BOOKS : PAPERBACKS
Sunday 17 March 1996
! Walter Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity by Neal Gabler, Papermac pounds 13. Winchell, the man who made gossip journalism if not respectable, then inevitable, was cock of the American media walk from 1930 to 1950, a titan of syndicated newspaper columns and radio. Fame afforded him the licence to pronounce on matters far more weighty than the current movie stars' peccadilloes, and he indulged himself to the full. But the enemies he made in the process kept their spurs sharp and, towards the end of this book, a tingle of Schadenfreude awaits the reader, for Winchell was eventually cut down by the very weapons he had himself employed so devastatingly: a mixture of political vituperation and gossip. By the 1960s, he was forced to watch hated rivals like Ed Sullivan preening their feathers on television while he moulted in old- aged obscurity.
! Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, Abacus pounds 6.99. The ton-ton macoute, a voodoo figure put by the Duvaliers to political use, haunts books about Haiti whether in the vein of Ian Fleming or Graham Greene. But this novel is by a Haitian, and it provides a gentle corrective to the sensational reading of voodoo given by outsiders. The ton-ton macoute is literally "uncle knapsack" - a bogeyman who steals children away under cover of night in his straw satchel. In Danticat's tale of the troubled lives of four generations of Haitian women, all the men have their own metaphorical straw bag, which they use (consciously or otherwise) to filch the happiness of their womenfolk. It is a very nicely observed novel, lyrical but also unflinching about this "place where nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms".
! Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm, Papermac pounds 10. John Major believes that the Bosnian conflict is an inevitable flaring up of "ancient hatreds" following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The author of this excellent, clear-eyed history says fiddlesticks. If the cause of the disaster had been clearly identified, he says, instead of obfuscated by a mistaken reading of history, the war could have been avoided. He makes no bones about this. At root it is not a civil war but calculated territorial aggression by Serbia. The "ancient hatreds" are real enough, as we read in this narrative which ends with the Dayton Accord. But without the cynical intervention of Belgrade, there was nothing inevitable about their reappearance in the 1990s. ! Crime Story by Maurice Gee, Faber pounds 6.99. Gee's well-made novel tells the story of two families in Wellington, New Zealand: the poor, working-class Rossers and the wealthy, property-sharking Peets. When petty thief Brent Rosser burgles Athos Peet's house, pushing his wife down the stairs and breaking her neck, the crime is the catalyst not just for Brent's destruction but for the near-nemesis of his victims. Both these families are equally dysfunctional, and Gee's moral message transcends class: driving your relationships without due care and attention is a crime worse than GBH. Overall, his book reinforces the too-easily received notion that, in cultural matters, the Kiwis are a step or two behind the main dance. Monochrome realism is Gee's style, the hard-fisted manner of the north of England fiction of the early Sixties. In those days, to write as if Joyce had never existed seemed refreshing and direct, but I'm not sure the same trick can be pulled 35 years on. However, some of Gee's characters are mesmerising.
! Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals by Ernest Gellner, Penguin pounds 7.99. Civil society is a technical term in political theory, yet in any liberal/capitalist context one recognises it easily and sympathetically, for this is the water in which we swim. It defines a system tolerant (or claiming tolerance) towards a diversity of social institutions whose influence offsets the state and prevents "monopolies of power and truth" from lording it over us. The necessary proviso is that such institutions are never so strong as to impede peace and justice, the inalienable tasks of government. Gellner is inclined to see civil society as another term for light regulation of the market and a cudgel against Marxism, but many institutions outside commerce ought to have a stake in society. And if that sounds a touch Blairite, you're on to the script.
! Attila, King of the Huns: The Man and the Myth by Patrick Howarth, Constable 9.95. Recognition - at last! This is the book one imagines Attila, sitting out his time in some Limbic holding tank, has been waiting for. Howarth is not content to portray him merely as a fine general. He makes out a convincing case for Atilla the Hun as a Good Thing, whose people, in their kingdom by the Danube, enjoyed a carefree existence and a high standard of living under his efficient administration. Meanwhile, next door, the Roman Empire crumbled. Moreover Atilla was personally a man of dignity, compassion, modesty and culture, if the sole eye-witness account of him (from a Byzantine historian) is reliable. So where does the bloodthirsty stereotype come from? Howarth has a couple of illuminating chapters on this too.
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