Paperbacks: Repentance, and plenty of it

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks Vintage pounds 7.99

F or American novelist Russell Banks, both white and black Americans are bound by the legacy of slavery. His previous 12 novels have dealt with issues arising from this ambivalence, and how it affects the family unit, and blood ties, especially those between father and son.

In his latest, he has taken both racial and familial themes to create a fictionalised account of the granddaddy of abolitionists, John Brown - unwitting instigator of the Civil War, murderer to some, martyr to others - narrated by his only surviving son, Owen. "Cloudsplitter" is the Iroquois name for the mountain overlooking the Brown homestead, and its shadow seems to spread across the rest of antebellum American society as it is given shape by New England speculators divvying up land surrounded by rivers, gorges and burgeoning railways.

On the Brown farm, leather is tanned, sheep are raised, wool is spun and sold. Childbirth is an annual event, as is the death of small children, and days are marked by bible-readings and harsh punishments. Every event has apocryphal overtones; when Owen falls off the roof in an attempt to escape his father's Sabbath restrictions, he breaks his arm. His father snaps it back into place, leaving it permanently crippled, and Owen is left with a permanent physical reminder of the perils of breaking his father's law. Brown rules his family like a crazed Old Testament patriarch, and Owen is forced to ask "Was my father mad?"

At the same time as he is intent on recording his father's attempt single handedly to end slavery, the changing dynamic between Owen and his father gives the novel its emotional momentum. The biblical proportions Banks assumes are entirely fitting - when Brown leads his sons and a handful of followers in an insane attack on the state armoury at Harpers Ferry, he swears to his 20 children he is doing God's work. (In order to convey Brown's elaborately plain-spoken diction, Banks limits himself to the words listed in an 1853 Webster's Dictionary and, of course, the Bible.)

In making Owen the pivotal figure, the story of the massacre of the Pottawatomie Five is all the more powerful. The young boy rejects his father's religious fervour and becomes awash in self-pity; soon the thrill of violence is his only consolation. As an old man looking back, though, he shows himself to be repentant. For all John Brown's hectoring and preaching, he possessed, says Owen, "a dangerous kind of stupidity - a stupidity of the heart". So Owen was forced to enact his sins and then pay for them, and the father's story becomes the son's confession of guilt.

Food in England

by Dorothy Hartley

Little, Brown pounds 14.99

First published in 1954, this classic cookbook has inspired the likes of Delia Smith with its traditional recipes and accompanying essays on British cultural history. Unless you can get your hands on a boar's head, though, or some fresh hawthorn flowers for the liqueur, the most interesting aspects are those that deal with, say, medieval eating habits, and thus we get a chapter on social organisation. The line drawings are charming, the diagrams (for constructing a privy or a lavender faggot) are hopelessly complex. And if anyone is brave enough to attempt Pig's Pettitoes, I'd be interested to know if you managed to keep it down.

Eucalyptus

by Murray Bail

Harvill pounds 6.99

Murray Bail's contemporary fairy tale set in New South Wales is beguilingly told. A farmer promises his daughter Ellen's hand in marriage to anyone who can correctly name the hundreds of species of eucalyptus tree that he has planted on his land. Suitors come forth - eminently unmarriageable - and Ellen sinks into despair. Finally, she meets a mysterious young man, who seduces her with stories of faraway lands and the people in them. Bail's sly humour is laced with compassion, and the strange courtship he describes takes the reader deep into the heart of his native Australia.

Rat Pack Confidential

by Shawn Levy

Fourth Estate pounds 6.99

Hollywood's first rat pack was formed when Lauren Bacall walked into a Las Vegas casino in 1955, and found her husband, Humphrey Bogart, gambling and boozing with Frank Sinatra and some other screen legends. "You look like a goddam rat pack," she said. So Sinatra became Pack Master, and Bacall Den Mother. Five months after Bogie's death in January 1957, Sinatra and Bacall were an item. But perhaps, suggests Shawn Levy, Sinatra, who felt overshadowed by his predecessor, could start a rat pack of his own - with no broads this time. And so Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, actor Peter Lawford, and comedian Joey Bishop became Sinatra's Rat Pack, and they gathered in Las Vegas for a series of shows famously called The Summit. Levy chronicles each wisecrack and each shot of Chivas-on-the-rocks with the style and panache of a well-oiled Dino. But he also provides an insight into Sinatra's links with the Mafia, electioneering for the Kennedys and the racism meted out to Davis. "Smile so they can see you, Smokey," Frankie used to josh. The personalities on view swagger with postwar confidence at the dawn of the Kennedy era, but theirs was the ultimate spasm of showbiz glamour. In celebrating their irresistible brand of coolness, Levy defines a shifting of values in American society.

The Giant, O'Brien

by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate pounds 6.99

Eighteenth-century London was like the sea and the gallows: it refused no one. So Charles O'Brien, a genuine Irish giant (on whose life Mantel bases her fictional account), made his way there to sell himself as the sensation of the season. Shadowing him is the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, eager to add the giant's extraordinary skeleton to his collection. First, he must come to terms with O'Brien the bard, and this is where the story becomes more than just a historical novel. O'Brien's tales are the stuff of legend that transport his ragged entourage away from the stench of the streets into a world of faeries, princesses and silken cushions with tassels. Hunter's appetite for knowledge vies with O'Brien's innate wisdom, but Mantel concludes with science triumphing, sadly, over art.

A Fan's Notes

by Frederick Exley

Yellow Jersey Press pounds 8

Like all good sports books, this, first published in 1968, is really a book about life, as Nick Hornby says in his introduction. Exley uses the New York Giants football team as a front for writing about "being driven insane by booze, ego and failure". Exley is a man's man and he likes a good fight, but he writes with a manic energy that transforms his chronicle of self-destruction into the terrible story of a man laid bare. LP

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