Saturday 01 August 1998
In a serendipitous moment, the author encountered her subject while working on obits at the Telegraph. Marion Barbara Carstairs, who died aged 93 in December 1993, was a transvestite lesbian who preferred to be known as Joe. One of her first affairs was with Dolly Wilde, Oscar's niece. Using her vast wealth to purchase a Caribbean island which she ran as an autocracy, Joe cradled a succession of stunning beauties in her brawny arms. She bought a yacht with Marlene Dietrich, who was shocked by her tattoos. Joe lied and stole (nickname "Klep"), but was generous to ex-lovers. Packed with oddities, this book is a delicious entertainment.
I Saw You First by Cindy Blake (Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99)
You need a good ear to make transatlantic satire work, but Cindy Blake (author of Foreign Correspondents and Second Wives) knows her Essex girls from her New York JAPs. In London to make a TV "infomercial", bestselling relationship guru Lisa Thomas and her Gap-T-shirted husband are introduced to a set of snobbish Brits, including actor Toby Goodyear, and marketing man Declan Lewis. But when the chips are down (and everyone's in bed with each other's wives), no prizes for guessing who gets the last dorito.
The Bourbons of Naples by Harold Acton (Prion, pounds 15)
A 700-page historical blockbuster devoted to the quirky dynasty which ruled Naples for 150 years. Acton spices his epic with much enjoyable detail, such as the dangling hooks which the first ruler, Prince Charles, used to whip off the wigs of visiting courtiers (the British consul was a frequent victim), or Lady Hamilton's much-rehearsed welcome of victorious Nelson: "Considerably plumper than when Nelson last met her, she must have incurred the risk of knocking over the one-armed hero, who was short and spare." The author also delights in damning a mercenary ancestor: "The Queen now spoke of Acton as the most evil and ungrateful of men."
Joyce and Ginny, the Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham edited by Janie Hampton (Sceptre, pounds 8.99)
Comic actress Joyce Grenfell and journalist Ginny Graham first met in 1917 at the age of seven. Both natural wits and, later, committed Christian Scientists, these irrepressibly jolly girls wrote to each other daily for nearly 50 years. As close as sisters ("your letter has filled me with glows and heart-thumps"), their Barbara Pymish correspondence details everything from the state of their respective hair- dos and marriages to the pleasures of a good "cuppa" - though their fastidious editor has banished all references to their "bowels and menstrual cycles".
A Genius in the Family by Hilary du Pre and Piers du Pre (Vintage, pounds 7.99)
It is not the retailing of Jacqueline du Pre's imperfections, her rocky marriage or devastating decline which makes this sibling account so unsatisfactory. Though page after page is occupied by the gratingly smug natter of the du Pre household, we are given next to no insight into Jacqueline's genius ("She believed she had a God-given gift...") and musical accomplishments. Astonishingly, her brother is under the impression that his experience of landing an aircraft is equally interesting: "I could almost hear the Radio Three announcer saying, `That was Piers du Pre performing the maestro finale of the Boeing 707 concerto in Hong Kong.'" Ghastly stuff.
City of Dreadful Night by Judith Walkowitz (Virago, pounds 12.99)
Despite the teasing sub-title ("Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late- Victorian London"), this is a feminist exploration of the contemporary impact of the Ripper murders and other gruesome scandals. But Walkowitz's insights are blurred by academic incomprehensibility ("Henry James retreated from a totalising vision into constrained introspection, without invoking psychic splitting") and her evidence is occasionally distinctly shaky. Supporting her contention that the Ripper affair "stimulated male fantasies of vulnerability", she adduces the fearful recollections of someone who was three-and-a-half years old at the time.
A potent mix of sandwiches and off-duty Marines at Elvira's cafe from Happy Days (Gollancz, pounds 9.99) by Beryl Cook. Cook began her artistic life by accident, when she picked up her small son's paintbrush to show him how to fill in the gap between blue sky and green grass
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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