Paperbacks: Solzhenitsyn cavorts at Studio 54

20th Century Dreams

by Nik Cohn & Guy Peellaert Secker pounds 15

In a garishly lit motel room somewhere in middle America, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, disrobes, awaiting her date for that evening, who is none other than the Artist formerly known as Prince. He arrives in a flood of neon light, almost tripping over her carelessly discarded court shoes. He bears a bottle of foaming champagne and two glasses. "She always was an impetuous girl," notes Max Vail.

Nik Cohn, the pop and street culture chronicler, whose 1969 rock history, Awopbobaloobop Alopbamboom, is the definitive text on that subject, is the bearer of Vail's tidings. Guy Peellaert brings Vails' reminiscences to shocking life in a series of 85 computer-generated scenarios, scary in their verisimilitude. derives from the journals left by this mysterious old man who, in his lifetime, was the missing link between every celebrity you care to mention.

Born in St Petersburg at the turn of the century, his long life was spent moving and shaking the ladders of power. His journey took him to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London and, with a fatal inevitability, America. His is the story of celebrity worship, and it ends with the century's psyche gone pear-shaped. But, boy, did we have fun along the way.

None more so than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, when in New York, loves to party. Here we find him cavorting in Studio 54, with John Travolta, Liza, Bianca and Dali. "`Isn't this to die for?' Truman [Capote] asked. But Alexander, busy with pleasure, couldn't spare the breath to reply."

Michael Jordan is playing a pickup game in the schoolyard, showing the kids some moves. It's all about hard work, he tells them, and "never forgetting the bottom line: `All God's children got swoosh'." And that message from our sponsors has to be the last word on celebrity.

Except it isn't, as Robert Mapplethorpe can testify. "The Bible's too freaky for me," he tells Rudolf Nureyev. "Everone dies in it." So the last image reveals Marilyn Monroe's bedroom, festooned with photos of JFK and his brother. She lies dead on her bed, her face hidden by a heart- shaped cushion, a policeman bearing down on her.

This marvellous book's resonance lies in its juxtaposition of personalities and the prose extracts that subtly and tangentially make (non)sense of it all.

Chocolate Lizards

by Cole Thompson

No Exit Press pounds 6.99

This excellent little publishing house prides itself on providing the jaded book-buyer with "more than just the usual suspects". Cole Thompson, who went to Stanford University on, of all things, a golf scholarship, is their latest find. His broke and desperate hero is an aspiring actor who, having lost his wad during a bus-ride poker game, is stranded in Abilene, Texas. Luckily he meets a hard-drinkin', oil-drillin' wild-catter who has a job for him. But first they must persuade a sinister cattle rancher to sign away his land. Enter Tex-Ann, a gum-snapping blonde whose acting skills surpass our poor bewildered hero's. As Larry McMurtry says, this is "West Texas oil-field gothic".


by Eric Hobsbawm

Abacus pounds 8.99

The distinguished historian delivers his thoughts on Communism, dividing this collection of essays into five areas that cover all aspects of revolution. The first part deals with the period of the Communist International, and he makes it clear that cracks were already starting to appear. He quotes a prescient Italian communist leader trying to explain to Gramsci that they could not "in the interest of their national movement" afford to oppose Stalin. Thus the hegemony of the Soviet comintern and, later, the magnitude of Tito's machinations. This is an extraordinarily clear-sighted and accessible work of hindsight and especially rewarding in its exposition of guerrilla warfare and anarchistic zeal.

Fat Hen

by Richard Francis

Fourth Estate pounds 6.99

The Manchester chronicler excavates the surreal reality of working- class life in 1940s Stockport. The Willises lead an uneventful life in their ordinary terraced house. Dad goes to the pub, Grandpa drinks mugs of Camp coffee before bedtime, and young Donald plays with his mates at school. But then Dad moves a piano and makes a discovery, his wife becomes involved with another woman in a way she cannot describe, and Donald convinces himself that he died at the age of six. Francis grants his characters an astonishing reserve of fantasy life which he shows to be the underpinning of their sense of identity. He does this with sympathy and comic flair.

Churchill: A

Photographic Portrait

by Martin Gilbert

Pimlico pounds 15

Of course, Churchill has already made an appearance in Cohn's alternative history of this century (above). But here he appears in a more familiar guise, Gilbert's brief being to celebrate rather than provoke. Many of these photographs have never been printed before, and were rescued from fading originals, or glass-plate negatives on the verge of destruction. The result is a comprehensive photographic record of the man and his cigar. Of most interest, however, is the selection of cartoons - some satirical, most affectionate, but all of them pithy and to the point. As a whole, the book provides a multi-faceted portrait, from which Gilbert adduces a reverential commentary.

Wise Children

by Angela Carter

Vintage pounds 6.99

When will the makers of bonnet and corset dramas turn their attentions to the ribald and exciting work of Carter? This is one of her liveliest novels, deriving its energy and plot twists from Shakespeare; its setting and linguistic high-jinks from the lower reaches of our culture. Dora and Nora Chance are the illegitimate twin daughters of a great Shakespearian actor. They are disowned by his family and the theatrical tradition that he represents. So the Lucky Chances appear in music hall and nude revues lampooning Hamlet, whose soliloquy ends up as a sketch wherein the girls dress as hotel porters with a parcel to deliver to "2b or not 2b".