Paperbacks: Iris Murdoch<br/>Double Vision<br/>Hell Hath No Fury<br/>Where I Was From<br/>The Big Questions<br/>The Confident Hope of a Miracle<br/>Signs and Wonders

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The Independent Culture

Dead or alive, Iris Murdoch has always been the subject of high table tittle-tattle.

Iris Murdoch by AN Wilson (ARROW £7.99 (276pp))

Dead or alive, Iris Murdoch has always been the subject of high table tittle-tattle. She was a woman of huge appetites - for philosophy, Mr Kipling cakes and sadistic love affairs. This most recent addition to the Murdoch biographical canon purports to rescue the novelist and her work from the "decrepitude" of her final years. Happily for the reader, AN Wilson's account of his 30-year relationship with Murdoch and John Bayley only succeeds in adding yet more spice to the "Oxford Stew" (as Elias Canetti cattily categorised Murdoch in his posthumous memoirs). That Wilson's reminiscences reveal as much about himself as his subject - his undergraduate religiosity, his failed marriage to the Shakespearean scholar Katherine Duncan Jones - makes the book a more entertaining read still. A pupil of Bayley's, Wilson was adopted by the couple as one of their "toy children". While rating Murdoch's fiction ("better than anything written in England in my life-time"), but not her philosophy ("secular sermonising"), Wilson blames Bayley for her descent into domestic squalor. "She was clearly one of those delightful women", concludes Wilson "who was prepared to go to bed with almost anyone". Even, he would have us believe, after an affectionate lunch with the smiling sexagenarian, himself. EH

Double Vision by Pat Barker (PENGUIN £7.99 (307pp))

A topical novel about how war is presented in the media sounds dull, but in Pat Barker's hands it becomes a menacing page-turner. Stephen Sharkey is a burnt-out war-correspondent recovering from a failed marriage and the death of a photographer friend in Afghanistan. He retreats to his brother's cottage, situated in a dark forest, to write, play uncle, and flirt with his nephew's au pair. He also pays a visit to his dead friend's widow. In this spare and brooding novel, with quite a bit of sex and violence, Baker creates a semi-rural world every bit as raw as the killing fields Stephen has left behind. EH

Hell Hath No Fury Edited by Anna Holmes (ROBSON £9.99 (375pp))

More revealing than a love letter is the anguished adieu sent at the end of an affair. Anna Holmes's anthology of farewells will make comforting reading for anyone in the throes of composing that final hurt e-mail. What all Holmes's correspondents share - from Edith Wharton and Princess Margaret to Sex and the City producer Cindy Chupack and writer Catherine Texier - is a final desire to get things right. They dissect the dead relationship, and get to tell the truth about things they've politely kept quiet about for years. Like famous last words, the most effective missives are the shortest. EH

Where I Was From by Joan Didion (HARPER PERENNIAL £7.99 (226pp))

An end-piece to her collections of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Joan Didion's latest book was written after her mother's death - an event that caused her to think "a good deal about the contradictions of Californian life". In this elliptical blend of personal reminiscence and history, Didion reflects on the westward journey, the nature of Californian entrepreneurialism, and the story of her own matriarchal line. Pioneering Californians, Didion reminds us, ate their own dead in order to survive. EH

The Big Questions by Lou Marinoff (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (384pp))

"Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man" said Epicurus. It's a challenge that Lou Marinoff tackles with gusto in this energetic romp through the Big Questions and their application to the details of our lives. There's the sense of a healthy ego hovering over his discussion of the tenets of Buddhism, Existentialism etc, and of the professor who glories in his popular touch. But once he stops trying to dazzle us with his intelligence and grooviness, there's a great deal of interest. If you can ignore the irritatingly flip tone, this is a journey worth taking, and one that will make you think. CP

The Confident Hope of a Miracle by Neil Hanson (CORGI £8.99 (667pp))

Figuratively speaking, sailing close to the wind became a hallmark of British victories for centuries after 1588. Neil Hanson's close-focus but pacy account of the Spanish Armada shows how a nippy English fleet won through its literal ability to do exactly that. Deeply researched, and bracingly told, this is new-wave narrative history at its finest, rich in Spanish and English perspectives, sympathetic to all sailors - but not to its villainess, Mean Queen Bess. BT

Signs and Wonders by Marina Warner (VINTAGE £8.99 (516pp))

From the Madonna to Madonna (Ciccone); The Tempest to King Kong; Mrs Thatcher to the Grimms' Wicked Queen: these 70 spellbinding "essays on literature and culture" span a vast range of themes, but always find enlightening ways to link them. Warner's articles and reviews reveal the sweep and bite of a truly adventurous mind. She dances through the walls between cultures and genres with all the magical dexterity of one of the fairy-tale figures she studies. BT

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