Sunday 15 December 1996
! Declarations of Independence: War Zones and Wheelchairs by John Hockenberry, Penguin pounds 7.99. Writing of the road accident which cut his spine and his teenage life in half, Hockenberry offers a surprising rebuttal to the view of the world (as held by certain economists?) of a machine in which nothing interesting happens except to a tiny minority of catastrophic losers and fabulous winners. By contrast, Hockenberry offers a model in which there is nothing but "levels of accident, filled with new truth and the chance to remake the world". If this sets your psychobabble alarm chirping, be reassured. Hockenberry writes brilliantly about life in a wheelchair: with humour, anger and above all truth. He is also an exceptional reporter and foreign correspondent, and his account of his professional career is highly readable.
! Conversations with My Agent by Rob Long, Faber pounds 5.99. Long - co-writer of the comedy show Cheers - tells how he gave up his hit show and embarked on the nerve-stretching business of putting a new project into production. The gloriously surreal, cross-wired, hierarchical world of Hollywood's money-tree monkeys is beautifully captured, from the arcane rules about who gets a restaurant table and the secret of Hollywood's inverted economics to the important truth that, in TV, it's the writer who does all the work (and, if Long's to be believed, gets all the girls) - while the other guys are simply employed to watch him do it. Long makes it seem an awfully attractive number, just as long as you've got a lock-tight grip on reality.
! RL's Dream by Walter Mosley, Picador pounds 5.99. A sick old black man is thrown out of his low-rent apartment in the East Village - name of Soupspoons Wise, a moniker for an old bluesman if ever there was one. Kiki, the hard- drinking white office worker from two floors above, herself scarred in body and soul, creates a fake health insurance policy through her employer to get him treatment. As the two form a relationship, based on need but also, gradually, on love, Soupspoons dreams of his days on the road with the legendary Robert Johnson. Mosley expertly paints the city, its violent colours flecked with unexpected humanity and tenderness. He also builds a suspenseful plot in which Kiki's fraud threatens to catch up with her and destroy her precarious happiness. Above all this is, like every good New York novel, a delicately bittersweet story.
! Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation by Declan Kiberd, Vintage pounds 8.99. Having been induced, in the 19th century, to ditch their own language, the Irish went on almost at once to raise the colonial tongue to a height of literary innovation that left Britain gasping. With Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Synge, O'Casey and Joyce, all born within a 30-year span, tiny Ireland had a full team of cultural heavy hitters. Kiberd argues, in this impressively accessible tome, that the loss of the Irish language was nevertheless traumatic. Irish writers, he says, chose to write for English readers and fed back a paradoxical inferiority complex to the Irish hinterland. The loss of the language, he says, also led to more identification with Catholicism than was healthy. But signs are that both these burdens are now being cast aside, while Irish literature is still booming.
! Capitalism With a Human Face by Samuel Brittan, Fontana pounds 8.99. Although unable to agree with Thatcher's ideas about "Victorian values" or her foreign adventures (it was John Major's government that knighted him), Samuel Brittan, Chief Economics Brain at the Financial Times, is otherwise a Thatcherite monetarist as dry as the Negev Desert. But these essays attempt to show the benign side of that self-regulating machine-god known as the market. Some of it is rather technical for economic semi-literates, but I'm struck by Brittan's apparent neutrality on Europe (brother Leon is a commissioner) and by political implications of his position on poverty, whose solution "would require an onslaught on what has been called the middle-class welfare state". Later, he answers the awkward fact that the Thatcherite drive against government has landed us with more government by maintaining that the job wasn't done ruthlessly enough.
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