Books : Paperbacks

By Blake, Robin | The Independent (London, England), March 17, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Books : Paperbacks


Blake, Robin, The Independent (London, England)


! Konin: A Quest by Theo Richmond, Vintage pounds 8.99. The Jewish settlement at Konin, the town of Theo Richmond's ancestors, was among the first to be established in Poland during the Middle Ages. And in 1939 it became one of the first to receive the attentions of the invading Nazis, when in an appalling sweep the entire community was displaced and sent to perish in the camps. Only a few survived. This book is virtually a recreation of the place: streets, buildings, population carefully reassembled piece by piece from painstakingly researched records and living memory. It is an amazing act of obsessional homage, of mourning, even, but Richmond's sense of obligation to the past doesn't obscure the modern relevance.

! 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.

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