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A Good American Hardcover – February 7, 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult; 1 edition (February 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039915759X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399157592
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (155 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #838,203 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Eleanor Brown, best-selling author of The Weird Sisters, interviews Alex George about A Good American

Eleanor Brown: My crack investigative skills (and your charming British accent) tell me you’re not from the United States. How does an Englishman living in Missouri come to write a book titled A Good American?

Eleanor Brown

Alex George: So it’s true what they say about novelists and their highly developed observational skills! The title comes from a conversation that takes place early in the book, just after the grandparents of the immigrant family, Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer, arrive in America, when one of the first people they meet encourages them to be “good Americans.” I decided to tell an immigration tale soon after I moved to the United States myself. Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” It struck me that the experience of packing up my life and moving to another country, with no expectation that I would ever return home, was something worth writing about. And almost all people in America have a story similar to this one somewhere in their past.

Brown: In a case of life imitating art, I understand you’re in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Are your feelings about that similar to your characters’?

George: Frederick and Jette react to life in America in diametrically opposite ways. Frederick adores his new country immediately, and embraces it wholeheartedly. Jette, on the other hand, is constantly longing for home. I find myself caught somewhere between the two. I love living in the United States, but I miss England every day. This is the paradox of the immigrant existence: one wants to adapt to one’s new home without forgetting where one came from. And yes, I am in the process of acquiring U.S. citizenship. In the novel, when Frederick and Jette take their oaths, Jette’s eyes are filled with tears as she does so. I hope I won’t be crying, but I’m sure that there will be a little bit of sadness, together with the excitement. I wrote that scene years ago. It’s strange that I’ll be in the same ceremony within weeks of the novel’s being published.

Brown: Both of our books are concerned with finding a place to call home. Why is that important to you?

George: I’ve lived in the States for almost nine years now, and I’m still trying to work out where home is for me. If you subscribe to the maxim that “home is where the heart is,” then I suppose it’s easy enough: home is in Missouri, where my children are. But the actuality can often be more complicated than an old adage would have you believe. Whenever I go back to England, the past rushes up and ambushes me, and I find myself overwhelmed by a strong sense of belonging. There’s no escaping your roots.

Brown: What are the challenges, and the advantages, of writing a story that follows one family over the course of an entire century?

George: The biggest challenge was to fit the story I wanted to tell into the framework of history that was already there. I didn’t have the freedom to decide when certain events happened. That was occasionally frustrating, but it was a challenge I relished. The fun part was to incorporate real people into the book--two presidents make an appearance, for example--and in fact, the twentieth century was so eventful that at certain points the book almost wrote itself. The only downside was the amount of research I had to do to make sure that I got all my facts right. I’m slightly allergic to research, to be honest. I prefer just to make stuff up.

Brown: What is your routine when you’re writing?

George: My “day job,” as an attorney, is demanding, often with long hours. But when it comes to writing, I need a regular routine. I figured out a long time ago that the only way I would be able to find a consistent time to write every day was if I got up early, when there are no clients calling, no family commitments--just me and the stories in my head. So every morning I get up at five and work for two hours before the rest of the day begins. That’s why it took me five years to write this book.

Alex George

Brown: Music is important in the novel, and from reading your blog and following you on Twitter, I know you’re a jazz fan. If A Good American were set to music, would it be jazz? opera? boy bands?

George: Probably a little bit of all--okay, maybe not the boy bands. Several different types of music appear in the book. The story begins with an opera aria, and includes ragtime, bluegrass, and barbershop singing. Music, like life, is intoxicating in its variety and richness. Don’t make me choose just one kind!

Brown: There are an extraordinary number of secrets in this story. Why do family members keep so many secrets from one another?

George: As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but not your family. Many of us have to learn techniques to help us live with those we love the most. Secrets are often perceived as pernicious things, created by bad faith or dishonesty, but sometimes--as in A Good American--the greatest secrets of all are kept at enormous personal cost. And they are kept out of a desire not to hurt others. They are an act of love.

Brown: Which books or authors have had a strong influence on your writing?

George: There are many, many wonderful writers whose work I admire and love. It’s impossible to give anything approaching a comprehensive list, but here are a select few, in no particular order: Salman Rushdie, for the richness of his imagination and the strange glories of his language; Julian Barnes, for his faultless elegance; Lorrie Moore, for her luminous prose; John Updike, just for being John Updike, but especially for the Rabbit books; John Fowles, who first showed me (in The Magus) the magical ability the best books have to transport you to another world; Richard Powers, whose books taught me to raise my ambitions when I sit down to write; and John Irving, who always told the best stories.

(Photo of Alex George © Carole Patterson) (Photo of Eleanor Brown ©Joe Henson)

From Booklist

The unlikeliest of lovers, Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer flee their native Germany and set sail for America at the turn of the twentieth century, eager for the freedom their new country promises. Turn by lucky turn, they make their way from New Orleans to the tiny burg of Beatrice, Missouri, aided by the kind of dumb luck fate shines upon the deserving. Though they are ever thankful for the benevolence that comes their way, global events still manage to track them down in their idyllic haven. As WWI rages across Europe, Frederick enlists so he can fight for his newly adopted land. Recounted by his grandson, James, the lives of Frederick’s descendants—daughter Rosa, son Joseph, and Joseph’s four boys—play out against the major historical events and cultural influences of each decade, from Prohibition to the civil rights movement, ragtime to rock and roll. An English lawyer highly praised for his previous novels who is now living in Missouri, George has created an expansive yet intimate family saga in which he adroitly explores aspects of identity, loyalty, chance, and determination that define the immigrant experience. --Carol Haggas

More About the Author

Alex George is a writer and a lawyer. He was born in England, but presently lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Alex has been named as one of Britain's top ten "thirtysomething" novelists by the Times of London, and was also named as the Independent on Sunday's "face to watch" for fiction in its Fresh Talent feature.

Alex read law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris. He moved to the United States in 2003, and re-qualified as a US attorney. He now runs his own law firm in Columbia.

Alex has two young children. His hobbies include listening to obscure jazz albums, playing his saxophone, and cooking (and eating) complicated meals.

He is now hard at work on his new novel.

Customer Reviews

There were many characters in this story.
Very quickly you realize that the story is not about immigrants, but rather families in the 20th Century.
W. Sanders
Still, this is a book that I so much enjoyed reading that I didn't want it to end.
Just My Op

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Holly Weiss VINE VOICE on January 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Always there was music." Frederick, an amateur opera singer, serenades a tall, wide-eyed German girl. So begins the courtship of Frederick and Jette, who, after she becomes pregnant, flee their unhappy life in Germany for America. The early twentieth century found countless immigrants flooding into New York through Ellis Island. In 1904, Jette and Frederick board a ship to New Orleans instead. "What's the difference? They're both new." Frederick, who speaks no English, steps into a jazz club and, enamored with the new musical genre, begins his love affair with America.

They ultimately settle in the tiny town of Beatrice, Missouri where we meet a plethora of bizarre and lovable characters. Frederick, although prone to mistake making and overindulging in his cups, is genial and lovable. Jetta, his wife, is bland in comparison. The family lives through prohibition, the Great Depression and the Kennedy assassination. The epic spans a century, but reads like a two-hour movie.

Dazzling and well-crafted, A Good American is replete with stunning prose and lovable characters. James, grandson of Frederick and Jette, relates the stories of the Meisenheimer generations. Abrupt changes of perspective, from easily flowing narrator to James's first person voice, interrupt the flow of the novel. Endorsements by many bestselling authors are paraded in the book's publicity. They may assist book browsers, but the book stands on its own as a bittersweet tale of America's melting pot and how our common bonds as citizens far outweigh any ethnic or cultural differences.

Alex George, writer and lawyer, enjoys jazz, playing saxophone and cooking. Music winds in and out of the story.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Diana F. Von Behren TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
For approximately 400 pages, Alex George's "A Good American" carries the reader through the family history of the Meisenheimer clan in chapter-turning clarity told through the first person narration of James, a third generation German American born and raised in a small town in Missouri with no qualms about revealing the good, bad and the ugly bark of his genealogical tree. Although George's prose is wrought in James' overeager, intimate and almost "aw shucks" voice, the plot line loses steam after the death of family patriarch Frederick in World War I (around page 120) and becomes a litany of births, weddings, and funerals worthy of any family raconteur told over a Midwestern cracker barrel to anyone who might listen.

As the consummate chronicler, main character James unabashedly relates the story of his grandparents arrival in New Orleans, their trek to Missouri and the subsequent opening of their bar/restaurant with engaging prose that keeps the reader wondering what larger story or theme is about to develop. This does not happen. Author George passes on many opportunities but seems intent on just producing a wordy genealogical tree. A human rights angle could have emerged when wily musician Lomax saunters into town with cornet in hand and his penchant for spicy food. Didn't happen. There are no "sins of the father" going-on a la "East of Eden" or "Wuthering Heights" where the building of generations recoups something yearned that the previous generation either lost or wanted so badly it drowns in its own desire.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By R. DelParto VINE VOICE on December 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Author Alex George writes a historical novel that depicts another perspective of the immigrant experience of individuals that sought an independent life distant from their homelands and families. George tells the story of Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer who decided to seek opportunities in America but much more, to leave Bremen, Germany and the somewhat familial constrictions of tradition that prompted the couple to leave. And their journey begins aboard the Copernicus headed to New York, New Orleans, and eventually to the city of Beatrice, Missouri. One wonders why Beatrice?

Frederick and Jette's story is extremely romanticized but their story in spite of its fictional narration by the couple's grandson James, represents a story of thousands of immigrants that crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe during the turn of the century. Their stories resonate within the main characters and the people that they meet along the way, especially those who already had family attempting to adjust to life in the US. They brought their cultural traditions and skills in order to survive. And with great emphasis, George tells of Frederick and Jette's journey from Germany to the United States as flashbacks that paint an imagery of the couple's experiences from the old to the new world. But what is interesting about the novel and how George portrays the couple's life, a reflection of their past that is embedded with history and how they were able to transition into a new landscape and assimilate into American society in the Midwest. After 1904, their life would not be the same, and most importantly, the roles that each played within a new country and home that tremendously helped to define their identity culturally and ethnically - they became Americans.
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