Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
! Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson, Granta pounds 5.99. Winterson's latest is a bizarre, exhilarating tangle of intestines, mirrors, sex, cabalistic learning and modern physics and cosmology. One Grand Unified Theory (GUT), currently popular with physicists posits a world of many dimensions, most of which are coiled in on themselves and hence invisible to our 3D wits. These dimensions resemble the other sort of guts: and Paracelsus, who believed that the shape of the cosmos was imprinted in the body, practised divination by entrails ... Gut Symmetries is an attempt to find a GUT to explain not just the material world of matter and energy, but also the world of feeling and perception. Sense and nonsense, beauty and banality here are mixed with what's either dazzling audacity or breathtaking inability to tell the difference. If you have the nerve and the patience, certainly read it.

! Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Yale pounds 12.50. As long as the Church of England matters, Cranmer, its chief architect, will matter - and as the continuing rows over the role of women, homosexuality, and the relationship between Church and State demonstrate, the C of E does still matter, despite shrinking congregations. MacCulloch's painstakingly empirical sifting of facts and myths - making the Archbishop a persecuting monster or a Protestant martyr, according to taste - is a model of historical biography. He comes as close as anyone can to straightening out what went on in Cranmer's last days (he returned to the Catholic fold, then recanted his recantation), and establishes beyond question the importance of the linguistic and liturgical radicalism of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer - the first official document to enshrine the idea that marriage was an institution for mutual pleasure, not just a way of avoiding sin.

! How Brains Think by William H Calvin, Phoenix pounds 6.99. A refreshingly practical, lucid account by a neurophysiologist of what's actually going on inside the grey matter. Calvin's line is, in essence, that the brain is a guessing machine, constantly refining its guesses by eliminating the stupid ones in what he calls a "Darwinian" process. He tosses out pleasingly brusque dismissals of much philosophical meandering around this area, as well as the more speculative theories about the relationship between free will and quantum mechanics; and he offers a cool assessment of the prospects for artificial intelligence.

! As If by Blake Morrison, Granta pounds 7.99. Morrison's firsthand account of the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables (the 10-year-old killers of James Bulger) attracted a good deal of vilification on publication last year, not least for his description of undressing his daughter and talking about having an erection while a child sits in his lap. Much of the anger directed at this book was misplaced: what he is trying to do, honorably and decently, is to pierce some of the muddle surrounding our ideas of childhood - the doublethink that allows us to regard children as untainted little angels, while trying Thompson and Venables in an adult court. But it is in the end a confused, frustrating book. Morrison strives too hard, states and restates the obvious, gets bogged down in literary manoeuvres. It doesn't get us any further forward.

! The Pardon of Saint Anne by William Palmer, Vintage pounds 6.99. A photographer working in Thirties Berlin finds that, just as the camera is not the neutral observer he wants it to be, so he can't help being drawn into Germany's collective madness. A sharply intelligent novel, written in clean, precise language, with a tightly measured sense of place, time and metaphor - and that is the flaw: Palmer's imagination could do with being let off the leash to run wild. All the same, he shows a technical assurance that's rare and treasurable.

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