Saturday 19 April 1997
The Hat of Victor Noir by Adrian Mathews (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99) A black Brazilian called Babalu hides out in Pere Lachaise cemetery with his pet mouse. A white Brit called Philip sits at home and stares at his Conran chair. What brings them together? A billet doux left at the tomb of Victor Noir, Paris's patron saint of unrequited lovers. Not, as you might expect, the plot of a bizarre French novel, just a first novel in need of some judicious editing. Good on Paris in the springtime; less good on everything else.
The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax (Minerva, pounds 8.99) The smell of the Mississippi, "southern America in liquid form", is almost palpable in this oral history of the Delta Blues by a legendary musicologist. In the segregated Forties, Lomax risked beatings or worse from bluesmen both famous and obscure, recording their stark, haunting music on impossibly bulky equipment. This is a book of talk about hard times, occasionally segueing into song. But joy keeps bubbling, as in the delightful exchange between Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy.
The Secret Life of the Seine by Mort Rosenblum (Robson, pounds 8.99) Exploring the great river from source to sea is a wonderful idea and Rosenblum has done his research (he lives on a boat in Paris). As a top foreign correspondent, he can certainly write - so why is this work so annoying? Distressingly pleased with himself, Rosenblum is a stranger to restraint. One of the most toe-curling examples is his gleeful account of a fellow American on his boat bellowing "Envy me!" to gogglers on a bateau mouche. It's sad - there's a good book hiding in here somewhere.
The Stories of Tobias Wolff (Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99) Tobias Wolff writes about Vietnam vets, adulterous academics and second-hand car salesmen. Hacking it out in the backwoods of Oregon and Northern California, they experience minor epiphanies in "Denny's" restaurants, but then go home and watch TV anyway. This collection, which brings together Wolff's first two volumes of short stories and his prize-winning novella, The Barracks Thief, shows him to be just as good as - and more likeable than - fellow minimalists Andre Dubus and Richard Ford.
The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken by Mary McNeill (Blackstaff Press, pounds 9.99) Sister of the more famous Henry Joy McCracken (executed for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798), Mary Ann McCracken had talent in fistfuls. As a teenager she set up her own muslin business and organised fashionable harp competitions. In adulthood she devoted herself to Belfast's poor and the cause of women's education. This beautifully old-fashioned biography is so admirably written that for a few heady moments you think you've got the complexities of Irish history taped.
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