Books: Paperback round-up

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Women in Ancient Greece by Sue Blundell, British Museum Press pounds 12.99. In broad terms, Sue Blundell's book aims to fill the gap that women have failed to occupy hitherto in general histories of ancient Greece. She concedes early on that almost everything known about Greek women emanates from a masculine source, excepting of course the "battered fragments" of Sappho's poetry. Even when scouring law-court speeches or medical treatises, any kind of authentic female subjectivity is denied to the modern scholar. But by examining the roles that men constructed for women, Blundell insists we gain an insight into the dynamics of a male-dominated society. So, for evidence of women's participation in athletics she digs up a shard of pottery showing nude girls running races. She wisely makes allowances for an element of male fantasy in these scenes, but as proof of their inclusion in public events, it is a good example of the difficulties of her task. She turns to Aristophanes' comedies for literary depictions of female subversion - but his sassy wives and nagging mothers cannot make a case for a cohesive alternative power structure within the home. The best that Blundell can do is to show us how women lived, how they were regarded by men, and the effects on them of political and cultural change over the centuries. The best she can hope for is that books such as hers will eventually be seen as essentially "transitional". She bravely concludes that once the other half of the human race has been incorporated into general historical studies, Women in ... books will have become redundant.

Armadillo by William Boyd, Penguin pounds 5.99. The fallacy that insurance policies are supposed to protect us from risk is the subject of William Boyd's latest. His hero, a loss-adjuster called Lorimer Black, soon learns that there are no certainties in life. Boyd gilds the lily in overworking his theme: Black collects ancient helmets, works under an assumed name, for an organisation called Fortress Sure, and spurns human contact. But the comedy of errors that assaults him ensures that the book is irresistibly funny.

Letters to My Parents by Brassai, Chicago UP pounds 12.75. Nicknamed the "Eye of Paris" by Henry Miller, the Hungarian emigre Brassai was one of the great European photographers of the 20th century. This volume of letters and photographs chronicles the early years of Brassai's life in Paris and Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s. The letters are one half of a correspondence between the artist and his parents. His frankness is extraordinary, given their bourgeois existence in Hungary and his bohemian lifestyle in Paris, and he leaves nothing out. In a letter dated 16 January 1925, Brassai tells his father of meeting "a nice girl from Alsace, here in Montparnasse". Her name is Lisette, and she is wearing her hair in plaits rolled above her ears, "although all Parisian girls have hairdos a la garconne". Their "honey-moon" lasted from Christmas to New Year's Day, and their revels are dutifully detailed. By this time, Brassai had been accepted by the literary and artistic demi-monde; and the most intriguing friendship, and the one of which he was proudest, was with Picasso - an early subject of a photo-essay. But rather than just a roll-call of famous friends, these documents are fascinating for the financial turmoil in which the young artist seems perennially to be embroiled. In letter after letter, he itemises his earnings from freelance articles to Hungarian newspapers and literary magazines, and his outgoings in cafes and bars. He also painted and drew portraits, something Picasso later berated him with for abandoning in favour of photography. Luckily, Brassai ignored his formidable friend's advice, and the photograph of Picasso is enough to prove its subject wrong.

American Skin by Don De Grazia, Vintage pounds 6.99. When Alex Verdi returns home from school one day to find his house surrounded by armed police, he suddenly remembers the packages of marijuana secreted in his father's desk, and wisely decides to hide. He hitches to Chicago where he meets a gang of skinheads, and so begins an American take on the skinhead novels of Seventies author Richard Allen. Only, this being America, the skins in question are PC and multi-racial. De Grazia is a fine writer - the tension of the opening scenes is exquisite - and his concern is with male identity, in terms of the warrior hero on a quest of self-discovery. But his gushing portrayal of tribal bonding reveals an immaturity that he'd do well to grow out of.

Magnum: Fifty Years at The Front Line of History by Russell Miller, Pimlico pounds 12.50. This is the unauthorised biography of the photo agency famously formed more than 50 years ago to ensure the greater freedom of photographers who had been previously bound to publications such as Life magazine. It is written by a man who should know what he's talking about. Russell Miller was born in 1938 in east London, and became a journalist at 16. Since then, he has won a shelf full of Press Awards, and is the author of 10 books. This cut no ice with the French photographers in the agency, however, who would have preferred a French author, and it took Miller a year for the "family" to allow him to rummage through their files. Luckily, once he'd assured Miller how bored he was by photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson was willing to be interviewed extensively, and the others soon fell in. The result is a multi-layered story of the wars, famines, natural disasters, social and political crises of the latter half of this century, as well as of the "colourful" photographers themselves.

Soft by Rupert Thomson, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. Thomson was lionised by the critics on the first publication of his immensely sophisticated fifth novel. His cool-headed craftsmanship earned him comparisons with William Boyd, and this deadly satire makes him a fitting rival. The energy of the novel comes from machiavellian marketing man Jimmy Lyle and his pernicious campaign to launch a soft drink, but Thomson is careful to retain his sympathy for advertising's victims. Meanwhile, it's his prose that really makes an impression - as barbed, cryptic and manipulative as any ad campaign.