Paperbacks: Wodehouse: A life<br></br> The Great Reporters<br></br> Shooting Stars<br></br> The Hive<br></br> How Not to Write<br></br> The Double<br></br> Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy

Reviewed by Christopher Hirst and Boyd Tonkin
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The Independent Culture

Wodehouse's infamous wartime gaffe is a godsend for his biographer. For 59 years of life, remarkably little of interest happened to this talented, hard-working writer. Though he achieved dazzling success as an author of adult fairy-tales, in print and on Broadway, PG Wodehouse emerges as a dull, genial workaholic. Along with his flirtatious wife and yapping Pekinese dogs, his passions were money and the sporting achievements of his old school, Dulwich. Not very promising materials for a scintillating portrait. But in 1940, this eternal innocent dithered in his Le Touquet home as the Wehrmacht swept into France. After internment, he was whisked to Berlin and agreed to give light-hearted broadcasts to his fans in America (which had still not entered the war). "The moral test with which Wodehouse was presented was... beyond him," writes McCrum. Though a gear-change is notable in the chapters devoted to this mauvais quart d'heure, the book is immaculately researched and readable throughout. The critical sections are enjoyable, but McCrum doesn't quite explain Wodehouse's enduring success. Fans may be puzzled by the selection of Bertie's Aunt Agatha as one of "five great characters". A bristly cipher, she only makes fleeting appearances in the earliest works. CH

The Great Reporters, by David Randall (PLUTO £14.99 (279pp))

In these lively profiles of 13 journalists by the assistant editor of the Independent on Sunday, you can go to the Crimea with William Howard Russell, goggle at the range of Anne Leslie and marvel at the stylistic prowess of Hugh McIlvanney: "Granting a knighthood to Matt Busby did not elevate him. It raised... the whole dubious phenomenon of the honours system". The New Yorker's A J Leibling summed up the lure of the trade. Asked why he didn't write a novel, he replied: "What? And make things up?" You also get to hold a phone and fag in the same hand, as James Cameron does on page 142. CH

Shooting Stars, by Harry Shapiro (SERPENT'S TAIL £9.99 (314pp))

Howard Marks's cover puff for this survey of drug films about dope ("a superbly written historical narrative") suggests that prolonged ingestion of marijuana does little to sharpen the critical faculties. The book is badly written, hazy in its logic and packed with clichés. Shapiro's final sentence reads: "Perhaps this is one of the many subtextual layers of the drugs war - the battle for the control of truth and reality joined in earnest when a new generation, full of fear and loathing, began marching to the beat of a different drummer". The research involved viewing 150 dope films, which may have had a deleterious effect. CH

The Hive, by Bee Wilson (JOHN MURRAY £7.99 (308pp))

Learned, lively and entertaining, this book explores the relationship between man and bee. We have harvested honey from thsee provident creatures for 10,000 years and used them as metaphors for almost as long. The Book of Judges (quoted on Lyle's Golden Syrup) declares: "Out of the strong came forth sweetness." Shakespeare wrote of "the lazy yawning drone ". Wilson notes how bees inspired Virgil, Le Corbusier and Tolstoy, but misses Slim Harpo: "I'm a king bee, baby, buzzing around your hive." Defending her topic, the author insists that "My parents would never have called me Wasp." CH

How Not to Write, by William Safire (NORTON £8.99 (160pp))

We might buy style books by the palette-load, but do we actually read them? This one by the beady-eyed New York Times columnist is funny, intelligent and highly readable. Safire says we should avoid both archaisms (well-nigh, parlous, betwixt) and trendy locutions (cheap shot and flaky are US sporting terms). The stylistic sage urges us to avoid affected alliteration. But he may have gone too far in saying that sentences should not start with conjunctions. Safire also maintains they should never end with a preposition, though his omission of a contents page is as irksome as anything he fulminates against. CH

The Double, by José Saramago (VINTAGE £7.99 (304pp))

A sad-sack history teacher settles down one night in his lonely flat to watch a third-rate video. In a minor role, he spots - himself. As his quest for this rival self accelerates, Hitchcock and Borges blend into a darkly funny and oddly gripping fable about identity and its discontents. The sinuous, mesmerising prose of Portugal's Nobel laureate can do comic, sinister and lyrical at once; Margaret Jull Costa translates it all with flair and force. BT

Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy, Ed. David Connolly (DEDALUS £9.99 (336pp))

Winner of the Hellenic Foundation award this week, David Connolly's unique anthology (of his own translations) opens a window on two centuries of prose visions from the greatest of modern Greek authors. A tradition kicked off by the marvels of The Odyssey thrives here in tall tales, ghostly adventures and strange parables, from folklore to SF. A rich feast of mysterious - but always tasty - fictional meze. BT

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