Paperbacks: Don't Try This at Home, Paris Noir, God Explained in a Taxi Ride, Geopolitics: A very short introduction, The Père-Lachaise Mystery

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The Independent Culture

Reviewed by Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski

Don't Try This at Home, ed Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman (Bloomsbury £7.99) fourstar

Restaurants, according to the chef Shaun Hill, are essentially ridiculous. Preparing a meal can be a diabolically hard thing to do, but the whole business has to be done while maintaining a charade that "all is smooth and easy". This book gets some of the country's top chefs to confess their "culinary catastrophes".

Some of the stories are so eccentric or raffishly urbane they make you want to track down a dish from the cook straight away. Hill, for example (also a writer and fellow at Exeter University's department of classics), sits among the eccentrics – and not simply because he ran a restaurant where he cooked all the meals on his own. He once had cause to use a fire extinguisher which covered the whole kitchen in white dust but, rather than tell his customers to go home, he cleaned down every surface, washed every plate, and re-cooked all the food.

Antonio Carluccio doesn't really talk about being a chef at all. Instead he eulogises about his faithful dog, Jan, who would eat any food going – including, on one occasion, a few trays of lovingly prepared canapés. Michel Roux twice ended up shelling 50 kilos of almonds by hand ("after 40 kilos your fingers start to bleed") as punishment for arriving late to work; and Heston Blumenthal had to sack the maître d' at the Fat Duck for swearing at the diners. It's a pity Jamie Oliver's oafish tales of pulling moonies and being thrown into sinks full of fish gunk (did he really have to climb out?) appear at the start of the collection.

Each chef also answers a short series of questions, such as "What dish would you cook in order to seduce someone?". "Finger food, of course," offers Raymond Blanc. "Any whole fish," suggests Oliver. "At my age," says Shaun Hill, "and with my looks I think that hashish cakes would be the best bet."

Paris Noir, ed Maxim Jakubowski (Serpent's Tail £8.99) fourstar

More than a decade ago, Jakubowski edited a powerful collection of crime stories based in London. Now that he's turned his attention to Paris the result is even stronger. "Un Bon Repas Doit Commencer Par La Faim" by Stella Duffy, a clever, slow-paced murder story involving a cook, his wife and her various lovers, subtly comments on the attitudes lurking in our security-obsessed culture that can make crime more, rather than less, likely to be committed. Elsewhere, Sparkle Hayter's "Deus ex Machina" describes a woman writer who is poor, starving and terrified she'll die ignominiously. Her poverty makes her an ideal victim for the perfect murder.

Perhaps the collection could have done without Michael Moorcock's lengthy and predictably zany "The Flâneur of Les Arcades de l'Opéra"; while John Harvey's "Minor Key", the story of a sax player unable to cope with his heroin habit, trades a little too hard on everything you'd expect from a cocktail of drugs and jazz. Overall, however, there are very few weaknesses.

God Explained in a Taxi Ride, By Paul Arden (Penguin £7.99) onestar

Paul Arden was formerly creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, and this toe-curling confection of smugness and faux-naivety has all the hallmarks of a hollow-hearted advertising campaign, written by someone who can never be as clever as he thinks himself to be. The idea that this slick, glossy little piece of nonsense is, according to the blurb on the back, "The World's Second Best Book on God", is really quite stupid.

"Darwin says there is no such things as God. There is only science and evolution... Most of us need something spiritual to believe in," Arden tells us near the start of the book, in oversized Peter and Jane lettering opposite one of the various Christian clip-art type images. Much of what follows might have been avoided if he had read David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; the rest, if someone at Penguin hadn't realised that this will probably sell thousands of copies. But many people love easy answers and these days it seems there are writers falling over themselves to provide them.

Geopolitics: A very short introduction, By Klaus Dodds (OUP £6.99) fourstar

Geopolitics is one of those words it's easy to be suspicious of – a technical-sounding word that looks as if it wouldn't sit out of place at the heart of some complex piece of theory, but which does seem to crop up a lot in popular journalism. Dodds acknowledges this. Although, he says, the study of geopolitics can reveal sophisticated layers of meaning, politicians and journalists wanting to strike an aggressive attitude frequently use emotive geopolitical language simply to make a place sound threatening. Thus we have George Bush referring to an "Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union Address, and Churchill invoking the "Iron Curtain" shortly after the end of the Second World War.

The aim of this book is not to provide a "guide to Western foreign policy making", but to explore "how geopolitics gets used and with what consequences especially in everyday life". It's certainly all very accessible. Whether or not Dodd's thoughtful analyses of phenomena such as Osama bin Laden's regular appearances on the al-Jazeera TV station wouldn't themselves benefit from a level of analysis is, however, another question.

The Père-Lachaise Mystery, By Claude Izner (Gallic Books £7.99) threestar

Maybe all crime novels should be set in late 19th-century Paris, with its smouldering decadence, crumbling graveyards and ready supply of bedhopping heroes. This one actually begins in the Colombian rainforest, where a murdered geologist is buried in a remote grave. Back in Paris, the novel's louche protagonist, Victor Legris, owner of a particularly fine-sounding bookshop, is visited by a distraught young woman – a former lover's maid. She tells him that her employer, Odette de Valois, has disappeared at the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Odette, the reader is already aware (thanks to some dynamic changes in point of view during the first few pages), is the dead geologist's wife and it was while weeping in her husband's mausoleum, begging forgiveness for her affair with Legris, that she was bumped off.

There are places where this novel is over-complicated, and occasions when the authors' ("Izner" is a pseudonym for two bookshop-owning French sisters) need reminding that novels set in 19th-century Paris don't have to degenerate into art history lessons, but overall it's an extremely enjoyable, witty and creepy affair.

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