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March 17, 1991|Charles Solomon

SEVEN CLUES TO THE ORIGIN OF LIFE by A. G. Cairns-Smith (Canto: $7.95, illustrated). As the question of how life first appeared on Earth remains one of the great mysteries of science, Cairns-Smith borrows the methodology of the greatest mystery-solver, Sherlock Holmes, to present the current theories on the origins of living things. He explains that the present system of cellular reproduction based on the replication of DNA is much too sophisticated and specialized to have arisen spontaneously. The earliest organisms were much simpler and developed from crystallized carbon compounds in clay deposits. Cairns-Smith organizes the material carefully and scrupulously defines each term to produce a clever, readily approachable work of popular science.

TIRRA LIRRA BY THE RIVER by Jessica Anderson (Penguin: $8.95). When Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home in northern Australia as an old woman, she gradually reconstructs her life. She recalls the failed marriage that forced her to act on her desire to become a seamstress, and the early relationships that helped to shape her character; bits of news and gossip lead to surprising revelations about her relatives and friends. Reflective and melancholy, but never sentimental, "Tirra Lirra" offers American readers a pleasant introduction to the work of one of Australia's most prominent novelists.

DOVE by Robin Lee Graham with Derek L. T. Gill (Harper Perennial: $8.95, illustrated). In 1965, 16-year-old Robin Graham left San Pedro in his 24-foot sloop Dove for a 33,000-mile solo voyage around the world; this book is an expanded version of his journal. While Graham had spent a considerable amount of his childhood sailing, the early chapters of "Dove" suggest that he was poorly prepared for the journey, and the reader can't help wondering why his parents allowed him to undertake this perilous expedition with such minimal resources. The sections of the book that record the terrors and joys of facing the sea alone will delight armchair adventurers. Graham often seems impatient and given to superficial judgments. Although he proclaims his love and respect for nature, he has no qualms about shooting sharks or leaving graffiti on rocks in the Galapagos. A new introduction, chronicling what Graham has done since he returned, 21 years ago, would have been an interesting addition.

CHANGING THE PAST by Thomas Berger (Penguin: $8.95). Walter Hunsicker, a pleasant, middle-aged, middle-class man is given a chance to live the lives he might have led, a premise that allows the author of "Little Big Man" to tell several stories without having to resolve any of them. In turn, Hunsicker becomes the heir to a family fortune, an abrasive stand-up comic, an unsuccessful novelist and a popular radio psychologist. Like James Branch Cabell's Jurgen, he concludes that his comfortable, familiar marriage is more satisfying than any of the fantasies he cherishes. Unlike Jurgen, Hunsicker remains something of a cipher, but it seems implausible that this decent, honorable man would turn out to be such an amoral creep in other circumstances.

WEST OF THE WEST: Imagining California, edited by Leonard Michaels, David Reid, Raquel Scherr (Harper Perennial: $10.95). California always has been perceived as a place apart, an "Island on the Land," and the editors of this anthology support that contention with the words of a diverse group of authors that ranges from Umberto Eco to Henry Miller. Simone de Beauvoir contrasts the beauty of the coastal setting with the wretched food she finds at a rustic inn; Herb Caen evokes the excitement of postwar San Francisco in his famous "Baghdad by the Bay." The editors fail to put these works into any sort of cultural or temporal context. Czeslaw Milosz's account of Junipero Serra's treatment of the California Indians is highly romanticized and completely inaccurate; Randy Shilts' vivid portrait of San Francisco's Castro district no longer corresponds to the reality of a community devastated by AIDS. Still, California remains a place apart, and Shiva Naipul offers a devastating evaluation of the fascination that the state continues to exert: "All that California does is magnify what is brought to it; and often, under the strain of magnification, there occurs a sea-change. It seems that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first send to California."

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