Saturday 23 September 1995
A middle-aged female "narratologist" (not unlike AS Byatt) finds herself trapped in a Turkish hotel room with a djinn so large that his shiny toenails block the entrance to her bathroom, and his private parts take up her entire bed. Over room-service of marrons glaces he grants her three wishes: the first being to rejuvenate her stout Yorkshire body, the second being sex with a djinn. Fairy tales don't come more sublime than this.
The Prince of Wales: A Biography by Jonathan Dimbleby (Warner, pounds 7.50)
Poor Prince Charles with his big ears and bad sinuses. Even his Uncle Dickie suggested plastic surgery. Kept up all night at Gordonstoun, pillows raining down on his royal head, the young Prince wrote sad letters home requesting new supplies of Vosene shampoo. Dimbleby on Charles's childhood is a gem; he is less convincing on HRH's "grande plonge" into marriage. Any mention of sanitary protection is studiously avoided.
Colored People by Henry Louis Gates Jr (Penguin, pounds 6.99)
In the little town of Piedmont, West Virginia, your name either ended in "O", in which case you were Italian, or started with "O" in which case you were Irish. If you were black, there were only 300 of you in the entire county, so you kept quiet. Despite his childhood longings for a house as comfortable as the one he saw in Leave it to Beaver, Gates's memoirs recreate a sunlit world of picnics, suppers at "Big Mom's", and learning to write at the kitchen table.
A Suitable Job for a Woman by Val McDermid (Harper Collins, pounds 5.99)
Val McDermid, journalist turned crime writer, sets out to talk to female private investigators, both in Britain and in the US. For any prospective Warshawskis out there, tips include: purchase a wardrobe of long wrap- over skirts (good for outdoor peeing when on surveillance), watch out for dodgy wigs, and frequent the local diner. Listening to these womens' lives, one feels that McDermid has saved the best stories for her own novels.
Highways and Dancehalls by Diana Atkinson (Vintage, pounds 5.99)
By the end of a six-hour shift, a stripper can feel like "a piece of 3-day old lemon meringue pie". And Diana Atkinson should know. Her novel about a high-school drop-out working the honky- tonk joints along Canada's West Coast is largely autobiographical. Written in diary form, the author revels in a twilight world of brand name kitsch where girls are called Shalimar, the nail polish is Maybelline, and the drink of choice is Grand Marnier.
No Place Like Home by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Virago, pounds 8.99)
Born the weight of a "medium-sized aubergine", Alibhai-Brown's Ugandan childhood ended just as Idi Amin's reign of terror began. Escaping as much from her family as her country, she boarded the plane along with thousands of fellow Asians for Britain and, in her case, Oxford, where she discovered damp rooms, tidy gardens and the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A candid and far from bitter account of life as an outsider.
Freud: A Life for our Times by Peter Gay (Papermac, pounds 12)
Highly readable and jargon free, this epic life provides a clear-cut path through much disputed terrain. With Freud, more than any other great thinker, the theories and their creator are inseparable. Gay provides a living portrait of the man who revealed the mental topography of the modern world. But whether such an ardent devotee of smoking ("surely one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments") would want to live in our times is doubtful.
The Oxbridge Conspiracy by Walter Ellis (Penguin, pounds 6.99)
When published last year, this energetic polemic drew furious rebuttals from the likes of Melvyn Bragg (Wadham, Oxon) and Andrew Roberts (Caius, Cantab). What got up their noses? True, Ellis's work has a rancorous obsessive quality. Worse, he is deficient in the quintessential Oxbridge attributes of charm and understatement. But his allegation that two per cent of graduates dominate Britain is unanswerable.
Umbrella by Ferdinand Mount (Minerva, pounds 5.99).
Faultlessly capturing the early 19th-century mix of sexiness and starch, Mount's elegant novella tells the story of Lord Aberdeen. A successful but uneasy figure, he was forced to resign as PM because of his stand against the Crimean War. The story unfolds via cinematic vignettes with Aberdeen's dazzling public life (dining with Napoleon, opining with Metternich) darkened by domestic tragedies.
A Bag of Boiled Sweets by Julian Critchley (Faber, pounds 5.99).
Alan Clark's bombshell aside, this is perhaps the only recent political memoir you'd read for pleasure. Critchley is a rare wit and admirable stylist. After an evocative childhood section (which could happily have been extended), his account of ambition slowly deflating into dismay as Toryism mutated under Thatcher is comedy of a high order. A perceptive and finally brave book, as polio catches up with him after a 40-year reprieve.
An Honourable Defeat by Anton Gill (Minerva, pounds 6.99)
Absorbing and uplifting, this account of German resistance to Nazism reveals the immense courage needed in a totalitarian regime, stiff with informers, to work for the defeat of your own country. This survey ranges from top activists such as Admiral Canaris to a teenage gang called the Edelweiss Pirates. Household names make unexpected appearances. Porsche was a close friend of the Fuhrer, while Bosch was a bitter enemy.
The Big Yin by Jonathan Margolis (Orion, pounds 5.99)
On his 1994 tour, Billy Connolly's childhood tales were better than ever but recent material was out of touch. Similarly, his biography retains a modicum of interest when covering shipyard days or early gigs. Steadily, though, a monstrous metamorphosis takes place in the cheeky Glasgow gagster. In the end, it's the royal connection ("as soon as Scarlett was born, Pamela phoned the Duchess") which brings on the dry heaves.
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