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November 08, 1987|Heather Meredith Keeve

WHEN IN FRANCE by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, illustrated by Glenn Wolff (Simon & Schuster: $15.95; 223 pp.). Tastes and tales of a Francophile might be an appropriate subtitle for Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson's entertaining, if somewhat bewildering, "When in France." Sinclair-Stevenson's romp through France and around the French is simultaneously amusing, interesting and very strangely organized. At his best, the author is everything one might hope for in an Englishman--he is erudite, witty, sophisticated, prone to exquisite alliterations, sumptuous adjectives and deliciously satiric descriptions.

For example, the channel crossing from England to France is described as "inescapable pop music, a total absence of edible food . . . sweaty young men in union jack shorts and mammoth consumption of duty-free beer." Discussing a famous Parisian cafe, the author laments "far too large a portion of the menu is given over to bizarre confections involving ice creams of improbable flavors, liqueurs of preposterous hues and lavish whirls of whipped cream." Sinclair-Stevenson's sharp tongue and keen eye capture the humor and absurdity of familiar sites and sounds in a refreshing manner.

Less expected, perhaps particularly from an Englishman, is the seeming disorder; the confusing sequence of topics and chapters. The book begins simply enough with the channel crossing, followed by a chapter on Paris. However, the author arbitrarily omits much of interest in the City of Light, while pausing to wax lyric on the names of metro stops. Furthermore, his research should be updated--the Bastille, a quartier he describes vaguely as old and quiet, has become, in the last year, one of the hottest spots for new restaurants and nightclubs.

The next chapters discuss, respectively: supposed Parisian sexual practices; the history of French cuisine; wine and water consumption; King Henri IV; the Chateaux of the Loire; Voltaire; the South of France; and so on, finishing with chapters on politics and the world wars--without any comprehensible linkage. Much of the text is absorbing and sprinkled with vivid and fascinating historical anecdotes, but the scattered nature of the subjects and references can be quite distracting. Also annoying is the excruciating number of quotes from lofty and unknown sources. These constant interjections only emphasize the lack of continuity.

In many instances, the author captures the very essence of France and the French. It is his meandering approach and intrusive use of quotations that may frustrate the reader. Thus, while much of the book is enjoyable, Sinclair-Stevenson might be admonished for his idiosyncratic organization, or simply for being too self-indulgent.

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