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October 08, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

Wrestling

With Gravy

A Life, With Food

Jonathan Reynolds

Random House: 352 pp., $25.95

"FOOD is controllable, while most of life isn't," writes screenwriter-turned-food columnist Jonathan Reynolds, whose memories of women seduced into sex with grand old recipes (pheasant under glass, Fontainebleau lobster) harken to another era (one in which corsages and convertibles might have played prominent roles). In other words, Reynolds' "Ten Rules for Seducing a Woman by Cooking Her Dinner," offered in his memoir "Wrestling With Gravy," may not work on everyone. And the ingredients are expensive.

When he sticks to the food, the author's memories (an early-childhood dinner at Manhattan's Westbury Hotel and first-class eating aboard a ship after college) are charming. But long sections on his sexual awakening and boarding-school shenanigans are filled with a faux machismo that can be off-putting. (Could he have "loosed her panties the very first night?" he wonders of his father's first moves on his mother.)

Details about his L.A. screenwriting career are flat-out depressing but hard to put down: "You were there, in it, like spiders climbing up the smooth side of a greasy trash can, unable to get traction and unable to get out."

Entertaining as it may be in parts, this is an example of a memoir written before its time, like a wine that hasn't been allowed to age quite long enough.

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His Secret

Little Wife

Fredrica Wagman

Steerforth: 154 pp., $17.95

"HIS Secret Little Wife" is one of those novels that seems not so much written as channeled. Run-on sentences, bursts of tension and energy, repeated fears and impressions give the sense that author Fredrica Wagman's strings are being pulled by otherworldly forces.

Hannah Gold is 11 when a world-famous composer, pianist and conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic moves into the big white house next door. Hannah, an accomplished cello player, befriends Maestro's daughter and his stunningly beautiful wife, the ballerina Charlotte Hec.

Hannah wants to be absorbed into their glittering life and into Maestro's genius. It is, however, her beauty he notices. By the time she is 12, she is his mistress -- one, she learns later, in a long line of talented musicians who have fallen under his spell.

This is, in many ways, a shocking book. Amid the spell of summer evenings, white dresses, Chinese lanterns and grand staircases, there is little in the way of moral opprobrium, revenge or even judgment (a stunning act of will on the part of the writer). In fact, the affair with Maestro gives Hannah a secret life, apart from her sad family, and a kind of power that catapults her into adulthood. How successful will she be as an adult? Well, that's the part we don't see, the room we cannot enter.

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Being Muslim

Haroon Siddiqui

Groundwork Books: 160 pp., $15.95

THE first chapters in "Being Muslim" describe the "toxic mix" of "xenophobia and Islamophobia" that has swept Europe and the West since Sept. 11, which, author Haroon Siddiqui claims, has divided the world: "One camp insisted that it was all about Islam. The other claimed that it was about nineteen criminals."

Siddiqui explains the many ways in which the world's fears about Islam have nothing to do with the actual religion, in theory or in practice. Through interpretations of such words as "jihad" (here defined as struggle, not war) and responding to accusations of brutality (female genital mutilation or honor killings of women in cases of sexual misconduct), he illustrates how political perversions have tragically colored the world's perceptions and treatment of the estimated 27 million Muslims living in Western nations.

Most informative are the chapters that outline the simple daily rituals, prayer protocols, festivals and pilgrimages that shape Muslim daily life.

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