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Too Good to Be True: A Memoir Hardcover – October 16, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

A Q&A with Ben Anastas

Susan Choi is the author of three acclaimed novels, The Foreign Student (winner of an Asian American Literary Award), American Woman (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and A Person of Interest (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award). She recently won a 2012 James Beard Foundation Award for her food writing.

Susan Choi: What made you want to write this book?

Ben Anastas: I’m not sure that I ever really wanted to write Too Good to Be True. The motivation behind the book ran much deeper than that. The word “want” implies a choice, and when I started writing the book’s first pages, having the freedom to choose what to do with my life—even calling myself a writer—felt like a privilege I had lost.

I was 41 and my literary career was flat lining. I hadn’t published a book in the U.S. in almost ten years, and the magazines I’d been writing for had either disappeared or stopped answering my emails I’d lost my marriage in a mind-bending divorce drama. I was scrambling to keep it all together and telling myself that rescue was just around the corner and everything would be fine—but when the book starts, in the fall of 2010, my financial life was about to hit rock bottom.

Nothing I tried was working. So I started over again, from the beginning. I took an empty notebook and a couple of pens and I started going into my son’s room when he wasn’t there and writing about what was happening, what getting lost in too much life really felt like.

SC: This book is so startling, and funny, and disturbing, and gut-wrenchingly honest. Were there people in your life you particularly hoped would or wouldn’t read it?

BA: If you’re startled as a reader or moved to laughter and/or tears, then I must have done my job, right?

You never know what episodes from your private life will end up making it into a novel. I knew my parents would have to read Too Good to Be True eventually, but I did put it off until I felt confident about what I was doing. The title comes from some very bad therapy that my brother, my sister and me all had during the summer of 1972—a lifetime ago—while our mother was being treated for depression. Their marriage was ending, it was a low-point in their lives, and we were bystanders in a drama that we didn’t understand. I feel very protective of my parents so I was worried from the start about how they would react to those sections of the book. I just had to gulp and hand the manuscript over.

SC: How did fatherhood affect the writing of this book, if at all? How has it affected your writing in general?

BA: My son, who’s five now and too young to read the book—another sigh of relief—is the driving force behind Too Good to Be True, even when he’s not present, and the final chapter is a kind of letter to him explaining what I’ve been up to. So, in a very real sense, the book wouldn’t exist without him. You really do need a reason to go on when you find yourself broke at forty-one and hiding collection notices in your underwear drawer, and he was a very big reason why I managed to go on.

When a child’s room is empty, you really know it. There’s no clamor inside, no calls for “Daddy,” no astonishing new mess to clean up. As a part-time father, it’s a quiet that I’ve had to learn to get used to. There was something very satisfying about the ritual of going into his room and trying to find my way on paper. His bed was made and empty, his stuffed animals were heaped at my side, his clothes were stacked on the dresser and there I was with my notebook, trying to untangle the mystery of my origins so he wouldn’t have to.

SC: What comes next?

BA: There’s a novel brewing. Definitely fiction. I’ve had my fill of reality experiments!


"The failure is real, the voice is raw, the story is haunting." —Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom

"It’s all very funny and a joy to read, but what lifts this memoir from good to outstanding is that the humor and the darkness are merely a patina. Under the irony there is no irony. Under the panic lies a remorseful heart, a steady determination to figure this to and become a better person." —New York Times Book Review

"One of the most acclaimed memoirs of 2012." —The Week

"Too Good to Be True is smart and honest and searching…so plaintive and raw that most writers (and many readers) will finish it with heart palpitations."—Dwight Garner, New York Times

"A miasma of misfortune… the author’s many battles have wrung from him both catharsis and poignancy… [a] raw yet eloquent presentation of a life in crisis mode."—Kirkus

"Scenes of a ’70s childhood, complete with pot-smoking parents and 'a lot of adult nudity' yield unexpected sweetness and humor in a book that’s often searingly painful." —The Boston Globe

"Too Good to Be True has a messy urgency and a distinctive voice all its own." —Washington Post Book World

“This memoir is undeniably impossible to put down." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A gifted writer" —New Yorker

"Self-pity has never been so bracing—or hilarious." –Town & Country

"Anastas has written one of the most memorable memoirs we've read all year." —Sarah Weinman, Publishers Lunch

"A spectacular account of mind-blowing failure. It is short and it is beautiful and you must buy it." —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

"'Enjoyed' is the wrong word for this book. You don't enjoy eating a bag of glass shards mixed in with bloody pulpy bits of a human heart. Enjoyment, in this case, is irrelevant —I devoured this book not in spite of the pain, but because of it. This is a messy, vital, non-story of a story. I finished it and felt covered in the debris of a life."—Charles Yu, author of How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

"I love this book so much. Which is weird, considering that it consists of watching Anastas take blow after blow, before being battered and receiving more blows. But you won’t pity the author, who leans into even the most difficult situations with wonder and boundless empathy; instead you'll just wish he could narrate your own disasters to you, so you could see the art in the salvage." —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

"A lot of books get called things like ‘brutally honest,’ but few books are really as brutal as Too Good to Be True. Benjamin Anastas has taken disheartening failure and turned it into searing, soaring success." —Daniel Handler, author of Why We Broke Up

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Little A / New Harvest (October 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547913990
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547913995
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #659,697 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels "An Underachiever's Diary," recently re-released in paperback by the Dial Press, and "The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance" (FSG), which was a New York Times notable book. His memoir "Too Good to Be True" was published in October of 2012. Other work has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, The Yale Review and The Best American Essays 2012. He teaches literature at Bennington College and is also on the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Customer Reviews

I could not get interested in this book so didn't finish reading.
Zita Aoki
I write memoir but tend to not like most that I read because they often focus on one MAJOR event and sometimes are just not well written.
Constance Campana
I never did really get to the point where I couldn't put this down.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 500 REVIEWER on October 16, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have to honestly say that I hated this book for the first fourth of it. I thought that Anastas was whiny and frankly the kind of guy I would warn my daughter against. His career as a novelist was in free fatal, and he was broke. In a nice piece of writing, he discusses his humiliating world of taking coins to Coinstar to buy groceries. He was with one woman who would like him to stabilize his life, and to whom he is lying about his debts. His firstnwife had left him while pregant with his son. He had cheated on her just before the wedding, but they had thought they had gotten past this betrayal. At this point, the book is filled with rage, self hate, and envy of those who are succeeding. I tend to finish my books, and it grew on me. I can see the pain he endured as a child, the casualty of the great 60's experiment, and a dreadful psychiatric hospital. We hear more about his efforts to salvage his marriage.
In the second part of the book, he widens his focus to include his understanding of the pain he really has caused. We see a more balanced man. I began to like him better. One can only love a man who is in love with his son. The focus began to shift from the wrongs done to him, to the ways he could pull his life to a place where he could be productive agai, maximize his life with his son, and attempt to save his relationship with honesty. The writing is indeed clear and evocative.
Read it and see what you think.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Edna Jeedee on October 21, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Haven't read a book this compelling in a long time and I read a lot. Writers especially will devour it but I think anyone would love it. I bought this on my kindle after I read the favorable review in The New York Times. I just had a baby a week ago and went back and forth between staring at my son's face and reading this book - was just too compelled to put the book down. The writing is beautiful and just excellent, the story of the author's failed marriage and career drives forward with incredible energy and intelligence, and there is so much heart and soul, especially around his son and his childhood. Really made me want to read more from this author. I am going to buy his first novel and I am also going to buy TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE in hardcover because it's the kind of book I know I will want to reread. Just loved it and can't recommend it highly enough.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Harold Braswell on October 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a great book. I can't remember having read anything so quickly, in fact, and with such passion. Perhaps that's because it's a book about failure--which is something that I have lived often enough and yet continue to dread. In part, it's the story of how and why Anastas was driven to cheat on his wife, and how his doing so--coupled with a number of factors largely out of his control--ruined his life. But on a deeper level it's a story about his own struggles to be a son to his hippie parents and a father to his young son. I found it to be very well-written throughout, with language that is elegant, thoughtful, and deeply moving, even as it depicts scenes that will make you cringe, sob, and fume. It's an honest book, and, in a sense, a book about learning to be honest: By the end, Anastas learns that he does not have to be "too good to be true"--that it was by trying to be better than he was that he was driven to fail to begin with. This could seem a very cheesy lesson, were it not for the longing behind Anastas' lifelong struggle to learn it. If you've experienced longing, you will love this book. I recommend it without reservations.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Missmeliss on October 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I didn't realize this book was a memoir until, with a jarring sense of recognition, Anastas mimicked the debt collectors phone calls asking for "Benjamin Anastas" in robotic automation, and recognized the authors name. I had no idea that there were others like myself out there, but now suspect many who hear this story will say "me too." This book was funny, sweet, and deeply resonant in ways that I could not have explained until Anastas gave them words. It ended so beautifully too, humility and appreciation for the space in life we find ourselves is what true contentedness is.
I think I'll start an "Anastas Fan Club."
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Shiotani on November 4, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Anastas is a talented writer, and this book contains many passages that I thought were powerful and almost moving, although these are almost invariably about his son rather than himself or any of the adults around him. But what I found disappointing about the book was his tendency to devolve into whining and score-settling. I was hoping for a story of a once successful author who, finding himself entering early middle age broke and flailing and adrift, manages to pull himself up through pluck, good humor, and aplomb. What's on display rather is someone who makes suspect financial and personal choices but fails to give others in his life sufficient credit for having legitimate motivations and purposes of their own. It seems that he believes that a little frank acknowledgment of his own sins allows him to assume the mantle of sanity and rationality in this story, while others' reactions and behavior becomes inexplicable or even unforgivable as a result. Although I'm sure it must have been pleasurable and cathartic to write about his former wife and her lover in unflattering terms - and give the readers clues so that they can be easily identified - he comes off in my mind as a somewhat diminished figure, although perhaps he may not have cared. In any event, it would have been a better book if he'd had been more fearless in examining himself, even though I grant it must have been hard to get his writing career re-started with this rather unpleasant self-portrait.
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