Brief Reviews

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, $24.45.

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 strikes.

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, $20.00.

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.

Writing Home

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.

Tilbury 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.