By G.Y. Dryansky with Joanne Dryansky (Pegasus Books, 315 pages, $28.95)

I've always had a little trouble understanding the cult of French food, but I get it now after reading this lively, sophisticated tome by longtime food and travel writer American G.Y. Dryansky and his wife, who have lived in Paris for many decades. In the foreword, he writes: "In what is left of old French etiquette, it is actually impolite to use the word manger, to eat. ... If you were 'well reared,' you eschewed making reference to a bodily function. ... I like the expression 'soul food.' Its textured meaning conveys all that I have to say in this book. A fully satisfying repast is one evanescent, evocative touchstone to a time and place ... and to a civilization, of which France, all things told, is an admirable example."

He then takes us on an eclectic excursion across France -- not to fancy, famous restaurants and kitchens, but to hidden, humble, sometimes primitive ones, where wonderful, unexpected things unfold, and the magical melding of deeply engaged eating with every other part of life is illuminated. The book includes some pretty cool photos and artwork, too. Dryansky is not a mere critic; he is a man of letters who gets what most Americans do not about France's culinary heritage. A real feast for the soul, this one.



By Barry Fantoni (Doubleday, 208 pages $24)

It's almost distracting to imagine the fun that Barry Fantoni must have had writing the dialogue for Harry Lipkin, an octogenarian private detective in Florida. Take this response to a drug dealer trying to scare him off: "You can't threaten an eighty-seven-year-old with death," I growled through my dentures. "Move me into a condo without an elevator. Maybe."

Or his dismissal of tourists as "a species Darwin missed." How he goes about solving the mystery of a theft from a rich widow is almost like reading vaudeville. Yet Fantoni doesn't overstep, staying just this side of Sam Spade as he uncovers the after-hours lives of her maid, chauffeur, cook, butler and gardener in locales such as a deli, a synagogue and a kosher kitchen.

The conclusion offers an unexpected twist, and a bit of poignancy that moves this quick read into the realm of a book to ponder, as well as to enjoy.