Books: paperback round-up

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The Independent Culture
Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto, Faber pounds 6.99. Kuusisto is not himself blind, but partially sighted: for him, the world is a collection of floating, disjointed colours and shapes, or words that scramble like insects. He can't see in any functional sense, but he does at least have a visual vocabulary to offer. Planet of the Blind is a self-consciously literary, but occasionally electrifying stab at describing what it is like to be blind. Kuusisto is excellent on the physical experience, the tactics and tricks he uses to get by in the sighted world; when he talks about the social side of it - the taunting he endured at school, people's patronising tendency to assume he is deaf or stupid, his mad, headlong efforts to walk down the street the way a sighted person does - he can get mawkish, a bit too keen to get the reader's sympathy. All the same, short of wandering around with your eyes closed for the next year, the closest you can get to understanding what blindness means.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong, Vintage pounds 9.99. This is really a history of monotheism - or rather, of the monotheistic tradition embodied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Armstrong traces ideas of God from Mesopotamian myth, through Genesis and on to Reformation, Enlightenment and the present day, her central theme being that the word "God" has always encompassed a wide range of beliefs. The Cupitts and Jenkinses who are derided as "atheists" by old-fashioned Christians for questioning the idea of a real deity, somewhere "out there", are in fact following an ancient and highly respectable tradition of mysticism. The book is immensely learned, her lucid interpretation shored up with copious scriptural references (and boy, the Bible has some weird bits). Armstrong herself is a former nun whose faith in God "slipped quietly away", rather than deserting her in a violent rush; and while she comments on religion from the outside, she does it with an unusual degree of insight and sympathy.

Collected Shorter Novels by Paul Theroux, Penguin pounds 9.99. That uncommonly interesting book Sir Vidia's Shadow has surely established Theroux as one of the world's most vindictive and meanest-minded men, and this collection should go some way to confirming that reputation. Six novellas of varying lengths are gathered here, from "Murder in Mount Holly" (1969) to the previously unpublished "The Rat Room" (1998). The common feature of these novellas, Theroux writes, is that they are "intentionally disturbing"; another way of putting that would be to say that they are bound together by cynicism and snobbish resentments. From this little lot, Theroux suffers, and suffers acutely, from a distaste for fat people, old people, working-class people, stupid people, rich people, English people, and quite often female people - the themes summed up by "Doctor Slaughter" (the basis of the film Half Moon Street), about an impoverished American academic in London who turns call-girl and gets into all kinds of trouble. This is a kind of Grand Guignol, in the literal sense of a puppet show - the characters are animated mainly by greed, lust, envy and stupidity. It isn't pretty; but again, like Sir Vidia's Shadow, the range of feelings it addresses is something out of the ordinary.

Madeleine's World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old by Brian Hall, Vintage pounds 6.99. Hall is an acute observer, and parents reading this will find themselves nodding in agreement as he picks at the inexplicable talents and paranoias of children - the way even tiny babies seem instinctively to know that huge woolly things and tiny bald things are both dogs, for instance. Sometimes, too, parents will be startled by Hall's insight, his ability to project himself into the child's point of view and see why it is that certain words or images will grip them. Having said all that, though, after a while reading Madeleine's World is exactly like finding yourself trapped at a party for six hours with somebody who won't stop going on about their children. In a just and rational world, Hall would be best forced to stand in a public place for half an hour every morning repeating: "My children are stupid, ugly and boring, and they get it from me."

The Cambridge Quintet by John L Casti, Abacus pounds 7.99. Not a novel, but "a work of scientific speculation": Casti assembles, in a room at Christ's College, Cambridge in June 1949, a cast of distinguished thinkers to mull over the nascent notion of artificial intelligence. Alan Turing explains his ideas about computers; Ludwig Wittgenstein complains that his conceptions of language and intelligence are all cock-eyed; Erwin Schrodinger and J B S Haldane try to define life and mind from the points of view of quantum mechanics and genetics; and C P Snow sits in the chair. It's a valiant attempt to present complex issues in readily comprehensible form, and on those terms it works pretty well, for the most part. But there are points where the effort to keep it all conversational makes it a bit convoluted; and some appallingly clumsy passages: "Pausing for a moment to reflect on the way in which his ideas on language had changed over the past 20 years, Wittgenstein mentally reviewed his position that language was a public or social phenomenon ...". As you do.

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, Penguin pounds 6.99. The missing link between Jane Austen's Emma and Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, according to Q D Leavis, and "more entertaining, more impressive and more likeable than either". That's pitching it a bit strong, but this is a shrewd and amusing book, written in 1866, and Oliphant has a beautifully unfussy, readable style; I'd put it on a par with most of Trollope. Lucilla Marjoribanks is a clever, egotistical and romantic girl who, following her mother's death, sets about "being a comfort to papa" and transforming the provincial society of Carlingford. Oliphant, herself something of a bohemian, is sharp on the petty power-struggles and the illusions (of class, of wealth) that shaped a woman's life in 19th-century Britain; but she is also witty and affectionate, unwilling to put her heroine, or her readers, through the mill. Take Leavis's comment, but substitute Madame Bovary and Mapp and Lucia for Emma and Dorothea and you'd be nearer the mark.

Robert Hanks