Friday, November 24, 2006

The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen

Today, Waverley feels like a big ship beached here on this sloping lawn, ablaze with lights and filled with sea-drunk madmen. Bellatrix is sawing away at her violin, first a bit of Dvorak, an odd piece she's been learning lately, full of spiky incidentals, shiveringly passionate asides, and now she's playing Bach, which is allowing me the only shred of focus I've had all day. I like her playing: I am thrilled to find something to like today, and by the fact that her well-played Bach is a pellucid bath of light that's enabling me to see clearly enough to write here.

First, a warning: This book is not for the faint of heart as it's written from a male perspective and the hero has all the appearance of a brilliant but hopeless sleazebag, although the deeper you delve into the story, the more you understand where he's coming from and why he appears to be so warped. And, you can't help but wonder . . . What will become of Hugo and his strange family? And, why on earth is he so magnetic?

Later--I am now back from shopping for that damn Christmas dinner. The impossible Vero insists with humorless academic doggedness on making lists, accompanying me to butcher, snooty yuppie organic overpriced upscale farmers' market, bakery, supermarket, etc., giving unsolicited advice and opinions and directions all the while, which I ignore, and therefore she and I are embroiled in a passive-aggressive mutual disapproval that must make everyone think we're husband and wife.

Well, that quote is a hint. He's fascinating. Every page allows a further peek into Hugo's history and what makes him tick. From nearly the beginning, the reader understands that he has done some very, very bad things, though.

Now that you're forwarned, I can tell you that I was completely mesmerized by The Epicure's Lament and the writing blew me away. The hero, Hugo Whittier, is a reclusive misanthrope who sees little purpose to much of anything other than food and s*x (not typed out to avoid bad hits) and his musings are often coarse. Language alone would cause some to close the book right away. But, set aside the seedy thoughts (and actions) and you won't understand Hugo at all.

The Epicure's Lament is a set of Hugo's fictional journals written during his dying days. The Whittier family has a fiercely blue-blooded history, remnants of the family's fortune allowing Hugo to do nothing but eat, write, sleep, and smoke in the crumbling family mansion on the Hudson River, if he so desires. And, he's perfectly content, in his own bent way, knowing that he is going to smoke himself to death, with a rare disease attacking him little by little, the sacrifice of cigarettes to save himself unfathomable.

Then, unexpectedly, people begin to move back into the family home, upsetting Hugo's plans to die in peace. As he reflects on his past and present, reads and quotes snippets of Montaigne's musings on the saneness of ending one's own life, and tolerates the growing family presence, he smokes even more vigorously, grumbles and insults fiercely, and perplexes everyone around him.

Occasionally, Hugo got on my nerves - particularly, in the middle of the book, when he appeared to be at his peak of pathos and debauchery. But, Christensen's an amazing writer and there's great depth to the story. The characters are a fun, oddball sort and stunningly real in their eccentrities. I was drawn in from the first page and closed the book completely satisfied. This is one I will definitely want to reread. Hugo himself would probably liken his story to the peeling of an onion, the fine layers of his life being slowly stripped away to reveal his core.

Did I say I loved this book? I loved this book. Avoid it, though, if you get sick and tired of the "f" word. Hugo is base and often repulsive. You want to wring his neck, kick his shins, slap him into sensibility; and, at the same time, find that you occasionally glimpse his tender side. Andi observed that he sounded a lot like the character Gregory House in House, M.D. Yep, definitely. I had a scruffed-up Hugh Jackman mentally cast in the role of Hugo, but I can easily imagine either Jackman or Laurie playing the role, were it to be translated to screen. Since I did occasionally need a minor break from Hugo, it gets a very close but not utterly perfect rating:


Weird number, eh?

Currently reading: To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King - a mystery and therefore quite a departure for me as I've been through my mystery phase and my mystery-avoidance phase and settled into the little-bit-of-everything, but low on mystery, part of my life. I hope to go through plenty more phases, thank you.

Recently walked into my house and begging to be read: Dispatches from the Edge by Anderson Cooper (thanks to Queen Barbara of Pennsylvania, one of the most generous booklovers on Planet Earth and, unfortunately, not a blogger because she's immensely busy reading when she isn't working or wrapping up books and sending them to people).

Nano update: 42,000 words down, 8,000 to go, 6 days remaining.

Thanksgiving after-effects: Turkey - bad news; I think he's dead, Jim. Yes, our turkey was, in fact, the victim of one big spread and two turkey enchilada leftover meals. Family - stuffed but happy (including cats). Ratio of calories burned to calories consumed: way too low.

Hope my American bloggy friends had an excellent Thanksgiving!!


  1. I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK! I can feel my Amazon gift card burning a very noticeable hole in my pocket now that I've read your dazzling review. Yes, I said dazzling. *lusting after the book*

    And good luck with your Nano! You're almost there!

  2. LOL! Thanks, Andi, I feel better. I just had fits writing the review - it took me way too long and my derriere is totally numb because I went straight to the Nano after that. 44,000 words! Wahoo!

    If you don't love The Epicure's Lament, I'll just croak. I'm going to be on pins and needles till you read it!

  3. LOL, don't worry. From the bits you posted and your track record thus far, I'm not a bit worried. :)

  4. Anonymous9:16 AM

    Yay on the Nano! You're almost there!

  5. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Woo Hoo on that Nano progress!!

  6. Aw, thanks Andi. That's sweet. :)

    Nat, thanks for the cheerleading. I can't believe how fast this month has gone!

  7. Anonymous2:11 PM

    Bookfool, so glad you had a pleasant thanksgiving. Those turkey enchiladas sound great. I just cooked a turkey yesterday so we could have leftovers.

    Putting The Epicure's Lament on my TBR list, which is tantamont to burying it in a haystack! Just kidding - with these TBR challenges I'm actually knocking off some from my list.

  8. You are almost there, aren't you?! Whoohoo!

    Fried turkey always sounds like a bit of an adventure, but I hear it's very good (moist and not greasy). Our Turkey Day was most wonderful, especially since we wound up at our bestest friends' house. I took sour cream/dill potatoes to go with the ham, a bacon/almond crostini appetizer and marble squares (for those who don't like pie). There were about 17 of us, I think and it was a lovely day. Alas, no leftovers, so I promised my hubby I'd roast a turkey sometime in the next week or so. I never tire of turkey sandwiches, so I'm game.

  9. Booklogged,

    I'm not much of a meat eater, myself, so I'm the idea gal when it comes to using the leftovers. I like to disguise the turkey as much as possible! LOL The enchiladas were fabulous. I'm always amazed at how my husband can turn an offbeat suggestion into something so good.

    I have books everywhere, so I know what you mean. I'm also working hard at knocking down the stacks. I need more reading time!!!


    Your Thanksgiving sounds wonderful. I can't imagine finding 17 people who don't have family they absolutely must dine with, here, but we used to spend our Thanksgivings with friends from Wisconsin and New York. And, then, of course they moved on. Everyone tries to escape from Vicksburg.

    I'll have to peek at your cooking blog to see if you posted what you cooked. It all sounds delicious!

    Just 5,000 words to go! But, I've stopped to watch The Count of Monte Cristo. Uh-oh, I feel a reread coming on. ;)

  10. Anonymous11:15 PM

    Can you explain to me more about the Chunkster Challenge please. I would love to participate and can ask a friend of mine to create a button if u still need one. Thanks a lot for sharing...

  11. What a. estella sassypants said!

    Thanks for the review!

    So jealous of your turkey feast. On Thursday, I had kimchi and ramen, and pretended I was eating a sublime chunk of fried turkey. I have a good imagination...

  12. Wow...just 5,000 to go! Hooray for you. I'll be looking into THE EPICURE'S LAMENT as well. Thanks!

  13. Nessie,

    The Chunkster Challenge is going to be very flexible. You set your own goal for the number of "fat" books (to me, a chunkster is anything over 400 pages) you'd like to read between January and June of 2007. Because I find that I'm better off having a pile to choose from, I'll list a selection from which I plan to read a certain number, but I'm sure other people will decide on specific titles.

    I might take you up on that button offer after I'm done frying my brain on a manuscript that I think is slowly dying. Will get back to you, thanks!!!


    You must have a good imagination!! I can't fathom mentally turning kimchi and ramen into turkey. LOL

    You should just come to Vicksburg for Thanksgiving, next year, and share the terror of the turkey fryer. It's nervewracking, but the results are great (even the leftovers are already gone!).

    And, thank you. It will be interesting to see what other bloggers think of The Epicure's Lament. I have a feeling people will either love it or hate it! :)

    Hi Joy!

    Yep, just 5,000 words to go and I'm in a slump. I don't want to write; I want to read, doggone it. I may have to just shove myself through the last few days of Nano. Hope you like The Epicure's Lament!!!

  14. Great review. "Dispatches from the Edge" is on my TBR list so I'll be looking for your review on it. I'm going to try the Chunkster Challenge also so I'm thinking of books to read.

  15. Framed,

    I have a huge do-list for today, but I couldn't put Dispatches from the Edge down, last night, so I'm hoping to get a review posted by tonight.

    Are you one of the rare people who doesn't already have chunksters casting the evil eye at you from your shelves? I've got way too many, already. I may have to personally challenge myself to keep going after the official challenge ends!

  16. i'm not too fond of a lot of swearing in novels. that was a major turn off in my reading of The Book Thief, almost as much as the blasphamy.
    and i finished the Linnea Sinclair book, Finders Keepers... i'll be writing up a review tomorrow.

    Hope you had a great holiday!

  17. Angela,

    I'd give The Epicure's Lament a pass, if I were you. I don't like a lot of bad language, but I can sort of numb myself to it if a story captures me enough. If you've ever read Forrest Gump, that's a great example of a story that's so packed with swearing that some people can't take it, but it's good storytelling if you can ignore the language.

    You know, I think Finders Keepers is the book I got on disk. I never read it and finally threw it away because I can't stand sitting at the computer to read but I always told myself if Linnea got a book into print I'd buy one. Can't wait to read your review!

  18. you know what.. i got Finders Keepers free in a giveaway.. i can pass it along to you if you want.
    it's not one that i'd read again.. but it was fun.

  19. Angela,

    Wow, yes, I'd love that! I really wanted to read the book, years ago; I just discovered I can't stand reading off a screen (and then we ceased to have a computer that would read that type of disk). My email is Why don't you write me off-list? Maybe I can find a book to foist on you, while we're at it. ;)

  20. done.. sent you an email from my work account.

  21. Anonymous11:37 PM

    ooooo another challenge. what will i tell my loved ones they find me as a decaying piece of flesh drowning in books. At least ill be happy.

    Ok like I have some mega chunksters. I say make it over 500. The ones your like I have to get to. Potentials on my list are Moby Dick and Suitable Boy. I was trying to come up with a crazy sick challege myself and I think I may have gotten the one that will mark us down in history as BIBLIOPHILES with all capitals and underlined because we have to be crazy in love to do it. Will tell all eventually. Let me work on writing it out eloquently. Oh and its not going to be for 2007. I reserve 2008 guys!!! ;)

    Oh fyi am ok with bad language in books as long as it flows and goes with character sometimes it seems as if the author is trying to be cool

  22. Hi Nessie,

    I'm probably going to go with 400 pages and up, since some of us consider anything over 400 "fat", but you can always go with 500+ for the books you choose. The Chunkster Challenge is going to be pretty flexible. :)

    What will you tell your family? Hmmm, how about, "See you when I come up for air. And, I prefer cremation if the books kill me." Or something like that. LOL

    I think I know what you mean about language. To me, the language was a part of the characterization in The Book Thief. One thing he was trying to show was that the German stepmother was coarse outside but had a heart, I think. My opinion. I do think it would be nice if explicit sex and language weren't used in kids' books, though. I really think The Book Thief is awfully grown-up.

    Can't wait to hear about your challenge, but I guess I'll have to!!! 2008 it is!

  23. I thoroughly enjoyed The Epicure's Lament too (too bad I had to get the library to purchase it, as the copy I bought through Amazon used books got lost in transit, grrrr). Funnily enough, I don't remember a lot of swearing, but I did find Hugo charming.

  24. Lazy Cow,

    I think it was less "swearing" than what I'd refer to as vulgarity. But, yeah, I loved Hugo. Once I understood where he was coming from, that just faded into white noise, to me, but at the same time I knew it was there. I was probably more aware of it because of blog friends whom I know to be put off by the kind of tone Hugo used - it just didn't put me off. If that makes sense. :)


Thank you for visiting my blog! I use comment moderation because apparently my blog is a spam magnet. Don't worry. If you're not a robot, your comment will eventually show up and I will respond, with a few exceptions. If a comment smacks of advertising, contains a dubious link or is offensive, it will be deleted. I love to hear from real people! I'm a really chatty gal and I love your comments!