Books: PAPERBACKS

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One Art: Selected Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Robert Giroux, Pimlico pounds 14. Bishop was once described as a "poet's poet's poet" and yet, unlike those of many more celebrated writers, her letters are remarkably unpretentious and unselfconscious. As the editor stresses, she wasn't chronicling her Life and Times, but simply keeping in touch with friends, very many of whom were also writers. It was an American generation not blessed with emotional stability - Lowell, Jarrell, Plath, Berryman and Sexton were all dogged by depression or alcohol. Unhappiness lurked close to the surface of Bishop's life too. When she was five, her mother was incarcerated in an asylum, and she never saw her again. Two of her lovers, and her closest friend, Robert Lowell, had catastrophic breakdowns, and her Brazilian lover of 15 years killed herself. But in these fluent and warm bulletins Bishop always keeps her dignity and an interest in the everyday life beyond her own concerns.

Byrne by Anthony Burgess, Vintage pounds 5.99. The characters and themes of this posthumous, compact, generational tale amount to a summation of Burgess's life's work in fiction. Byrne pere is a pornographic painter and fascist composer, a "failed artist but successful bigamist, thief, fornicator, traitor" - in other words, a regular Burgess type. The story is concerned with the legacy he leaves to his scattered brood of children, in particular the twins - Tim, an almost-spoiled priest, and Tom, a Euro-academic - who at one point swap identities. But the text also gives full rein to the author's phenomenal language skills, for it's written in the verse stanzas of Byron ("Byrne" with a rolling Irish "r") and is an extraordinary pyrotechnical display of words and rhymes to make you marvel, re-read and laugh out loud.

Company Man: the Rise and Fall of Corporate Life by Anthony Sampson, HarperCollins pounds 7.99. The author's introduction previews this as "a social history of company man" connecting him "with the broader historical and literary context". That would indeed be a monumental and fascinating volume, and with a larger-than-life cast list: Lever, Rowntree, Morris, Carnegie, Frick, Hearst, Eastman, Ford, Nobel, Krupp - and that's just a sample from the early 20th century. The book that Sampson has actually written is quite different - a superficial guidebook to the corporate world, rather low-key and loosely organised, like the Microsofts and other companies which Sampson holds up as templates for the corporate future. As you'd expect from an old hand, it's fluently written, but it seems curiously disengaged and casual, as if the author has only one hand on the wheel. Still, this is a useful overview for anyone starting management training and looking to impress those mock manpower-planning committees.

Knight Errant: Memoirs of a Vagabond Actor by Robert Stephens, Sceptre pounds 6.99. "Our great companies should always be led by actors," thought Robert Stephens, not by "directors and intellectuals". The key figure for Stephens, as I guess for all classical actors of his generation, was "Larry". The name, the voice or just the platonic idea of the National Theatre's actor- manager pops up every few pages with a compulsion that is metronomic. Stephens himself was a thespian to the very fluff in his bellybutton, and certainly not keen on intellectuals - cakes and ale, and lots of them, being more in his line. These memoirs, first published just 12 days before he died last November, are crammed with evidence of his natural raconteurship. He is frank in print about his own peccadilloes, is certainly anything but pompous and, if this is a reflection of his company, must have been wonderful value in the pub.

Panama by Eric Zencey, Sceptre pounds 5.99. In 1892, whilst on a visit to Paris and spurred by his interest in a missing young American woman, 54- year-old historian Henry Adams, descendant of two US Presidents, embarks on an investigation into allegations of corruption around the French Panama canal company. Zencey's narrative evokes the hub of France just as it accelerates into the age of technology, a process to which Adams must respond as he grapples not only with assorted murders but the new science of fingerprints and the pneumatique postal system, by which he receives, unbidden, a set of severed fingertips. This novel, with its sympathetic portrait of Adams in middle age, superficially dull but burning with a chivalry that he knows is all-too-anachronistic, is a most attractive blend of Henry James and Maigret.

Crusades by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Penguin pounds 6.99. The crusades were perhaps the most extraordinary passage in Euro-Asiatic history, a classic conflict between two civilisations, theocracies that had much more in common than either side could realise at the time (which, incidentally, could also be said about the Cold War of the mid-20th century). This book of the BBC TV series manages to find a language that is authoritative enough to satisfy any 'A'-level tutor, while remaining populist, relaxed and, occasionally, almost flippant enough to attract the average sixth-form student.

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