Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
! The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer, Vintage pounds 5.99. Narrated by a sentient, shape-changing piece of pottery (currently relaxing in the form of a bowl), handed around between collectors of the exquisite for 6,000 years or so and which has pretty much seen it all. Now residing in the London flat of the reluctantly virginal Rosa, a valuer of ancient objects with mild psychic powers, the bowl watches the antics of her temporary lodger, Nikki, an opportunistic liar, thief and hooker with nymphomaniac tendencies, and contemplates the sameness of human experience. Like his first novel, Under the Frog, this is packed with incidental joys, enough, at any rate, for you not to mind excessively that the main plot is a touch weak. And Fischer's incautious approach to the English language (pointless rhymes and bad puns, polysyllabic gambols, obvious rifles through the thesaurus) manages to be maddening and endearing at the same time. Worth a go.

The Roy Strong Diaries: 1967-1987, Phoenix pounds 8.99. We'll begin by agreeing that anyone who calls his cat "the Rev Wenceslas Muff" is beyond the pale. Let's further admit that Sir Roy's sub-waspish prose is both fussy and careless - opening at random, you discover that the V&A's Biedermeier exhibition was "the fount from which the cult flowed which was to follow ... ". And we may as well come clean and say that the normal person reading this - the catalogue to accompany an exhibition entitled "Self- portrait as Narcissus" - will from time to time lift their head in awe and wonder how anyone with his nose jammed so firmly up his own arse has managed to keep breathing for 60-some years. But the extraordinary thing is, you can't help liking the man: which of us is half so honest about our self-love? He did, too, contribute a great deal to the popularisation of museum culture. Three cheers for Sir Roy, I say, and with only a touch of sarcasm.

Quarantine by Jim Crace, Penguin pounds 6.99. Quarantine means literally a period of 40 days: the subject of Crace's book - winner of the Whitbread Novel Award - is Jesus's 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness. But he is accompanied in the wilderness by a number of other people, fasters like himself: a barren woman, a Greek-influenced philosopher, an obscurely motivated nomad, a dying man, and the savagely self-serving merchant Musa and his wife, left behind by a caravan when Musa seems ready to die. Crace has a rich imagination, and conjures up images of startling, ruthless clarity which impinge uncomfortably on the memory (Musa's assault on a dead donkey, in particular, is distressingly hard to scrub from your mind). He is also a gifted and disciplined prosodist who writes sentences of austere elegance. All the same, there is something not quite convincing about this book. It is a little too polished, too manufactured; and Crace is guilty of one variety of the orientalism Edward Said complains about, though here it's the ascetic, mystical east rather than the sensuous whirl of the Arabian nights.

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals ed Niall Ferguson, Macmillan pounds 10. In a rather pompous introduction, Ferguson explains why it is that this collection of essays in counterfactual history (what if Kennedy had lived? what if Hitler had invaded Britain?) is superior to all other exercises in the genre - they were just parlour-games, we gather, by lesser minds who failed to appreciate that writing counterfactuals is a serious historical exercise and a blow against the heresy of determinism. Maybe: actually the pieces that take counterfactualism most seriously (John Adamson on England without Cromwell, J C D Clark on America without the Revolution) are the least effective - just posing the basic question of "what if ... ?" makes the fundamental point that things need not have turned out as they did. Trying to create an entire hypothetical chronology is either a parlour-game, or utterly futile. The best piece here, Mark Almond's insightful assessment of Gorbachev's impact on Soviet politics, makes no attempt to hypothesise at all. Meanwhile Ferguson has his own determinism: his alternative history of the last 300 years has the biggest names of history turning up again in new ideological guise (Marx as a Jewish messianic prophet, Stalin as Tsar Joseph I) - is this just a joke, or does Ferguson believe that the greatness of great men is the one thing that isn't contingent?

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom, Picador pounds 5.99. Fans of Bloom's highly praised collection Come to Me may experience a twinge of deja vu, as the opening chapter is a reprint, with piffling alterations, of one of its stories. The story is narrated by Liz Taube, a Jewish girl growing up on Long Island and being pursued by her English teacher, then finding big lurve with a black basketball star. Bloom has a natural turn for the ecstatic, and there is a dispassionate edge to her mapping of obsession, indifference and despair, and her skillfully choreographed sex scenes, that is both alluring and repulsive. Not recommended if you have a low tolerance for arcs of semen forming white crescents against the violet evening sky, though.

Women were not fully integrated into the life of the Bauhaus but segregated into the Weaving Workshop regardless of talent or inclination. Bauhaus Textiles: Women Artists and the Weaving Workshops by Sigrid Wortmann Weltage (Thames & Hudson pounds 15.95) pays tribute to their work which inspired much contemporary textile design