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Short Takes

By J. M. Ledgard
Penguin, 298 pp., $24.95

This novel from J. M. Ledgard is based on a true but almost unbelievable story. It takes place during the mid 1970s, while Czechoslovakia was under Soviet control. During this ``Communist moment," a scientist, interested in studying blood flow in vertical creatures on the moon, looking ahead to colonies in space, had the idea of studying the most vertical of all creatures -- the giraffe. With this intention, he transported 32 giraffes from Africa to a small zoo in Czechoslovakia.

Once there, the giraffes survived and bred, increasing from 32 to 47, until the fear of disease and contagion led to their extermination. Unwilling to risk the spread of disease to livestock, the state brutally slaughtered the herd. The totally unnatural conditions under which the giraffes live mimic the conditions of the Czech people forced to live under Soviet ``normalization," in which ``the best [are] replaced with the worst, the patriots with lackeys, the questing with the credulous few." The giraffes, built to look up at the sky, are reduced to looking down. The Czech people, formerly searchers and dreamers , have become a nation of sleepwalkers. Less rigid than most allegories, but more oblique than most novels, ``Giraffe" is a haunting work of politics and poetry.

A Three Dog Life: A Memoir
By Abigail Thomas
Harcourt, 182 pp., $22

A doctor in the ICU tells Abigail Thomas, ``Good things happen slowly and bad things happen fast." The bad thing is that Thomas's husband, Rich, was hit by a car and sustained massive brain injuries. The good thing is that Thomas herself survived to seek out her own comforts, to adapt to her life, and to accept that she deserved to take pleasure in it.

The first part of this memoir describes with great good humor the three dogs -- Harry, Carolina, and Rosie -- who provide physical warmth (they all sleep in the double bed together) and uncomplicated love. Waking with doggy breath in her face, walking around the house with the dogs following her, Thomas becomes aware of her limited existence. As she comes to accept that her husband will never recover, she replaces solace with activity. From art therapy classes, she develops an interest in outsider art and becomes an avid collector. Finally, she allows herself to write, something she had always wanted to do.

Her writing about Rich and his accident is a tragedy with much comic relief. Asked casually if he needs to use the bathroom, he replies, ``Why? Do you have a dire need for fresh urine?" Five years after the accident and 17 years into his marriage, he believes he's been married about a year. He explains, ``Our life has been so easy that the days glide by."

Another Green World
By Richard Grant
Knopf, 384 pp., $24.95

Richard Grant's cliched novel of derring-do is camera ready. The story moves back and forth from 1929, when four idealistic American kids meet at a German Youth Movement rally, to 1944, when the same four are engaged in espionage on the Eastern Front as the war winds down.

As carefree teenagers, the group naively becomes entranced with the aspirations of Free Youth. At first, Free Youth, dressed in sandals, short pants, and rough tunics, seems to represent everything from vegetarianism to sexual equality. Only after a while does it come to include and emphasize fierce nationalism and racial purity. Then, in 1944, by coincidence the four find themselves back in Eastern Germany. Two of the four are on a mission to bring back to Washington a document ordering the eradication of Jews. It is in the hands of the third and most daring of the quartet, a Jew known as (what else) the fox. With this proof of German crimes, they will make it impossible for the United States to claim ignorance and remain uninvolved in the war. The story, predictable in every way, is graced with language like this : ``he said in a clipped, angry voice, like a Hollywood Nazi." Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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