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September 17, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

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The Mystery Guest

An Account

Gregoire Bouillier

Translated from the French

by Lorin Stein

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

120 pp., $18

JUST when a character in a novel, a narrator of a work of nonfiction or a friend reaches a level of self-centeredness that makes you want to crawl into a freezer, literature steps in to save the day. You are not, it reminds us, special. Your story has been told in many languages.

Take, for example, this memoir by Gregoire Bouillier, who is awakened from a nap on a cold fall afternoon in Paris by a call from a woman who dropped out of his life after a four-year relationship. His heart is pounding, his senses are on alert; he's been waiting for this call. She invites him to a party, the birthday party of an artist friend. Would he come as the mystery guest?

Desperate to rise to the occasion, to transcend his own patheticness, he brings a bottle of 1964 Margaux (roughly the cost of his next month's rent) to the party, which is an "immense defeat." As he leaves, the ex-girlfriend tells him that roses are the only flower she can bear to see cut.

Out on the street, it hits him. That was a line from "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel in which the great love of Mrs. Dalloway's life comes to see her after years away. Perhaps Bouillier makes too much of this, but it seems to him she's trying to "rise to the condition of a novel," as if fiction provides a more dignified, less self-centered way to see the world. After this revelation, everything comes unstuck for him, thanks to the English novel written 70 years earlier. In this way, he writes, "literature was always getting invited into human history."

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A Taco Testimony

Meditations on Family, Food

and Culture

Denise Chavez

Rio Nuevo: 208 pp., $16.95 paper

"THIS is not a sweet little book about tacos," Denise Chavez insists. "It's about ... the eternal nourishment that comes from being part of a community." Here is the spirit of her book, a mix of memories, recipes, poems, songs and warnings: "You shouldn't be angry when you cook tacos." Don't take shortcuts like canned ingredients, she says. Use only fresh tortillas. Don't talk while you eat. Always feed people when they are hungry.

Chavez is a cook forged by fire -- the fights between her father and mother, her own battles with drug and alcohol addiction. Two things have saved her: her memory of her mother and their New Mexico home in Las Cruces (hardwood floors, blue light from a blue window, a round taco table) and tacos. "Those midnight tacos were my desperate connection, my umbilical cord to who I was and would always be."

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The World in My Kitchen

The Adventures of a (Mostly) French Woman in New York

Colette Rossant

Atria Books: 228 pp., $22

I'VE always loved Colette Rossant's particular blend of memoir and recipes. Her first two books, about growing up in Egypt and Paris, were evocative, sensual and poignant. Hers was not an easy childhood. After her father died, her mother left her with his Egyptian parents for five years. In that enormous house on the Nile, Rossant found solace in the kitchen with Ahmet the cook, until her mother decided to educate her in France and moved her to the formal home of her Parisian grandmother.

In this memoir, Rossant has met and married an American architect and comes to America, to New York, for the first time. It is the 1950s, and she appreciates such classics as bagels and baked potatoes, but the overcooked vegetables and white bread make her homesick for France and Egypt. She creates recipes, has babies and finds work as a French translator and teacher; she starts a cooking school for children, writes books and eventually the "Underground Gourmet" column, which ran for years in New York magazine.

Something about Rossant's practical insistence on food as a survival mechanism infuses her straightforward writing style. You have the sense of a woman who certainly could make something from nothing if she had to.

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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