Saturday, May 07, 2005

June Book Sense Picks Announced

I'm always on the lookout for new books I might like, so I always check out the Book Sense picks that indie bookstores will be handselling. I've found quite a few good books that way.

BTW, Carrie Kabak's Cover the Butter is one of the June picks. I've blogged about her novel and am also going to be posting an interview with her soon.

This is what Publishers Weekly said about Cover the Butter:

Kabak's debut, set in Wales, covers familiar familial territory. When 40-something Kate Cadogan arrives home to find her house trashed by her teenage son, Charlie, she succumbs to a long overdue need to take stock of her desperate housewife life. We revisit Kate from her 1970s teenhood forward: her mother Biddy's cold and obtrusive "controlling passion" rules the family roost and dictates everything from Kate's clothes to her intended career, while her father is devoted but feckless. Kate is buoyed by a cast of sympathetic and supportive characters: her diehard friends Ingrid and Moira, her sweet and knowing grandparents Magmu and Griff and her aunt Oona, a kindred spirit. After a disastrous but passionate relationship, Kate meets businessman Rodney Fanshaw. All is well, but "Rodders" ignores her wish to work, is even more inconsiderate in bed and spends more time at sport than at home, leaving Kate lonely. Dejected and depressed, Kate pours herself into house and child until the moment in the prologue when she breaks down. The dialogue is chick-lit generic but exact; scenes play out fluidly and are nicely detailed, particularly in Kate's sophisticated foodyism. Kabak doesn't provide the frisson of the racy TV mockudrama, but she does tell Kate's story with warmth and humor.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Michael Gruber's The Witch's Boy

When I started blogging, I thought the hard thing would be reading enough to have material to post about. Well, guess what? I actually am reading ahead of my posting capabilities. In the last week I read two memoirs and three novels that I have yet to blog about. Go figure!

Let's start with The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber. The Witch's Boy is a fantasy written for (and marketed to) children. I found it through Borders' Original Voices program. This is Gruber's first children's book, but his third book published under his own name. He used to ghostwrite Robert Tanenbaum's novels (Tanenbaum is Gruber's cousin; I get the feeling they're not on friendly terms...).

This is the publisher's description of the book:

A wondrous journey through the realms of magic

They call him Lump. Ugly, misshapen -- more goblin than human child -- abandoned as an infant and taken in by a witch, he is nursed by a bear, tutored by a djinn; his only playmates are the creatures of the forest, whose language he learns to speak.

But when Lump inevitably stumbles into the human world, his innocence is no match for the depths of people's cruelty, which turns his heart to stone, and fuels a vengeance that places him and his witch mother in deadly peril. Yet these disasters also send Lump on a journey of self-discovery, to realms deep within the earth and far beyond mortal imagination.

In this stunning fantasy debut, Michael Gruber has created a world that is at once deceptively familiar and stunningly original, a world of cruelty, beauty, legend, truth, and above all, wonder. Readers will delight in the author's ingenious retelling of classic fairy tales and will marvel at the stunning new tale of a boy raised by a witch, a cat, a bear, and a demon.
I thought the premise was promising: a monstrous child raised by a witch with good intentions but poor maternal instincts, nursed by an attentive bear, tutored by an enslaved demon (the djinn), and supervised by the witch's feline familiar. The story is indeed good, but I found The Witch's Boy ultimately unsatisfying.

Lump (what a name) grows up overprotected -- his mother (usually referred to in the narrative as 'the woman') cast protection spells over him, so that nothing in his world ever harms him; he never gets skinned knees or mosquito bites, he's never exposed to frustration or sadness, and though lonely, he is for the most part blissfully unaware of his isolation. Until... other humans start encroaching on the witch's forest, and Lump's glimpse of their children at play prompts fantasies of new friends, real friends (unlike the children he glimpses through the magic windows in his djinn-created nursery). So naive and overprotected Lump makes contact with the children, with disastrous results:

Hatred breeds best in the soil of ruined dreams. Lump now felt for the first time in his life the hot pangs of that emotion. It was directed at his tormentors, not so much for what they were doing to him but because they were not what he had hoped them to be, a loving and admiring family. And at his mother, too, for not foreseeing this, for allowing him to believe he was something other than a hideous monster. And worst of all, at himself: self-contempt gripped at his vitals and also shame, and his free boy's heart was strangled in his bosom. (pp120-121)
[This quote also shows another problem with the novel: the writing is sometimes lovely and sometimes clunky -- "self-contempt gripped at his vitals and also shame, and his free boy's heart was strangled in his bosom"... Rewrite, please!]

In the aftermath of his near-death experience, Lump is bitter. And he just keeps making horrible choices which ultimately cost him and his 'family' everything.

That's exactly the problem with this novel. Lump never seems to learn. And when he finally does, it seems hurried and forced (it's at the end of the narrative). So does his marriage and his reconciliation with his mother. I just wasn't convinced of his transformation, after seeing him repeat his mistakes time and time again. Yes, we're told he had ten years to do nothing but think of his mistakes (I won't say how or why), but we (okay, I at least) don't see him really wrestle with himself. I just didn't see the change or growth, so the resolution felt hollow. In fact, the entire novel feels superficial, full of missed opportunities to really develop the characters or deal with issues like grief, hate, prejudice, cruelty, love...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

New Feature: Author interviews!

Yes, I know. Author interviews abound in the lit blogosphere. So what? I like reading, I like writers, and if some authors are willing to 'talk' to me, hey, I go for it.

My inaugural interview is with Jane Guill, author of Nectar from a Stone. Nectar, published in March 2005 as an original trade paperback by Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, is Guill's first novel, though not her first publication; she has published several Pushcart-nominated short stories. As you probably remember, I heard about Nectar from Guill's Backstory at MJ Rose's Backstory blog. And of course, I just had to get it. And reader, I liked it! [You can take a look at my original posts: A little Nectar and Now reading.]

Nectar from a Stone is a historical novel, set in Wales in 1351, just after the Plague swept through Europe. What sparked your interest in medieval Wales?

I'm American but my family is Welsh, several generations removed. During a mid-life crisis, I went to Wales to find my 'roots' or to at least find something that might help me figure out who I was. But I found more than that. Halfway into my visit, I watched a crazy man rappel down a cliff from a rope tied around a car. The next day I met this same maniac in person and I fell in love--just like a besotted teenager. He was a Welsh geologist who specialized in ancient mining, and I had a very limited time, a couple of weeks, to convince him that I'd make a dandy life companion. (He certainly seemed to need a keeper.) Four years later, in 1996, we married in North Wales at Conwy Castle, which was built by Edward I in about 1285.

My husband, Andy Lewis, adores Wales. He spent his childhood on Anglesey, a strange and wonderful island. It's where in 57 AD a Roman army commanded by Suetonius Paulinus slaughtered a defending force of native Britons made up of Druids, women, and children. Andy's love for all of Wales is contagious. The two of us have a marvelous time traipsing around some pretty obscure places over there. We climb windy slopes like Pen Llithrig-y-Wrach (The Head of the Slippery Witch) or sit in the shadows of Taliesin's Monument at Geirionydd Lake. There's always some new/olde thing to investigate, so we never get bored.

As far as my medieval interest, that I can claim independently. Andy's main love, history-wise, is the Bronze Age. But to me there's something absolutely fascinating about the Middle Ages. There was so much shocking tragedy and yet such compassion and humor in those centuries, and I somehow feel a deep connection with them.
What are you working on now?
It's another medieval novel, and once again British. This story deals with the supernatural, or at least the supernatural as it was perceived hundreds of years ago. It features a woman who runs afoul of the powers-that-be. (Alienated women seem to be a constant theme with me.)

Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer?
Yes. I also do a lot of drawing and painting but my interest in art is more recreational than soul-felt. That is, when the writing isn't going well, I'll often 'goof off' and turn out some grotesque, detailed cartoon or silly collage that takes me half the day. Glitter sometimes flies and there are splots of paint all over the place. But it's relaxing and at least I feel like I'm doing something, rather than just staring into space trying to come up with one halfway decent sentence.

When did you first realize that you wanted to write?
About twelve years ago. Progress on my artwork had slowed to an absolute crawl and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I could 'say' all the things I wanted to say with words instead of images. My drawings have always been fairly narrative anyway, and the leap seemed natural. So I started to describe images in words instead of using images to tell stories.

The change has been a terrific challenge, but a wonderful one.
Are you a full-time writer? Or do you have other work? (Motherhood, wifehood, and housework count too!)
Yes. Historical fiction requires tons of research, and that naturally takes time. I'm also not a fast writer (I just agonize and agonize and rewrite everything a thousand times liked a demented idiot) so I have to be a writer who works long hours, whether I want to or not.

As far as other work, I've been a vegetarian for over twenty-five years and seem to do a lot of cooking because we hardly ever go to restaurants. (Andy has an organic garden here in Illinois, and another back in Wales. His brother minds the latter.) In the summer I'm always preparing spinach soup or salsa or stuffed sweet peppers. Three times a week, all year, I make homemade yogurt for the fresh fruit smoothies I whip up for breakfast every day. As far as housework, yes, I do it, but not often enough to be very effective and not with great relish. My two wonderful kids are out of the house; my daughter is recently married and lives in Denver, and my son goes to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
I love the story about how you and your husband, met, courted, married. How is married life, with such an interesting backstory behind it?
Married life is excellent. It's such an amazing pleasure to live with someone with truly similar and passionate interests. (My first husband--who's now looking among the embryonic set for Wife Number Five--was, is, a capitalist and an avid golfer. He used to instruct me, just before business functions/parties, not to talk about books or art because no one was interested. He suggested I learn to play bridge, do volunteer work, or redecorate the house, unless I wanted people to think I was odd.)

But now my life really feels like my life. In the old days, I often had this strange, disturbing notion that someone somewhere was calling my name. Sometimes I'd actually look over my shoulder. Sad and spooky, in a way, like the world wasn't quite in alignment. But after I met Andy, that all stopped. It was as if I'd found the person who'd been calling me. Fanciful and maybe foolishly romantic, yes. But it's true. And it's been such an indescribable relief. Now, if he ever ups and leaves me for some Glamour Babe who hates history and books and who watches reality TV and wears lots of make-up and giggles constantly, then I'll just have to go back to looking over my shoulder. Or, more likely, I'll throw in the Love Towel completely and become a celibate and bitter martini drinker. Not that I'm insecure or anything like that.

Where do you usually work? Do you have any particular habits, rituals, or even superstitions regarding writing?
I work in my study, when I use the computer. But before I can type, I sit in a chair in the living room and compose everything on a pad of yellow paper, in long-hand. I start about 9 in the morning, take an hour for lunch, then finish around 5. If I have a deadline or I'm really chugging happily along, I sometimes work until 6 or 7. I can't listen to music, any music, when I'm working. As far as superstitions, I don't like anyone to touch any of my research notes or reference books. And in the winter, I'll light a candle or two or burn cedar incense for atmosphere. When it's really windy and wintry outside, I wear fingerless mittens while I type because my hands get cold.
About your reading habits: what is/are your favorite genre(s)? authors? Why? How much do you usually read?
I can't actually say what my favorite genre is; my reading habits are all over the place. On my bedside table right now, for instance, you'll find Salman Rushdie's STEP ACROSS THIS LINE (collected nonfiction), Kate Atkinson's latest novel CASE HISTORIES, then THE APPEARANCE OF EVIL: APPARITIONS IN WALES by Edmund Jones, then 1215, THE YEAR OF THE MAGNA CARTA, by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, then a novel called EVERY INCH OF HER by Peter Sheridan, then Shalom Auslander's story collection, BEWARE OF GOD, then an old book about Welsh herbal medicine, and finally, under everything, is a recent Vermont Country Catalog. I really ought to be more orderly and put something away. Ha.

Some of my favorite authors are William Trevor, Zoƫ Oldenbourg, Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Hilary Mantel, James Lee Burke, James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Atwood Taylor, John McGahern, Dorothy Parker, Taliesin, and so many others. For research I like Simon Schama, Colin Platt, Malcolm Jones, Norman F. Cantor, Barbara Hanawalt.

What is the best piece of advice anybody's ever given you? Do you follow it?
I keep a quote from Jonathan Winters on a bulletin board next to my computer. It reads: 'I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.' It's kind of like another saying I like: The harder you work, the luckier you get.
How long did it take you to write your novel? Was it hard to find a publisher?
It took about five years altogether. An agent read one of my short stories in a magazine and contacted me. He asked if I had a novel. I did, but it was less than a quarter done. So he urged me to finish it. I finished it (about eighteen months later) and he sold it to the first publisher who read it, Simon & Schuster/Touchstone.
I know you got two Pushcart nominations. For what stories? Have your short stories been collected or republished since their original publication?
I had a third Pushcart nomination late in 2004. The first was for "A Templar's Tale," a story about the imagined fate of a Templar who escapes execution in Paris in 1314. The second was "Something Akin to Glory," in which a grief-stricken man joins the flagellants after his family dies of the Plague. And the last was for "Bad Birds," a contemporary tale about book conservators involved in a love triangle as they work on restoring an ancient bestiary to its former glory.

None of the stories has been collected or reprinted so far, but I'd ultimately like to write enough historical pieces to make up a collection. Whether any publisher would want to take a chance on such a thing is yet another story.

What's the strangest thing a reader has ever said to you?
A stranger at a book-signing for NECTAR asked me--no, he practically ORDERED me--to read his unpublished novel and give him advice on getting an agent and a publisher. The manuscript was a mere 750 single-spaced typed pages and concerned a family in Dark Age Britain who made apple cider and mead and lived right next door to King Arthur's castle. He promised me it was brilliant and said everyone in his on-line writers' group loved it. He (rather grandly) assured me that if I helped him, he'd even give me a cut of the royalties--and that would be a lot of money because it was sure to be a bestseller. Luckily I was able to say, in all honesty, that I didn't have time. I politely suggested he try query letters. He wasn't particularly pleased.

What's the most unexpected thing you've done to promote your book?
I created and reproduced about 25 different greeting card designs to sell at a local artisans' shop and at a local bookstore. Some cards are funny and/or strange, some are conventional 'medieval' designs. Inside each card is a little note with a blurb for NECTAR. And you know, those cards are selling pretty well! I guess that's what they call guerrilla marketing.
Describe your most memorable author event.
Near Barrington, Illinois, where I used to live, about 70 people came to an event for NECTAR. The store sold out of the novel that day (they had 60 copies) and had to call around to other stores for more. I had 8 books in my car and brought those in, too. It was so gratifying, after sitting alone in my study for so long, just typing and talking to my two cats. One lady had 6 copies, for her book club. A man carried four, one for each of his sisters. I only wish every event could be like that. (They aren't, of course.)

If you could change one thing about your book, what would it be? Why?
We received a wonderful blurb from Susann Cokal (MIRABILIS and BREATH AND BONES), but it didn't arrive in time for the print-run. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

What's the most surprising thing about being a published author?
I still have to clean the cat litter. Worse than that, I still lack self-confidence. Somehow I thought I'd just turn, voila, into some sort of ultra-cool ultra-assured Katherine Hepburn/Audrey Hepburn person, all gorgeous and witty and wondrous. Alas, no. I'm still an insecure dolt, maladroit, graceless, expecting literary disaster at every turn. WHY THE HELL IS THAT? Is my whole body, my whole personal aura just one big stupid Achilles' Heel, huh?
What would you like potential readers to know about you? About your book?
I'm not as insecure as I sound. Maybe. And NECTAR FROM A STONE was definitely written with love and care and earnest, honest attention to detail.
What is your favorite line (or passage, scene, etc) from your novel?
I'm not sure I have one favorite thing. Nicolas always made me laugh, and he very nearly wrote his own crazy dialog. I liked Elise's visions because they gave me a chance to really let my imagination run wild. When Gwydion was in Paris, held by Charles of Spain, I liked his interaction with his guard. Descriptions of herbal cures and concoctions were also fun to write and to research. In general, I love words. Certain words really resonate with me and the trick is putting those words together with other wonderful words to make beautiful sentences.
How do you feel about your author photo? Like it? Hate it? Do you feel it gives an accurate sense of who you are?
Lord, that's a loaded question. I'm hideously UN-photogenic. When the photographer took that picture, it was actually the best of a bad bunch of nearly thirty attempts. He was flummoxed, because none of the photos really looked anything like me. It's uncanny, like funky reverse magic. I always think my photographs make me look like Charles Laughton, or maybe Walter Matthau post-mortem. Does that particular photo give an accurate sense of who I am? Goodness, I hope not. A friend told me it makes me seem sinister. Now that's hilarious; me, sinister.
How would you describe yourself?
Decidedly un-sinister. A little odd, but not in need of strong medication. Well-meaning. Detail oriented and industrious. Stubborn. Secretive. Superstitious. Loyal. A bit shy. Self-conscious.
Of course, to that I would add talented, and decidedly generous with her time and her words. Thanks, Jane! And keep working on that next novel; I really want to read it!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

TV ad for James Patterson's 4th of July

I was checking my email and watching tv (at my multitasking best), when a commercial for James Patterson's newest thriller came on.

For some reason I just knew it was a book commercial, even before the author or book cover flashed on the screen. Maybe it was the cheesy ad copy, or perhaps every book commercial uses the same voice-over guy? Whatever it is, I paid attention. And I was a little horrified.

The main image of the commercial is a man and a woman cavorting (really, that's just the word, precisely) on a bed, round and round, kissing, making out. It's like bad porn.

Can't we do any better than that?

Coincidentally, I was reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dean Koontz where he discusses the marketing of books, including tv advertising:

WSJ: Should publishers be spending more money on TV to advertise their books?

Mr. Koontz: The wisdom is that TV doesn't work for books. But I think it does work for books. It really depends on the crafting and preparation of that commercial. The problem with ads that say a new book is a thrill ride or the greatest love story ever told is that nobody relates to the obvious hype. Too often commercials basically say a book is thrilling rather than telling you what the book is about. That's the wrong way to sell. When you see a cereal commercial they don't say it's tasty: They offer you a hook for their product. I see little book advertising done that way.

I can safely say the crafting of this Petterson commercial leaves a lot to be desired...

[BTW, 4th of July is currently #10 at]

I finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson...

...a few days ago, and have been pondering what to say about it. I wanted to love Gilead. I had loved Housekeeping back in college, when I read it in my very first lit class my first semester at Harvard. And of course there are the accolades, the Pulitzer, the National Book Award... when a book is as acclaimed as Gilead, it makes me try a little harder to appreciate it.

But honestly, I just didn't like Gilead very much.

The premise is interesting: a sixty-seven year old husband, father, and preacher is dying of heart failure, and he decides to write a letter/diary to his young son, so that the child will have something tangible to remember him by. So far so good. But the problem with this premise is that it's very restrictive in terms of narrative devices -- the entire book consists of the preacher's scribblings, which are sometimes lengthy, focused, and content-rich, but often short and full of the details of ordinary life. And that's fine, but in book-length, it gets a little tedious. I think that's probably why I had trouble reading more than twenty or thirty pages at a time. I just got tired of eavesdropping on an old man's thoughts, particularly since the old man in question is an earnest, well-meaning good man who is just not that interesting (at least to me). I found the religious/philosophical digressions especially hard to get through... I just wasn't interested. And I admit, many of the biblical allusions escaped me (and I didn't feel like looking them up).

On the subject of fiction as deathbed testimonial: I loved Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, mostly because I found Moon Tiger's elderly protagonist so much more interesting than Gilead's preacher.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

About marginalia

As you most likely know by now, I fixate on descriptions of reading and writing in the novels I read. In Matt Bondurant's The Third Translation I was pleasantly surprised to find a discussion of marginalia. Protagonist Walter Rothschild is at the secondhand bookstore where he meets his future wife, Helen. He is a fan of used bookstores, and of used books: seemed remarkable to me that any historian would choose to read a new book when a used copy, a copy already with some sort of intrinsic history, is readily available. Often you could find underlinings, exclamations, curious symbols, cryptic messages and notes written in the front and margins, things to decipher and use to construct images of the previous readers and their lives. (p212)
Later Helen gives Walter her much-read copy of Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music:
... what I read wasn't Copeland's [sic] rambling discourse on the properties and foundations of music, rather I concentrated on the curious script that lined the margins, a cipherlike shorthand of lines, dashes, exclamation points, and the ocassional phrase, like chromatic scale and overt tone color and only Mahler would try this! I spent the entire night poring over these notes, examining her cuneiform scratchings, and by morning I had constructed a base-line key of sorts, a way to translate the basic elements of her scribblings. I got so I could read her shorthand notes like my own. From this I formulated many things, about her life, about her art, about the way she read the world. I could see that she was a kind and loving person, the kind of person who would always remember everyone's birthday, and that she felt most alone reading in her bed at night. I could also tell that I was desperate to be closer to her. (p216)
Like Helen, I write all over my books, hardcovers and paperbacks alike. I find that if I don't read with a pencil in hand, it's as if I haven't read at all -- not much stays in my memory. But if I scribble all over, underline, circle, question, exclaim, analyze, argue, summarize -- then I remember. I always tell my students to approach texts as active collaborators, since passivity is not a good quality in readers or learners (or anyone else, for that matter). It's hard to break them of their habits, though; they either want their books pristine or color coded in neon underliner.

But like Walter, I also love to pore over other reader's markings on a text (as long as there's no neon involved!). Just like I gravitate towards other people's bookcases to check out their book selections, I feel compelled to look at other readers' notes -- what do they find important, challenging, intriguing, worthy of marginalia? I admit I also get a little thrill when my professors give us copies of articles they have marked up; I always smile when they apologize for not finding a clean version to photocopy. Cleanliness is highly overrated (in reading copies, at least).

A jaunt through the blurbosphere

Columnist William Safire tackled the overblown language of the ubiquitous blurbs in Sunday's NYT Magazine. It's well worth a look, particularly if like me, you are annoyed by the hyperbole that renders most blurbs meaningless.

Here's a little taste:

Acclaimed, in this fulsome lingo of book ads and catalogs, now means merely ''the author received at least one good review.'' Widely acclaimed means ''two or more, plus a cable-TV plug.'' Critically acclaimed means ''it was decently reviewed in a specialized publication but didn't sell.''

Long- is a beloved half-word adverb in the blurbosphere. The letters of Lytton Strachey, advertises Farrar, Straus & Giroux, regarded as one of the classiest publishers, is ''a long-overdue collection.'' Whenever a writer has had a dry spell and taken forever to deliver, his book is hawked as long-awaited. On the other hand, if the author has a hot hand and sold well last time out, the adverb is switched and his work becomes eagerly awaited.

Sales problem: How do you blurb a dull book? Meticulously researched, or if you're really in trouble, definitive, exhaustive, spiced with profoundly insightful. Whatever covers a lot of ground and spans the millennia is a sweeping epic, which could soon be a major motion picture about three generations of janitors.

Brilliant, through overuse, has lost its sparkle. Fascinating has lost its charm, powerful is impotent and even towering achievement is getting shaky. Liberals go for heart-shattering and deeply empathetic while conservatives are attracted to gripping and the hard-driving compelling.

For adventure novels, riveting is getting a rosy run, along with the hypnotic mesmerizing and the noun page turner. For novels in which characters determine the plot, San Francisco likes absorbing and satisfying, and New York pushes moving and masterly. Upbeat women's books take triple adjectives, with an adverb rhythmically punching the third: ''Funny, ferocious, intensely likable'' and ''Droll, shrewd, irresistibly entertaining'' describe the same Random House novel.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Today I read...

The Third Translation by Matt Bondurant.

I was thoroughly disappointed. It started so well: a beautiful cover (yes, I admit I pay attention to those things), and interesting premise (a forty-something American Egyptologist specializing in translating and decoding hieroglyphs has just a few days left before his contract with the British Museum expires to find the elusive "third translation" of the Stela of Paser. Once his contract is up he will be evicted from the museum-paid lodging, barred from the Stela, and essentially left penniless. Then he goes out drinking with 'friends' and ends up taking a girl to have sex in the museum. Of course, she steals a priceless papyrus and he's royally screwed. Now he has to find the girl, retrieve the papyrus, and decipher the Stela within 4 days or lose it all -- career, freedom, and maybe life...). I'm also a sucker for ancient Egypt, academia, and translation, so I thought, yum, a thriller that incorporates all these favorite themes must be good.

No. It isn't.

Things I didn't like:

  • Way too many scatological references. Who cares about the state of the characters' intestines and their penchant for using the tiny bathroom in the protagonist's room? I certainly didn't.

  • Too much of the plot is driven by alcohol, hash, and other drugs. And this despite the fact that Walter Rothschild, the main character, is basically a forty-something academic who is socially inept and not particularly attractive, yet he keeps drinking, taking proferred drugs and tripping, and making stupid choices that drive the plot. Please!

  • The absurdity of some plot elements. I can stomach a fair amount of absurd, even surreal behavior in the books I read, as long as there's a reason for it. This novel is marketed as a thriller (which is perhaps unfortunate) and thus carries certain generic expectations. Having some of the bad guys be American wrestlers who first turn up in a riot scene (they get mobbed leaving a Virgin Megastore) is just beyond absurd, particularly when one of them is a hulking, one-eyed brute named Gigantica... need I say more? I could -- these guys keep popping up all over the place, and then there's some sort of cult (with unexplained Hare Krishna ties) that also has a fetish for things Egyptian, though what their point is (and why we should care) is never really explained.

  • The book ends in the middle of nowhere, plot-wise, and therefore, most narrative strands have to be awkwardly concluded in an epilogue.
Something I did like:
The way Bondurant writes about Walter's childhood and young adulthood, including his marriage. It makes me think that somehow thrillers are not his thing and he should write more literary fiction (that is not genre driven). The choice of a thriller/mystery is unfortunate, because The Third Translation just doesn't work. It just feels like a rough draft, and not a finished product. I'd be interested, though, to see where Bondurant goes next.

Just read: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Yesterday I finished Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, about the lives (and reading experiences) of the members of a book club convened to discuss Austen's novels. There are six members: Jocelyn, breeder of championship dogs; Sylvia, Jocelyn's lifelong best friend who was recently left by her husband of thirty-some years; Allegra, Sylvia's drama queen, lesbian daughter; Bernadette, a sixty-seven year old chatterbox with a penchant for getting married; Prudie, a high school French teacher who has never been to France; and Grigg, the lone male who also happens to be reading Austen for the first time (from a one-volume collected works, no less).

It's certainly an entertaining novel (and a fast read), but when I finished, I just thought: so what?

And I had one major complaint about The Jane Austen Book Club: I couldn't figure out who the hell was narrating. It's written mostly in the first person, but this I/we doesn't correspond to any of the "six of us" in the book club. Probably this won't bother most readers, but it drove me nuts -- just like a little paper cut that keeps smarting.

I did like, though, the compilation of quotes about reader response to Austen through the centuries, starting with her own observations of her relatives' reactions to her works.

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