Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Culture
William Morris by Fiona MacCarthy (Faber, pounds 12.99)

As William Morris lay dying, one of his doctors diagnosed his disease as "simply being William Morris", by which he meant achieving in one lifetime more than most people could hope to achieve in ten. Fiona MacCarthy's meticulous, though very readable, biography reclaims Morris - a man whose richly coloured creations have provided the backdrop to middle-class homes and minds for almost a century - as a figure for our times.

Vamps and Tramps by Camille Paglia (Penguin, pounds 8.99)

Camille Paglia is sick of "simpering white girls with their princess fantasies". What she wants is women who aren't afraid of a little tough- cookie feminism. Her latest pick 'n' mix collection of essays and journalism fizzes with wise-cracks, contradicitons and erratic logic: who else would defend Woody Allen's recent misdemeanours as an artistic act, or compare the young Princess Diana to a boy prostitute?

Prologue by Joan Brady (Abacus, pounds 6.99)

Growing up on the West Coast in the Fifties, Joan Brady, now a prize- winning novelist, soon came to prefer the rigours of the San Francisco Ballet to the mess of her parents' marriage. At ballet school, they talked of diets, blisters and well-turned legs; at home, it was her father's depressions and mother's loose breasts. An enjoyable, simply written memoir, but skip the publisher's opening notes on the author - they give away the ending.

Apocalypse Postponed by Umberto Eco (Flamingo, pounds 6.99)

Taking time out from his fictional brain-busters, the Bolognese polymath turns his Mekon-like cerebrum to facets of popular culture, ranging from Chinese strip cartoons to royal weddings. If a little breathless in style, his essays are stimulating and playful. At one point, he notes that "every new book reduces the quality of oxygen" - though he seems to have overcome any personal qualms on this score.

On Flirtation by Adam Phillips (Faber, pounds 7.99)

Rescuing Freud from the Freudians, Phillips aims to bring the "light touch" of flirtation to the weighty matter of psychoanalysis: it needs to shed its restrictive jargon, and become instead a "kind of practical poetry" whose function "will not be to inform but to evoke". As if this reformulation of psychoanalysis for a post-doctrinaire age weren't enough, Phillips also throws in a clutch of dazzling literary essays.

Vinland by George Mackay Brown (Flamingo, pounds 5.99)

Though the bardic style ("I go now to avenge Hund and to flesh my sword on Brian Boru") takes a bit of getting used to, this is an absorbing story of Viking adventure with an unexpected spiritual dimension. After a youthful visit to America with Leif Ericson, the hero becomes a trader and reluctant warrior before returning to the family farm. Late in life, he turns into a religious hermit, dreaming of reunion with a boy he met in Vinland.

The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm (Papermac, pounds 9)

Sylvia Plath will forever be frozen in time, her head stuck in a gas oven in a chilly London flat. In this unusual book, Janet Malcolm turns the tables on those who have helped fix the details of this final scene in the pages of literary history. In a series of uncomfortably probing but completely enthralling interviews, she levels her frankly curious gaze on Plath's survivors - including biographers, family and friends. Malcolm offers an ambivalent lesson in the perils of biography, exposing the dodgy ethics of invading people's private lives, while at the same time digging as deeply as she can into the lives and personalities of her interviewees. The result is as exciting to read as a really good detective story.

The picture of Robert Mapplethorpe which appeared alongside the review of Patricia Morrisroe's Mapplethorpe: A Biography on 30 September 1995 is a copyright photograph by Jonathan Becker.

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