PAPERBACKS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, Penguin £6.99. Firejumpers, members of the gung-ho airborne division of the US Forestry Service, drop from planes to fight fires in remote locations. The story of the jumpers' worst disaster, when 13 were killed 45 years ago in Montana, is told here by an unusual bestselling author. Maclean died in his late eighties with this book all but finished and it demonstrates, like his earlier A River Runs Through It, that he is part of a great American tradition of backwoodsmen-writers. Here he feels with his fingertips towards the essence of tragedy - and in his other incarnation as a professional Shakespeare scholar, he knew how distinguish the tragic from the merely catastrophic. This is a great book, rich in metaphor, philosophy and adrenalin.

8 Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye by Cynthia Heimel, Picador £5.99. Heimel's collection of journalism reads like a sheaf of faxes - dirty, scatty, punchy, slangy and funny - on many subjects which conspire to mess up our lives: Anita Hill and Judge Thomas, contraceptive foam ("delightful and fun, like filling your innards with whipped cream''), the burden of PC, Woody and Mia, lesbianism ("If I were a lesbian I could have chocolate cake every night and still get laid''), singlesbars, single parenthood, men ("sex glands in their eyes, centrefolds in their hearts''), answering machines, addictions ("Is there a 12-step programme for people with absolutely no addictions whatsoever? We have pain too''). Although a Manhattanite to the core, she'll chime with all who don't know if they love or hate modern life. And never mind the put-down title, she really has a 22-carat heart.

8 The Hidden Files: An Autobiography by Derek Raymond, Warner £5.99. Raymond, who died last year, came from a wealthy but stupid English family. He hated his parents and his schooling, and escaped at the earliest opportunity to live on the fringes of the1950s London underworld. Drinking in clubs, minicabbing, doing errands for gangsters and all the time dissecting the criminal mind ("The psychopath is the furnace that gives no heat'' is one of his epigrams), he then went to France and transmuted his observations into a remarkable series of "black novels'', crime fiction which held back nothing in describing violence and nastiness. Raymond's angry voice developed in reaction to the cosiness of the middle-class crime novel, which in turn represented thefalse values of his parents. Yet this fierce, articulate, untidy testament hides as much as it reveals and left me longing for more. Raymond's penultimate novel, Dead Men Upright (£4.99) is also out from the same publisher.

8 The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution by Christopher Hill, Penguin £8.99. From the revolutionary point of view, the 63 years between Elizabeth I and Charles II were the most compellingly dramatic in English history, as the spread of print and Puritanism turned the world upside down and the people found themselves triumphantly (if temporarily) above the King. Scripture played a central role in the drama, and it wore many costumes: theology, self-help manual, key for codes, oracle, quotations dictionary, source of courage and alternative law book. It is sad that, as the Bible is forgotten, the 17th-century cast of mind will become increasingly opaque to us. Hill's book, shortlisted for the 1994 NCR Non-fiction Aw ard, will help avertthat evil day.

8 A Tidewater Morning by William Styron, Picador £5.99. Here are three linked scenes from the Virginia childhood and war service of one Paul Whitehurst, told from the distance of old age. Styron's hallmark is his fluency - as good as Updike but without the tricks - and the craft in the stories is hidden by the overpowering feeling that these are actual memories. This facility has caused Styron to be denounced by PC ideologues, who charged him with trespassing on experiences he could not share - a slave revolt in The Confessions of Nat Turner (he is white) and the Holocaust in Sophie's Choice (he isn't Jewish). In this slim book he appears to be sticking more closely to autobiography: a 10-year-old's encounter with a nonagenarian ex-slave; an incident on a troopship steaming towards the invasion of Japan; the death of a mother. But don't bet on that. Styron's fiction is among the most convincingly realistic of his generation.

8 Ballad for the New World and Other Stories by Lawrence Scott, Heinemann £4.99. "You start telling the story about a guy and then you get to telling the story of a time, a place, a people and a world.'' Not all writers get beyond the story-of-a-guy stage, but Scott - following his 1993 novel Witchbroom - shows in these dozen tales his enormous pleasure in recreating patches of the Trinidad of his birth. The prose is economical and beautifully veined with emigre melancholy - virtually all the stories are haunted by the pain of emigration and return. Yet Scott's writing is far from dreary; it is full of light and promise.

8 Slang Down the Ages by Jonathon Green, Kyle Cathie £7.99. Slang has triple value: not only is it socially useful (as an exclusive speech form), it is generally disreputable and a lot of fun. Green's lexicography displays his appetite for the latter aspects of the subject and this has made his slang reference books among the most enjoyable of their kind. The latest is more like a partial history of how English slang has mugged 42 of its favourite objects (death, drink, the Dutch; masturbation , men, money; the penis, the police, the posterior - you get the idea) over the past 500 years, and it continues the Green tradition of erudite gusto.

8 The Book of the Spider by Paul Hillyard, Pimlico £9. Phobia is a reverse obsession, the other side of the coin from train- or bird-spotting. Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the commonest and it can sometimes be cured by pretending it is Arachnophilia; in other words by learning so intensively about the feared object that facts crowd out the fear like birds mobbing a pred-ator. So Hillyard's comprehensive and entertaining manual on the spider, which is also beautifully produced, is for arachnophobes as well as arachnophiles. It includes discussions of spiders as food, the identity of little Miss Muffet, organised spider-fighting in the Philippines and much more beyond.

Comments