David Self

To the believer, it seems presumptuous for the created to attempt a biography of the Creator. To the non-believer it must be merely fatuous. Yet as Jack Miles points out in his God: a Biography (Simon and Schuster Pounds 9.99), no-one in the West is free from his influence. We cannot reject our history.

This intriguing book is not just a work of theology nor even a literary biography. The author (both an academic and a journalist) has straightforwardly tackled the life story of the main character of the old Testament or, more precisely, of the Hebrew Bible (where the same books appear in a significantly different order).

God emerges as an inconsistent being, unsure of his own nature. Sometimes he is a father figure; at others a wife, destroyer, liberator, counsellor and even fiend. It's a detailed, scholarly but readable book which leaves this believer pondering the extent to which God is a tragic, flawed hero.

The story of his chosen people is told in The Sacred Chain by Norman Cantor (HarperCollins Pounds 9. 99). Just as Jack Miles considers God in terms we normally reserve for the analysis of fictional characters, so Professor Cantor suggests that much early Jewish history (as told in the Bible) is either "one of the great masterpieces of imaginative fiction or artfully contrived historical myths of all time". What's more, its author was "possibly a woman of the high aristocracy".

This heady account leads us on through the centuries of the Diaspora, the ghettoes, the years of emancipation and then the re-birth of the "Shylock image" that encouraged both the working and the middle classes of Europe to espouse anti-Semitism. His final fear is that over-commitment to the state of Israel and the increasing "narrowness" of Jewish leaders elsewhere will accomplish culturally what the Holocaust failed to do physically.

The writings of another minority are on show first hand in The Penguin Book of International Gay Writing (edited by Mark Mitchell, Penguin Pounds 11). This is not a series of essays agonising over gay identity but mainly fictional or biographical accounts (often celebrations and explicit ones at that) of gay experience. All the usual suspects are here (de Sade, Gide and Mann for example) but there are also several pieces from the former Soviet Union and such unexpected guests as the normally straight Flaubert being overwhelmed by dancing boys in Cairo.

The diverse workings of the human brain and mind are explored in, respectively, The Burning House by Jay Ingram (Penguin Pounds 6.99) and Private Myths by Anthony Stevens (Penguin Pounds 8.99). The former is enormous fun - if only for revealing how little we know about the brain. Scientists disagree, for example, about how big is its folded cover or cortex. If ironed out, would it be the size of a family pizza, a card table or a Canadian football pitch?

The Jungian psychiatrist Anthony Stevens provides not so much an instant guide to self-analysis but a survey of dream science, dream landscapes and symbolism (which has made me keep a pen and paper by my bed - and to adopt his suggestion of "interrogating" dream characters on waking). Humbling and oddly calming to realise what's going on inside us.

Finally, a reminder that it's never too early to avoid getting involved in a Christmas show. The Pantomime Book by Paul Harris (Peter Owen Pounds 12. 95) is "the only known collection of pantomime jokes and sketches in captivity". Samples: "I used to be the belle of the ball." "Pity you lost your clanger. " "Once I was all pink and dimples." "Now you're all drink and pimples." Who said the old jokes were the best?

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