PAPERBACKS - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

PAPERBACKS

Letter to Daniel: Dispatches from the Heart by Fergal Keane, BBC/Penguin pounds 6.99. In 1996, no broadcast made the breasts of Radio 4 listeners heave so much as Keane's letter to his newborn son, reprinted in this collection of "my own favourite pieces of the past six years". This is not surprising, because your man is the opposite of the mythical, hard- eyed foreign reporter with feelings dry as biltong. Keane is emotional, even sentimental, in face of the poor, the orphaned and the dispossessed who are the raw material of his professional output. His dispatches are often too short to justify recycling in print but some of the longer pieces are excellent - one in particular about the death of his friend John Harrison in Bophuthatswana, another on the Rwandan genocide. And there is a penetrating meditation by this native Irishman on why the people of the Republic find it so hard to comprehend events north of their border.

! Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber pounds 5.99. I was almost put off this collection by the title story, about a woman remembering her Native American great grandmother, a wizened wiseacre who is, with her pantheistic cliches, far too much like a cigar-store Indian. But the subsequent tales discover the savour of irony, using it to season a wide range of experience: a woman cheating on her husband in Arizona's Petrified Forest, an English child frightened by a witch doctor on St Lucia, a miner who is Mexican- American, female and on strike, a suburban couple borrowing a baby for the weekend to see if parenthood suits them. They create their effects not by intricate construction and carefully strung punchlines but through a natural unfolding, like elapsed-time rose-blooms.

! The Size of Thoughts: Essays & Other Lumber by Nicholson Baker, Vintage pounds 7.99. Novels like Vox and The Fermata have been posted to the top shelf by some readers, but there's nothing in this book of journalism to excite the browsing pornophile. On the other hand bibliophiles, logophiles, model aerophiles and all lovers of petty detail will revel in these essays, which manage what should be the impossible feat of being nerdy and ironic about the same subjects. He deploys that famous obsession with trivia in his brief history of the nailclipper and the well-muscled strength in oddball speculation when trying to construct a comparative scale to measure the size of thoughts. There are also flashing petticoat-glimpses of real scholarship, as when he tosses out his chance discovery of a source for some of the best quotes in Hamlet.

! Repossessing Ernestine by Marsha Hunt, Flamingo pounds 6.99. By chance, Hunt discovered her previously unknown 90-year-old grandmother alive in Memphis, Tennessee; her repossession of Ernestine, consigned to oblivion in a mental home in her twenties, is the subject of this memoir. At first the title, with its connotations of bailiffs and debts unpaid, seems to get the emphasis wrong. It is Ernestine who should be repossessing her life after seven squalid decades of silent ostracism, indefensible in modern terms and perhaps unjust even by the harsh lights of 1920s psychiatry. Yet the title may be justified by Hunt's fierce possessiveness towards the old lady. She even brings her, irretrievably disorientated, to live in Folkestone, England. It is a moving, salutary tale but with a ludicrous aspect that rather escapes its author.

! The Statement by Brian Moore, Flamingo pounds 5.99. Pierre Brossard, the devout Catholic and former minion of Klaus Barbie at the centre of this novel, has survived into the late 1980s, protected by a network of ex- comrades and Lefebvrist priests. But now he is again on the run, from an organisation anxious to adorn his corpse with a statement of his crimes against humanity. Moore is one of the truest heirs of Graham Greene. Despite his apostasy, he has not rid himself of his cradle Catholicism and most of his novels question the Church's claims to a lock on higher morality. They are also, increasingly, thrillers, often involving manhunts and betrayal. This enables Moore to keep asking those big Catholic questions: is there such a thing as an unforgivable crime? And which is worse, to betray your faith or double-cross your friends?

! Thirty Years On: Is Comprehensive Education Alive and Well or Struggling to Survive? by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty, Penguin pounds 9.99. Having started my working life in Secondary Moderns, where four out of five children were once taught, I've never doubted that there must be a better way to educate than in those depressed, half-hearted places. Comprehensives, the solution imposed by the Wilson government, shouldered the ideological burden of the 1960s and, in the minds of some teachers, became the place where the revolution started. Both Mrs Benn and Dr Chitty are committed comprehensivisers. Their 500-page survey is intended to show that these schools, despite signally failing to equalise society, are not necessarily losing the educational battle. A useful corrective to the more extreme type of Tory propaganda.

! The Russian Century: A History of the Last Hundred Years by Brian Moynahan, Pimlico pounds 10. This is a harrowing big dipper of a story, reaching peaks of heroic achievement, plunging into the worst depths of barbarity and evil, and still able to make you laugh aloud. With the gripping economy of reportage, Moynahan provides a memorable image on almost every page: Grand Dukes and their families thrown alive by Chekists into mineshafts and left to starve; Von Ribbentrop received by Stalin in 1940 with swastika banners hastily borrowed from the sets of anti-Nazi propaganda films; Brezhnev's collection of foreign limousines; the drunken conspirators against Gorbachev ordering a quarter of a million pairs of handcuffs for their 1991 putsch.

Liza Ketchum's The Gold Rush (Little, Brown pounds 6.99), which accompanies the forthcoming BBC documentary series The West, is a social history emphasising the lives of the children (though the text and pictures are fascinating for adults too). Apparently, girls as young as four were partnered on the dancefloor, since men outnumbered women 20 to 1. Above: a sheriff and his daughter from San Francisco - a sleepy Spanish village before gold fever struck

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