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Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Good American by Alex George

One of the things that I rarely read are novels that cover the span of a hundred years. I don't mind novels that play with time a little- grandma's history mixed with the present- or perhaps the majority of the life of a single person, but I rarely pick up a book that covers the history of multiple generations. Turns out, I don't enjoy it so much.

The first half of A Good American by Alex George is really interesting. Jette and Frederick immigrate to America around the turn of the century and settle in Beatrice, Missouri. They are German, as is the majority of the town. They have a couple children and then Frederick goes and joins WWI, with predictable results.  The book continues on through American history, with Jette, and her kids and grandkids. The first half, with the immigration experience and a lot of great detail about blues, jazz, and other music of the time is quite enjoyable. I loved seeing them set up a life and the struggles to keep up with the times. I often turned on Songza to a blues or jazz playlist while I read. (Turning Songza on to a blues playlist is incredibly common for me, but I have yet to learn to love jazz.)

Unfortunately, the second half, which begins about when the narrator is born, completely changes. The entire book is narrated by Jette's grandson James, so perhaps the change happens when it starts to talk about the parts of his life that he remembers, but I much preferred to read his history. The small bits of foreshadowing in the first half become and every other page bits of foreshadowing. The believable history of a family in the first half becomes a series of ridiculous people and their actions (and deaths.)  By the end, it felt like a parody of a family history. The focus on music changed, and was not longer about the love of music itself.

That said, the book does have some really great moments. I loved watching Frederick learn English, and the romance between Cora and Joseph, James's father. There's a scene in New Orleans at the beginning, where Frederick hears jazz for the first time that is wonderful. There are some memorable characters as well; Lomax, who plays music and cooks soul food; Polk, who works at the bar; Freddy, who has the best story of anyone, except Frederick himself.  There are also quite a few that seem to be there for impact; Morrie, the gentle giant, Rankin Fitch, Mrs. Fitch, the entire sub-plot of Reverend Gresham and Teddy.

I'm sure I won't stop thinking about some of the final revelations for a few days, and I'm going to have to go back and re-read a couple pivotal scenes to look for clues. Overall though, it was just ok, and I don't see myself ever choosing to read or recommend it.

You can join the discussion at BlogHer by clicking this link. The first discussion question has been posted, "What foods are are part of your gastronomic mosaic?", which you can answer here. You can find Alex George online here, and on Twitter.

This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.


  1. Sorry this one didn't work for you as well as some other reviews I've seen. I rarely tackle these 100-year-span types of books either, and shifts make me crazy.

  2. I hate when a book is just "okay". I know what you mean though.

  3. I wish that the focus on the book would have remained with Frederick and Jette but the music does stay with the book throughout--just in a very different fashion. Kind of like how the restaurant kept evolving all the way to the end. I've always wanted to go to NOLA for Jazz Week and would have loved to see more about Lomax.

  4. I like family-saga-type stories and immigrant stories too so I think I'll try this at some point. You can't like them all, eh?

  5. Like you, I've never been a fan of multiple generations hundred years sagas. I tend to either get bored or get mad hen characters I like are dropped from the book because we are now X years later in the story.

  6. This one is getting mixed reviews today. I'd still like to try it, though, since I love immigrant stories.

  7. So interesting to see other points of view. I loved this one. I really enjoy the family saga type of story and I love immigrant stories. Plus I liked the midwest setting. We had driven to Des Moines for our anniversary and I could barely talk to my husband on the way to the restaurant for supper because I was so intent on finishing the book.

  8. I saw nothing but glowing reviews of this one in the beginning - which always makes me wonder. Seems that there could be no way everyone would love the same book. It actually always makes me more interested in a book when I can see where there are places the book might now soar.


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