PAPERBACKS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
! Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life by Julia Frey, Phoenix pounds 14.99. The diminutive impressionist gets anything but diminutive treatment in Julia Frey's exhaustive, colourful biography. Drawing on more than 1,000 hitherto unpublished letters, it is an uplifting portrait of an alcoholic, stumpy eccentric whose artistry concealed a life of undiluted physical and emotional misery. Rip-roaring evocations of fin-de-siecle Paris are mixed with a more scholarly analysis of Lautrec's oeuvre, while important new light is shed on the painter's childhood, training, friendships and ailments. His bizarre social foibles - transvestism, exhibitionism, an obsession with parrots - burst from the page, but the overall mood is melancholic as Frey portrays a soaring spirit shackled by physical deformity.

! What I Lived For by Joyce Carol Oates, Picador pounds 8.99. One hesitates to bandy words such as "classic" and "masterpiece", but the epithets sit more comfortably here than on many novels to which they have been applied. A multi-layered study of corruption, ambition, guilt and breakdown, it follows the fortunes of real estate shark Jerome "Corky" Corcoran, a self- made millionaire whose glitzy world of $1,000 suits, souped-up Cadillacs and social pizazz flies apart over the course of one Memorial Day weekend. Written in the hipster slang of a downtown hustler, the narrative rips along, propelling Corky inexorably towards a shocking epiphany. At once thriller, spiritual odyssey and brutal critique, it is one of Oates's finest works to date.

! The End of Evolution by Peter Ward, Phoenix pounds 12.99. Pessimists will find plenty to chuckle about in this absorbing, accessible study of mass extinctions and evolutionary catastrophes. Steering clear of any tongue- twisting bio-jargon, Ward takes us on a voyage into the past, exploring the way in which, over the last 570 million years, mass extinctions of the earth's life-forms have substantially altered evolution's trajectory. There have been some 15 such extinctions, of which two - 250 million and 65 million years ago respectively - changed the global eco-system beyond all recognition. The book's second half catapults us dramatically into the present with its thesis that we are now approaching the culmination of a third great extinction, one that will see the passing of the Age of Mammals. Upbeat and eloquent: never has apocalypse seemed such fun.

! The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Mesmerising and gently surreal, Brooks Hansen's imaginative tour de force is at once a sweeping romance, an intricate spiritual allegory and a shaggy dog story. Set at the turn of the century, and distilling elements of Carroll, Rabelais, Poe and Swift, it comprises 12 letters sent by one Dr Gustav Uyterhoeven to his wife, letters in which he claims to have been ship-wrecked on a lost continent inhabited by anthropomorphic chess pieces. The fantastic epistles are juxtaposed with scenes from Uyterhoeven's early life, with the two worlds, the fabulous and the actual, seguing into one another as the events of Uyterhoeven's past resolve into the intricate manoeuvring of the chess board. Impossible not to enjoy, even if you think the Sicilian Defence is a type of deep-pan pizza.

! The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. Film industry memoirs are ten-a-penny, but this cartwheel through Tinsel Town stands out both in the compelling staccato fury of its prose and the light it sheds on the dark side of the Hollywood dream. Evans is an extraordinary, Gatsby-like figure, a successful actor and whizz-kid producer - The Godfather and Chinatown are among his many credits - whose cocaine addiction forced him into a mental institution, from whence, in true Hollywood fashion, he sprung himself, went into therapy and started producing hit films again. Anybody who's anybody in movies gets a look in - often a none-too-flattering one - and when Jack Nicholson says he's afraid to read the book you know you're on to a good thing. Pugnacious, defiant and wickedly charismatic, Evans has produced a film industry expose par excellence.

! Changes of Address by Lee Langley, Minerva pounds 5.99. Lee Langley's evocative, semi-autobiographical tale of a mother and daughter trekking through 1940s' India is as warm and beguiling as the subcontinent itself. Abandoning her home and husband, capricious, dipsomaniac socialite Moti sets off with daughter Maggie. Travelling for days, stopping only long enough for a drink and a brief assignation before being driven on by scandal, the pair hop from town to town, from steam train to ocean liner, their geographical progress mirroring the slow advancement of their own relationship. Wonderful images of rural India and the spice-stained frenzy of city life intertwine with the tragi-comic story of a dysfunctional relationship.

! Lifting the Veil by John Simpson and Tira Shubart, Coronet pounds 6.99. For the last 15 years Iran's public relations appear to have been handled by Hammer Films. Images of flag-burning fanatics have flashed regularly round the world, establishing the Islamic Republic as the great international ghoul of the late 20th century. It is to balance this prejudicial view that journalists John Simpson and Tira Shubart have ventured behind the veil, seeking out ordinary Iranians and exploring aspects of their country not usually aired in the Western press. Fanaticism is never ignored, merely tempered with snapshots of daily life. Mullahs, soldiers, lawyers, teenagers, merchants and playboys all have their say, with Shubart's essay on women of particular note. The impression is of a richly diverse, surprisingly humane country, although ultimately not the sort of place you'd want a retirement bungalow.

Comments