Brief Reviews

Mr. Darwin's Shooter

Syms Covington, the hero of this novel, was a real person, the young gunner who "obtained" specimens for Darwin -- meaning he killed birds without damaging their appearance. Mr. McDonald assumes that Covington was a pious lad, raised on Bunyan and the Bible, and disconcerted by the mounting evidence that creation could not have occurred as described in Holy Writ. Ultimately, as a rich and respected citizen of Australia, he is appalled by the publication of The Origin of Species. The novel is not simply an account of religious disillusionment. Mr. McDonald is a generous, leisurely author who gives the reader a large cast of quirky characters, much peripheral detail, lively action, and a view of nineteenth-century social patterns. Covington, moreover, is no plaster saint, and the Beagle's long voyage offers opportunities for adventure. One need not be pro or anti either Darwin or Genesis to enjoy this well-written tale.

America Day by Day

De Beauvoir arrived in the United States in January of 1947 for a four-month lecture tour that took her all across the country. The diary she published for a French audience is now fine reading for an American audience. De Beauvoir's knowledge of this country was based on movies going all the way back to Tom Mix and Tony, and she knew it was unreliable. She came with an open mind and an inclination to good will. She was critical but never supercilious. If she was often surprised by the obvious, she often saw the obvious in a surprising way. She was not always accurate: one footnote states simply, "She's got this wrong," and the translator has made no attempt to correct her gaudy misinformation about the Salem witch trials. She is a stimulating traveling companion all the way, coming to a provocative conclusion: "America is one of the pivotal points of the world, where the future of man is being played out.... It is a battlefield." She left the battlefield reluctantly.

Images of Auschwitz

The late David Olère, an artist, survived Auschwitz and subsequently drew what he saw there. That the style is straightforward, almost cartoonlike, somehow emphasizes the inhuman brutality of the death machine. Alexandre Oler has provided a text presumably based on conversations with his father. It conveys the same stripped-down, matter-of-fact horror depicted in the drawings. This is a terrible book about a terrible time.

Noah's Flood

Both the authors are scientists expert in geology and oceanography. It occurred to them to inquire into the possible reality behind the story of Noah's flood and the much earlier version in the Gilgamesh epic. If there was a tremendous flood, where did it strike, and when, and why? They have found highly convincing answers to all those questions in currents through the Dardanelles, ice cores from Greenland, and archaeological digs all across Europe and the Middle East. They have not found the final, absolute proof, which would be evidence of villages at the bottom of the Black Sea, as deep and nasty a piece of water as exists anywhere. Still, the Titanic has been reached. The case just calls for patience. The book includes useful maps and pointless illustrations.

The Endurance

The Endurance was the ship that Sir Ernest Shackleton lost in the Antarctic ice in 1915 and from which his whole party survived one of the greatest open-boat voyages in history. The expedition has been described more than once. Ms. Alexander has sensibly, and ably, concentrated on the characters and interactions of the men, as revealed in diaries and letters, and used her text as a frame for previously unpublished pictures by the expedition's Australian photographer, Frank Hurley. The pictures are dazzling. There is no other word for the patterns of black rigging against snow, or for the angles and shadows Hurley recorded as he climbed to improbable places and clung to unlikely surfaces while, according to a shipmate, swearing throughout. (South, Shackleton's own account of the expedition, is available in paperback from Lyons Press, at $16.95.)

Lila Says

The French publisher's note explains that Chimo's handwritten manuscript was delivered by "an attorney" on behalf of an author determined to remain anonymous. Chimo is the narrator of what may or may not be a novel. He claims to be nineteen years old, a resident of a decrepit and filthy public-housing project, and, like his friends, undereducated, unemployed, and addicted to petty theft. He is also pursued by Lila, a girl of angelic beauty and nymphomaniac tastes. Chimo reveals, usually obliquely, standards that suggest a correct, if liberal, bourgeois background. The question becomes, Is this affair a hoax? Is it the work of a brilliant guttersnipe or of a capable conventional author wishing to try his (or possibly her) hand at pornography with a socially conscious frosting? Not worth knowing, unless one loves puzzles.

Jeanne Calment
From Van Gogh's Time to Ours

Forget Van Gogh. His name is bait to entice readers into a geriatric study by the three authors, who interviewed Jeanne Calment toward the end of her life of 122 years. They came to admire her, for she was a woman of good humor and frequent wit, but they never ceased to view her as a specimen. Any reader but the medical-minded (for whom the text is really intended) will wish those three snoopers would get out of Madame Calment's way.

The Shamans of Prehistory:
Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves

Jean Clottes is an expert on the prehistoric paintings in French and Spanish caves. David Lewis-Williams is an expert on South African Bushmen's art who bases his studies on both ethnological data and neurophysiological research. The two have combined to produce an interpretation of European cave art as shamanistic. They begin with an explanation of what shamanism is and how its rituals can proceed, through neurological patterns common to all animals, to hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. Although it seems a trifle rash to attribute hallucinations to cats, the case for them in people is truly convincing, and the photographic evidence from the caves supports it. The photographs are predictably handsome. The text is well organized and presented with economical directness. For readers who wish to check scholarly sources, there is a two-page bibliography -- in fine print.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Brief Reviews; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 104-106.

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