PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky, Sceptre pounds 9.99. "The abuse of greatness," said Brutus contemplating the murder of Caesar, "is when it disjoins remorse from power." In the case of the greatest power-abuser in the 20th century, "disjoin" is not the word. Stalin hacked them apart as ruthlessly as he cut down his enemies, real and invented. His unconfined paranoia originated when, as a Party activist codenamed Koba, he played the double agent, betraying his party to the Tsarist police and vice versa. This raised the question: if he himself could not be trusted, could anyone? Later, he had all his close Party associates killed, judicially or otherwise. His hitman for many years, NKVD chief Yagoda, carefully preserved each mangled executioner's bullet labelled according to its victim; eventually a bullet with his own name was added to the collection. Radzinsky's biography, a racy read, is based on secret archives that, in some cases, only he has seen. He concentrates on court politics rather than any global policies, but does end by suggesting that "the Boss" was eventually murdered by his own henchmen because he was preparing to launch nuclear war against America.

Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman, Vintage pounds 5.99. American Edward Mason returns from England in the 1930s to an inherited Maryland estate after the failure of his engineering business . He tries to learn farming from books but earns instead the contempt of his workers, both black and white. His wife Edith and son Sebastien respond in different ways to the unaccustomed slow burn of southern rural life, but neither is comfortable with Edward, a bumbling, well-meaning incompetent who never quite achieves the reader's sympathy. As rumours of war are heard Edward goes back to England to build aircraft parts, Edith takes a lover and Sebastien becomes obsessed with farming. But Edward returns, all set to wreck the precarious happiness they've achieved. In this kind of elegiac period fiction it can be hard to avoid a lot of lump-throated soft focus, but this unusually well-written example largely manages it.

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane, Vintage pounds 6.99. In this novel of a boy growing up in Catholic Ireland, the early scenes come along impressionistic and fragmentary. Soon a more connected narrative develops as the precocious child begins a rigorous, even harsh, academic schooling at the hands of soutane-clad masters. Meanwhile religion and politics, like twin demons, hover over his family with its tough loyalty-tests, mysterious secrets, dangerous apostasies. If the similarities between Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and Deane's fine Belfast-set fictionalised-memoir, set in the 1950s, are striking, the present book's purposes are entirely those of a different age.

The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500- 1800 by Olwen Hufton, Fontana pounds 9.99. The prospects for a girl born in early modern Europe depended almost entirely - as they do in India today - on her chances of being given, or of accumulating by her own efforts, a dowry. Marriage was a goal, not only because it accorded status to a woman and legitimised her motherhood, but because it chimed with generally accepted philosophical ideas about sex and gender. As Olwen Hufton shows, everything else about women's lives in the period flowed from this crucial imperative, but she has not written a joyless sectarian tract. The research is exhaustive, the writing is of high quality and the text is full of details which will gently adjust what you may think.

Florence: A Portrait by Michael Levey, Pimlico pounds 15. The former director of the National Gallery, the blurb helpfully informs us, now lives in "the so far largely unspoilt town of Louth in Lincolnshire". Florence, of course, has been spoilt, not so much by redevelopment but by tourism so that, as Levey himself says, it is no longer a city but a shrine as magnetic in our day as ever Canterbury or Santiago di Compostela were in theirs. Levey's well-illustrated book is magisterial. It traces the story of the city's cultural life from the 13th to the mid-19th century, the point at which the city began to acquire its present semi-sacred status, with massive authority. Particularly appreciated, apart from general lucidity and easy command of the material, mixed with strong expressions of the author's individual tastes and opinions, will be the valuable sketches of those less well-known Florentine years on either side of the Medici.

Below the Parapet: The Biography of Denis Thatcher by Carol Thatcher, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. The family business into which Denis Thatcher went as a young man was the manufacture of degreasing and descaling equipment. Some would say that his wife left the country in unprecedented need of those products, but by that time the Thatchers' family interest had been sold. Carol Thatcher's portrait of her father is spirited and highly enjoyable, by no means the inert labour of love that you might expect. He comes over very much as readers of the "Dear Bill" column in Private Eye would hope - in fact Bill Deedes is credited with persuading Denis to let his daughter write the book. I am glad he did. It's a personal and occasionally very funny portrait which you close (perhaps despite yourself) liking the man, as his daughter obviously does. There is an evocative account of Denis's first (and failed) wartime marriage but, with the interesting subject of the Thatcher finances hardly probed, and any dark sides to the marriage to Margaret understandably skirted, there are no sensational revelations - unless you count the fact that Denis is against capital punishment.

Five hundred artists, one to a page, each with a colour reproduction of a major work: even in paperback, this ought to set you back about 15 quid. Phaidon's The Art Book is a mere pounds 6.95. The pocket format is neat but not unfeasibly minute, and you soon get used to the egalitarian alphabetical format which gives as much (or as little) space to Michelangelo as to Warhol, Monet as Mary Cassat. Above: the bold, Fauvist portrait 'Schokko' (1910) by Russian-born Alexei von Jawlensky

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