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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Kelle Schillaci, Dorothy Cole, Valerie Yarberry

JANUARY 19, 1999: 

Tree Surgery for Beginners
by Patrick Gale (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, cloth, $25)

If you are able to successfully suspend your disbelief for about 274 pages, you're in for a ride with this one. Patrick Gale is unabashedly British, and his novel leaps back and forth between continents and points of view, though it's supposed to be Lawrence's story. Shy even as a youngster, Lawrence's preference for trees over humans remains with him into adulthood, making for a disastrous marriage that is ending as we begin the novel. What happens next is a long string of bizarre plot events pitting Lawrence in all kinds of precarious situations, from being arrested for murder to having an elicit affair with a cruise-ship's transvestite to watching him/her attacked by a tiger recently escaped from a wild-life sanctuary on a Caribbean island. The transvestite disappears, the tree surgeon finds peaceful work at some fancy cliffside resort in Big Surr, and the novel builds to one climactic denouement relying so much on unbelievable coincidence that you might find yourself laughing out loud. I certainly did. (KS)

The Silent Duchess
by Dacia Maraini (The Feminist Press, cloth, $19.95)

This book and its author have won all sorts of awards, but don't let that--or the name of the publisher--scare you off. It's a good book, worth reading because of the plot, setting, and all-around credibility of the heroine and her family. The Italian La Lunga Vita di Marianna Ucrìa came out in 1990, and this translation by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood was first published in England in 1992. This is the first U.S. edition. Although the deaf and mute Duchess Marianna comes from the eighteenth century, her story emerges from an older, medieval sensibility. You can't help liking her and appreciating her acute powers of observation. She can't hear speech, but she frequently reads minds. In beauty and silence she survives a horrifying childhood (her parents try to cure her hysterical deafness by frightening her even more) to become a strong and stubborn woman. Don't spend too much time on the scholarly afterward by the University of Chicago's Anna Camaiti Hostert. It's informative but mostly beside the point. (DC)

Human Wishes
by Robert Haas (Ecco Press, paper, $11)

This book is a pretty sharp contrast to what I see every day. Because Robert Hass's poetry is so rich with appreciation for the self and one's environment, I realized we often neglect and torture ourselves. Instead of perpetuating vengeance and negativity, Hass seems to advocate other options; revering simple delights, creating your own personal paradise and then existing in it.

Human Wishes is just that; a collection of human desires arranged like poetry but flowing and connected like prose. The book itself is quite small, but not benign. The 83 pages are powerful, like 83 drops of diluted poison--it won't kill you, but it will probably mess up your insides. Rather than playing around with fancy wordplay, Hass makes his point by simply telling and showing readers the truth about life's patterns. It's easy to curse the monotony of life, but Hass exalts it in his portraits of families, lovers and strangers all trying to find happiness.

The poetry illustrates that vanity, materialism and egocentrism often replace happiness. Hass endeavors to help us acknowledge what we've lost, love what we have, and anticipate what is possible in order to achieve our own kind of peace. Hass's poetry urges readers to reintroduce themselves to their surroundings and their motivations. Although the subject matter is often painful, including "how love fails in well-meaning hands," Hass remains honest and never forgets to accentuate the smallest amenities. (VY)

Undercurrents: New Mexico Stories: Then and Now
by Adela Amador
(Amador Publishers, paper, $12)

You may recognize Amador's name if you read her "Southwest Flavor" column in New Mexico Magazine, but look to this work as a true showcasing of her artistic ventriloquism. Her voice in this collection ranges from poet to historian, essayist to children's novelist, occassionally veering off into that of a fly, an old man, or a myriad of other characters. Though the dialogue at times seems stilted and unnatural, it is her simplicity in style and knowledge of her own native New Mexican landscapes that pulls this piece together. Her secure sense of place allows her to successfully drift her way around time, creating family stories spanning generations into which she weaves a subtle sense of mysticism and childlike wonder. Add in the occassional ink-drawing illustrations scattered here and there, and this book of anecdotes (or Spanish-style cuentos) becomes a true testiment to Amador's artistry. And it even offered me my first honest insider's look at the making of menudo. I'll pass, thanks. (KS)

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