Thursday, July 19, 2012

Informal Book Review: Kurt Andersen's True Believers

Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

"Ours was a cult based on our narcissistic love 
of our beautiful young American selves 
and hatred of the horrible American pod people 
callously killing millions. As with the Muslim cult of hate 
embodied for a while by Osama bin Laden, 
and as with the worst and nuttiest of the new American haters, 
ours was a nihilism that fancied itself utopian. 
On the spectrum of self-righteous madness, 
we were somewhere between lunatic Islamists 
and the lunatic American right-wingers."
Kurt Andersen, True Believers

This book is too good, too smart, to explain in an ordinary book review.

Maybe that's why I've put off writing this review for so long.

True Believers, published by Random House, was released on July 7, 2012. 
I received this book through LibaryThing's Early Readers program, well in advance of this book's publication date. I finished reading it well before that date, and since then my notes have languished on my desk while I avoided revisiting this book. Maybe I was savoring what I had read. Maybe I was intimidated by the breadth and cultural significance of this book. Or... maybe I was lazy. 

Kurt Andersen's latest novel escapes a simple definition. This fictional memoir, chronicling the dramatic secret life of the "trustworthy" (she assures us) Karen Hollaender, is a trip. It's a piece of social commentary; it's a mystery; it's an assortment of coming-of-age stories; it's one hell of a drama; it's a piece of 21st century activist writing; it's a collage of American popular culture that envelops the reader as Karen Hollaender as she leaps off the page and guides you through her many worlds.

Andersen's sharp social commentary is disguised as an easy stroll through the 1960s and early 1970s. His sharp, masterfully-developed female lead grabs hold of the spotlight as her secrets begin to unfurl. Writing her memoir in the near future of the spring of 2013, Karen Hollaender recounts her teenage years in greater Chicago. Andersen references popular culture icons like Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and the Weather Underground to paint a vibrant picture for the reader. A seemingly ordinary childhood leads to an increasingly radical adolescence, culminating in some truly shocking behaviors in college, when Hollaender and her idealistic peers slide further and further into their own dangerous secrets. 

Do any of these following topics interest you? 
If so, read this book.

The American experience.
The radical sub-culture of college-aged activists in the early 1970s.
Assassination conspiracies.
Living life consciously.
The corporate machine.
The Mass Media machine.
Kennedy and LBJ.
Occupy Wallstreet, the Arab Spring and the near future of American politics.
Memory, Hate, Love and Neuroscience.
Living in this Information Age and its repercussions.

Reading True Believers made me paranoid about distinguishing between what is the truth, and what is merely presented as the truth. This, I am sure, would please the author. Andersen's novel deals with false appearances and the real world which lies beneath what has been constructed for society's consumption. 

While reading this novel, the differences between post-Kennedy American and post-9/11 America became far more clear. There's a huge difference between Vietnam-era America and the America in which I came of age.  We have more information than ever, and it's constantly shoved in our faces, but it's not REAL. We are provided with a mind-numbing assortment of statistics, diagrams, maps and opinions. Very rarely do we see actual footage of what's happening by our hand, around the world. Instead, we are fed the news by a rotating cast of clean, caffeinated talking heads who tell us what to think, giving us BOTH, not ALL sides of the story. Virtual reality is far more comfortable, so it has become the norm.

I cannot successfully explain the greatness this book is in one measly blog post. I can, however, tell you that I recommend this book to you, reader, if you are a  person who hungers for something more cognitively occupying than the latest reality TV show. This book will remind you that we a shape our own realities with the choices we make and the things we consume and the lenses we peer through.

"Don't assume you're powerless. 
That's what they count on."
Kurt Andersen, True Believers


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Adversaria 4

Ad`ver*sa"ri*a\, n. pl. [L. adversaria (sc. scripta)]  
A miscellaneous collection of notes, remarks, or selections;  
a commonplace book; also, commentaries or notes.
"Cynicism lacks any real conviction. 
It doesn't like the game as it's being played,  
and so it spoils it. At bottom, 
cynicism is a cheap and shoddy response to a life 
we are afraid to love because it might, for a time, be painful."
-Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper, p. 7
"It is difficult to commit to living where we are, how we are. 
It is difficult and it is necessary. 
In order to make art, we must first make an artful life, 
a life rich enough and diverse enough to give us fuel. 
We must strive to see the beauty in where we are planted, 
even if we are planted somewhere that feels 
very foreign to our own nature."
- Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper, p. 15

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Adversaria 3

Ad`ver*sa"ri*a\, n. pl. [L. adversaria (sc. scripta)]  
A miscellaneous collection of notes, remarks, or selections;  
a commonplace book; also, commentaries or notes.

"I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.
-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (153)

"This childish idea that the authoer of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel... it's ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended."
- John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (191-2)

 "I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed."
- John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (223)  

"And by the way? For the record? America didn't 'lost its innocence' all at once on November 22, 1963. That was the midpoint, the end of the beginning, the moment when a wild new strain of crazy could no longer be denied or ignored. I started reading the newspaper every morning when I was eight, in 1957, and my scrapbooks, full of crinkly Elmer's-glued press clips, seem like the libretto of a dark modern opera, all the darker now for my schoolgirl conscientiousness."
- Kurt Andersen, True Believers (24-5) 

"The supernatural myths of American childhood - Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny - were ostensibly for the sake of children's enchantment. Their real function was habituating adults to perpetuate pretty fantasies, to get them comfortable joining a routine conspiracy of fabrication, to make telling the plain truth seem churlish and wrong. Using cute little Peter as a pawn, Easter was all about trying to turn me into a liar and a cynic.
- Kurt Andersen, True Believers (178)

"Don't assume you're powerless. That's what they count on."
- Kurt Andersen, True Believers (308)

"'Interactive voice response. I got angry and the computer knew I was a woman and knew I was angry. It told me to "please calm down, ma'am." Fuck that. Fuck texting every five seconds and Foursquare and Facebook and the rest of it. It's DIY fascism, you know? Totalitarianism lite. Big Brother as a group hug. Fuck the fucking Singluarity.'
The thing about young people who glimpse malign truths? They're hyperbolic and annoying, but they're not necessarily wrong on some of the essentials. Although my parents' generation may have paid too much attention to our generation's shocked and breathless truth-telling in the 1960s, nowadays I think a lot of us probably err too much in the other direction, shrugging into our Snuggies and pouring another drink."
- Kurt Andersen, True Believers (430)


Our legacy will be outdated technology, squalor and mushy brains. We'll lack the ability to focus, to think critically and independently, and thos who cling to truths, who question our trajection will be silenced one way or another. It's all bullshit, and we're dripping of it. Submerged in this fucked up consumer culture, making ourselves into indentured servants in the name of [progress] without comprehending the consequences.

And what of those who came before me? The men (and some women) who made it through the system before it began to careen out of control? My parents, my neighbors. Well, they've also bought into the system. Keeping their doubts to themselves, their satisfaction comes in the form of nice cars (that now track your every move), nice houses (that are inefficient, too big and often unused and overpriced) and big, flashing screens mounted to living room walls. These expensive billboards are a portal, allowing marketers and the Mass Media to shoulder their way into your subconscious... and it's ruining us.

I've realized that this cannot be helped, cannot be stopped on a grand scale. The media's strangle-hold on everyone will not lessen because we've convinced ourselves that we like to be used; like our new, futuristic, "comfortable" lifestyle that revolves around the voices of others, constantly seducing us with flashing colors and empty promises.

So. There is no solution that will save humanity. There is no way to wrest power from the 20-dd wealthiest families and their many puppets that dance before us, everywhere we look. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Feeling Fruity: Michigan U-Pick Experiences

In the past month, Sean and I have picked fruit at three very different U-Pick operations in Mid-Michigan.

We picked strawberries at a large production farm, blueberries at a popular cider mill and entertainment-focused farm, and currants from a back yard garden in Lansing. At each location the end result was fresh, delicious fruit that costs far less than buying lesser-quality fruit from the grocery store or farmers' market.

Strawberry Picking at Felzke Farms
Some weeks ago, Sean and I had the good fortune of finding ourselves in the best strawberry plot at  Felzke Farms. It was hot out, but I was glad of my long pants while I crawled between the rows. Felzke Farms is Michigan's largest strawberry producer, and has been a local U-Pick favorite for years. Sean and I had done some reconnaissance while buying 20 lbs of asparagus in the spring, so we knew what we were up against.

We arrived relatively early - around 9 a.m. - and were the last people to score a spot in the BEST strawberry field at Felzke (according to the lovely librarian picking a few rows over). I have never tasted a better strawberry. I know this doesn't sound like a big deal, but man, these strawberries can change your perspective on life.

About an hour in the field earned us roughly 40 lbs of the ripest, reddest, juiciest Michigan strawberries on the face of the planet (probably). We dehydrated some to put in granola and oatmeal, made a big batch of strawberry jam and froze the rest. Sucking on a frozen strawberry is one the best ways to combat this outrageously dry, hot summer.

Felzke Farms is a production farm, first and foremost. They offer U-Pick strawberries on the side because they have an abundance of strawberries, and there are crazy people like us who are willing to PAY the farm to pick their berries. It's a good deal for the farm, and a good deal for us! These strawberries are WAY better than those we bought by the quart-full from Kroger 2 years ago, or the farmers' market last year. Cheaper, too.

Blueberry Picking at Uncle John's Cider Mill
 The 6-foot blueberry bushes were drooping from the weight of countless ripe berries when we pulled up to the U-Pick field last Sunday. It was a steamy afternoon - about 90 degrees - and we were the only folks there. We bought a pre-paid 10 pound U-Pick box (about $25). An hour later it was overflowing with the best blueberries I've ever tasted!

We've stocked ourselves with delicious blueberry jam, dried blueberries to snack on, frozen blueberries for my oatmeal and a few cans of berries to bake with over the next year. Last night's blueberry crumble was a beautifully violent purple-blue hue that stained our mouths. Yum!

Of course, you don't HAVE to slave away in the sun to get lots of berries for a good price. At Uncle John's you can buy a pre-filled 10 lbs. box for $25 - way cheaper than the grocery store or farmer's market. We opted to pick our own because we like it, and because the berries taste better if you work a little harder for them. The pre-filled boxes are not as fresh, but still a great deal.

Uncle John's is primarily an entertainment location and cider mill, not a production farm like Felzke. They boast sprawling orchards, a winery, a pie house, delicious donuts and cider, U-Pick pumpkins, a fun corn maze and all sorts of family-friendly attractions. They've recently expanded to offer blueberries, asparagus and strawberries to keep people coming in the mill's "off-season". It's working!

Currant Picking in Old Town, Lansing
Sean and I spent our Independence Day morning in Old Town at our friend Lisa's home, picking eight pounds of currants. I love picking currants. Currant bushes don't grow quite as tall as blueberry bushes, but they provide ample shade as I root around, plucking their fruits. Have you ever seen fresh currants? They're lovely little red gems strung together in a way similar to grape bunches.

Picking currants at Lisa's was a significant moment for the two of us - an anniversary, of sorts. Last summer we experienced our first Picking excursion in this very same same back yard on the Grand River. It was hot and dirty work, and I did not enjoy myself. Still, it held a special charm, and the fruits of our labor (pun-tastic!) were well worth a sweaty hour or two. We juiced our berries with various devices, and they will soon become clear, tasty currant jelly.

Lisa is the opposite of massive operations like Felzke Farms and Uncle John's. She's an regular person with a job and a life... a big, back-yard garden. She planted a row of currant bushes years ago, and each season she allows strangers (like us) to come and pick them for a very low price.  It's easy for her, easy for us, and we both benefit.

Since picking currants last summer, we've harvested apples from Clam Lake Orchard (near Torch Lake), a few bushels of huskcherries from Pregitzer Farm, wild raspberries from the areas surrounding "Barton's Blind", a gorgeous Douglas Fir Christmas tree at Peacock Road Tree Farm, the aforementioned strawberries, blueberries, currants and countless other crops from our own gardens.

It's pretty cool, to say the least.