Paperbacks: Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
Saturday 14 September 1996
The Oxford Book of Letters edited by Frank and Anita Kermode (pounds 11.99) This exemplary anthology kicks off with Tudor aristocrats (Elizabeth 1 twits a moany general as ''Mistress Kitchenmaid''), before moving on to literary bigshots from Johnson to Larkin (''I thought you were pretty charitable about old Dylan, whose letters I read with almost supernatural boredom''). The Kermodes skip D. Thomas but include a 1896 plaint to a US railway: ''Yore ruddy trane...ran over mi bull. He lost his seeds and has nothing left but his poker.''
An Atlas of English Dialects by Clive Upton & J.D.A. Widowson (Oxford, pounds 9.99) An atlas unlike any other, these 90 maps follow the fortunes of words as they are transformed by regional glottises. ''Chimley'' in the West Country becomes ''chimbley'' in the Thames Valley, ''chimney'' in London, ''chimdey'' in the Midlands and ''chimley'' again in the North. One territorial mutation which gained fame a few years ago is the Lincolnshire ''frit''. Had Mrs T grown up in the Wilts/Somerset area, she would have bellowed ''afeared'' at the opposition benches.
In Bed with an Elephant by Ludovic Kennedy (Corgi, pounds 6.99) This anecdotal history of Scotland (England is the elephant) is sterling stuff, mercifully free of hoots 'n' toots plaidishness. Bonnie Prince Charlie emerges as an inept commander, keener on bottles than battles. The Calvinist church is damned for its enthusiastic persecution of witches. (But were 4,500 executed? A new study says that only 500 witches were killed in England.) The book warms as Kennedy turns to his heroes, Boswell (a Halpern-style five-times-a-night-man) and philosopher David Hume.
The Biographer's Moustache by Kingsley Amis (Flamingo, pounds 5.99) Kingsley Amis's last novel tells the story of mustachioed hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson. Commissioned to write the biography of minor novelist Jimmie Fane, Gordon finds himself drawn into an unexpected affair, and an unfamiliar world of South Ken restaurants and clubs. Puzzled by women, sex and the English class system, he ends up taking refuge in the more reliable pleasures of post-prandial ''eructions'' and afternoon naps. Not vintage Amis, but not plonk either.
The Blue Jay's Dance by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial, pounds 5.99) Best known for her novel Love Medicine (and talking about her Native American ancestry), novelist Louise Erdrich describes her first work of non-fiction as ''A Birth Year''. Reflections on being pregnant and becoming a mother are recorded alongside notes on the fauna and flora of New England. If the ministrations of Erdrich's New Age husband - his recipes for lemon meringue pie and wild rice casserole are included - don't make you ill, then her descriptions of episiotomies and epidurals just might.
A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (Penguin, pounds 6.99) An evil governess, a remote country house and an orphaned brother and sister - Helen Dunmore's novel crackles with the best of hoary chestnuts. Frozen in by winter storms, and the stiff conventions of a pre-Great War world, Rob and his gypsy- eyed sister Cathy find release in each other's arms. Tragedy (and distant gun-shots) necessarily ensue. Dunmore has a visceral feel for the landscape and the weather, though is less convincing when it comes to people. First winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction.
People for Lunch by Georgina Hammick (Vintage, pounds 6.99) Originally published in the Eighties, Hammick's first collection made the best-seller lists - an unusual fate for a volume of short stories. Now released along with Spoilt, her second collection, it's good to be reminded what an entertaining writer she is. Adept at prickly old ladies, Hammick also does a good line in the middle-aged, particularly the newly divorced (see the painful story of Maeve and her decision to brave the ''Paul Smith shirts'' of a ''media'' Christmas party). A writer as fluent in the language of the suburbs as the shires.
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