Paperbacks

The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage by Paul Johnson (Phoenix, pounds 6.99) This doughty defence of faith starts with the accurate perception that "Modern [people] are not used to questioning themselves about God". Unfortunately, Johnson's odd but deeply felt book does not help. A Roman Catholic since birth, Johnson defends its dogma with dismaying literalness. He compares purgatory to "being sentenced to the dark heart of the Gulag for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years". The pleasures of Heaven, on the other hand, are "best left unimagined", though Johnson has a bash with a bizarre vision of Paris in the 1950s, featuring the "young Brigitte Bardot, still a schoolgirl". His concluding selection of prayers includes the deeply embarrassing "Prayer to be said by a Princess beset by troubles".

The Dustbin of History by Greil Marcus (Picador, pounds 6.99) At times, this rag-bag of clippings is exactly what you would expect from an eminent rock writer turned West Coast academic. His 1988 inaugural address at the University of California probes the nature of history via an analysis of the Rolling Stones' infamous Altamont concert. Elswhere, he applies his edgy critical intellect to the surfing duo Jan & Dean and Fifties doo-wop combo The Orioles. Yet Marcus reveals a sweep of interest ranging far beyond the pop charts, nor does his taste ride the waves of fashion. He is bracingly tart about Susan Sontag and Robert Altman, but has a soft spot for Thirties thriller writer Eric Ambler. One of the finest pieces in an uneven collection is a perceptive appreciation of John Wayne.

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino (Minerva, pounds 8.99) Viscount Medardo, an 18th-century officer, is blasted in two by a cannonball. Hastily patched up, the terribly injured remnant, only half a man, limps back to his estates, where he causes mayhem, slashing animals and everything he encounters in twain. Soon afterwards, a second mutilated figure appears, but he devotes himself to good deeds, patching up the cloven creatures. They are, of course, the two halves of Medardo, which are eventually sewn back together. Calvino's genius lies not so much in this tantalising conceit, but the brilliance and ingenuity with which he pulls it off. The two other tales in this triptych concern an aristocrat who chooses to live in trees and a knight who is an empty suit of armour. A dazzling display of literary fireworks.

A Journey from this World to the Next and The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon by Henry Fielding (Oxford, pounds 5.99) These two diverting squibs stem from the great 18th-century obsession with travel, real and imagined. They also examplify the era's delight in deviating from the point. Commencing with the matter-of-fact statement "On 1 December 1741, I departed this Life, at my lodgings in Cheapside", the first work combines satire in the style of Gulliver's Travels and an exploration of reincarnation via a series of ironic historial sketches. The second work is a meandering comic narrative based on the disastrous voyage Fielding took to cure his ill-health. Considering the journey concluded in the novelist's death, his effervescence is nothing less than miraculous.

The Wars of the Roses by Desmond Seward (Constable, pounds 14.95) This absorbing account of the "amazing 15th century blood-bath" switches between a handful of minor figures, through which we perceive the "distant mirror" of medieval life, and the major protagonists, still household names after five centuries. Seward scoffs at recent attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III, whom he describes as "a criminal of the worst sort". Similarly, Shakespeare is "almost certainly correct" when he has the Duke of Clarence drowned in a butt of malmsey. The gory drama is relieved by flashes of humour. We learn that King Louis X1 concluded the Hundred Years War by pacifying English troops with venison pies, free wine and pox-ridden prostitutes.

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