Paperbacks

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Isadora Duncan used to claim that she began to dance "in my mother's womb". No ordinary pregnancy this: her mother lived on oysters and champagne for nine months, which kept the prenatal Isadora constantly on the move.

Such hedonism was short lived: her father disappeared shortly after her birth in San Francisco in May 1878, and the young Isadora was sent out to beg scraps from the local butcher. My Life (Gollancz Pounds 8.99), the memoir which was abruptly terminated by her death in that tragic car accident of September 14, 1927, is a strange mixture of fey pretentiousness ("My soul was like a battlefield where Apollo, Dionysus, Christ, Nietzsche, and Richard Wagner disputed the ground") and bracing honesty ("I have begun the impossible task of putting this record of my life on paper, and will go on with it to the end, although I can already hear the voices of all the so-called good women of the world saying: 'A most disgraceful history'"). She was a brilliant, if controversial, dancer,but had a sad life: her three children, by different men, all died very young.

Margaret Forster's HIDDEN LIVES (Penguin Pounds 6.99) is also a memoir, but of a different flavour. When, in 1981, her mother died, Margaret Forster at last felt free to delve into the secrets of her family. Who was the woman who turned up, unbeknown to everyone, at her grandmother's funeral? And why was no one prepared to tell her anything about her great-grandmother? What Forster explores with devastating frankness is the dilemma faced by all women since the feminist revolution of the Sixties: how to get on with our mothers now that the Pill and dishwashers have changed our lives.

The never-ending stream of anthologies continues to flow with The Penguin Book of Irish Comic Writing, edited by Ferdia Mac Anna (Penguin Pounds 8.99). But who can complain when Samuel Beckett's account of the dispersal of Murphy's ashes (in his favourite bar) is to be found alongside an extract from Myles na Gopaleen's The Best of Myles. All the big names are here - James Joyce, Molly Keane, Maeve Binchy, Roddy Doyle - and so are all the cliches: men spinning the crack in bars, female harridans and the dangerous pleasures of small town gossip.

When the Best of Young American Novelists was released by Granta (Pounds 7.99), listing the 20 writers deemed by its team of judges to be "the best", it caused a furore. Who were, for instance, Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides, Elizabeth McCracken?

That said, it is an intriguing collection of writing for the 1990s in which the preoccupations seem to be coping with the elderly (especially a short, piercing slice from Kate Wheeler), growing pains (memories of apple blossom in Washington from David Guterson) and, of course, the sex war.

The American essayist Cynthia Ozick has collected together a selection of her writings - from the prophetic brilliance of Anthony Trollope (especially his The Way We Live Now) to the arrival on her doorstep of a refugee Jew from Russia. Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character (Pimlico Pounds 12.50) is so-called, she says, because of the monstrous egoism that goes with a talent for writing, a monstrousness that in her case seems to have been mitigated by a rare degree of self-deprecating humour.

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