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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman

by Louis de Bernieres.

Morrow, 388 pages, $22.00.

Mr. de Bernieres continues his chronicle of life in a nameless Andean country with the further trials and triumphs of the people of Cochadebajo de los Gatos. The characters--guerrillas, drug dealers, japesters, whores, resuscitated conquistadores, ghosts, assorted law officers, clergy frocked and unfrocked, peaceful citizens, and magical cats--are those already established by the author, and they perform with their usual unnerving fluctuations between gruesome bloodshed and Rabelaisian sexuality. Cardinal Guzman is a new arrival in this world. He is a once-decent man corrupted by money and power, whose uncharacteristic attempt to reform national morality produces a crusade led by a pious fanatic and conducted by loot-happy brutes. The campaign eventually reaches Cochadebajo de los Gatos, where Father Garcia, "unjustly unfrocked owing to the allegations of an importunate and deluded female parishioner," preaches on a divine revelation, "which, to put it plainly, is that the greater part of creation is a mistake and an oversight that God heartily regrets. . . . And so the truth is that we are all imprisoned angels, the descendants of imprisoned angels, living in a world created by Satan and not by God. . . ." It is not clear what the congregation of jaguars makes of Father Garcia's sermon, but the human population happily endorses his recommendation that the situation be corrected by fiestas and fornication, for surely a good God intended his people to be happy. Besides, the program requires little change in their regular habits. One can foresee approximately what will happen to the Cardinal's inadvertent crusade when it reaches the town, but the details of the action are wildly fanciful, comically grotesque, mercilessly savage, and altogether unpredictable, while the author's satirical commentary hits targets well beyond the confines of South America.

Animal Happiness

by Vicki Hearne.

HarperCollins, 238 pages, $20.00.

Ms. Hearne's collected pieces are held together by her interest in the character and training of animals, but the individual items have, on the whole, a decidedly casual quality. They frequently seem to have been written in haste while the author's mind--or most of it--was devoted to some other matter.

The Alarming History of Medicine

by Richard Gordon.

St. Martin's, 256 pages, $22.95.

Forty years ago Mr. Gordon wrote Doctor in the House, followed by Doctor in so many other places that he can be considered as ubiquitous as Kilroy. Mr. Gordon's attempt to make a condensed history of medicine as amusing as those fictional adventures is somewhat strained, verging at times on the snide, but it is thick with irreverent opinions, interesting oddities, and unexpected conjunctions. "As Lister discovered antisepsis knowing nothing about streptococci, and Lind cured scurvy while knowing nothing of vitamin C, so Darwin founded genetics knowing nothing about DNA."

On Fire

by Larry Brown.

Algonquin, 192 pages, $17.95.

Mr. Brown, the author of well-regarded novels, has turned to a work of fact, an account of his seventeen years with the fire department of Oxford, Mississippi, from which he retired in 1990 with the rank of captain. His memoir is not a chronological record but rather a description of particular episodes illustrating specific aspects of a dangerous and often treacherous job, a job that sometimes induced "a weird callousness" because nobody wanted to think about "the people we couldn't save." Aside from fires and car crashes, Mr. Brown writes engagingly of Sam, a uniquely stupid dog, and of his own collisions with rabbits and a barbecued pig. The book is unpretentious, solidly real, and delightful.

Marble Skin

by Slavenka Drakulic, translated by Greg Mosse.

Norton, 192 pages, $20.00.

The narrator of Ms. Drakulic's novel is a female sculptor, a woman obsessed and to some extent paralyzed by memories of her mother's love affairs, although these memories are partly imaginary. That the mother subordinated her daughter's interests to those of her current lover is, however, believable--but the fact emerges only after much overwrought sexual maundering by the narrator has worn the reader's patience thin.

The Princes in the Tower

by Alison Weir.

Ballantine, 303 pages, $23.00.

Either of the sons of Edward IV had a better claim to the English throne than their uncle, who assumed the crown as Richard III. He took the boys into custody and confined them to the Tower of London, from which they never emerged. There has been much argument and speculation about what actually happened to the children, with Thomas More in the 1520s representing Richard as a murderer, and modern revisionists crying Tudor propaganda and representing him as a maligned innocent. Ms. Weir's impressive researches should settle the matter. She has traced More's probable informants, pursued contemporary accounts (one surfaced as recently as 1934), and applied firm common sense to what she has found. On the old rule about circumstantial evidence, Richard had opportunity (the boys were under his control), means (loyal henchmen eager for advancement), and a really smashing motive, for in those days it was thought passing brave to be a King and ride in triumph through London. Romantic adherents of Richard will, of course, refuse to believe a word of Ms. Weir's case.

The Green Knight

by Iris Murdoch.

Viking, 480 pages, $23.95.

The title of Ms. Murdoch's novel arouses an expectation of Arthurian connections, which is encouraged by the early appearance of three girls who promise to be the Lady of Shalott in triplicate. Then comes a youth with an unreasonably troublesome injury--the Fisher King, perhaps? There follow a would-be anchorite seeking mystical experience, Cain and Abel, a minor poltergeist, a dog who performs a rescue at sea, and the Green Knight himself. That is, the author claims the man is the Green Knight, but after the preceding distractions one is entitled to doubt it. Regardless of skillful writing, the novel behind all the portentous religious and mythical trimmings is the story of some upper-middle-class Britons who, with much chatter (they all talk alike) and numerous weeping fits, emerge from their accustomed ruts, thanks to the Green Knight, and arrive at a settlement in which every Jack gets his Jill, or at least a reasonable facsimile. The ultimate effect is of a trompe l'oeil cathedral facade imposed on an ordinary house.

The Language Instinct

by Steven Pinker, Ph.D.

Morrow, 388 pages, $23.00.

The author is a professor and the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. As a result of his own studies and those, duly credited, of other explorers in his field, he has concluded that there is an instinct--that is, a built-in system--for the mastery of language inherent in all human brains and identical in its functions regardless of the language that the individual infant is obliged to learn. The evidence for his belief is complicated but persuasive even to a reader impervious to statements like "XP ' (SPEC) X YP*," and Dr. Pinker writes with acid verve, particularly in regard to self-appointed language pundits and antique rules illogically derived from Latin. As he rightly observes, "Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to." This is an exciting book, certain to produce argument.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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