For some reason, this book wants to present itself as more facetious than it actually is. To judge by the title, it sounds like it ought to be one of those books that gets remaindered immediately after Christmas. But why the joke? What is so intrinsically hilarious about being able to speak French? In fact, I would describe this book as being fascinatingly full of (dare I say it) useful linguistic information. Although I doubt I will ever shrug my shoulders and say things like bon an, mal an (ie, you can't win 'em all) it would be nice to be able to recognise them. And who says the French lack pithy idioms? All I can say to that is, Qui s'excuse s'accuse (he who apologises accuses himself).
Midnight in Sicily (Harvill, pounds 12; published 2 July) by Peter Robb
This is not exactly a travel book but if I was going to Sicily or southern Italy, I'd take it with me. It starts, in classic travelogue style, with the discomfort of arriving on the island (in a boat); but it soon turns into an in-depth discussion of the Mafia, and in particular the involvement of the former Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti.
After all, what is there to look for in Sicily except for the Mafia? Everything else - the swordfish, the virgins, the oranges, the blinding sun, the olive groves, the good-looking boys - these are all just the decorative bits, the backcloth to the main action. And that main action, one feels, is and always will be the Mafia.
Peter Robb has been immersed in the subject for years and is able to jump about from Andreotti to Thucydides to Alberto Moravia (and back again), attempting to reproduce the chaos of his subject-matter along the way. The effect can be somewhat rambling - but fortunately, gangsters rarely fail to make good reading matter.