Paperbacks

<i>The Penguin Book of Journalism</i> Stephen Glover | <i>Flight Paths of the Emperor</i> by Steven Heighton | <i>Sir Francis Drake</i> by Harry Kelsey | <i>The Blackwater Lightship</i> by Colm To&Atilde;&shy;b&Atilde;&shy;n | <i>Charming Billy</i> by Alice McDermott
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The Independent Culture

The Penguin Book of Journalism Stephen Glover (ed) (Penguin, £8.99, 317pp) Though his intro is lacklustre ("I even asked a lady of 87 to contribute, but that didn't work out"), Stephen Glover has assembled an enjoyable compendium on that rackety but always diverting institution, the British press. Thankfully, most of the 27 stellar contributors are concerned more with fruity reminiscence than weighty pontification. In a chapter on editors, Henry Porter recalls a Sunday Times executive grizzling about Andrew Neil's obsession with new technology: "If he can't fuck it or plug it in, he's not interested." AN Wilson once asked Paul Johnson to assess a massive work on the American civil war. The result was "800 perfectly tuned words", though Wilson's assistant forgot to send the book.

The Penguin Book of Journalism Stephen Glover (ed) (Penguin, £8.99, 317pp) Though his intro is lacklustre ("I even asked a lady of 87 to contribute, but that didn't work out"), Stephen Glover has assembled an enjoyable compendium on that rackety but always diverting institution, the British press. Thankfully, most of the 27 stellar contributors are concerned more with fruity reminiscence than weighty pontification. In a chapter on editors, Henry Porter recalls a Sunday Times executive grizzling about Andrew Neil's obsession with new technology: "If he can't fuck it or plug it in, he's not interested." AN Wilson once asked Paul Johnson to assess a massive work on the American civil war. The result was "800 perfectly tuned words", though Wilson's assistant forgot to send the book.

Unsurprisingly, Alan Watkins's lament for the pubs of Fleet Street is the longest piece. He records the response of a military correspondent after being reprimanded by John Junor for drinking on duty: "I've shot better men than you." Paul Johnson pops up here again. A remark of his about El Vino's has the flavour of Evelyn Waugh: "D'you know, I'm told that one of the waiters here is a Tory MP." Many contributors strike a valedictory note. Zoë Heller points out that the genre of the girl columnist has "passed its peak". In his own droll essay, Glover asserts that "columns die", and the columnists' fame with them, "but how much better to be Bernard Levin than a Hampstead novelist". Despite a seedy reputation, journalism remains one of the most popular career choices for graduates (to the bewilderment of some practitioners). This lively anthology will do nothing to dissuade them. CH

Flight Paths of the Emperor by Steven Heighton (Granta, £6.99, 256pp) In these 14 short stories, Heighton explores the cultural difficulties experienced by "a man away from home who has no neighbours". Shifting in time and place, he depicts the reaction of Japanese and American families to a changing world. The variation of narrative perspective, and the notion of the old submerged by the new in East and West, is laced with humour and sadness. Each story leaves us with as much to contemplate as a typically ambiguous Japanese proverb.

Sir Francis Drake by Harry Kelsey (Yale UP, £11.99, 566pp) This readable yarn is perfect beach reading if you're planning a holiday in the Caribbean, Celebes or California, for the burly, fearless Devonian was there before you. Kelsey makes an unarguable case that Drake's assaults on Spanish galleons were predicated on self-interest rather than heroism. Since it coincided with national interest, Drake's piracy was retrospectively legitimised. There was, however, a Blackadder moment during his knighting, when the Queen quipped that she was going to cut off his head.

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toíbín (Picador, £5,99, 273pp) Toibin's latest novel places a woman centre- stage. Helen Devereux is a high-profile head teacher from Dublin, whose world is rocked is rocked by the news that her younger brother is dying from Aids. Returning with Declan to their grandmother's isolated house by the sea, she's taken up by memories of their father's untimely death, and a legacy of unresolved conflict. Death-bed novels are not easy reads, but Toíbín injects surprising momentum into the proceedings. Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize.

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 211pp) Unusually for a US novelist, Alice McDermott is more interested in the power of familial connections than the road to self-realisation - but then she is writing about an American-Irish family from Queen's. Narrated by a young woman just out of college, the story focuses on the most colourful male in the clan, cousin Billy, a charmer and storyteller whose life has been overshadowed by a tragic romance, and the lure of a fresh drink. Like Alice Munro, McDermott captures life's melancholy truths with devastating simplicity.

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