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Good Luck / Bad Luck; English as a Second Language Not quite escapist reading

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Good Luck / Bad Luck

Seldom does a title encapsulate a book's tensions and revelations as well as Joan Silber's snappy, deceptively simple "Lucky Us" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $22.95). Silber gently strips away the irony from the title statement as her plot unfolds. By the end of the book, one of the main characters finds himself amazed to realize that you can have good luck as well as bad. This strikes him as a complicated new truth, a beautiful and irrefutable fact.

In "he said, she said" fashion the book's two main characters, Elisa and Gabe, narrate alternating chapters of their story. But Elisa's voice dominates the novel. In part because her story is more dramatic than Gabe's, in part thanks to her knowing, often withering, always entertaining sense of humor, she tends to drown out Gabe's more chastened, measured way of talking about his world.

The first chapter describes Elisa's diagnosis as HIV-positive, just as she and Gabe are planning their wedding. It is a dark shock and the first, most tremendous blow that wallops the couple. It sets off a chain of reactions that threaten to sabotage her relationship with Gabe, as Elisa struggles to see herself in the new light cast by the virus.

If Elisa and Gabe manage, in the end, to spin the plentiful straw of their bad luck into a little bit of gold, this doesn't mean that the novel wears rose-colored glasses or presents the world as anything other than the fraught place it is.

Silber ultimately believes in consequences and coping more than luck. The casually luminous wit that sparkles from every page of "Lucky Us" is underwritten by this wisdom, making for a novel that is not just effortlessly readable, but unexpectedly stirring. — Lee Hall

English as a Second Language

Ever since William Faulkner many contemporary writers have written in voice with the purpose of allowing the reader to see the world through the character's eyes. James Kelman continues this tradition of nontraditional storytelling in his second novel, "Translated Accounts." (Doubleday, $24.95) Kelman places the reader midaction into 54 separate accounts of people in an unnamed country that is under violent martial law. However, Kelman also enhances the voice of these eyewitness accounts by writing them as if someone who does not necessarily speak or know much of the language has roughly translated them into English. Ideally, these broken-English translations should enhance the power of the accounts and draw the reader even closer into the horrible world of these unnamed victims. Unfortunately, this stylistic choice does the opposite: It pushes the reader away from the world Kelman creates, mainly because the English is so garbled that it is very difficult to follow the action of the scenes. Any sympathy the reader may have for the plight of the protagonists is lost along with the action in trying to translate the clunky pigeon English. After a while the translations become rhythmic, nearly poetic, and it is easy to see that Kelman reworked these accounts many times. But it is this effort that makes "Translated Accounts" all the more disappointing. The power of Kelman's voice is clear; however, it is the ultimate meaning of his words that is left untranslated. — Francis Decker

Not quite escapist reading

Sara Paretsky overreaches in her latest V.I. Warshawski novel, "Total Recall" (Delacourte Press, Random House, $25.95).

Bless her heart (as we Southerners like to say to take away the sting before criticizing someone), she's created a mystery novel that is bloated, cluttered with too much detail and a plot far too confusing to follow easily.

None of this would be a particular problem if Paretsky's books were intended to make one reflect on life and think deeply about the human condition. But they're not. They're meant to be escapist reading, fit for the beach or a fireside fit of self-indulgence. Instead, Paretsky has indulged herself at the expense of her faithful readers.

In "Total Recall," Paretsky attempts to give a back-story to Lotty Herschel, the prickly surgeon who has long been friend and mentor to Paretsky's protagonist, a Chicago P.I. The story Paretsky created for Herschel falls short of satisfying the reader's curiosity about Herschel, a curiosity that has been piqued but never satisfied in the 10 or so previous Warshawski novels.

Paretsky sets up Herschel's story through a protest by Chicago Jews who are calling for the recovery of assets stolen during the Holocaust. She then brings in an angry claim by blacks for slavery reparations. She ties the two threads together with an insurance scam in which a black man with a German name is the victim. As Warshawski digs deeper, Herschel begins to withdraw from her own associates and from Warshawski, leading her friend the P.I. to attempt to delve into Herschel's own past.

But instead of a fast-paced story, as her readers have come to anticipate, Paretsky's "Total Recall" is all over the place: The plot cries out for a good trimming and a skilled editor to refocus the story. Sure, her readers want to know about Herschel. But in "Total Recall," Paretsky walks a rough path, and stumbles and falls. — Don Dale

Heads-Up

Virginia artists Jack and Judy Witt have created "Goshen: Lessons from the River" (Brandylane Publishers, $14.95). This is an enthusiastic tribute to Goshen, which they call a "mystical place in the Virginia mountains [that] has shaped and transformed their art and their relationship to each other." The brief essays have such titles as "Crossing" and "Renewal" and are accompanied by illustrations showing Judy's watercolors, Jack's drawings and photographs of his sculptures.

For their fans and for those who in general love the quiet of nature, this book should be a pleasure. — Rozanne Epps

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