Considering how events in Northern Ireland may overtake any comment on that subject, it's madly courageous of Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick to attempt a history of the peace process in book form. Yet The Fight for Peace (Heinemann Pounds 8.99) manages to take account of the February Docklands bomb and certainly made sense as the "all-party" talks began at Stormont.
This lucid, even exciting, detective story reveals the muddied route which led to the August 1994 ceasefire. Not long after John Major had said that talking to Gerry Adams and the IRA would "turn my stomach", The Observer revealed Government "back channel" contacts with the Provos and soon Patrick Mayhew was caught by a local paper telling London sixth-formers "if Mr Adams were replaced, that would be a disadvantage".
As I say, an absorbing read. Only those much closer to the action can say how impartial it is. In a 400-page book, Gerry Adams gets a whole column in the index: Dr Paisley has just four references. I suspect that's either prophetic or unbalanced.
Someone likely to be made or unmade by the process is of course Our John.Penny Junor's biography, The Major Enigma, has been given the not inconsiderably more prosaic title From Brixton to Downing Street for its paperback reprint (Penguin Pounds 6.99). Its prose style admirably matches that of its subject. Yet it contains some interesting revelations. John's stag night was "no great event" and (from the one page) "politics have been John Major's life" while "his happiest moments have nothing to do with politics". The most interesting thing about his school career is that his records are a permanent state secret in the Surrey county archives.
His sister Pat says his "woodenness" stems from his rejection of anything that prevented him fitting in. "Ten years ago he couldn't have been Prime Minister with his background." Except where does that leave someone such as Disraeli? He too went to neither public school nor university. His father, Isaac D'Israeli, may not have made garden gnomes but he was the son of a humble Jewish immigrant.
What Jane Ridley makes abundantly clear in her stylish biography of The Young Disraeli (Sinclair-Stevenson Pounds 12.99) is that Dizzy wasn't afraid to be colourful. His speculations lost him a fortune before he was 21, he had various steamy affairs but married a wealthy older widow and, what's more, he wrote novels. Good ones, too. No wonder today's mob look grey.
Although he considered himself Jewish (and consequently racially superior), he was also baptised a Christian (which allowed him to take his seat in Parliament). He was therefore never quite a member of The Club.This fascinating and compulsive story of the Jews in modern Britain by Stephen Brook (Constable Pounds 14.95) sketches the foundations of British Jewry and explores the acrimonious divisions between the Orthodox and Progressive traditions (as in "I would never even sit in the same room as [Rabbis] Neuberger or Blue").
Yet the vocal Progressives account for only 22 per cent of synagogue membership. On the other hand, 25 per cent of London taxi drivers are Jewish. Besides such odd details, the (Jewish) author charts the rise and fall of Jewish communities in east and north London, Manchester, Glasgow and other cities. His excellent chapter on Jewish schools is a warning which should be read by everyone involved in faith education.
In another part of the forest, two more guides to English usage have appeared. The Longman Guide to English Usage by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut (Penguin Pounds 8.99) may be too prescriptive for some but I wish there was a copy in use in every broadcast newsroom. The Little Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (Oxford Pounds 4.99) is ideal for anyone vaguely aware that, for example, the traditional parts of speech have become "word classes" and now include determiners, conjuncts and intensifiers.