Short Takes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Barbara Fisher
June 8, 2008

The Two Kinds of
Decay: A Memoir

By Sarah Manguso
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 184 pp., $22

"In general the disease made me furious, jealous, resentful, impatient, temperamental, spiteful," acknowledges Sarah Manguso toward the end of this fiercely truthful memoir of illness. Contrary to the usual cliché, illness did not make her a better person. It made her a more thoughtful, self-aware person. Only 20 when diagnosed with a rare, puzzling, and deadly disease in which her own blood was poisoning and paralyzing her, she underwent nine years of terrifying, disabling, and disfiguring treatment.

In simple, unsentimental language, Manguso describes her initial symptoms, her sudden attacks, her treatments, her suicidal depression, and her progress as a patient and, incidentally, as a person. She reports little about her life, but we learn that she came from a middle-class family in Wellesley, had attentive parents, had been attending Harvard, and had a sort-of boyfriend. But illness erases her life; she becomes her illness. Even after her disease has been in remission for seven years, she has no permanent job, does not own a car or a home or share one with anyone. Her life feels temporary. But with moving candor, she asks, "Why is it important to me to know the beginning and end of this particular decay I think I'm writing about - which is just part of my own whole decay? And couldn't the decay be called by many other names - for instance, my life?"

The Saucier's Apprentice: One Long Strange
Trip Through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe

By Bob Spitz
Norton, 323 pp., illustrated, $24.95

His wife gone, his book finished, his girlfriend giving him grief, Bob Spitz decided to take off to pursue a long-deferred dream - to become an accomplished cook. Following a fairly traditional route, he enrolled in cooking schools in France and Italy, with the intention of learning the basics from master chefs.

But little goes according to plan. His first teacher in France turns out not be a master but an inspired amateur, a rock 'n' roll aficionado (like Spitz himself, author of "The Beatles"), and a Brit. Expecting elegant refinement, Spitz in shocked in Camont to discover that the earthy Gascon cuisine relies heavily on duck fat. On the Riviera, the chef at the famous restaurant Moulin de Mougins terrorizes his staff and demands star treatment from his guests; he does not deign to teach Spitz. In Paris, the chef at the Meurice tortures Spitz into making a perfect omelet. But everything is easier in Italy, where simplicity, instinct, and imagination are prized over the discipline, order, and restraint of the French kitchens. Learning in the end that he is more of an enthusiast than a perfectionist, Spitz resolves to abandon tense, joyless effort (including the difficult girlfriend) and concentrate on pleasure.

Chasing Harry Winston
By Lauren Weisberger
Simon & Schuster, 280 pp., $25.95

Lauren Weisberger hit the jackpot with "The Devil Wears Prada," but there is nothing winning about this chick-lit fantasy featuring three girls so shallow they make Carrie Bradshaw and her pals look like Simone de Beauvoir.

These New York City gals gauge success by the size of one's diamond and the gorgeousness of one's man. They all wish to leverage their hot bods and their glamorous careers for a lifetime of married luxury and leisure. But before settling for that boring but necessary inevitability, they decide to enter into a cozy little pact to give their dull lives some flavor. Adriana, the Brazilian bombshell who likes variety, vows to get engaged within a year; Emmy, the slender gamin who is comfortable with monogamous relationships, vows to sleep with an international array of partners; and Leigh, the intellect of the lot (she reads and edits books), vows to end her unsatisfactory engagement. With initial enthusiasm but waning energy, they pursue these dubious goals.

Attaining them is not the point of the novel, which seems to be describing the lifestyles of women who control their moods for the sake of their complexion, who think of marriage as a kitchen with a Viking stove, a Sub-Zero fridge, and real stainless-steel pots, and who, in general, see only the surface of things. They have no sense of the interior of anything, including their own lives. And it's tough to care about characters who can't even be bothered to care about themselves.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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