“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” —Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

The sky was blue as an Autobot’s eye, and I felt stupid enough without my real car breaking down. I’d been to Target and Toys ‘R Us a bunch of times just to hold these things in my hands, turning them over to see how the light bounced off the clear plastic shrink-wrapping when I moved them, how enticing the packaging made them look. But I hadn’t even thought about Transformers since I was a kid, even though the show and toy line had undergone several alterations since then, since I thought I’d grown up.

Du Point G

By Greg Olear


A week from today, I’m traveling to France to support the release of the French-language edition of Totally Killer (or, as it’s called en françaisTotally Killer).

In Paris, in addition to the usual dinners with booksellers and bookstore appearances, I’m being interviewed for France 24’s TV program « Le journal de la Culture », Radio RFI’s show « Littérature sans frontières », and Radio France Culture’s show « A plus d’un titre », where the other guest will be acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Odile Barksi.

Then it’s off to Lyon, to the Quais du Polar Festival International (polar is how the French say noir, noir being, to them, plain old black), where I’ll sit on two panels with the likes of Sylvie Granotier, Marc Villard, Peter Robinson, Arne Dahl, Dominique Sylvain, and my fellow American Megan Abbott.  Oh, and I almost forgot: another TV interview, for Lyon 1ère.

All this, despite the fact that a) my Q rating can be roughly calculated by subtracting Barack Obama’s Q rating from Kim Kardashian’s Q rating, and b) my French, despite nine years of classes in junior school, high school, and college, can charitably be described as un peu. (There will be a lot of ça va-ing and pissing into violins).

I’m going into detail here not to brag (although it is pretty fucking cool, no?), or to hawk the livre (same imprint and same translator as Tom Robbins; yours for the low, low price of €22,90), but rather to explain how I came to visit Amazon.fr, and how this visit confirmed something I’ve long suspected—namely, that France is way cool. (Or, as they say in French, cool).

* * *

Totally Killer is one of those novels that straddle genres. In the U.S., it was decided to shelve the book in the Mystery section of Barnes & Noble, although the book is not a mystery, in the Agatha Christie sense of the word. Gallmeister, my French publisher, is marketing it as a noir thriller—a distinction bookstores make in France that they don’t tend to here.

For the French release, I was hoping for one of those classic noir covers featuring a pair of shapely gams. The main character in Totally Killer, after all, is a sexpot assassin, the 23-year-old Midwestern love child of Lady Brett Ashley and La Femme Nikita; why not stick her, or some close approximation, on the jacket in a short denim miniskirt?

Instead, Gallmeister went with that other noir staple, the gun. And when I say they went with it, they really went with it. The cover shows a handgun pointed directly at you. It’s kind of jarring, until you realize, as my wife pointed out, that it sort of looks like a parking meter. The cover is arresting, yes, but I was really jonesing for something sexier…until my visit to Amazon.fr, when it became clear that my publishers are all genius.

* * *

I visited the site (as we authors tend to obsessively do, Skinnerian rats that we are) to check my sales ranking. On release day, the book checked in at a healthy 5.089 (which is how they write 5,089 in French; the comma/period switcheroo is one of those cute Continental things they do, like put a slash through the 7 and eat snails). For a guy who never hit four digits on this side of the Amazonian pond, not too shabby.

Next to my own ranking, I was given the option to Voir les 100 premiers en Livres. So I voired. The number one book in France was a 30-page political pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, by the former French resistance fighter and longtime advocate for human rights and peace, Stéphane Hessel. (The number one Amazon book in the U.S. that day? That would be Harry Potter: A Pop-Up Book: Based on the Film Phenomenon. This is why the terrorists hate us.)

Scrolling down the list of French bestsellers, I noticed a slender volume at No. 25 entitled Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine. On the cover is an erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph of a naked woman, her pudenda partially obscured by the sort of shapely gams I wanted on my own jacket. Customers who bought that—and there were plenty—also purchased, the site informed me, a little tome entitled Le secret des femmes. Voyage au coeur du plaisir et de la jouissance. The naked woman in the erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph on the cover of that book has nothing obscuring her pudenda—and an impressive tuft of dark pubic hair.

As I browsed through the books, I realized why Gallmeister went with the violence over the sex. Unlike here, where we conceal our bodies but proudly flaunt our firearms, in France, every third book has a naked chick on the cover. So Totally Killer totally stands out!

Upon closer inspection, I noticed something else: Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine is loosely translated (by me, and therefore possibly wrong) thus: Where is the G-spot? The woman’s pleasure, the man’s anxiety. Again, this book, by an OB-GYN named Odile Buisson, was ranked No. 25 overall on French Amazon, and it appears to be a guidebook for men on how to propel their women to more profound and satisfying orgasms!

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of a U.S. best-seller. If American males are moved to read a book at all—and they’re generally not, marketing studies have found; they’d rather watch golf, NASCAR, or Fox News on a 52-inch plasma TV—the cover photograph would not involve a sexy, nude female body, but rather a bloated, pink male head, usually one belonging to a Tea Party zealot who insists Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Furthermore, the very notion that American men need some sort of sexual GPS system to satisfy their lovers is, ahem, un-American! (It reminds me of an old joke:  French guy, Italian guy, American guy having breakfast. French guy says, “Last night, I made love to my wife five times, and in the morning, she said I was the best lover on earth.” Italian guy says, “I made love to my wife nine times, and in the morning, she said there was no lover like me in all the land.” They ask the American guy how made times he made love to his wife last night. “Once,” says the American. They ask what she said in the morning. “Don’t stop,” says the American.)

The inconvenient truth is, we live in a country whose residents tend to scoff at the French because they’re too busy making love and drinking fine wine to focus on important things, like warfare and Charlie Sheen. But France has a lot to teach us. To wit: There’s nothing shameful about naked bodies. Labor unions are good. Everyone should take off the entire month of August. Oh, and I almost forgot: a travers son témoignage, le docteur Odile Buisson révèle ainsi certains mystères du point G, la fabuleuse anatomie du clitoris ou encore l’incroyable complexité de l’orgasme.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

JC: Jim Othmer’s first novel, The Futurist, found its way to my pile of books-to-be-read several years ago courtesy of JR, who was walking around the office raving about it. That ambitious satire, centered around Yates, the man who sells his idea of the future, regardless of the consequences, nails the materialism that immerses us all.

His new novel, Holy Water is the story of Henry Tuhoe, miserable germaphobic cog in the multinational machine. Henry uses his trusty iPod to tune in the soundtrack to his life — the perfect song, or if necessary, playlist, for every situation. It helps to make the best of his mindless job as a product manager for deodorants and his increasingly insane wife,  which are slowly sucking the life out of him.

Othmer does a great job in the section showing how Henry and Rachel got to where they are: starting out a happy, upwardly mobile Manhattan couple, socializing and working in the city, handsomely rewarded for it. On a whim, based on a trip to the suburbs, they decide that their time in the city has come to an end — that they should move to Long Island and start a family. The smug wink-and-nod cynicism and their unraveling is reminiscent of Revolutionary Road, but, you know, really funny, including an excruciating, more-than-you-want-to-know account of vasectomies. A lot more.

But on this particular day, Tehoe’s got bigger problems. His boss gives him the option: either take a transfer to the third world wonderland Galado to open a call center for a bottled water company or you’re fired. Rachel unhinges herself and he heads for the verdant mountains of Galado.

I’ll leave the plot summary there. Othmer’s novel is populated by strange and twisted characters, some of whom seem to have fallen from the outtakes of a Tom Robbins novel. His wit and satirist’s touch echo both Will Self and George Saunders, especially Saunder’s repeated themes of the absurdity of consumerism.

Holy Water is fine book: funny, smart and strangely hopeful for revolution. Highly recommended.

John VourhousDH: John Vorhaus is playing the role of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come in our new series about when writers fell in love with books. His brilliantly manic suspense novel, California Roll,about grifters who try to out-grift each other, will be covered on Three Guys early next year. I had trashed four galleys in a row after trying to read page 99 of each. When I came to page 99 of California Roll, I knew I had to read the whole thing. I believe that JV wrote this post while sitting in Moscow traffic. He leads the writing team of the Russian version of Married with Children, making the world safe for situation comedy. He said he was glad that he worked especially hard on page 99 of California Roll.


It was the summer of 1977. Like every other college graduate in America, I was in Europe. I hitchhiked and Eurail-passed the length and breadth of the continent, from East Berlin to the west coast of Ireland, from the tip of Sicily to just inside the Arctic Circle. With all that traveling, of course, I often had time on my hands, and always needed something to read, and therefore engaged in avid and active book swaps with anyone who happened to have something in English I hadn’t already burned through. Thus it was that the summer’s most popular book, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, fell into my hands. Like everyone else I knew (like everyone I’ve ever known who’s read the book), I was instantly and totally ensorcelled by Robbins’ tale of big-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw, plus all the others: Bonanza Jellybean, the Chink, the Countess, and the estimable Dr. Robbins himself. More than that, I was captivated by Robbins’ command of the language; man, could the dude craft sentences. He did it with grace, style, and outrageous humor. It was this last part that was such a revelation to me. I’d enjoyed the jaundiced ironies of Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, but until I read Tom Robbins, I didn’t know there really was such a thing as a flat-out funny comic novel. I didn’t even know you could do that. But when I read of Sissy’s mother manipulating her father by “turning the vaginal wrench,” I became a fan for life.

As a writer who lacked faith in his own craft, I soon entered the singer/songwriter phase of my career. It was an awkward place for me. I could write songs well enough, but I couldn’t really sing or play guitar, and after five years hard at it, I finally figured that part out, and moved on to other things: situation comedies and screenplays; how-to books on writing and poker; novels at last. But I never forgot Tom Robbins, and never aspired to anything less than his rapier turn of phrase. In fairness, I’ve yet to read any Robbins tome that I enjoyed as much as Cowgirls. I think that has less to do with his abilities than with where I was when I first met him. I was on the road, living the Euro-vagabond dream of my generation. Conflating my own hitchhiking adventures with Sissy Hankshaw’s brought me closer to a character in a novel than I’d ever been before; closer, perhaps, than I’ve ever been with any figment of a writer’s imagination, bar my own. But I still have time for Tom Robbins, and I religiously read every new word he writes. I owe him that debt. He introduced me to the possibilities of the comic novel, and though it took me more than a generation, and an eventful life’s journey to realize them for myself, I’m realizing them at last. I don’t imagine myself any sort of heir to Tom Robbins, but I strive to be worthy to wave the banner of his style.

When I traveled through Europe in 1977, I did so with the full fear that I might never get back there again. Well, I’ve been blessed. My “other” job as a creative consultant for television and film has taken me to Europe dozens of times. Also Australia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Russia. I’m in Russia right now (like, even as I write these words), running the writing staff of the Russian version of Married… with Children. You can follow that adventure at www.radarenterprizes.com/blog, and I welcome you to do so. Stop by and say hi! I, meanwhile, have suddenly gotten the bright idea to go to the English language bookstore here in Moscow and see if I can find a copy of Cowgirls. I’ve read it probably ten times since the first time, but no time in the past five years or so. I’ve always gotten something out of those re-reads, and it occurs to me that I’m overdue for a dose. How about you? Have you read (or lately re-read) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? If not, you ought. It’s an inspiring, enlightening, and laugh-out-loud funny read. If I could half turn a phrase like Tom Robbins, I’d be a satisfied man indeed.