PAPERBACKS

! The Young Disraeli 1804 -1846 by Jane Ridley, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 12.99. Disraeli and Gladstone, the Morecambe and Wise of 19th-century politics, took very different paths to 10 Downing St. For Disraeli the route was a "greasy pole" and his style of climbing was rackety and risky. He launched himself from a knife-edge of dangerous liaisons and appalling debt, repaying enemies with his fine, scornful wit while reimbursing friends in the shabbier coin of betrayal and opportunistic double-dealing. The sheer persistence of the young Dizzy, knocked down more often than a fairground skittle, was extraordinary, particularly in his crushing triumph over Tory anti-Semitism. His policies may have been those of the inveterate chancer - "under all circumstances, I hope to float uppermost" he said of the outcome of the Reform Bill - but many were also, in the long run, percipient. Ridley also gives due attention to Disraeli's 14 novels in this excellent first of two projected volumes.

! The Information by Martin Amis, Flamingo pounds 6.99. The antiheroic Richard Tull - whose plot to destroy his hated friend and literary rival Gwyn Barry is also the book's - comes through as one of the very best literary losers, up there with Ed Casaubon and most of the characters in New Grub Street. Richard's commitment to pre-postmodernist and, he considers, "tautly leashed" fictional prose count for nothing when the publisher's reader, settling down to his latest submission, invariably develops incipient brain damage after half a dozen pages. The odious Gwyn's bloodless New Age utopias are purest trex, yet it is he who collects awards and fans while Richard, in obscurity, now simmers and prickles, now moults and wilts. Amis has made previous incursions into the grebby end of Ladbroke Grove and the infection of urban self-pity. But he's never been quite so funny about it.

! The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s by Eugen Weber, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 12.99. France seemed a glamorous destination to wealthy travellers between the wars, with its Paris Exhibition, Train Bleu, rich cuisine, wines and above all, an intact reputation as the cultural capital of the world. The reality, as this social history shows, was grimmer. France had not finished mourning her 1.4 million dead from the Great War when the whole thing started again in 1939. The years between were marked by severe social and economic anxiety: a million more women than men, legions of disabled veterans, a massive rise in immigration, a declining religious faith but a suffocating Catholic heritage for those who remained, industrial unrest, a disastrous defence policy and a misguided attempt to strut the diplomatic stage with insufficient military back-up. This gloomy scene helps explain the disgrace of Vichy, which seems to be an important part of Weber's purpose.

.!The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski, Phoenix pounds 5.99. The construction of male points of view holds little charm for Diski. These short stories cherish the inner life of women, in particular their obsessive desires, their fantasies, their ideas of bliss. One story celebrates the satisfactions of an extra-marital affair; another traces the protagonist's life in terms of her fixation on bathrooms; a third - a graceful thematic inversion - deals with a woman's joyful, but temporary, relief from her obsession. A mild irony seasons all of this, but you also bite on the odd, hard little hairball of self-doubt and once or twice, more fundamentally, "a bone- deep knowledge of my own inability", as one of the narrators puts it.

! To Be Honest With You by Linford Christie, Penguin pounds 5.99. This is primarily for athletics fans, as running and not writing is what Linford's into. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he was raised for his first seven years by a doting granny while his parents sought a better life in Britain. They can't have found it because when he came to the UK he found them in poverty in West London. He also discovered snow, playground racism, the disciplinary chaos that was ILEA education, and the fact that he was good at sport. So he is characteristic of many British blacks of his generation, except that happens to be the first Brit of any colour to have run 100 metres in under 10 seconds. He puts the case that black people in sport are important because they are "easing the racial problem". But what he thinks is in no way as vital as what he does.

! The Primitive by Stephen Amidon, Indigo pounds 5.99. Amidon's erotic thriller is set firmly in negative-equitised, corporate-downsized, Newt Gingrich- ised America. The hero David, redundant from his job on a charitable trust which once dispensed money to the poor, now glumly copywrites for a predatory property company while his wife drives herself to exhaustion keeping a beleaguered public radio station afloat. But David's life develops wheelspin when he pulls a pretty but mysterious girl from her wrecked car. Soon he's mired in sexual obsession, leading to involvement in a political conspiracy which itself encapsulates the political and social ills that made David's cosy life so provisional and anxious in the first place. Amidon - working in a field once tilled by Raymond Chandler - does so to good effect.

Judy Chicago's monumental installation 'The Dinner Party' is a triangular banqueting table with place settings for 39 famous women - Sappho, Virginia Woolf, et al. Around each setting are embroidered the names of hundreds of other women, some now all but forgotten; the whole piece, created in collaboration with many female artists, weavers and embroiderers, is a symbolic history of Western Civilisation seen through women's eyes. The Dinner Party (Penguin pounds 15) is the artist's own tour through this rich and densely allusive work. Above, Soujourner Truth's plate

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