36 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Brief summary and review, no spoilers.
Karen Hollender is 64 years old and has decided to write the story of her life. She was recently on a short list of candidates for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court but she has taken her name out of the running. In this novel, we find out why and what secret she has been hiding for many years.
In this wonderful book, we learn about Karen's loving, middle-class upbringing in Wilmette, Illinois. It is the early 1960's and she and her best friends Chuck and Alex are all James Bond fanatics and they like to act out clandestine and imaginative spy missions. Told in chapters that alternate between the present and the past. we follow Karen and her friends as they grow up during the turbulent 1960's. As the war rages on in Viet Nam, Karen becomes more radicalized and politicized as so many did during that time. But when that radicalization includes a subversive and criminal plan, everything changes.
I have read several books about the 1960's and the counterculture movement and this may be one the best ones I've read. I thought the author nailed the descriptions of what it was like during that decade and I also thought his observations about the culture both then and today were persuasive and compelling. There were unique things about the 1960's for sure, and no doubt America did lose its innocence and change after the assassination of John Kennedy. But as this book so brilliantly shows us, much of what we thought was so exclusive to that time is more universal and relevant today as well.
This novel is not just an astute look at our culture then and now, it's also the author's shrewd observations about time and memory. Perhaps it's because I am old enough to remember Kennedy's assassination, but I felt that this book absolutely spoke to me. I have dog-eared so many pages of this novel because I thought there were so many passages that were so spot-on and so clever. I don't know if someone much younger would get as much out of this book as I did, but for me this book was just terrific. Although I thought it was a little slow-go towards the start, it soon became a page-turner for me and when I put it down I couldn't wait to pick it back up. I am writing this book at night after having just finished it, and I know I will be thinking about it for a long, long time. I can think of no higher compliment than that.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Although I'm a few years younger than Karen Hollander, the 65-year-old protagonist of this book, I grew up in the '60s and remember enough to find the period fascinating -- a true watershed time around the world, whether or not you agree with its influence, which is still evident today.
So I looked forward to reading this book, in which Hollander, a respected and accomplished renaissance woman, looks back on her revolutionary acts during the '60s as she writes a book about her life. The story jumps back and forth between the present and that tumultuous decade more than forty years ago, highlighting the things Karen and her associates did in their often misguided attempts to improve the world.
The problem I had was that the story starts out slowly and pretty much takes its time -- not something I expected in a tale about the '60s. There's a lot of focus on the teenaged Karen and her friends' fascination with James Bond books and movies -- and, yes, there is a point to that, but the book takes a long time to reveal it. In the meantime, I found myself thinking, "So what?"
As badly as I wanted to get into this book, I found my attention wandering time after time as I waded through mountains of unnecessary details. I think this is a worthy effort, but in the end it was more of a slog than a sprint.
63 of 84 people found the following review helpful
Sixty-five-year-old Karen Hollander is an attorney with Type I diabetes, a heavyweight résumé and a Wikipedia entry. Her CV includes (but not limited to) author of four best-selling books, dean of a law school, a corporate lawyer in a powerful law firm, and U.S. Justice Department official. She's divorced, with accomplished, brilliant children, and she's devoted to her granddaughter, Waverly, a seventeen-year-old on her way to becoming a likeness of the achieving Karen (with some cute malapropisms that Karen corrects).
The book is told from Hollander's narrative perspective, as a memoir, to gradually divulge a dangerous secret surrounding her activist activities in 1967, an undisclosed event that caused her to turn down a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. This secret, she feels, has emotionally crippled her (and likely the former friends involved). Andersen's rugged skill and talent is displayed here, as he gradually develops a taut, thriller-type story that will keep you turning the pages, and echoes a past that surely is more passionate than its future.
If you enjoy stories about the 1960's hippie/activist days, you will revel in the revolutionary spirit of the counterculture era--protests, sit-ins, intellectual debates--together with thought-provoking ideas that pad the story, but add to the theme and successfully loop into the narrative. Additionally, Karen's 007-role-playing missions with her best friends, Alex and Chuck, define her pre-college years and add colorful background to the story. Their friendship was cemented during these risky and adventurous events that began in Wilmette, near Chicago, and peaked as Harvard freshmen. She now lives in LA.
Because of Andersen's tight pacing and architecture, I was engaged in the story. But I was unconvinced with the incongruous voice of Karen. Hollander's résumé and leanings have all the makings of a Hillary Clinton (inside a lean size-six resembling a 45-ish Julie Christie). At Hollander's age and achievements, one would expect her memoir's tone to be serious, mature, and intellectually sober, and to reflect the weight of the story.
Instead, her narrative voice/tone is an octave too high and young and much too coy and chipper for her judicial years and leadership, not to mention the import of subject matter and this burdensome secret. Of all the voices for Andersen to imbue in Hollander, this contradictory one undermines the gravity of the story and the magnitude of her character. Try to imagine Clinton personifying a college freshman on a sleepover, terrified of spilling the awful travesty of Spring Break. No way! Yes, way! And Hollander periodically speaks in colloquialisms like "grok." Additionally, she states that she is responsible "to a fault" yet she doesn't lock her computer documents??
"Living here [in LA] makes me feel as if I'm always getting away with something. What I now clearly see--note to book clubs" [italicized]--"is a major theme of my life." Too coy.
The seminal incident of her life happened when Karen was 18, but she is telling it as a fully mature and accomplished woman. It is gnawing to hear her narrate a memoir in a teenaged tone, bright with a cavalier spirit that alternates with calculated contrition. Moreover, there's too much authorial intrusion as apology--we are coaxed to acknowledge her self-blame, but her role as a martyr is too canny and deliberate.
Hollander's past is part of the suspension of disbelief, and you are supposed to go along with its historic chronicle of heady 60's activism. However, Hollander's supernova status renders the rest of the characters pale and straw in comparison, as if they were set up primarily to prop up Karen's immeasurable gifts. She hooks up with an ex-boyfriend, who she hasn't actually seen in a decade, because he has the highest form of secret government clearance, "my friend the senior national security and intelligence-community apparatchik," as she needs his acquisitive talents to provide secret documents to her. It was too fantastic to accept that he would so easily defy his coda to help her.
The author of the ripe and historical Heyday, a resonant novel of the 19th century with a credible female protagonist, is not as successful in drawing out a lead woman character in this second novel. It's hard to be a true believer, but the tight plot and vivid walk down memory lane convinced me of its earnest desire, if not its plausibility. The wobbly credibility was eased by moments of sensitive introspection about a time that is now too often remembered with bumper sticker slogans and vintage fashion. The heart of the story--of a woman who dares to tell the truth in 2013, an era of avatars and fabrications, Facebook and Twitter--and risk her spotless professional legacy--managed to almost balance the false notes with an exuberant belief in itself.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Until now, the best repesntation, in fiction, of America in the 60s was George R.R. Martin's "The Armageddon Rag" (Don't worry, no one else has heard of it, either!)
But now Kurt Anderson has, oh so vividly, reproduced not only the era (which any competent historian could do), but the "feel" of the era as well.
Moreover, and this is the REALLY important contribution of the book, by looking at it from today, he places that fabled era, and its meaning, or lack thereof, in a perspective that all, too many don't see, don't want to see, perhaps, or can't admit they see.
Without taking one bit away from the importance of those times, Anderson explores (through protagonist/narrator Karen Hollander) the very tricky question of how important one generation's importance really is to another's.
Oh, and he does it with some of the best writing available today.
It's been said: "If you remember the 60s, you weren't there!"
Anderson, who was a teenager during most of that time, may not have "been there", exactly, but, boy, does he remember it for us!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
... and came out at opposite points of the spectrum.
Karen Hollander, the book's protagonist, is (according to the story) about a month younger than I am, so we shared many of the same cultural experiences at the exact same point in our lives. That made this book doubly interesting to me, especially because those same experiences drove us in directions that were diametrically opposed. She became a leftist anti-war radical, I became a soldier in the Vietnam War.
We were both James Bond aficionados (there's even a blurb to that effect under my picture in the "notes" in my "Class of `66" high school yearbook), liked the same music, went to East Coast colleges, the whole nine yards. She ended up plotting to assassinate LBJ, I ended up as an intel agent in Nam.
That's what made this book especially interesting to me, as it was an insight into the mind of a `60s radical that I found very entertaining.
And this book was, indeed, entertaining. It really moves right along. There's not really much of a plot, per se. It's more a coming-of-age story about how that young radical ended up maturing into a pillar of the community, and a staunch Establishment-type person of the kind that she so despised as a teen "rebel". As such, it's an almost-universal story of teen angst and maturation, though the outcomes between she and I are strikingly dissimilar.
Andersen pretty accurately captures the era and that angst. That's one of the things that I think will make this book especially appealing to those of the same age as Hollander and I. We lived through one of the most dramatic changes of the political scene since at least the Great Depression at an age where we were ripe to be influenced by, as well as influence, the course of events. It was a pretty unique time in our country's history, the ramifications of which still resonate to this day, especially reflected in the makeup of the Democrat Party and its leftward turn of ideology that directly derives from the events of 1968 and the Vietnam War.
This is the story of the Baby Boomers of the Left, well and entertainingly told. Four stars. EVEN if you don't agree with them! Trust me; I'm no liberal.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I so wanted to enjoy this book. Having lived through the same tumultuous years as the narrator, I expected to be swept away. Instead, I found myself constantly shaking my head in disbelief. For someone serious and committed enough to be Supreme Court material, she spent way too much time having fun. And the fun she had? She experienced EVERY socio-political pop culture cliche imaginable. How do you spend so much time having fun while working hard enough in school to achieve that level of success? It's possible, but the mature person reflecting on it wouldn't sound so adolescent. The tone throughout the book is inconsistent with her stature as the mature person reflecting on past experiences. Her recollection of the past is all about the fun, and never about the hard work necessary to attain so much. And what are we to make about her frequent insistence that she is a reliable narrator? At first, I pressed on to find out what her "dark secret" was. I finally couldn't take it any more and quit about ¾ of the way through, regretting that I had spent so much of time on it. Disappointing!
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
While True Believers is a quick and enjoyable read, it also raises serious issues through the experiences of its main characters. In brief, the novel explores the feelings of a current member of the legal establishment who decides to write a tell all memoir about her flirtation with an act of ultimate political dissent in the sixties. Throughout this process, Karen Hollaender muses upon the responsibilities of an individual as part of a civil society which may be engaging in immoral actions as well as the need to expiate personal guilt (and the relationship of that need to Catholicism). Hollaender's moral/political journey also illustrates continuity in American life as well as how the character of an individual changes (and stays the same) as she/he ages.
Fiction and non-fiction narratives of "The Sixties" continue to be met with the same political polarization that characterizes discussions of social issues in 2012. True Believers tries to get both sides to examine the decision to dissent more impassively. The novel demonstrates how a child of the sixties transitions from obsessive fan of super policeman James Bond to potential political terrorist and back to supportive citizen. Karen Hollaender goes as far as to argue that she was never un-American. She thinks of herself as "anti-American, maybe, from age sixteen to nineteen" and describes her planned act of political terror as "a hell-bent, self-dramatizing, wildly optimistic improvised do-it-yourself scheme to improve the sinful world." She submits her final self-judgement as both a defense and explanation of her actions: "For those three months of 1968, we embodied that part of the American character that has troubled and scared me ever since...For better or worse, in 1968, I think we were very American. Terribly American." At the same time, Hollaender feels the need both to confess and to perform penance for her past intentions.
Another underlying theme of this book is the way in which personal identity and memory can be defined or distorted by narratives in popular culture. True Believers adds to this ongoing popular culture narrative even as it tries to provide more clarity around decisions that had to be made at another point in time. Given this challenge, the book succeeds both as a novel and as a reminder of the moral complexity faced by individuals who believe they retain ethical responsibility for the outputs of the nation state of which they are a member.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2013
This book is so over-the-top that I think maybe it's supposed to be a satire. How else can you explain a protagonist who's a middle-class girl from a Chicago suburb who gets admitted to Radcliffe in 1967, just in time to indulge her great radical impulses, but then pulls back to become an Ivy League attorney, Legal Aid lawyer, Supreme Court clerk, globe-trotting corporate lawyer, noted author, Assistant U.S. Attorney General, law school dean, and Supreme Court nominee? Oh, and her best friend from her youth becomes a billionaire film producer-artist-art collector. Between them and other cohorts, they run into everyone on the rise from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Jimi Hendrix to Hilary Clinton.
And what were they doing? They weren't pretending to be 60s radicals, they were real radicals. The trio of Karen, Chuck and Alex grow from teen nerds who pretend that they are James Bond characters to anti-war activists by the time they graduate from high school --- the boys then going to Harvard, and Karen going to the women's version, Radcliffe. While there as freshmen, they throw a few wrenches into the war machine, do a lot of drugs, and decide to commit an assassination. This tale unfolds as Karen, now age 64, is writing her biography and trying to come to grips with what she did, didn't do, and the life that followed.
The conceit enables the author to give a tour of the highlights, lowlights and overall feel of the revolutionary Sixties. And that part of the book is very good. You get a feel for the rapid pace of change in everyday living (plastic, TV, kid-oriented popular music, etc.), politics, and so on. You understand how disorienting it must have felt for everyone, as Karen talks about feeling almost as if she was in a dreamlike state because every assumption was up for challenge and every fact was up for dispute. And you get a sense of how people felt as they watched extraordinary events unfold on TV, especially assassinations and riots in the U.S. and the nightly massacres in Vietnam.
While all of the above is entertaining, the author throws too many touchstones of the era into the lives of too few people. As a new lover of Karen's says to her near the end of the book, "[You're] the ultimate poster child for my generation--you have everything you could possibly want, sky's the limit, then you decide you've got to burn down the joint, you do all this lunatic s***, then you suddenly change your mind and decide, 'Nah, America's no so bad after all--waiter, I'll have another chardonnay,' tuck into this sweet life, and get away with it all scot...free." And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with the book. Everything is too perfect, from Karen's Nazi-survivor father, to her avant-garde music composer husband, to her moves through every hipster neighborhood in the nation, to her seemingly endless ability to do anything she wants with her career, to her radicalized granddaughter.
Oh, and by the way, the guy who gave her the speech? He's top-level spy operative with access to the nation's deepest secrets, but he's willing to risk his career to help Karen uncover some mysteries about her own past for her book. And, by the way, he's an incredibly virile guy at age 59, so they have sex whenever they see each other.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I'm not sure how realistic this story is. There were some things that seemed far-fetched, but it had me turning the pages, so I'm not complaining. It was believable enough, and with fiction, that's enough for me. I finished the book in just a few days.
The premise is that Karen Hollander, age 64 in 2013, is in the process of writing a book about her life, culminating in the revelation of a huge secret she's been keeping since 1968. It involves serious criminal activity, and people died. That's all she'll tell you to begin with.
The narrative bounces back and forth between the present (2013-14), and the past, 1949 through 1968. We follow Karen, Alex, and Chuck growing up together in Illinois, forging a "bond," so to speak, over their fondness for James Bond novels and films. When they go off to Harvard, their hijinks involve much higher stakes, swept up as they are in the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s. For those who can remember life in the '50s and '60s, I think this novel could be a great nostalgia piece. Kurt Andersen brings in all the cultural markers -- music, movies, toys, food, clothes, politics -- everything that stirs up memories of that era.
The world must have felt chaotic and frightening for many young people in the 1960s. There was so much change and violence, assassinations, war, nuclear threats -- much of it right here on American soil. At the same time it could be a very heady feeling to be caught up in the maelstrom, certain of the rightness of your beliefs and young enough to disregard long-term consequences. As Karen and her buddies take greater and greater risks, Andersen brings alive that turmoil and idealism. With Karen the senior citizen, we see the haunting aftermath of that youthful misbehavior. Karen Hollander is a fictional representation of many '60s radicals who could never quite escape their past, even when they became adults and embraced the establishment they had once vilified.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
"True Believers" main character, Karen Hollander is a sixty-something former lawyer, Supreme Court Justice nominee and well-regarded author, with a Big Secret. (Note: If the protagonist is a novelist, you can be fairly sure he/she is a stand-in for the real author. And when they start quoting their fictional book reviews, which are usually positive, you can be sure of it.) She is very hip for a woman of her age, though she does have to look up what the "I" means in LGBTQI (inter-sex for all you non-hipsters out there). There is also her granddaughter, Waverly, an extremely hip Millennial. Between the two of them mentioning expressing liberal opinions on every subject imaginable, whether or not they are integral to the plot, the book reaches maximum levels of hipness. Much of the humor revolves around someone not grasping what an acronym means or a cultural reference which eventually gets tedious. If the author is trying to create a realistic self-righteous, overbearing liberal, he's succeeded, but spending 438 pages with a couple is not my idea of an enjoyable reading experience.
We learn early on that Karen is writing her memoir, starting with her youth, in which she and two close male friends, both James Bond fans, enacted a number of scenes from the books/movies. Although she has had a very successful career by any standard, she has for some reason refused to be considered for a nomination to the Supreme Court, and it's clear that this has something to do with the Big Secret, which apparently left some dead and others involved unwilling to acknowledge they were part of it in the first place. Karen is blessed with amazing luck, and she displays a pronounced lack of shame or guilt when telling her story, both of which made her a less-than-believable character. Secondary characters exist only to praise her or hit on her, or apologize to her when they realize that they weren't quite so prescient about say, LBJ being a Very Bad Guy. If the writer wasn't male, I'd suspect that Karen is really a Mary Sue.
At one point, Karen mentions that as an adolescent she feels like the child in "The Emperor Has No Clothes," who points out that the emperor is actually naked. Looking at the mostly positive reviews for this book, I feel the same.