S E P T E M B E R 1 9 9 5
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
Are We Alone?
by Paul Davies.
Basic, 160 pages, $20.00.
Professor Davies teaches natural philosophy at the
University of Adelaide and promises to keep technical jargon to a minimum--or try to. His subject is
"Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life," and
technical jargon, in the form of mathematical calculations well beyond the
three-Rs level, proves unavoidable. Unexpectedly, considering its subtitle, the
book is more concerned with the pros and cons of the existence of
extraterrestrial life than with the effect that the proof of such life would
have on human thinking, which can be summarized as a heavy jolt. The author
believes that extraterrestrial life does exist, but he presents contrary
theories with such fair-minded clarity that a nonscientist reader with no
entrenched opinion on the matter may find all the arguments equally plausible
and come "out by the same door where in I went."
Red Earth and Pouring Rain
by Vikram Chandra.
Little, Brown, 560 pages,
Abhay, home in India after studying in the United States,
has so far forgotten the proprieties as to shoot the white-faced monkey infesting his parents' roof.
The victim survives, but the sacrilege deranges the proper functioning of the
wheel, for the monkey recovers human consciousness and memory of his last human
incarnation, as a somewhat troublesome poet named Sanjay. It also attracts the
attention of three gods (Abhay's parents privately hope that their house will
not be required to accommodate the entire pantheon), who arrive at a treaty.
Sanjay will not be killed and reincarnated as a crab if he can hold an audience
long enough with a good enough story. Sanjay is optimistic. "I won't tell what
happened," he promises. "I'll make a lie. I will construct a finely-coloured
dream, a thing of passion and joy, a huge lie that will entertain and instruct
and enlighten. I'll make The Big Indian Lie." That is a large promise, but the
monkey keeps it--or rather, Mr. Chandra does, with interlocking and overlapping
tales of wars and intrigues, villains and holy men, jewels and blood, Alexander
of Macedon and Abhay in Texas. The novel becomes the history of India converted
into the brilliant disorder of a kaleidoscope. It is adroitly written,
constantly interesting, lyrical, fantastic, brutal, and, at bottom, serious.
Mr. Chandra can make a lightning bolt look like a Roman candle--but that bolt
Peculiar People: The Story of My Life
by Augustus Hare.
Academy Chicago, 320 pages, $26.95.
Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834-1903) published his
autobiography in his old age. It ran to six volumes, admittedly in large type, and has been edited to
reasonable size by Anita Miller and James Papp. Hare was born into an
aristocratic English family, most of whose members were considerably worse than
peculiar. As a small boy, he might well have envied the happy life of Oliver
Twist. As an adult, he had no money--at least by his standards--but he
"collected cousins as others collect stamps" and could always find a country
house to put him up. He also collected anecdotes, with which he enlivened a
series of guidebooks that flourished for decades, and with which, as a
raconteur, he became a valued guest. His text includes a lively description of
Mark Twain, a report on Thomas Carlyle complete with Scottish accent, tales of
ghosts and ghastlies, and complaints about his publisher. His instrument was
the pen rather than the harp, but in his way Hare was a wandering minstrel, and
he is an attractive and sometimes witty acquaintance.
The Queen of the Tambourine
by Jane Gardam.
St. Martin's, 240 pages, $20.95.
Ms. Gardam's mischievous, ultimately poignant novel
examines what happens to a clever, imaginative, lively woman whose husband reaches the rank of senior
civil servant and maroons her in a stodgy, semi-posh London suburb with no
occupation but good works and no reliable company but the dog. The woman
reports on Christmas: "Sarah and Simon sent me talcum-powder and soap. Charles
gave me a card which contained another card inside it telling me that for a
year I am a Friend of Redundant Churches. This means that I am authorised now
to visit any decaying church in the United Kingdom, taking a friend with me
free of charge. Henry gave me a pot plant--a transparent cyclamen, its flowers
limp with thirst, its rubber-tube stalks bent down. When I watered it it gave
up the ghost." One can see why the first-person narrator of this ingenious
novel, who appears initially to be an officious and annoying busybody, has in
fact gone quietly mad. Ms. Gardam's oblique approach is humorous and expertly
controlled from its deceptive beginning to its ambiguous end.
Hunters and Gatherers
by Francine Prose.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pages,
Ms. Prose's heroine, Martha, a stolidly unimaginative fact
checker at a stolidly moderate women's magazine, is moping on the beach at Fire Island when
she falls in with a group of enthusiastic, demonstratively affectionate
worshippers of the great Goddess. They are led by Isis Moonwagon. With no other
social life to speak of, Martha becomes a misfit member of the androphobic
female-solidarity cult, and winds up with them on a pilgrimage to study with a
Native American shamaness in the wilds of Arizona. Isis Moonwagon is
accident-prone, and so is the trip. One ridiculous contretemps follows another;
the lesbian lovers split; the mother and daughter exchange snarls; innate
cattiness surfaces; and the climate is a killer. Ms. Prose describes the
debacle in elegantly restrained style, creating a novel that is satirically
amusing but not unsympathetic. Her women are superficially silly, but their
desire for a more generous ethic than society has offered them is not.
by Alan Bennett.
Random House, 432 pages, $25.00.
Mr. Bennett, the author of The Madness of King George and
of numerous successful television shows, offers a miscellany of memoirs, diary excerpts,
occasional pieces, and book reviews, most of the material involving the
theater. The diaries are of particular interest, because they describe what the
author experiences, notices, and sometimes suffers as one of his television
scripts is brought to life on location. He observes that he has "very little
knowledge of 'ordinary life.' I imagine it in a script and come up against the
reality only when the script gets filmed. So the process can be a bit of an
eye-opener. . . ." Such unexpected revelations--and opinions--are frequent
rewards in this quirky collection.
Kate Furbish and the Flora of Maine
by Ada Graham and Frank Graham Jr.
House, 170 pages, $30.00.
Although technically an amateur, Kate Furbish (1834-1931)
was a formidably efficient botanist whose study of the plants of Maine produced admirable
illustrations (too few of which are reproduced here in color) and records. Her
early work was carried on in the days when stage drivers in Aroostook County
kept firearms alongside as a practical policy. It is not explained who the
expected bandits were. Furbish was particularly fond of bogs. This agreeably
unpretentious biography conjures up, among other visions, the picture of a
highly respectable spinster in properly long skirts up to the knee in a mudhole
and undeterred in her pursuit of orchids. An odd and charming little book.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.