! Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul by Kevin Toolis, Picador pounds 6.99. "Ireland has too much history," says Toolis at the start of this revealing enquiry into what energises the IRA Action Man. Not one to feed off pragmatic politics, Action Man stuffs himself instead with history and rebel sentimentality until he's as full of rhetoric as a clover-bloated sheep is full of wind. Toolis, himself a republican, tries to expound the logic of a united Ireland, but Action Man, immersed in vendetta politics, isn't one for logic. Around the table he is listless, aroused only when reaching for a detonator. And should he for a moment fear the British might prat him about, there'll be no more talks. His point of view will then be heard "loudly on the streets of the City of London" - a warning (written more than a year ago) which confirms the pointlessness of telling Toolis he's not objective.
! Night by A Alvarez, Vintage pounds 7.99. Despite a thoughtful opener about fear of the dark, and a limp endpiece in which the author goes on night patrol with the NYPD, the core of this collection of essays is an enquiry into sleep and dreams. When we dream, the eyes gyrate madly, which researchers call REM sleep, and polygraph tests prove that there is little electrical difference between the sleeping and the waking mind. If sleep isn't neural time-out, what is it? Alvarez spends much nervous energy swooping around in familiar Freud-Jung circles and some (not enough) time with sleep researchers - no mention, for instance, of what happens if you deprive sleepers of REM. We spend six years of a normal life in Dreamland, making it by far the most popular minibreak destination. Alvarez's guidebook might have gone a little further into its byways.
! Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin, Vintage pounds 5.99. Artists are notoriously tricky to portray in novels. We lack visual evidence about the work, so the artist's concerns seem remote and self-absorbed. Caspar, the 1930s surrealist painter who narrates here, is certainly both of these and it wasn't until half way through the book, as the central theme moved from aesthetics to love, that I warmed to him. His besottedness with Caroline, a typist who hardly fits in with his chums in their "Serapian Brotherhood" of luminaries, leads him into a string of scrapes: hypnotic jiggery-pokery, the Third Reich, prison and madhouse. Artists who chose extremist nonconformism as a way of life, trying so hard to be mysterious while achieving only absurdity, are very well captured. Only ordinary Caroline is an abiding mystery.
! Mozart: A Life by Maynard Soloman, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Mozart belongs not merely among the Great Composers but in the Pantheon of Historical Phenomena, alongside Houdini, the Elephant Man and Michael Jackson. For this reason (along with the copious primary material, including hundreds of family letters) there is no shortage of lives of Mozart. Soloman's solid biography is strongly Freudian on Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's control-freak of a father for whom "the greatest hazard was that Mozart might form a family of his own." This line is a touch musty, as are a string of untestable claims about the meaning of the instrumental music. But Soloman is excellent on the nature of child prodigality, the infantilisation of Mozart in memory and the economics of his life, making this Life well worth a visit.
! A Safe Conduct by Peter Vansittart, Peter Owen pounds 9.95. Vansittart's historical novel is set in a putrid province of the German Empire in the late 1400s, just at the outset of Habsburg rule. Up in the Castle, the Graf's maladministration forces him to levy an unpopular tax and revolt ensues, led by the children of the region, who march away to set up a "New Troy" behind defensive walls, and to lead their lives without clothes or hierarchies. How this millennial community rises and is brought down is the engine of the story, but Vansittart's prose style, both precise and elaborate, lyrical and learned, has a unique flavour and it baffles me that this writer, a huge authority on magic and superstition, is not more celebrated. His first 20 pages, in which the (to us) wildly alien mind of the medieval peasant is opened up in all its Bosch extravagance, are a scene-setting tour de force.
! The Trouble With Science by Robin Dunbar, Faber pounds 7.99. This counterblast to recent "anti-science" writings is derived from Professor Dunbar's pep- talks to undergrads. His surprising claim that "Science is a genuine universal, characteristic of all advanced life forms", is supported by the notion that pigeons and chimps can apprehend abstractions. Neither the instances nor the proposition seem very secure, and the latter is undermined by his opinion that "our interest in the physical world seems desultory, at best ... [which] explains why we find science so difficult to do." The text is packed with truisms - "science is a method ... rather than a particular body of theory"; "the nature of mind has long held a fascination for us"; "we humans are just too susceptible to the herd instinct". More likely to bore than inspire.
Devastated after the death of her baby, Jessie Tate leaps into her car and drives blindly north, ending up in a Scottish fishing village. Hiding out in her poky flat above the Ocean Cafe, leather-clad Jessie is the focus of intense interest, as the locals try to figure out whether she's a dyke or a dropout. It's left to cafe proprietor, the redoubtable Magda, to sort Jessie out in Isla Dewar's salty first novel, Keeping Up With Magda (Headline Review, pounds 5.99).Reuse content