Books: Paperbacks

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker, Picador pounds 5.99. The narrator is a graduate student of French literature. He seems pretty dull, but his twin loves for the woman he calls "the Germanist" and for the subject of his thesis indicate surging depths. It's the Germanist who taunts him into travelling to France in search of his thesis topic, a post-'68, ultra-transgressive novelist called Paul Michel. He discovers his hero locked up in a psychiatric hospital, and vows to rescue him. This extremely clever novel picks up on the big themes of post-structuralist critical theory, animating them as thriller and love story in one. I can't go wild about it because I don't go wild for the work of Foucault, the still-hip historian of transgression to whose work and spirit it forms a passionate hommage. Plenty of readers adore it, though.

! The Boys by Martin Gilbert, Phoenix pounds 7.99. In June 1945, the British Central Fund, a Jewish charity, won temporary British residency for 1,000 young survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Only 732 were found to take up the offer, and only 80 of those were girls. It was assumed that "the boys" would soon move on to the US and Palestine. Those who said they'd like to study medicine or art in this country were told to think again. Gilbert skates gingerly over some interesting moments - the boys who refused to do their work-quota, complaining that they had already done enough labouring for the Nazis, for example. This is perhaps because his book is sourced mainly by the survivors' own voices, and they do not want to tell an overly distressing tale. Pretty well all the boys, by the way, did end up staying in Britain. Among them, the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn has a prominent and lively voice.

! Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Virago pounds 6.99. Grace, a beautiful young serving-wench, has been imprisoned for murdering her employer and his live-in lover. She was convicted on the testimony of her supposed accomplice, who has already swung. And then, a bright young doctor turns up at the prison to ask her about her life ... Although the to-ing and fro-ing structure is clumsy, this novel is as good as all the hardback reviewers claimed. Based on a notorious Canadian case of the 1840s, it evokes telling historical details in an uncannily empathetic way. The voice of Grace herself, acutely intelligent while ignorant of so much, is triumphant. And the doctor's tale is pretty good also, as he discovers himself exploiting a vulnerable woman in exactly the way he would help poor Grace to avoid. As easy to read as a classic page-turner - and with a trio of sharp tricks for the blase reader hidden up its skirts.

! The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium by Damian Thompson, Minerva 6.99. "Which comes first - the sense of millennial anxiety, or the sense of an approaching end?" It's a false dichotomy, of course, as Thompson argues, and it's our discomfort with our own mortality that has been causing all the trouble from the start. A history of millennarian belief may sound rather an obvious topic at the moment, but Thompson's arguments are unusually high-powered and wittily put. There's a brilliant chapter about how the current Pope is preparing for the year 2,000, to which he apparently looks forward as a uniquely Catholic Jubilee. And there's a terse postscript on the appallingly kitschy Heaven's Gate business, complete with Web sites and Nike trainers and whole-cult trips to the local drive-in to worship at Star Wars - "It is difficult to banish the thought," as Thompson grim-facedly puts it, "that they died not just for their beliefs, but for our amusement."

Rush-gatherer (c1908) dressed in deer hide, from the Arikara tribe, whose women farmed the banks of the Missouri in pre-reservation days. In Heart of the Circle: Photographs of Native American Women by Edward S Curtis (Library of Congress, ISBN 0-7649-0006-4)

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