I wrote this awhile back, but as I lack most members' ability to stay focused and on-topic, I've been hesitant to post it as a proper review. However, I thought I'd put it here, strictly as entertainment:
One of the problems with writing book reviews is that I have a complete lack of book critiquing credentials. Of course, I?ve noticed that doesn?t stop a lot of people, but I like to think that people who make pronouncements on the efforts of others come to the project with more than a martini, a keyboard, and a potentially captive audience. All I can offer is that I?ve read lots of books, liked some of them, loved others, flung others across the room in fits of temper, and gave more than a few to charity to make room for more books. Some might say that a degree in journalism might give my opinion more weight, but it?s such a small, aged, crumbling document that I really don?t see how it could add even a few ounces. Others might point to the wisdom and experience that comes with age as an important tool of the critic?s trade, but that?s utterly laughable because I?ve come across many people (mostly sleeping in doorways downtown) who are far older than I and yet?well?sleeping in doorways downtown, and how wise do you have to be in order to experience that? So we are back to a martini, a keyboard, and a potentially captive audience and that will have to suffice for now.
Before many of you were born, there was this actor fellow named George Sanders. He was one of several actors to portray Simon Templar and similar roguish heroes in Saturday matinees at the cinema, among other more noteworthy roles, which I?ll get to in a moment. Some of you perhaps saw Walt Disney?s The Jungle Book on DVD when you were six or some other remarkably young age, in which case you would be familiar with Mr. Sanders as the voice of ?Shere Khan, the Tiger.? Which really, is probably as good a frame of reference for you as ?Addison DeWitt? in All About Eve or ?Jack Flavell? in ?Rebecca.? That villainous voice is the character and the character is the voice, although Mr. Sanders was more than the sum of his tonsils and only playing a character and we are quite confident that he was kind to puppies and small children during his life, which has, of course, expired. The point is, when Mr. Sanders read his scoundrels? lines, coloring his velvety tones with undercurrents of sinister snobbishness, you knew he was up to no good. I suspect Mr. John Lanchester, author of The Debt to Pleasure has spent more than a few nights in front of the television with the late, late show. As much as I am certain that Mr. Lanchester at some point in his life read Pale Fire. The estates of Mssrs. Sanders and Nabokov should be collecting big fat royalty checks from Mr. Lanchester for this ?homage? that borders on theft, the way Mr. DePalma?s Dressed to Kill owed more than a little to Alfred Hitchcock but because it was an ?homage? to Psycho the theft was legally rationalized beyond the reach of financial compensation. It?s a funny old world that way.
But I?m not one to hold a grudge over blatant theft, and my dear chum, whom we?ll call Mr. Benchley for lack of a better term, would not have recommended that I take time away from my martinis and cocktail banter had he not thought the novel included some redeeming characteristics. The novel is structured as a treatise on food, a la Brillat Savarin's The Physiology of Taste (someone else Mr. Lanchester?s accountant ought to cut a check to) offered in the first person by Englishman Tarquin Winot,(which is French, I think, for ?Addison DeWitt,?) who loves of all things French, and, we are told, being recorded during a journey through France. Food being the novel?s true strength, the narrator is able to impart fascinating historical tidbits about vodka, red mullet, and Irish stew, among other items. While consuming a fish I?ve just watched suffocating on my plate isn?t necessarily on the list of things I plan to do before I die, it?s still interesting to discover the ways gourmands have, over the course of history, played with their food. Thus, was launched, between Mr. Benchley and myself, an interesting discussion on how detached humans have become from the source of what appears on their plates, and how the appalling abundance of the American grocery store where everything is always available (except sugar cubes ? you try to make a champagne cocktail with no sugar cubes ? it?s the decline of Western Civilization) year-round has pretty much done away with any concept that food is seasonal, and so those sweet summer weeks when blackberries are at their peak have lost their sense of occasion. Is it simply nostalgia for a more agrarian existence or are we losing something more fundamental ? our place in the scheme of things on this planet that still operates by having four seasons, with each season serving a purpose in the continuation of said planet? You can have the discussion yourselves over cocktails tonight as an ?homage? to Mr. Benchley and myself and we won?t be able charge you a dime. Mr. Lanchester?s narrator has such a commanding knowledge of things edible because Mr. Lanchester himself spent several years as a food writer and critic before dusting off the manuscript in the bottom desk drawer. Sharing the lore, history, and peculiarities of food gained from his day job provides the most memorable features of this book. These tender morsels are almost enough to make one wish that the book was exactly what it pretends to be and not the book it inevitably becomes.
The real story, of course, runs along the lines of the aforementioned Pale Fire. If you have not read Pale Fire stop reading this by all means, click your mouse over to Amazon and order your copy today. If you have, then you might be thinking, ?well, provided Mr. Lanchester did a good job cribbing from Nabokov, maybe it won?t be so bad.? Mr. Lanchester did a TV-movie-of-the-week writer?s job of cribbing. The Pale Fire-like elements are entered into too early and with far too heavy a touch. One can?t enjoy the idea of being got over if one sees it coming so early on. Once the ?homage? is recognized, it?s hard to see past this Beatlemania sense of ?an incredible simulation? and do much more than enjoy descriptions of the French countryside, and the wickedly acerbic observations of the narrator, whom one is sure sounds just like George Sanders at his most arrogant upper-crust and snotty. The read is still enjoyable, but without much sense of being invested in the story because the outcome proclaims itself from the beginning. A reference to a pair of stolen earrings and an unfortunate tumble out of a childhood tree house, and, much like a character on a soap opera developing a bit of cough just when the producers are about to enter contract negotiations with the actress who portrays her and is demanding a huge salary increase, one just knows it ends in Ali McGraw disease or my name isn?t whatever my name most assuredly is.
If you are fond of food in a way that borders on perversion or need lots of trivia to get you through that next ?employee potluck? ? read Mr. Lanchester?s debut effort with my blessing. If you want to read something original and engaging, read Pale Fire. If you want to see a fantastic film, rent All About Eve with George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter and others backing up a delicious Bette Davis, but watch out for that Anne Baxter: she?s not what she pretends to be. Sadly, neither is ?The Debt to Pleasure.?
Your guide to the Wilde patois:
Martinis = what make like worth living; several parts cold gin to a tiny thimble-fill of dry vermouth, shaken with ice, strained into a positively arctic cocktail glass and garnished with three olives
Simon Templar, aka The Saint = fictional creation of pulp writer Leslie Charteris, the other similar character was The Falcon, until Mr. Sanders handed the role off to his real-life brother in the aptly named ?The Falcon?s Brother.?
All About Eve = classic 1950s film about aging stage actress Margo Channing and young ing?nue Eve Harrington
Rebecca = Alfred Hitchcock?s film adaptation of Rebecca du Maurier?s novel starring Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier
Pale Fire = celebrated novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Dressed to Kill = Brian DePalma?s flagrant rip-off of Hitchcock?s ?Psycho,? notorious at the time of its release for the Angie Dickinson shower scene
Mr. Benchley = writer, critic, and actor Robert Benchley, member of the Algonquin Roundtable and partner-in-crime of Mrs. Dorothy Parker
The Physiology of Taste = 1825 treatise by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin on food, philosophy, and life
Champagne Cocktail = soak a sugar cube with a dash of bitters in the bottom of a fluted champagne glass, top with champagne
Beatlemania = 1970s theatrical offering wherein if one turned one?s head sideways and squinted it was possible that the four gentlemen on stage in all the wigs and make-up might, with enough booze, pass for The Beatles; billed as ?Not The Beatles but an incredible simulation?
Ali McGraw disease = discovered by film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the primary symptom is growing more beautiful while dying from no apparent cause; named for Ali McGraw the actress most associated with the affliction based on her character in the 1970s film Love Story