Book Reviews

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The Independent Culture
! The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, Arrow £5.99. Increase your word power by reading this novel. While tripping over "ataractic", "anile" and "soterial" you will also encounter such delightful additions to the Slang Thesaurus as "chutney ferret" and "badgery". The hero is Ted Wallace, a dried-up (but far from dried-out) famous poet whose cynicism is enlivened by his command of invective and magniloquence. Wallace is staying at the country house of tycoon Michael Logan, whose teenage son is up to mysterious things - miraculous healings with an exotic sexual and racial dimension - in which Wallace finds himself entangled. Laughter the best medicine? Funnily enough, the one thing Fry doesn't want us to laugh about is the faith-healing. And there is a closet sadness here that seems, in the light of recent events, to have its counterpart in the author's personality.

! The Engineer in the Garden by Colin Tudge, Cape £10. Tudge has a deep love of science but knows that, in practice, it is enslaved to commerce and politics. These force it towards high-tech solutions whose risks it often too hastily discounts. The same condition causes our profound ambivalence towards scientists: we distrust them whilst expecting to benefit from their discoveries. Tudge's thought-provoking account of the advance of genetic engineering is titled after his belief that gene-manipulators should be more like gardeners than mechanical technicians. Improvements to machines can be planned on paper, but living organisms are far too complex. The outcomes of modern (and future) genetics are therefore unpredictable, and the discipline demands care and wise control; in short, it needs tending. The first half of the book, seeking to explain the nature and scope of genetic science, is relatively technical, the second half more philosophical. The whole is a very rewarding read.

! Churchill: An Unruly Life by Norman Rose, Simon & Schuster £12.99. Those who desire fame now aim to be Media Icons, but in the 19th century one aspired to become a Monument. True to his time, Churchill aimed at greatness in that now-impossible (in some eyes repellent) sense and he hit the mark spectacularly, in spite of his lisp, looks, tendency to depression and leaky education. He would be the first to realise that, having set himself up, others would try to knock him down. But Norman Rose is not a knocker, and finds it hard not to warm to a man whose admitted faults were spice to his virtues. Churchill's Falstaffian sins - egoism, hedonism, bombast, recklessness - become forgivable by never quite overwhelming his basic decency, common sense and courage, the latter being essential to his moral code. And all the noise about class arrogance, racism, imperial adventuring cannot blot out Churchill's Whig sense of fairness. "Our concern," he once said, "is with the evil not the causes, with the fact of unemployment not with the character of the unemployed."

! Foreign Parts by Janice Galloway, Vintage £5.99. To a male reader, the dedication is daunting: "For Alison, all my female friends and all female friends." Talk about not being invited on the holiday. And, yes, this novel of Cassie and Rona, two friends on a shoestring tour of northern France, is a female text, and a very intense one. Do not expect travelogue. Cassie is more inter-ested in her feelings for Rona and in the failure of her relationships with men than in French countryside. The introspection leads to a certain amount of posturing: there are many one-line, even one-word, paragraphs and startling hyper-aesthetic images ("Chartreuse- coloured mucus"; "boundless as a cracked egg"), also much indignation at the "emotional dishonesty that passes for ordinary male behaviour". But Galloway's tenderness towards her protagonist won me over, and I realised what a very good novelist she is.

! Life After God by Douglas Coupland, Touch-stone £6.99. "This past week has gotten me wondering about life" begins one of these stories by a man whose first book-title, Generation X, was adopted by media sociologists as a label for in-secure kids who can't work out whether it's their fault, their parents' fault or God's fault. Adoles-cent crises have always taken this form, so why Coupland was thought to be saying anything new was a mystery. It's still a mystery as he recycles the same trite, self-dissatisfied themes here, again decorated with his cutesy doodles. It's a large-print edition, with roughly a paragraph per page. Since this is normally the preserve of elderly readers, you may draw your own conclusions.

! Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter by Anne Sebba, Sceptre £6.99. Are women reporters more emotional than men and, if they are, does it matter? Sebba's question may divide the sexes artificially (some men are over-emotional, some women hard as hobnails) but it touches on the most fundamental issue in journalism - that of detachment and involvement. Sebba outlines the careers of selected women reporters (mostly UK based) who challenged the men on their own turf as war and foreign correspondents. The fast ground was made up in the mid-century by heroines like Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Cowles and Clare Hollingworth. The latter, at 80, was still ready for the call in 1990, sleeping on her floor in readiness for the privations of the Gulf War. Sadly, it never came.

! Burgundy by Anthony Hanson, Faber £15.99. "If only our expectations of red Burgundy were less hidebound, we would more often be delighted with it," says Hanson, whose astounding 700-pager is itself a delight. Not merely a work of vast bibulous learning, it stands as an authoritative and eloquent village-by-village guidebook for all who would travel (by car, by palate) through the Burgundian wine-making region. Along the way it will dissolve your hidebound ideas about those red wines and teach you to tell your Beaune from your Beaujolais.

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