Book Review: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
Excursions in the Real World by William Trevor, Penguin £5.99. Though temperamentally strangers, this year's Whitbread prizewinner William Trevor shares with Dennis Potter the habit of "going back" to his childhood just to see what the contemporary world looks like from that perspective. But for Trevor, as never for Potter, "going back is a lesson in proportion, an exercise in give-and-take". In these autobiographical sketches he evokes the "small-time Protestant stock" from which the Trevors came, and the social and physical landscape of Co Cork and other parts of Ireland in which they lived, carefully measuring the distance between memory and observation. He also travels further afield (London, Asia, Finland, Venice) but two qualities never desert him: a rock-like sense of proportion and a boundless pleasure in story-telling. Walled Gardens: Scenes from an Anglo-Irish Childhood by Annabel Goff, Eland £8.99. Further glimpses into the decayed world of the Anglo-Irish gentry - more detailed, more close-up than William Trevor's - in this memoir of life in southern Ireland in the1940s and 50s. The Goffs were among the ascendancy Protestants who hung on in their great crumbling Georgian houses while their estates dwindled. The courage (or pathetic refusal to bend, if you prefer) by a class who neither asked for nor get anybody'spity is both moving and comic.

The Queen by Kenneth Harris, Orion £5.99. The modern Royals have veered between the feckless egoism (the Duke of Windsor) and a dogged belief in duty, in "doing things the hard way" (George VI). That the Queen belongs in her father's camp will be news tonobody, and a publisher's fear must be that a dull constitutional monarch makes a dull subject, particularly after the razzle-dazzle stirred up by Pasternak, Morton et al. In fact the Queen's awkward position, stuck between the easy charm and popularityof her apparently immortal mother and the ambivalent attitudes of the younger royals, makes for some poignant and interesting pages, part-icularly those on her own childhood. Much of Harris's book is a cuttings job, but it's a level-headed one.

8 Kafka's Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Hapsburg Fin de Siecle by Mark M Anderson, OUP £9.99. This study begins from the realisation that the young Kafka was a dandy, a style-victim who later used clothing and nakedness as significant metaphors. Anderson goes on to discuss (among other things) Kafka's troubled relations with his clothes- retailer father, his longtime adherence to physical fitness systems, his determination to purge ornament from his writing and be "naked" on the page and hisinterest (for The Trial) in Lombroso's theories of criminal facial and physical types. Stylistically there is a certain amount of "historical contextualisation" and "on a motivic level", but this book takes a look at Kafka's world from a largely fresh angle.

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker, Vintage £5.99. Baker's protagonist, Arno Strine, is a Clark Kent with a single occult power - to stop time and walk around in the frozen world ad lib. He uses his power to satisfy his private fantasies, for Arno is a voyeur with the added ambition to control what he watches. He'd have us believe in the goodness of his impulse, as if he were no more threatening than a eunuch driven by a "perennial wish to insert some novelty" into women's lives. It's hard to take Arno at his own estimation as an altruist, since he enjoys undressing and groping women and leaving sex toys and pornography in their path and claims he only wants to improve the quality of their masturbation. But in fact he only wants to boost his own. This feeble piece of dramatic irony is the book's central idea, and is so obvious that it destroys any aspiration Baker has towards satire.

Seven Experiments That Could Change the World by Rupert Sheldrake, 4th Estate £6.99. Sheld-rake, one of our most persistent heretical scientists, has long been trying to prove the existence of morphic resonance, a force field which affects patterns in nature over time and space. Such a force might explain the complex architecture of termites' nests, a pigeon's homing instinct, mind- over-matter effects like placebo or the amputee's phantom limb. It may also crack big problems: the inconstancy of "constants" such as the speed of light; the spread of epidemics; the bumpy path of evolution. Sheldrake's book, subtitled a "Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science", tries to enlist Joe Public in the search for Morphic Fields by describing experiments toattack some of these problems.