Books: Paperbacks

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The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island by Oliver Sacks (Picador, pounds 7.99)

The world's best-known neurologist was accused of turning Pacific islanders into a freak-show when he produced this book (and accompanying TV series) about Pingelap, where one in 12 suffers from severe colour-blindness, and Guam, where Parkinson's Disease results from eating the seeds of the cycad tree. In fact, this is Sacks's most sympathetic study, offering profound insights into both disease and milieu. He describes a disabled Guam chief as "a Parkinsonian Lear... who somehow gained a strange dignity from his affliction". Every page is touched with wonder and poetry.

Lucinda Lambton's A to Z of Britain (HarperCollins, pounds 12.99)

Luscious, loopy and irresistible, Lambton is a national treasure. The tricky trio concluding her alphabet of oddities are typically quirky: "Xanadu" (poignant pile in Shropshire) is illustrated with a portrait of one-time resident Brigadier Johnny Rotton; "Y, oh why?" (a bit of a cheat) concerns the threat to Bart's hospital and includes an etching of a diseased tongue; "Zeta" (old document chamber in a Slough church) enables LL to quote a 17th-century cure for a sore throat. "Take a white hard dogges turd..." This book is an unbeatable Christmas present - better buy one for yourself to make sure.

The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington (Faber, pounds 12.99)

It is hard to conceive how this magnificent exposition could be bettered. After a brief account of Pinter's background in Hackney (punch-ups with Black Shirts, Kafkaesque experiences as a conscientious objector), Billington brilliantly elucidates the playwright's steadily blossoming corpus. A key revelation is that the underestimated work Betrayal was "closely based" on a seven-year affair with Joan Bakewell. Billington makes an unarguable case for Pinter's towering role in British theatre - though Hollywood recently ditched his Lolita screenplay after six months' work.

The Vintage Book of the Devil edited by Francis Spufford (Vintage, pounds 7.99)

Despite the uninviting intro from Old Nick ("Stay away from me. I am no friend of yours"), this hellish haul reveals that the Devil not only has the best tunes but also the best lyrics. A richly varied portrait emerges, dominated by Milton's monumental verse ("Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n"). Heine saw him as "perfectly charming", but Max Beerbohm said his eyes are "set too close together". Shelley insists that "skinning eels and boiling lobsters alive" is Devil's work. "Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go," sang Robert Johnson. Chilling and thrilling.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

Muriel Spark's novels, like Jean Muir dresses, are generally hailed as seamless classics. And even when her work is on the skimpy side, she doesn't expose too much of herself. Her 20th novel is set in British media- land where Tom Richards, a randy middle-aged film director, is laid up in his Wimbledon mansion after a bad fall on set. His rich American wife, daughters and son-in-laws rally around, and either start to sleep with each other, or each other's lovers. A plot more embroiled than any movie follows involving French camp sites, minor starlets and out-of-control cranes.

Children of Chaos by Douglas Rushkoff (Flamingo, pounds 6.99)

Riding the wave with Douglas Rushkoff, hip young chronicler of New Age cyberspace, will chase away any pre-millennium blues. According to this pal of the late Timothy Leary, the degree of change experienced by the past three generations rivals that of a species in transformation. But, contrary to popular opinion, we're handling this evolutionary jump pretty well - especically our children, already at home in the land of paisley- swirl chaos, non-linear thinking and Bart Simpson irony. A book that buzzes with intelligent karma and positive thinking.

Making History by Stephen Fry (Arrow, pounds 5.99)

Oasis-listening Cambridge postgrad Michael Young knows more about Hitler's childhood than anyone alive. Leo Zuckermann is an ageing physicist with an ancient score to settle. Together they will re-write history, even if it means the loss of Michael's foreskin and all hopes of a cosy academic career. In his big, jolly novel, Stephen Fry travels up Cambridge's more pretentious staircases, and down the corridors of 20th-century history, dispensing ruderies and insights with generous abandon.

Spoken word

Henry Fielding's hilarious exploration of men (and women) behaving badly will be playing on BBC1 for the next six Sundays. A spoken-word version will be the perfect supplement to all the frilly linen, licking of red lips and high-booted frolics. Nigel Davenport's richly accented Tom Jones (Classics of Value, 2.5hrs, pounds 5.99) puts over the main plot without losing the best lines, but has to omit many of the funniest bedroom romps a nd close shaves.

Penguin's version (7.5 hrs, pounds 10.99) gives more idea of Fielding's skilful plotting and sharp social ironies. Robert Lindsay copes equally well with the rumbustious Squire Western and the frigid vowels of Lady Bellestone. For serious devotees, there is an unabridged version, read by Anthony Homyer (Complete Listener, pounds 70).

Christina Hardyment

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