The Distancers: An American Memoir

By Lee Sandlin (Vintage, 193 pages, $16)

As exotic settings go, Edwardsville in downstate Illinois doesn’t make readers snap their fingers and say, “Now there’s a place to which I long to escape.”

But — surprise, surprise — Edwardsville becomes a fascinating backdrop in Lee Sandlin’s delightful family memoir of seven generations descending from German immigrants. Like John McPhee writing about oranges or American shad, Sandlin has such a deft hand and distinct voice that even Edwardsville will keep readers riveted.

To wit: Check out this word-memory landscape as a new day dawns on a visit to his great-aunts Hilda and Helen in Edwardsville: “The first sound the kids heard in the morning was the squall and squeak of the hand pump just outside the kitchen door. Hilda was beginning the day by drawing a bucket of water. The kids lingered in bed, watching the leaf-dappled sunlight spread across the ceiling and seep down the floral wallpaper. More sounds came to them: skillets banging, the cat-hiss sizzle of melting butter, the clunk of plates on a tablecloth.”

Indeed, in the hands of a master storyteller such as Sandlin, even a most mundane location sizzles like a cat hiss.

CURT BROWN, staff writer


Mastering the Art of French Eating

By Ann Mah (Viking, 265 pages. $25.95)

There are worse things than being abandoned in Paris. Ann Mah knows that. Still, she was sad to have her diplomat husband sent off to Baghdad for a year just after they began their dream assignment in their beloved Paris. Like many a forlorn lover, she filled the void with food.

Readers will be glad she did.

Mah channeled her loneliness into road trips around France, learning the secrets of the signature dishes of 10 regions: beef bourguignone in Burgundy, choucroute garnie in Alsace, and of course, steak frites in Paris. Her memoir provides a progressive dinner of food, countryside and the people who make French cuisine the feast that it is. Mah admits that she could now do another memoir of lesser-known regions and their dishes. It’s enough to make one hope she gets abandoned in France again.

MAUREEN MCCARTHY, metro team leader