Books: Paperbacks

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! The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld pounds 12.99. The Powder Treason, as it was known in its day, was intended to bring about not some comic-book bang but a fireball that would immolate the King, his family and a good proportion of the political, religious and legal establishment. Fraser's telling of the story is pacey and gripping, but its underlying purpose is elegiac. In her eyes the plot was above all a fateful moment which began the irrecoverable decline of Catholic England. Its cause was the previous 40 years of fines, imprisonments and torture whose severity had increasingly ground down the recusant population. Fraser's heroes are not the extremist plotters, whose culpability she does not deny, but the innocent and mostly loyal laity and priests, whom she depicts as patiently enduring persecution before being caught up in the backwash of the Plot. Quoting Nelson Mandela's speech at his trial in 1964, Fraser finally tries to place the conspirators in a universal (and rather benign) context of political action, but this is tendentious. In Northern Ireland the Fifth of November passes uncelebrated by Catholics. How different it would be to equate Fawkes, not with Mandela, but Bobby Sands.

! Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose, Carcanet pounds 7.95. Unconsidered by judges of conventional literary prizes, Brooke-Rose nevertheless has a healthy reputation among the small band of enthusiasts for experimental fiction. Yet this example isn't too intimidatingly far out: it describes a convention of fictional characters held at the San Francisco Hilton, who come together like members of a messianic cult to pray for "being". Here we find Emmas Woodhouse and Bovary, the White Knight, Hadrian VII and Gibreel Farishta (of The Satanic Verses), among others. Their common problem is the increasing precariousness of existence in the modern audio- visual world: "we are not lived as we used to be ... Our Creator, Our Implied Reader, no longer needs or wants to follow printed lines with his eyes in order to live us," one of them complains. The plot is vestigial - proceedings are disturbed by an apparent Islamic terrorist attack and terminated by a disastrous fire - but the ideas and jokes about fictive reality are entertaining, if erudite.

! The Night is Large: Collected Essays 1938-95 by Martin Gardner, Penguin pounds 12.99. Gardner produced a famous hoax that pyramids could sharpen razorblades, which many people still believe 20 years on. For more than 40 years he wrote the "Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions" column in Scientific American. Add to that a facility for explaining relativity and quantum science in terms you and I can understand and a love not only of numbers but of language games (Gardner edited The Annotated Alice) and you have the formula for a very interesting and diverse mind. These essays lightly and lucidly embrace the full range of his interests: the philosophy of William James, paranormal hoaxes, artificial language, the disrepute of psycho-analysis and of all deterministic theories, whether of the mind or of history. He claims to belong "to a small group that has been aptly called the Mysterians. We believe there are deep mysteries about the brain that neurobiologists are nowhere close to solving." And that's the opinion of an expert in puzzles.

! With Nails by Richard Grant, Picador pounds 6.99. Their prose running at a punishing speed, Grant's diaries, however arranged and edited for publication, have a REAL ZING of immediacy (he has a fondness for capitals). He starts in much the same condition as that of his first film role, the manically unemployed actor Withnail; success arrives suddenly but Grant's wit and common sense cut through the superficial "how-was-I-you-were-marvellous- darling" atmosphere of the thesp world to the questions that haunt him throughout Withnail and I, Henry and June, Dracula and The Player - as no doubt they do every actor: HOW IN THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO THIS? and WILL I EVER WORK AGAIN? The answer to the first question is usually: by virtue of a vivid inspirational streak in his technique. And, to the second: YOU BETCHA SWEET TWINKLECHOPS.

! Plagues: Their Origins, History & Future by Christopher Wills, Flamingo pounds 8.99. Plague has usually been classed as a hostile alien but increasingly, since the development of scientific countermeasures, an avoidable one. Professor Wells is enthusiastic for modern medicine (he thinks the threat of any catastrophic new plague is obviated by science). But he is an integrationist about disease and wants to show how the evolution of bacterial and viral life forms have paralleled those of other species, influencing and being influenced by them. Their effect on humanity is naturally of particular interest and he brings personal experience to bear in describing the social context under which plagues flourish in the developing world today. He is also good on the necessarily precarious lives of pathogens, with an especially interesting discussion of HIV, whose paradoxical strength is its ability only just to escape losing the battle with the host's immune system. For this reason, he feels, science must eventually stumble on a way of tipping the balance, minutely but sufficiently, against the virus.

! Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Novel with Five Shorter Tales by Alasdair Gray, Bloomsbury pounds 5.99. The beautiful design of this book - as ever, the author's own from cover to colophon - alerts the reader to the fact that Gray's stylistic plainness, amounting almost to naivete at times, is a careful deception. The Sixties setting, the insignificant characters and the subjects treated (a big interest this time is education) are also a blind because however banal the incidentals, the stories resonate with myths and literary prototypes. One character, a failed teacher, is a Glaswegian mini-Ulysses. Another, a college lecturer, is a suburban Tristan; a third is a miser who, unlike Moliere's Harpagon, keeps the money and gets the girl.

In Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt by Susan Walker and Morris Bierbrier (British Museum pounds 18.99) the men and women of 2,000 years ago smile and stare back at us very much as they must have looked in life. Above, the painted plaster mask of a woman, possibly an initiate in the Isis cult , crowned with a garland of rosebuds, c100 AD.

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