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Virgin Islands: essays 1992-1997

by Gore Vidal,

Abacus, pounds 7.99, 247pp

WHILE IT may be too clunking to say Vidal is the Wilde de nos jours, he certainly pours his talent into his novels and his genius into his essays. There has been no more entertaining writer on politics this century. Writing in 1996, he reminds us that Clinton's Achilles' Heel once worked in his favour with female electors: "Women like men who like women, no matter how exasperating." Vidal gets the measure of Blair from the off. Asked at the UK election which of our political parties is more to the right, Vidal mused: "One does not bring a measuring rod to Lilliput." Literary gods are more ruthlessly cut to size: "There is nothing surprising in Updike's ignorance of history, politics and people unlike himself." Piquant as a splat of Tabasco.

Diamonds Behind My Eyes

by Nicola Pagett and Graham Swannel,

Vista, pounds 5.99, 252pp

WHEN UPSTAIRS, Downstairs actress Nicola Pagett lost it and starting writing love letters to Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, the tabloid press had a field day. That she was suffering from manic depression was less interesting than the fact that she lined her letters with knicker lace. Looking back on this period in 1997 - and perhaps her book might have benefited if she had allowed a little more time to elapse before she began writing - Pagett recalls the traumatic events of her illness: how she continued to appear on stage, despite being convinced that the theatre loos were wired with television cameras, and that Campbell was watching her every performance. Streams of luvvie consciousness.

Dr Freud: a life

by Paul Ferris,

Pimlico, pounds 15, 464pp

WITH NO psychoanalytical axe to grind, Ferris has produced a lively portrait of this flawed genius. Along with being a coke-head, the young Freud was not above fabricating evidence. His views on contraception and masturbation were "wrong-headed... and dangerous since they came as part of a sophisticated theoretical package". According to Ferris, the early Freud "adjusted the system as he went along", but in later life he ranted at apostates, declaring that Jung "can go and jump in the lake" and gloating over the death of Adler. Ferris concedes that Freud "would have hated his slow metamorphosis... from man of unimpeachable theory into monumental curiosity", but it makes for an absorbing read.

Nymphomation

by Jeff Noon,

Corgi, pounds 6.99, 367pp

LIKE THE inhabitants of a Philip K Dick or Scott Bradfield novel, Jeff Noon's Mancunian characters live in a nightmarish world of high-cholesterol fast-food joints and dangerous corporate conspiracies. As smart and funny as his previous novels (Noon's first, Vurt, won him the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1994), this satirical take on late-20th-century Britain finds the entire country in the throes of lottery mania: out every Friday night betting on the "bones" - sets of electronically charged dominoes. Intent on unravelling the mysteries of the game are three "Computermathics" students, and an intriguingly "sparkle-eyed" 18-year-old called Daisy Love. Cyber-punk for beginners.

The Vintage Book of Office Life

edited by Jeremy Lewis,

Vintage, pounds 7.99, 393pp

PROBING THE oddness of the bureaucratic milieu, this compilation stresses talents who flowered under the unlikely fertiliser of dockets and paperclips: Trollope and Roy Fuller (who did not give up their day jobs), Sinclair Lewis and, above all, Dickens, who saw clerks as "contented but not happy; they feel no pain but never know pleasure". Women have a tough time, from Arnold Bennett's Lillian ticked off for lateness ("equivalent to embezzlement") to Mary Hocking's heroine fighting off an Lothario: "He applied himself to the task as if I were not a person but a Christmas parcel." Thankfully, the editor was not so modest to exclude himself, though it is a moot point whether his skiving in the Soane Museum counts as office work.

The Genius of Shakespeare

by Jonathan Bate,

Picador, pounds 8.99, 386pp

IF YOU'VE reached the age when Shakespeare is starting to make sense, Jonathan Bate is your ideal companion through the shadier glades of Academe. His sensible and shrewdly written study of "the provincial grammar-school boy who became the greatest artistic genius the world has ever seen", deals with hoary old chestnuts (Did Shakespeare really write his own works? Why is he considered so special? Did leaving his his second- best bed to Anne Hathaway mean he was a bad husband?), while doffing a cap to the best in Shakespearian scholarship. An engagingly off-campus spin on some time-honoured debates.

A Hack's Progress

by Phillip Knightley,

Vintage, pounds 7.99, 267pp

AS THEY open with an ignominious encounter with the CIA, the reader may fear that these journalistic recollections will bog down in the murk of espionage. As Knightley says, "Writing about spies occupied a large part of my career." Fortunately, there's much more. Honest and humorous, Knightley views his Sunday Times days with a cold eye. He is less than proud of the "Hitler diaries" fiasco, and feels uncomfortable with the thalidomide campaign. Though "the only journalist ever to have bested Goldsmith in a libel action", Knightley now says it should have been sorted out over a cup of tea. His advice to newcomers: "Ignore proprietors, accountants and conventional editors and get on with it."

The Sewing Circle,

by Alex Madsen, Robson Books, pounds 8.99, 240pp

GARBO, DIETRICH, Crawford, Stanwyck, Bankhead and Garland - Axel Madsen's roll call of golden-age female stars who were gay or bisexual is a long one. Today's list would be equally impressive, but, according to the author, we'll have to wait another 50 years to find out. A fascinating account of Hollywood's feminine friendships, with plenty of evocative anecdotes, including an LA Christmas card with Garbo, the curtains pulled against the sun ("To Know Greta one must know the North... the wind, rain, and brooding skies", wrote her lover Mercedes de Acosta), and cosy at- homes with suburban wives Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck.

Revolution in the Head

by Ian MacDonald,

Pimlico, pounds 12.50, 473pp

A CLASSIC example of how an acclaimed work - MacDonald's exegesis of the Beatles oeuvre - can be marred by revision. The enlarged format is bulky, awkward and costs pounds 3.50 more than its predecessor. In a rambling preface, MacDonald obscurely opines about "the archness" of US sit-coms and includes a list of UK pop stars who went to art-school. The sole reason for this "fully updated edition" is three pages on Free as a Bird, which MacDonald pans as "a dreary song" written by Lennon "when he was too content to care whether his expression was banal or unfocused". Ironically, "unfocused" is a precise description of MacDonald's verbose additions.

The Sea of Trees

by Yannick Murphy, Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99, 227pp

SET IN a female Japanese prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in Indochina, this novel by New York writer Yannick Murphy tells the story of a young girl (half French, half Chinese) who sits out the war trying to avoid rape and starvation with her mother and baby sister "Poulet" born on the floor of a rat infested cell. Sustained by memories of an elegant childhood in Saigon, and a crush on a one-eyed French prisoner (for whom she translates), the novel's young narrator lives long enough to see both fantasies go up in flames. Tenko meets Marguerite Duras in a work whose story line occasionally becomes a little dreamy around the edges.

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