Book Review: True Believers

A couple weeks ago, I encouraged you to find a thought-provoking read, something perhaps out of your comfort zone. I decided to read True Believers, a novel by Kurt Anderson, which as it turns out, wasn’t too far out of my comfort zone once I got started.

True Believers

True Believers by Kurt Anderson

Karen Hollander reflects on her teenage choices as she writes a memoir of her life up through college. It covers several family tragedies, national turmoil, young love and loss; and yet even as Karen writes, she discovers new information from government files on her own life and those around her. Kurt Anderson peels back small pieces of Karen’s story with suspense, bringing it closer to the truth as she drafts the memoir for her publisher.

Looking back on this novel, I decided it wasn’t anything ground-breaking. Perhaps because for me, it questioned a lot of things that I already question. Is the young generation of today as politically active as the generation of the 60s, and should they be? With all the noise in the media and pop culture, is it even possible? Are we destined to be just like our parents, or do we strive to be the opposite? When we’re looking for a partner in life, is our first, young choice destined to be terribly tragic a la Romeo and Juliet, so that ever-after we lean toward something safer and more stable?

At the end, I was still grappling with these questions. The entire novel was a swirl of uncertainty, with its book within a book structure, and with real characters constantly mimicking fiction to a degree that made Karen (and me) question their sanity and certainly their sincerity. Kids who play James Bond grow up to actually try to take down evil government. Karen and her friends read the 007 novels before any of the movies existed. They were, if you will, the “true believers” in Bond, as they later became the “true believers” in righteous politics. Everything is a mirror of something else.

Thought-provoking? Yes. Complex? Incredibly so. But it seems like just the sort of book that a journalist can write. Kurt Anderson has been the editor-in-chief of New York Magazine, a columnist for New York, The New Yorker, and Time. He currently hosts a public radio show, Studio 360. Being so much in the public eye, responsible for shaping onions on so many events, Anderson wrote a novel that questions the importance of his own influence and that of the rest of “the media,” from books and movies to the 24-hour news cycle.

Sensationalists, true-believers of James Bond who fantasize clandestine plots to a righteous end, will love this book. The rest of us, playing our roles as average readers, will simply find it entertaining.

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Albert of Adelaide : A refreshing story of a platypus in Hell

Albert of Adelaide, the debut novel by Howard L. Anderson, surprised me in the same way that Fantastic Mr. Fox surprised me in the theater. It’s adult entertainment in the guise of something created by Beatrix Potter — a bedtime story where animals talk and wear clothes, but where they also concoct schemes, shoot guns and get themselves into dangerous outlaw situations. And honestly, to quote Mrs. Fox, there’s something kind of fantastic about that.

I was perhaps more surprised, however, that the publishing industry took this book under its wing. Editors and agents always say that they’re looking for something unique and different, and they mean it, but usually in a slight-twist-on-something-known sort of way, something they can still market to a particular audience. Albert of Adelaide, however, is one of those cross-genre beauties that everyone tends to love but on which no one wants to risk  financial investment. Is it YA? Or maybe a children’s book that parents can enjoy too! Or straight-up adult summer reading for everyone who loved Charlotte’s Web when they were kids? It really could be any of those things.

Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson

Albert, a zoo platypus clinging to a few strands of childhood memories by the pond, breaks free and sets off across the desert to find the utopian Old Australia, where animals exist as they did at the beginning, before humans got involved. Along the way, he finds himself in complex situations with other animals who blame him because he’s different (not a marsupial) or leave him alone him because they’re in awe of him (protected by snakes). All the while, Albert simply wants to find a place to swim in peace, but with wanted posters at every outpost town and a growing reputation as a danger to society, this seems unlikely.

The story was refreshing. Most top-shelf fiction right now comprises epic fantasy, post-apocalyptic YA, or multi-POV literary novels that ignore chronological narration. So while I can imagine that many publishers may have snuck away like Bertram the wallaby when it came to putting money on Albert’s future, I’m very glad that this unique tale found a home at Twelve Books, a Hachette imprint that publishes only 12 books each year, “by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority. Works that explain our culture; that illuminate, inspire, provoke, and entertain.”

Despite its fairly simple prose and no apparent underlying political statements, Albert of Adelaide lives up to Twelve’s mission. It tackles questions a bit more local: about our prejudices, our habits, and our search to find a place to belong. Albert is infamous for burning down a town when he actually just got drunk and passed out. He’s accused of butchering a group of kangaroos when in fact, they had crossed into dingo country and were eaten, as they should have expected, by the dingoes. When the time comes, Albert must choose to live up to this criminal fiction or pave his own path. Throughout the tale, I wondered along with Albert if there is an Old Australia, or if animals are so affected by society with its guns, alcohol, false propaganda, and even clothing, that the place called Hell where Albert finds himself is all that’s left of the legendary land.

For an interview with the Author, who among other things says that the story originated from a bedtime story he once told a 5-year-old, checkout Booktopia Blog: http://blog.booktopia.com.au/2012/06/25/howard-l-anderson-author-of-albert-of-adelaide-answers-ten-terrifying-questions/

Finding and finishing thought-provoking books

This week I kept coming across lists of discarded books; books that many people either claim to have read but haven’t, or books that readers simply give up on. See Goodreads’ “Most Read But Unfinished” list and i09 posted this week “10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read”.

When someone starts a book but doesn’t finish it, the book is usually too daunting or requires too much effort. i09’s science fiction list focuses on a lot of titles in this category. People want to read something, but they’ve heard everyone talk about it so much they can fake it. Or they just go see the movie. The user-generated Goodreads’ list is an interesting bag of titles, but it includes such classics as Anna KareninaPride and Prejudice, and Moby Dick. It also includes several on my own unfinished list: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Atlas Shrugged, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Does this mean that our reading spectrum is moving toward mediocre? If the classics and other thought-provoking reads require too much effort, are our favorite books somewhere in the Target aisle?

It’s hard to pinpoint where bookworms’ tastes lie, but even my own choices have been of the middle-of-the-road variety lately. Although I started The Brothers Karamazov this year, I have yet to finish it, or even make it halfway. The writing is enjoyable, the story compelling and really, it’s right up my alley. I just need to make the leap over the length and language. Over the last few months, the only classic I can really claim to have finished is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first short story collection centering around that insufferable, arrogant man who happens to be a brilliant detective of the people, Sherlock Holmes.

While it may be easy to blame the publishing industry for pushing books like 50 Shades of Grey underneath our pillows, for better or for worse, they give us more of what we buy. (And we bought more than 20 million copies of 50 SoG). So unless there’s a Will McAvoy of publishing out there willing to put all his energy behind publishing books that are good for us to read whether it sells or not, it’s up to us as consumers to a make an effort.

When I’m looking for something good, I read reviews in the local newspaper and my favorite magazines, or check out Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness for upcoming book releases and reviews. I go to specific publisher sites, and see what’s included in their latest catalogues. For suggestions a little bit outside the NYC publishing center, I read Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin on Poets&Writers. I challenge the bookworms out there to read something a little beyond their normal reach. After my own search, I decided to go with True Believers by Kurt Anderson, which I found on Shelf Awareness.

True Believers

True Believers by Kurt Anderson

A judge turns down a chance at joining the Surpreme Court, knowing that her adventures in the 1960s will come to light in the process. Instead she decides to write a memoir that will reveal the shocking secret about her past. The book jumps back and forth between the 60s and the present, which the Mad Men fan in me can’t help but get excited about, but it also covers a lot of Cold War political history, which is a little outside my comfort zone. Dubbed a mystery and a coming-of-age story, it’s also a cultural and political commentary with a powerful female heroine. I’m hoping for more than entertainment. I’m hoping that it will make me think.

Of course the key to choosing a challenging read is to finish it! Check back for a review on True Believers (and possibly  The Brothers Karamazov) once I’m finished.

Summer Reading: Gone Girl

The 4th of July has come and gone. That patriotic day seemed to chastise me for my lack of history books or traditional American novels on my bedside table. But, as everyone I had small talk with over the few days was sure to mention, it is really HOT outside.

In my apartment, the room with the best cold potential is the bedroom, with its surprisingly quiet and oh-so-efficient window unit. So my husband and I locked ourselves inside with the internet and books. And when I know I’m going to read something nearly all day, history is just not my pick.

Of course, my beside table wasn’t exactly set up for summer reading either. I’ve got a stack of three books already read, some unfinished manuscripts that will require too much thinking, and a non-fiction how-to manual. Not exactly a lose yourself in between pages kind of material.

So I started browsing Goodreads and Amazon for recommendations. It seemed like every category I tried, Recommended just for me!, Fiction, Mysteries, Thrillers all had the same book at the top of the list. What can I say, it was meant to be.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, published at the beginning of June. I was skeptical. I’ve never read anything by Gillian Flynn before, and I was not in the mood for some slasher story where the victims are predictable in their mistakes and everyone dies. Amazon’s review began,

Marriage can be a real killer.
One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.

So I figured it would be really bad or… possibly really good. Turns out it was the latter. This book is completely unpredictable. Just when you think the hubby is such a nice guy he can’t possibly have done it, he starts talking about her perfectly shaped head again and picturing it all bashed in as she crawls across the kitchen floor. Is he just imagining the worst? Because surely that crazy chic is the killer… Or maybe it never happened at all.

On top of all the sudden stops and 25 mph curves when you think you’re cruising down the straight highway of this plot, it’s also a heart-wrenching story of a marriage gone wrong. But not really in a thriller, these people are just crazy sort of way, not at first. It’s just the story of a couple who have hit a few bumps in the road, dealing with layoffs during the recession, ailing parents, and a general lapse in communication. It feels real, like it could happen to anyone.

Then there’s the prose. There was a point in the Kindle sample when I knew I was going to buy the book. It was on the second page:

6-0-0 the clock said — in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings; 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.

The characters have such wonderful characterizations, I would know them if they walked into my local bar. And yet, I wouldn’t know them well enough to say whether they were capable of murder. And that’s exactly how Gillian Flynn has left the reader feeling. All of these characters have flaws, the trouble is determining which of these flaws is criminal, and according to whom.

In the end, I felt vindicated in my pick because the scene of the crime is just outside of Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain and the inspiration for Tom Sawyer. It’s a sleepy town where the tourists — who used to come out in droves — are no longer visiting to write their names on the white fence that Tom painted. Turns out I got a little American history in after all.

Whose generation of books most shaped America?

Last week the Library of Congress opened an exhibition of “Books That Shaped America” that will run through September 29. This display includes a varied mix of American books from children’s favorite Goodnight Moon to the more political The Federalist Papers and the ever-popular romance Gone With The Wind; and it is the first in a series of events and discussions surrounding the “Celebration of the Book.”

As the list is chronological, it’s hard to resist noting that the most influential decade is the 1960s — perhaps not a big surprise considering the cultural popcorn effect at the time — with more than 10 nation-shaping books. In contrast, no books from the 1990s made the list. Zip. Zero. Natta.

So, ladies and gentlemen, the 60s!

Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)
Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961)
Robert E. Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961)
Ezra Jack Keats, “The Snowy Day” (1962)
Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963)
James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)
Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963)
Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)
Ralph Nader, “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965)
Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring” (1962)
Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” (1966)
James D. Watson, “The Double Helix” (1968)

The Library of Congress said in a press release that the list should reflect “books written by Americans that have influenced our lives.” Each of these books has forged its own way into literary history, so it seems irrelevant to say that this decade may have had an unfair advantage. But really, didn’t it? Combing through the list of possibilities, most Librarians of Congress likely voted on books that had changed and affected their own lives and the lives of those around them while they were growing up. Books that they encourage other Americans to read to have a better understanding of our nation’s past, and therefore, our present as well. The 60s was a decade fraught with social turmoil, and it’s only natural that a period of time that so shaped America as we know it today, would have produced books that reflect on those changes, and even spurred some of them into motion.

But to be honest, these books are of someone else’s generation. I understand that the list is a jumping off point, a spark for a national conversation about books. But there are no books from the 1990s. Not one! The only other decade without a book on the list was the 1760s.

Now I don’t profess to have a reading interest that covers the breadth of the Library of Congress staff. My list does not contain anything so grand as the discovery of DNA or the gospel of feminism. But these books, published in the 90s, did shape me.

Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides” (1993) His first novel!

Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” (1990) Graduation gift, anyone? Such an American philosophy too!

Eric Carle, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (1994) Art plus children’s story = warm memories

Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions and Writing and Life” (1995) If you ever ask anyone for some recommendations on a writing book, this will be in the list

Of course, mine is a singular list over just one decade. The LoC is taking suggestions for subsequent lists. If you’d like to contribute, go to the National Book Festival website (http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/books-that-shaped-america/) to nominate more titles, or to comment on this first list.