PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! The Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon, Faber pounds 5.99. In novel after film after mini-series, a death in the family is dragged into one of three grooves - parental heroism, Freudian guilt, the burden of a bad childhood. But Solomon's story, of a young man loving his mother and losing her to cancer, sidesteps the cliches. In Harry's cultured New York family, his mother is all grace, beauty and commonsense with a single flaw, dismay at her gay son's idea of Eros - which, in certain moods, he shares. Facing terminal illness she chooses with stoicism the manner of her death, while Harry struggles to define the joy of his childhood: "Happiness is not too sentimental or too hackneyed to portray; it is too obscure, too personal, too strange." Solomon's greatest triumph in this first novel is his sympathy.

! Affliction by Fay Weldon, Flamingo pounds 5.99. In the past, Weldon has done much to bait men. Now she rides the backlash with this story about Annette whose marriage seems fine until she gets successful as a feminist writer and pregnant to boot. Her boozy, apparently genial husband Spicer suddenly turns distinctly hostile. He goes to a therapist who feeds him a hotch- potch of New Age mysticism and Iron John psychobabble which, reduced to essentials, makes everything Woman's fault. This is at root an angry book, but emotion does not blunt Weldon's sharp economy, sardonic wit and nervous ear for dialogue.

! A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel, trs Richard Mayne, Penguin pounds 8.99. This great French historian (who died in 1985) saw his calling as "blue-water cruising on the seas of time, rather than prudent coastal navigation", and he certainly tried to ignore local landmarks and find his way by broadly-distributed patterns. Luckily, he didn't entirely do it. This long sweep across the culture of continents would have been dull stuff without the glimpses of life on the ground. Its origin was as a prototype schools textbook, or "grammar of civilisation", designed to eschew dates and battles in favour of larger social trends. Yet he seems equally hostile towards the lefty notion of classroom "empathy", the untrustworthy history of "still-burning passions... described and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and short-sighted as ours".

! The Death of a Fantasist by Simon Mason, Abacus pounds 6.99. In Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, Billy can only escape from provincial mediocrity in his imagination. Mason's second novel, which owes much to Water-house, allows its fantasist Dudley to escape from the flytrap of Oxford academic publishing. He travels as far as New York with Martin, a difficult actor- friend, to a tacky awards ceremony, but the juice of the Big Apple quickly turns to vinegar. Dudley gets the run-around from a take-no-crap publicist called Bella La Rose, while the egregious Martin develops some very disturbing psychotic traits. Recommended.

! Leonard Bernstein by Humphrey Burton, Faber pounds 9.99. The creator of West Side Story hurtled to fame in flamboyant wide-screen fashion: Bruno Walter fell ill and the 25-year-old unknown stepped into the great man's shoes to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. The broadcast was sponsored by the American Rubber Company - rem-ember how Lennie use to bounce on the podium? - and at the end, after the Meistersinger Prelude, the crowd "roared like a giant animal in a zoo". Burton's is an excellent all-round portrait of a huge personality, uncontained by exclusive categories of musicianship. Bernstein shattered boundaries, musically and (not least) sexually; when he died in 1990, his collaborator Jerome Robbins said: "A hunk of our landscape has disappeared."

! Angel by Anita Mason, Penguin pounds 6.99. Maybe for some, to serve Hitler was just a job. This novel is based on the life of Hanna Reitsch, the woman test-pilot who flew out of Berlin four days before the end of the war with a sheaf of bizarre orders from Hitler. But unlike her model, Mason's heroine Freddy is not so much a war hero as a fighter in the gender war. She is no Nazi. Her obsession is flying. On hearing about the holocaust, she responds like millions of others - with willed amnesia. And when she finally faces the horror of it, the war is already lost and she's trapped inside the crumbling remnants of Hitler's empire, its territory shrinking inexorably to fill an area no larger than the bunker itself. A very well told, morally discomforting tale.

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