Paperbacks: Orson Welles: the Stories of his Life<br/>Diana Mosley<br/>The Last Good Time<br/>Allies<br/>The Faber Book of Exploration<br/>Bitter Fruit<br/>The Way to Paradise

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The Independent Culture

In his first sentence, Conrad announces what this book isn't. "There are already half a dozen biographies of Orson Welles, this is not another one."

Orson Welles: the Stories of his Life by Peter Conrad (FABER £9.99 (390pp))

In his first sentence, Conrad announces what this book isn't. "There are already half a dozen biographies of Orson Welles, this is not another one." Instead, we're presented with a critical rumination that meanders round various aspects of Welles's outsized character. To mention just a few obsessions: bullfighting, Faust, magic tricks and Cuban cigars. He emerges as untrustworthy, childish, yet also titanically energetic and ambitious. There's no denying Conrad's application and intelligence. Every page dazzles with insights and revelations. Yet this epic study is hard going for the reader. Formless, circulatory, repetitive, allusive, it is the Finnegans Wake of cultural criticism. One problem is the unfulfilled nature of Welles's projects after his precocious flowering. Welles was a cinematic giant but his output was fragmentary. Conrad ends up citing such ephemera as the TV travelogue Around the World with Orson Welles. But the book's major defect is Conrad's refusal to countenance any form of narrative, apart from a rudimentary chronology. His subject would have adored this prodigious, noirish tribute, but would have been the first to point out its besetting flaw. As Conrad points out: "Given a choice between roles and forms, Welles preferred narrative to drama." CH

Diana Mosley by Anne de Courcy (VINTAGE £8.99 (432pp))

De Courcy's claim that Diana Mosley's life "dazzled, outraged, charmed, shocked, beguiled and appalled" does not overstate the case. Mosley (née Mitford) was "immensely flattered" when Hitler "became deeply fond of her". Blonde, beautiful and batty, Diana threw away her marriage to "one of the nicest men in England" for "a known philanderer". Her Fascist infatuation brought imprisonment and exile. Distraught when Oswald Mosley died, she made a rare expression of regret to her son Nicholas: "I sometimes feel that the day that ruined my life and your father's life was the day I met Hitler." CH

The Last Good Time by Jonathan van Meter (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (296pp))

"They both despised the idea of a 'real' job... They both went to bed at dawn every day of their lives, and they both smoked like fiends." One was Frank Sinatra, the other was Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, role model for the Rat Pack. D'Amato's 500 Club in Atlantic City was "ground zero for the supercool lifestyle". In prose as zippy as their suits, van Meter describes the interlinked lives of Skinny, Frank, Dino and Sammy: "a sense of lawlessness within certain boundaries of good taste and decorum." But criminal cool came with a high price - Skinny's son Angelo was sent down for multiple murders. CH

Allies by William Shawcross (ATLANTIC £8.99 (261pp))

Ploughing a lonely furrow, Shawcross defends the Bush-Blair alliance in Iraq. His analysis is lucid, readable and, in many respects, cogent. He acknowledges the "serious mistakes" in intelligence and "woeful" post-war administration by the US. Yet he insists that the coalition's attempt "to build a decent society" in Iraq must succeed. "The alternative is too terrible to contemplate." True - but who can be optimistic in the face of American heavy-handedness and al-Qa'ida's ruthless opportunism? By toppling the terrible but emasculated Saddam Hussein, Messrs Bush and Blair have opened Pandora's box. CH

The Faber Book of Exploration Ed. Benedict Allen (FABER £9.99 (823pp))

This generous compilation is full of adventure for the armchair explorer. Impeccably edited, the 140 selections are classified according to topography. Under "Plains & Foothills", we learn that Atilla the Hun was an early adherent of the Atkins diet - presented with "a lavish meal", he "just had some meat on a wooden platter". Under "Hot Deserts", Wilfred Thesiger takes us across the Empty Quarter: "Empty, sick and dizzy... my heart thumped wildly and my thirst grew worse." Under "Mountains", Reinhold Messner recalls "I am caught, perhaps trapped for ever in this crevasse." That armchair never felt more comfy. CH

Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor (ATLANTIC £7.99 (281pp))

This sad, searing novel, rightly shortlisted for the Booker, is set in a post-apartheid South Africa where truth and reconciliation are not just names of a commission. When Silas Ali bumps into the man who raped his wife, the past, and its bitter fruit, comes back to haunt him - and fractures the fragile edifice of his family life. Dangor writes with stark clarity in prose that captures the textures of his characters' lives as well as their dilemmas. A fiercely intelligent and important exploration of South African history and its legacy. CP

The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa (FABER £7.99 (424pp))

The pursuit of Utopia unites the tales of pioneer feminist Flora Tristan and her grandson, the painter Paul Gauguin, in this engrossing dual narrative. In the 1840s, the visionary Flora makes a hellish pilgrimage through France and Peru. Half a century on, Gauguin flees Paris for wild art, free love, decline and death in the Pacific. Both worlds jump into thrilling life. Fiction or biography? You soon cease to worry as Vargas Llosa yokes his storytelling guile to the drama of history. BT

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