Paperbacks

R D Laing: A Divided Self by John Clay, Sceptre pounds 6.99. In Laing's case, the phrase "icon of the Sixties" is fatally reductive. Certainly he enthusiastically swallowed the Zeitgeist, taking LSD and lecturing students whilst balancing yogically on his head. But his influence (sometimes in a disguised form) began before and has persisted beyond that Sixties bubble reputation. In a society that oppressed psychiatric patients, Laing was the champion of the mad. Asylums, he thought, had no illusions about alleviating suffering, merely of containing the insufferable (the Loony Bin was for him an exact metaphor). The only child of a cold marriage, he came to believe that his mother dominated both his father and him as an alternative to loving them. Such bitter pills as this, absorbed in childhood, set the agenda for his professional life, which belongs to a line of heterodox medicine that runs back to Paracelsus. This is a good introductory sketch.

Children of Darkness & Light by Nicholas Mosley, Minerva pounds 6.99. In paranoid schizophrenia, patients suffer from an intolerable awareness of the connectedness of everything: for them, "only connect" means being unable to do anything else. The journalist-narrator of this weird novel has a comparable problem. Whatever story he covers, it links up with all the other stories (Chernobyl, Yugoslavia, Sellafield, plutonium smuggling, visions of the mother of God). It also elides into "current ideas of the mind" (chaos and quantum theory, New Age therapies, psychobiology) as well as his personal problems: a tense marriage and distant relationship with his son. This makes for a somewhat indigestible congeries of public events, philosophical speculation and domestic guilt, and leads to excursions into several of the more obscure small rooms of the human psyche. At times you feel a mismatch between the grasp and the reach of Mosley's prose, but his mixed style - good, clean narrative mingling promiscuously with ghastly psycho-gibberish - can also offer surprising rewards.

On Kissing: From the Metaphysical to the Erotic by Adrienne Blue, Indigo pounds 6.99. From the airborne mmwah to the hungry, chomping mouthful, there are as many species of kiss as types of human relationship. Blue exploits the semantic aspect of the kiss to excellent effect, construing the meaning of the hand-kiss, the princess-on-frog kiss, the Judas kiss, the Papal- tarmac kiss and (a genus previously unknown to your innocent reviewer) the Business Kiss. But, knowing it is also - or can be - "a sensual end in itself", Blue gives pride of place to erotic kissing in this book, discussing it with an enthusiasm that is clearly more than that of a scholar.

A Rational Man by Teresa Benison, Vintage pounds 5.99. Alex is married to Jonathan, the son of Charles Wade who, he tells Alex, is dead. But he isn't. Challenged by the mystery, she sets out to discover why Jonathan has airbrushed his father out of his life. Her quest uncovers a problematic three-way romance. She finds out that Charles had been an awkward, unlikely figure - a celibate property magnate - when he met Sophie, the married antique dealer who would become his nemesis. Coping with the two other individuals who loved him - his lawyer, Leonard, and wife-to-be, Sarah - Charles gave his emotions a rough ride for several years before hurtling headlong into final disaster. Benison's writing and story-telling are most of the time excellently crafted, although the big sex scenes hide behind unnecessary clouds of symbolic embarrassment.

Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker, John Murray pounds 13. As any Irishman or Ethiopian will tell you, famine's scars on a nation's psyche are not quickly healed. What, then, are the long-term consequences of the extraordinary and disastrous hunger which afflicted the Chinese people between 1958 and 1962? Its cause was the self-delusion of Marxism- Leninism, which so desperately craved scientific autonomy that it embraced the absurd theories of bogus luminaries like Lysenko, the semi-literate Azerbaijani "agronomist". As in the USSR in the Thirties and Forties, traditional modes of Chinese production were destroyed during the Fifties in favour of collectivisation and fatuous methods of propagation such as close-planting - a technique based on the idea that plants of the same type would benefit from class solidarity. When the crops failed, seed stocks and reserves were plundered for the foreign market. This manoeuvre saved face by registering record exports, but cynically condemned 30 million to death in the countryside. Mao knew it but, as his doctor has written, "he did not care".

A Struggle for Power: the American Revolution by Theodore Draper, Abacus pounds 9.99. America's independence movement was not in origin a revolutionary struggle. True, new-style libertarian thinkers like Tom Paine helped it challenge the centripetalism of London. But its true lineage is traced back by Draper to a set of profoundly traditional values enshrined in the charters of the early colonies. Modelled after English medieval royal charters (including Magna Carta), these documents had a generous degree of colonial self-government built in, a tradition not compatible with the British attempt under George III to create an up-to-date imperial system. In Draper's convincing and entertaining account it all looks terribly like the Eurosceptic objection to Brussels; I shall henceforth couple Goldsmith and Redwood with Jefferson and Adams, and the latter's dying sentiment: "independence now and independence for ever!".

The return of Hong Kong to China on 1 July this year is a fearsome prospect, however calm the handover appears to be. "To be Chinese means to accept being controlled by someone else," explains Beijing-born writer Ma Jian. "As of 1 January last year, at least 14 journalists were in prison in China," notes Barbara Vital-Durand of the French human-rights watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontieres. Jacket illustration and quotes taken from Index on Censorship, 1/97: Hong Kong Goes Back (pounds 7.99)

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