Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Discoveries

WRITING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David By Artemis Cooper; Ecco Press: 364 pp., $27.50

ALL THE NAMES By Jose Saramago; Harcourt: 238 pp, $24

ACTS OF GOD By Mary Morris; Picador: 244 pp., $23

THE TOTAL VIEW OF TAFTLY By Scott Morris; Hill Street Press: 208 pp., $18.95

September 17, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

Famously persnickety, Elizabeth David, like her contemporary M.F.K. Fisher, wrote cookbooks that offer more than recipes. They offer inspiration, a fuel burned by the head of any household in copious amounts. Cooking is so often done for ungrateful audiences on a tight budget. It requires spirit and willfulness and a secret sense of luxury--a fantasy life. David, in all her books--"An Omelet and a Glass of Wine," "Mediterranean Food" and "French Provincial Cooking," to name a few--gave this and more to her tired, rationed, pre- and post- and in-between-wars British audience. Born in 1914, David had fans the world over by the time she died in 1992. She escaped a narrow upper-class upbringing by sailing away with a handsome actor, by living in Alexandria and then in Greece during World War II, by rebelling every which way throughout her life against the gray and the ordinary. She would not be trampled by world war, by money or by love. That fire, so evident in her cookbooks, is a little damped by Cooper's carefully orchestrated account of David's life. Perhaps the next biography will shed more light on David's relationships and inspirations.

ALL THE NAMES By Jose Saramago; Harcourt: 238 pp, $24

Jose Saramago, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature, has written a novel that reminds his readers how much loneliness can be like death. Senhor Jose, age 50, has been a clerk in this nameless city's Central Registry for 25 years without promotion. He is utterly predictable in all of his habits, an excellent bureaucrat. His days are spent checking facts and filing papers in either the card indexes for the living or the card indexes for the dead. One day, he comes across the file of an unknown woman, age 36, and tries to find her, at great risk to his career and his identity. Crossing the line between paper and person is strictly forbidden. Jose, tethered to a fictional Ariadne's thread, must travel between the living and the dying as he tries to save the unknown woman (who commits suicide during his search) from death, if only on paper. Nameless citizens in a city with an untouchable government and its agencies: This is indigenous material for Saramago, born in 1922. An entire generation of writers ponders firsthand for us that sudden exit, a time of walking ghosts and its lonely, answer-less aftermath. Saramago is one of the best.

ACTS OF GOD By Mary Morris; Picador: 244 pp., $23

This odd novel has an undercurrent that Mary Morris (who is often a little too good at the craft of her craft) does not dip into nearly enough. In a book full of high school reunions and football players trying to please their fathers, divorces and wayward children and cheating husbands, there appears once in a while a ghost or a strange high wind or a pair of hands placed on the tightly wound main character, Tess, who lives in a house on the Santa Cruz coast that was built stone by stone by a famous poet with a cult following who drank himself to death. These are the passages that Morris doesn't quite control, and they are the best in an otherwise plain novel. One of the characters, Margaret, is a repository for mysteries unexplained from her childhood to now, and I don't think Morris can explain her any better than her characters can. Strangely enough, this gap between Morris and her material suggests a vivid loneliness and separation more effectively than if the author tried to explain it in a dogged, detail-driven way. *

THE TOTAL VIEW OF TAFTLY By Scott Morris; Hill Street Press: 208 pp., $18.95

Scott Morris has a long and happy life ahead, if characters like Taftly, his buddy Dennis and Fay, the woman of Taftly's dreams in this, Morris' first novel, are any indication. His courtly eloquence reminds me of Alan Gurganus; his pure, perfect-pitch dialogue reminds me of Mark Twain. Taftly is naturally fat, though he loses weight after taking up running. Change being threatening in small towns like Copiah Springs, this is not taken well by the local fat girls, the Clydesdale twins, who wreak their revenge by raping Taftly for getting "bitty" on them. This is a spiritual setback that sends Taftly running back to the Baptist church. Maybe Taftly's father, who "died. Left town. Died and left town. Or vice versa," will come back, maybe not. Maybe Fay, whom Taftly rescues from bad boy Rodney Train, will be his dream girl, maybe not. In between Taftly's grace-filled revelations about life are his minor annoyances: "his teeth," which for no reason, "begin to hector and alarm him," and his weight. Morris' language is stronger than his plot, but in the end, isn't it characters and phrases we really remember?

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|