strange blend of reasoned analysis and fulminating paranoia. Connolly repeatedly uses the word conspiracy in connection with monetary union, which he sees as the joint enterprise of French bureaucrats and German politicians, each with their own agenda but willing accessories in the Big Lie. Andrew Roberts's nightmare Euro-future is already upon us, in Connolly's mind. He speaks of Brussels as "an atmosphere hostile to thought", "the subversion of democracy" sustained by "propaganda". He even suggests that the EMU con-trick has worked here only because, for uncritical British lefties, the EU has taken the place of the pre-war Soviet Union or Mao's China as an incipient Arcadia.

! Tony Blair by John Rentoul, Warner pounds 7.99. "This is premature," Blair said when told of Rentoul's plan to write his life. The project looks less so now, with an election hurtling towards us and Blair's grip on his party tightening. Rentoul is useful if one wants to understand the concatenation of revivalism and adspeak demonstrated in his "I vow" speech at conference. Blair is a card-carrying Christian, but he is also close to Peter Mandelson whose TV "coup" was responsible for Blair's early lead in the race to succeed John Smith. Blair approves of some of the ideas around Bill Clinton, notably "communitarianism", whose roots are traceable to the Scottish philosopher John MacMurray, devoured by Blair at Oxford. But alongside this moral theme is the inescapable fact that young Tony played bass guitar with Ugly Rumours and, if elected, will be the first Prime Minister ever to have shucked off a pair of purple loons.

! The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, trs William Weaver, Minerva pounds 6.99. Eco's central character, Roberto, is a 17th-century Italian nobleman floating alone in the Pacific. His ship has foundered but, after two days in the water, he happens on another vessel and climbs aboard. It proves to be a cross between the Marie Celeste and a 17th-century research ship, bungful of clocks, optical instruments and exotic species but devoid of people - until he gradually suspects the presence of one unseen companion. Who is winding the clocks and tending the menagerie while he sleeps? Despite all this, he finds time to write, to his ideal lady, autobiographical letters from which the author purports to draw his narrative. They reveal Roberto as a spy of Cardinal Mazarin, in hot pursuit of a British scheme to expand into the Pacific. Parodying the almost forgotten genre of the Angelique-style swashbuckler, while cramming it with reverberating intellectual imagery from the schizoid world of Baroque philosophical science, Eco seems more then ever the Pavarotti of the printed word.

! Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer, Abacus pounds 12.99. The murder of Kennedy is America's greatest mystery: it will never go away. In this brilliant attempt to see events through the eyes of Lee Harvey Oswald, Mailer gives us a fresh perspective, not out of "a conviction that one holds the solution" but as "an exploration into the possibilities of his character". The received opinion - borne out by photographs - is that Oswald was a posturing little dork. Mailer thinks otherwise. Despite Oswald's manifest absurdities, Mailer sees a man of action and intelligence. Relying scrupulously on documentary evidence (most spectacularly the newly available files of the Byelorussian KGB) he gives unforgettable portraits of his wife and formidable mother, and of his eventual nemesis Jack Ruby, but it is Oswald's proud soul which commands the book. Was it the soul, asks Mailer finally, of a lone killer? "Every insight we have gained of him suggests the solitary nature of his act," he concludes.

Surrealism, being largely about dreams and misogyny, has always appealed to designers and stylists. Fashion and Surrealism by Richard Martin (Thames and Hudson pounds 24.95) skips from Elsa Schiaparelli's witty outfits like the Dali-esque Desk Suit, to the couturiers of today, still turning out sardine-can bags, colander hats and trompe-l'oeil fabrics. Above: Serge Lutens for Dior, 1979

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