Books: Paperbacks

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The House Gun

by Nadine Gordimer

Bloomsbury pounds 5.99

What happens to a nice middle-class white South African couple, Harald and Claudia, when their son is accused of murdering a friend: they are tipped into a new world of catastrophe and doubt - a new world, too, where black people suddenly have an intimate importance Harald and Claudia are not used to. Meanwhile, they are brought into collision with their son's life, at the same time that they are forced out of intimacy with him. Gordimer tackles the subject in a thorough, dispassionate prose that often feels inert and sometimes lapses into pompous, rather trite oppositions: "The purpose of a doctor's life is to defend the body against the violence of pain. She stands on the other side of the divide from those who cause it. The divide of the ultimate, between death and life." Nobel prize-winner she may be, page-turner she ain't.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty

by Sebastian Barry

Picador pounds 6.99

Barry was heaped with superlatives for his play The Steward of Christendom, which told the story of an ancestor of Barry's who was a policeman at the time of the Easter Rising. Actually, for all Barry's eloquence, it was so static, so firmly grounded in a single narrative voice that it felt like natural material for a novel, awkwardly exposed on stage. Eneas McNulty revisits the territory of Christendom, and seems to confirm that the page is Barry's natural habitat. Eneas is an innocent abroad in the 20th century who, through a muddle of ideals and ignorance, becomes first a sailor in the British merchant navy, then a policeman, marking him for life as a traitor to his people. The novel follows his drifting life in England, a botched return home, and more drifting. There is a Celtic, misty quality to Barry's prose that sometimes verges on bog-standard Oirishry; but the steadiness of tone and the compassion that underlies the story stop it dipping into bathos.

How the Mind Works

by Steven Pinker

Penguin pounds 9.99

Along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Pinker is one of the great popular advocates of modern Darwinism; but where Dawkins and Dennett tend to stride into an argument in big hob-nailed boots, treading on opponents' toes right, left and centre, Pinker goes on tiptoe, preferring to use gentle logic, wit and lots of lucid, everyday examples to get his views across. How the Mind Works is in many ways indebted to Dennett's 1991 classic Consciousness Explained, but it's a much, much easier read. As the title implies, the book takes a purely functional view of the mind, viewing it as a collection of diverse faculties to be explained in terms of how they helped us survive out on the savannah. He applies the logic to everything from vision to disgust - nature's way of helping you avoid indigestion - and even such supposedly intransigent phenomena as music and humour can be made susceptible to evolutionary explanation. It's a measure of Pinker's powers of persuasion that much of this comes across as pretty self-evident, and you can imagine hardline creationists finding themselves nodding in agreement as he runs through what clever chimps we are.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher's Guide

by Christopher Golden

& Nancy Holder

Simon & Schuster pounds 9.99

The official guide to the cultish TV series, about a Californian Valley Girl who is the Chosen One designated to defend our world against legions of marauding undead, etc, and celebrates victory with a pineapple pizza and teen-movie video fest ("Possibly something from the Ringwald oeuvre"). As well as plot synopses for every episode, it contains pictures of and interviews with all the cast. Probably not worth investing in if you're not a fan, but does contain a quotable selection of Valleyspeak ("I just don't see why everyone is always ragging on Marie Antoinette. I can so relate to her. She worked really hard to look that good") and vampire humour ("Or should that be 'undead American'?"). Tacky fun.

Illuminations

by Walter Benjamin

Pimlico pounds 10

The main thing anybody knows about Benjamin is how he died: attempting to leave France on foot in 1940, he was stopped when the Spanish authorities unexpectedly decided to close the border; rather than hang around, he killed himself. Since his death, his reputation as one of the century's greatest critics has just grown and grown: he was one of the first to appreciate Kafka, an acute analyst of Baudelaire and Proust, and in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" he produced one of the most influential analyses of the place of cinema in modern culture. But while this reprint of his most celebrated collection of essays is a welcome chance to find out what all the fuss is about, I have to admit to feeling slightly let down: good on individual authors, and on the joy of book-owning, but "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" seems an oddly tangle-footed piece of Marxism, with its talk of the "aura" of the work of art. Still, worth reading if you want to know where John Berger got all his ideas from.

Heshel's Kingdom

by Dan Jacobson

Penguin pounds 7.99

Heshel is Rabbi Heshel Melamed, whose death of a heart-attack at the age of 53 forced his penniless family to head for South Africa, thereby indirectly leading to Dan Jacobson, his grandson. This is partly a search for roots that puts you in mind of the other Jacobson, Howard, and his trip to eastern Europe in Roots, Schmoots. While it sticks to family history it is readable and touching; but it strains too hard for significance of various kinds, as when Jacobson painstakingly analyses his grandfather's photograph, trying to drag out motives and feelings that simply can't be visible at this stretch of time. And behind it all is a sense of embarrassment. Unbeliever that he is, convinced that his grandfather has disappeared irrecoverably into the void, Jacobson is stuck for a good reason to be doing this.

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