Paperbacks Reviewed

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The Independent Culture
Bardot by Sean French (Pavillion, pounds 14.99)

"I feel very alienated from you right now," Sean French's wife is supposed to have said as he settled down to yet another video session of And God Created Woman, Brigitte Bardot's only memorable film. In his defence he could have pointed out that it was once hip for women as highbrow as Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras to extoll "BB's" creamy, pouty beauty - though to be honest, Mme Bardot's film, like Mr French's photo-filled book, is probably best savoured alone.

The Magnates by Susan Crosland (Penguin, pounds 4.99)

Ambassador James Wharton is about to host his last Washington dinner. The crown-embossed china is in place, the Beef Wellington a point, the chandeliers sparkling as brightly as the assembled company, and his wife is, as usual, late. Susan Crosland's roman-a-clef of transatlantic shenanigans has the ring of authenticity about it; though she does tend to dwell on the charms of a certain brilliant and extremely pretty American journalist. (Dream on, Susan.)

Female Rage by Mary Valentis and Anne Devane (Piaktus, pounds 9.99)

Instead of chopping off her husband's penis with a handy kitchen knife, what Lorena Bobbit should have done was put on her relaxation tapes or gone in for aerobics - and perhaps she would have done had she read this book. Female rage is potentially a rich subject, but here the arguments get lost in a thicket of spurious references to Greek myth and Hollywood movies. And the book barely touches on that most anger-provoking arena of female struggle, the work-place. Sacred Cow by Diamela Eltit (Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99)

"The bitch was already old, but old as she was, she was dragging herself along on her belly leaving a trail of blood behind her." As pathetic as her grandmother's dog, the book's unnamed narrator likes to watch her own blood as it drains between her legs, stiffening the sheets as it dries. Set in the bars and sweat-shops of her native Santiago, Eltit's claustrophic novel (her first to be published in Britain) marries sexual violence and political repression with sickening intensity.

Going into a Dark House by Jane Gardam (Abacus, pounds 5.99)

Jane Gardam's old ladies are on the ball, even when their sense of reality is fading. Most of the time they can reel off the Latin names of plants with the ease of prayers, and check the papers for their stocks and shares; but at other times they hear their dead mothers talking to them, and mistake their daughters for the nurses. Best known for her uncanny empathy with the young, Gardam's latest collection shows her just as sympathetic to those who are pleased to be anything but.

A Clear Conscience by Frances Fyfield (Corgi, pounds 4.99)

As regular readers of the thrillers of Frances Fyfield (the criminal lawyer-cum-novelist) will know, Helen West, her Crown prosecutor heroine, is a slattern when it comes to housework. But when, on the advice of her best friend, she hires "The Treasure" to clean for her, life becomes messier than she can ever have imagined. Fyfield's disturbing tale of domestic strife is an addictive one, and her eye for the peculiar is every bit as sharp as Ruth Rendell's.

Captain Trips: The Life and Fast Times of Jerry Garcia by Sandy Troy (Virgin, pounds 9.99)

No, it's not as timely as you might think. Doubtless without a thought of commercial opportunism, Virgin has relaunched this lightweight biography in the wake of Garcia's demise. It's little more than a bland chronology detailing intense musical creativity and genial indiscipline in every other aspect of life. Non-Deadheads will remain unenlightened as to why Garcia was accorded guru status in the US.

Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot (Deutsch, pounds 9.99) A workmanlike demolition of the weird despot who was scarred by a brutal father and went on to build an empire on ersatz avuncularity. Untalented as an animator, Disney was a daring and innovative producer with an intuitive grasp of narrative, but his dictatorial style ignited an acrimonious strike in 1941. In the final pages, Eliot scotches one last myth. Despite cryogenic rumours, Walt was cremated.

Revolution In the Head; The Beatles' Records and the Sixties by Ian MacDonald (Pimlico, pounds 8.99)

Moving from bubble-gum pop to acid-drenched experimentation in half a decade, the Beetles' output is custom-made for exegesis. In MacDonald, the band at last has a critic worthy of its oeuvre. Displaying mastery of technicalities and insightful judgement, his song-by-song analysis represents a pinnacle of popular music criticism, if marred by verbose attempts to define the Sixties Zeitgeist. Jonathan Carver's Travels Through America 1766-1768 ed. Norman Gelb (John Wiley, 11.50)

This account of a three-year trek around the Great Lakes is the first example of popular American travel writing, interesting for its detailed observation of Sioux culture. Carver's descriptions of an amiable wilderness are poignant in the light of later despoilation. Ironically, at a time when Detroit consisted of 100 houses, he laid the ground for the rust belt by noting its mineral deposits.

Crime & Scandal: The Black Plaque Guide to London by F. Barker and D. Silvester-Carr (Constable, pounds 10.95)

The authors have awarded 180 imaginary black plaques to London buildings to commemorate various crimes. Whether you'd want your own home included depends on the misdeed. You might boast of succeeding Burgess and Blunt in Bentinck St, but you'd keep quiet about the SW14 house where a servant hacked up her mistress and boiled the bits, later offering jars of "best dripping" to a local pub.

In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles Edited by Jeffrey Miller (Flamingo, pounds 8.99)

A great collection of literary letters, amassed over 60 years. From his Moroccan redoubt, the renowned exotic has maintained a voluminous correspondence with writers ranging from Aaron Copland to the Beats. There's lots on hashish, a recipe for "white egg in a donkey's anus" (the literal ingredients) and tender letters to his self-destructive wife. His enduring passion for Tangier is documented with fascinated delight.

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