A Good American

( 59 )

Overview

A LIBRARY JOURNAL BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A BOOKPAGE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of home, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest. He was smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.
 
And so began my grandfather’s ...

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Overview

A LIBRARY JOURNAL BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A BOOKPAGE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of home, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest. He was smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.
 
And so began my grandfather’s rapturous love affair with America—an affair that would continue until the day he died.
 
This is the story of the Meisenheimer family, told by James, a third-generation American living in Beatrice, Missouri. It’s where his German grandparents—Frederick and Jette—found themselves after journeying across the turbulent Atlantic, fording the flood-swollen Mississippi, and being brought to a sudden halt by the broken water of the pregnant Jette.
 
 A Good American tells of Jette’s dogged determination to feed a town sauerkraut and soul food; the loves and losses of her children, Joseph and Rosa; and the precocious voices of James and his brothers, sometimes raised in discord…sometimes in perfect harmony. 
 
But above all, A Good American is about the music in Frederick’s heart, a song that began as an aria, was jazzed by ragtime, and became an anthem of love for his adopted country that the family still hears to this day.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Stretching from pre-World War I Germany to the Midwest of the present day, this multi-tiered debut novel tracks four generations of a single family as they respond to global events and local situations. Family connections and crises play significant parts in this carefully plotted large-scale saga, making it a fine choice for readers who yearn for full immersion fictions.

Sessalee Hensley

Publishers Weekly
George’s debut novel is a sentimental, lively, and sad family saga spanning four generations, from a couple’s flight out of Germany in 1904 to the hope that their great-grandchildren hold for the future. The story is told by James Martin Meisenheimer, the grandson of the original immigrant couple, the unusually tall Jette and the unabashedly rotund and red-bearded Frederick. This unlikely pair falls in love in Hanover and flees (a mother, not a war) to the U.S. with Jette pregnant. She gives birth to James’s father, Joseph, in Beatrice, Mo., a small town whose residents are capable of both kindness and hatred. Frederick opens a bar, then volunteers for the army and is killed in WWI. Jette turns the bar into a restaurant during Prohibition, a place that feeds the townspeople—with food, yes, but also music—for decades. When James calls his grandmother’s life “one long opera,” full of “love, great big waves of it, crashing ceaselessly against the rocks of life,” he is very much a mouthpiece for author George (and not unlike Styron’s Stingo), whose debut chronicles much of the 20th century through the eyes of one family. George, a British lawyer who has practiced law in London, Paris, and Columbia, Mo., where he now lives, evokes smalltown life lovingly, sometimes disturbingly, and examines the ties of family, the complications of home, and the moments of love and happiness that arrive no matter what. Agent: Emma Sweeney Agency. (Feb.)
USA Today
Music is a hallmark of this novel, too — through the songs coming out of the radio, to the ballads and blues sung in the family restaurant, to the arias Frederick's son Joseph sings to woo his wife. Do you hear me, Broadway? This story would make a delightful musical. Readers also will be moved by this novelist's personal story. George was born in Great Britain but now lives in Missouri. Sometime soon, he'll be sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America.
Library Journal
In this inviting debut novel by a British émigré about several generations of a family seeking to become "good Americans," two young lovers, Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furst, emigrate from Germany to the small town of Beatrice, MO, in 1904. George captures both the good and bad qualities of small-town living as he deftly brings Beatrice to life through eloquent portraits of its residents: among them, a fiery preacher who vows to stop shaving until the family patriarch returns to church and a dour dwarf whose beautiful wife captivates the town's young men. The Meisenheimers' risky friendship with an African American jazz musician from New Orleans is particularly moving, and the power of music to help people connect is a recurring theme. VERDICT Despite some dark moments, the book's overall tone is warm and nostalgic as the couple's grandson tells his family's story. George's narrator is bland when compared with his more colorful relatives, and this causes the novel to lose steam once the focus is on his own experiences rather than those of his parents and grandparents. Nonetheless, this memorable and well-written exploration of one family's search for acceptance in America should strongly appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas and historical fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 8/8/11.]—Mara Bandy, Champaign P.L., IL
Library Journal
This touching first novel by a British expat now living in Missouri traces four generations of one German immigrant family as they search for acceptance in America. (LJ 12/11)—Wilda Williams

(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
An attorney originally from England, first-time novelist George offers a love song to his adopted state of Missouri in this multigenerational saga of the Meisenheimers from their arrival as German immigrants in 1904 up to the present. Frederick and already pregnant Jette marry on board the boat that brings them to New Orleans, where they immediately experience the kindness of strangers from a Polish Jew and an African-American cornet player. Large, easygoing Frederick immediately falls in love with America. Jette, who instigated their flight, finds herself homesick for the world she wanted to escape. They settle in Beatrice, a small Missouri farming town with many German immigrants, where their baby Joseph is born. A few years later comes his sister Rosa. Frederick opens a bar that thrives, but his marriage to Jette falters. When the United States enters World War I, Frederick enlists—George only glancingly touches the uncomfortable irony that Frederick is fighting against Germans when he is killed—so Jette takes over the bar. Prohibition arrives in 1920, and so does Lomax, the black cornet player from New Orleans. He helps Jette turn the bar into a restaurant offering a mix of German and Cajun specialties and becomes a surrogate father to Rosa and Joseph. But Lomax, who is doing a little bootlegging on the side, ends up murdered, his cornet stolen. Joseph runs the restaurant, now a diner, with Cora. Rosa becomes a spinster teacher. Cora and Joseph have four sons whom Joseph, who inherited Frederick's love of music, turns into a barbershop quartet. Second son James is the novel's narrator, and once he starts describing what he actually remembers, the tone changes. The melodramas of James and his brothers' lives—sexual escapades, religious crises, even the big secret ultimately revealed—are more complicated but less compelling than his parents' and grandparents'. At times the novel feels like a fictionalized historical catalogue, but there are lovely moments of humor and pathos that show real promise.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425253175
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 2/5/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 118,078
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Alex George

Alex George is an Englishman who lives, works, and writes in the middle of America. He studied law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris before moving to the United States in 2003.

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Interviews & Essays

A CONVERSATION WITH ALEX GEORGE
You’re an Englishman living in middle-America, who has written a novel about what it means to be an American. How did this come about?
I come from a family of journey-makers. My mother was born and raised in New Zealand. In her early twenties she took a boat to England, met my father, and decided to stay. A few generations earlier, her great-grandparents had made the trip in the opposite direction, eloping from their English families who disapproved of their union, and hoping for freedom in the wilderness of the southern hemisphere. I left England to live in America because my former wife is from here. Like my characters Jette and Frederick, the impulse that fueled all our journeys was the same: love.
My experience of coming to America was the principal driving force behind the original idea of the novel, although of course as the book developed other themes emerged, particularly the question of how easy it is (or isn’t) to escape from your roots. Various characters in the novel are intent on leaving, but they all get pulled back in the end.
You’re an Oxford-educated lawyer, born and bred in England, who suddenly found himself living in Missouri in 2003. Do any of your experiences echo the Meisenheimers and was there a culture shock?
I moved to Missouri after thirteen years living and working in London and Paris. Was there culture shock? Oh yes.
I live in Columbia, Missouri, which is a thriving, vibrant college town with a strong cultural life – we have a world-renowned film festival, a first-class jazz series, a blues and barbecue festival…I could go on. However, when you get out to the smaller towns in more rural areas, it is a different story. There are good, salt-of-the-earth people living there, but it can feel as if I have landed on another planet, rather than just another continent. I’m sure people look at me and think the same thing – that I’m an alien in more than simply the legal sense. Sometimes, I will admit, I get very homesick.
This book will prompt readers to think of their own family heritage. Given that websites like Ancestry.com are extremely popular these days, why do you think Americans are so fascinated in discovering where their ancestors come from?
I have lost count of the number of times that people, on hearing my accent, have told me about trips they have made to visit cemeteries in England to see the graves of their ancestors. I understand this urge to discover one’s roots, and I think this enthusiasm for discovering one’s ancestry is especially strong in America, because it is such a young country, relatively speaking. (I grew up in a house that was built more than two centuries before the Declaration of Independence was signed.) Americans are proud to be American, but they are proud of their heritage, too. People want to know how they got here, and where their families came from. I hope that’s why this book will strike a chord with many readers. As James says in the book, “We cannot exist without our histories; they are what define us.”
Music, particularly opera and jazz, one a thoroughly European art form and the other completely American, figure prominently in your novel. Why are these particular types of music so meaningful for you?
I have always been a huge jazz fanatic. The spirit of improvisation, the excitement, the flat-out joy that I get from listening to great musicians play jazz, especially live – these are wonderful things about this music, gifts that I cherish.
I love opera, too, rather to my children’s chagrin. I was introduced to it twenty years ago and fell in love with it immediately. The music is sometimes jaw-droppingly beautiful. And the drama! The stories! Given Frederick’s extrovert personality, it seemed inevitable to me that he would be an opera singer, rather than a performer of Lieder, for example. And that he would give full rein to his dramatic instincts.
You are currently in the process of applying for American citizenship. How do you feel about the process? Also, how do you identify with the word “immigrant”?
I have mixed feelings about the process, I will admit. I love living in America. I have a deep and abiding respect for the principles upon which this country was founded. But I am not American. I am an Englishman. I know how Jette felt when she stood in the courthouse during the swearing-in process. I understand her tears. As this book nears publication it is interesting to find myself so precisely in the position of conflict that I have put my characters through.
I have no problem with the word “immigrant”. It is what I am. I grew up somewhere other than here. I know that my experience of coming to America has been easier than many, because I speak English and have white skin. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But even I have experienced some jaw-dropping bigotry, if not outright racism, and from the most unexpected quarters. I say this without rancor. For some, the word “immigrant” is freighted with suspicion, and hatred – which seems ironic to me, because this is a country full of immigrants. We all came from here from somewhere, and now we’re united by this large rock we live on. Sometimes we could all benefit from remembering that.
What writer or writers have had the greatest influence on you?
There are many, many wonderful writers whose work I admire and love. It would be nice to think that their talents influenced me in some way, because my own writing could only improve as a result. However, it’s probably a more accurate statement to say that they inspired me rather than influenced me. It hardly seems fair to blame them for my shortcomings.
Of course, there are far too many writers to give anything approaching a comprehensive list. So here’s 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 when putting one word in front of another; Lorrie Moore, for her luminous prose; John Updike, just for being John Updike, but especially for Rabbit; 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.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
I started the book with one simple overarching aim: to tell a really good story. I hope I have done that. It would be nice to think that the characters might linger awhile with the reader, that their stories and adventures strike a chord. Good storytelling is about making connections, pulling readers into your world and taking them on a journey. I hope I have connected. I hope people enjoy the trip.
Who have you discovered lately?
Peter Geye’s first novel, SAFE FROM THE SEA, was a beautiful and moving portrayal of love between father and son that has stayed with me long after I finished it. Geye writes with brilliantly lucid economy and I can’t wait to read more of his work. I also really enjoyed DIRTY MINDS, by Kayt Sukel, which takes a fascinating and irreverent look at love and lust, from a neurological point of view. It’s a compelling read, full of interesting nuggets of complex research that the author turns into information easily understood by non-scientists like me. It’s extremely funny, too. Highly recommended.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 59 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(26)

4 Star

(21)

3 Star

(8)

2 Star

(2)

1 Star

(2)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 59 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2012

    Amazing

    I purchased this book with only a vague idea of its contents. I knew the overall theme, but it does not do the story justice by any means. There is love, family, and romance. There are tragedies, secrets and sharp disappointments. Normally I prefer thrillers and sci-fi, but this story spoke to my deepest wishes: A strong, loving family legacy and the realizations of The American Dream. I was sad to see it end, I wanted more. As for the 'revelation' other reviewers commented negatively on, when it came to light, it seemed only natural. Not just to the story but to the characters and their lives. I found not one disappointing thing in this book. I look forward to more from this new author.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    I throughly enjoyed reading "A Good American". This i

    I throughly enjoyed reading "A Good American". This is one of the best books that I have read recently. I could not put the book down. It pulls at your very soul. Alex George is a very good author.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2012

    What a story!!!!!

    I love this book. A page turner from the very start.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 11, 2013

    Don't miss this one!

    This is not the usual story of the immigrant family coming to America, but a total immersion into the lives of generations of the Meisenheimers. The way in which this book is written makes you feel as though you are one of them, feeling their triumphs and hurting with their hurts. But there are some twists and turns that will really get your attention and entice you to think back on the family members and their relationships. This was a 'page turner' until the last one.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2013

    I bought this book because my great grandmother's 3d husband was

    I bought this book because my great grandmother's 3d husband was named Meisenheimer. She was widowed twice. I'm descended from a child of her first marriage. So this book hit home. Some of the stories ring notes from my own immigrant family's experience in the late 19th century. Some grieved for their homeland, knowing their journey to America would be a better life, but oh, the heartache and backbreaking work it required. Music and their church community were keys to their survival. I am about half through the book, stalled out, but will soldier on and complete it. However I can't help but overlay this story with those told by my own family story tellers.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    I was so eager to read this book, thinking it would be one to cu

    I was so eager to read this book, thinking it would be one to curl up with on the couch. After the first few pages, I was still excited and interested in the strong characters. However, as I read further, the story didn't sound like real life. A man leaving his country with only the clothes he's wearing? A bartender who teaches an immigrant wrong English phrases? A wife so addled with pregnancy that she has no other thoughts? A wife who will not read ANY of her soldier husband's letters? Come on! I like this book, but it feels like 'magical realism.' And I felt tricked to find out this is not really the story of the author's own grandparents. The down and dirty of life in an new country was not there. And the simple motivations of some characters did not ring true. I think Alex George writes smooth, flowing prose, but I need characters who are more multidimensional and less cardboard figures.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2012

    Both a good story AND good writing!

    Rarely do both come together in one package, but A Good American delivers quite satisfactorily. By the end of the novel, Beatrice, Missouri, the Meisenheimers and all the other town's residents feel like home and family. Alex George proves that there are extraordinary stories to be found in the most ordinary lives. Narrated by the late blooming writer of the Meisenheimer family, the story is sustained with both humor and poignancy. Thoroughly enjoyable!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 28, 2012

    I am in the minority - at least on this site.

    I have read much longer books, but this one felt very long. I know some stopped reading it, but I wanted to get through the whole thing. I love the stories of immigration into the US. But this story had a way of minimizing great events, glossing over others, and completely forgetting some all together. The ship over to America was a breeze compared to real accounts. Finding a way to a town that suited the initial main characters fell into place so easily, as did finding a place to live, and a job. Race relations were touched on, but hardly given an accurate depiction. WWI was a side note. I am not sure what happened to WWII. I realize this story is not meant to be about wars, but I have to argue that WWII had a profound effect on everyone around the world. Many times throughout the book, I hoped for a reference point in time. I wasn't sure what year we were in, and thus could not put parts of the story in a historical context. There were many characters in this story. I was interested in getting to know some of them much more. But just as I was starting to like or understand a character, the book moved on to a new generation. The twist at the end was surprising, but not completely explained. When was Rosa with Stefan? Why did they hide it? Was it a one time thing? I found some parts of the book interesting, but dreaded slogging through other parts. I cannot give more than 2 stars to a novel I want to end.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2012

    Great read

    I throughly enjoyed this book. Great cast of characters and interesting plot. Funny, sad and everything in between and beautifully written. If i had to offer a critique it would be that i would have liked to have seen the Kliever family fleshed out a little more considering the ending. All in all very much worth it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2012

    Best Book this Year!

    This is a wonderful story, just delightful. I am not easily entertained by most of the many novels I read but this one has moved to the top of my list of recommendations.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2013

    Highly Recommend

    This was one of the best books I've read since "Half Broke Horses" and "The Officer's Wife". It's written as an autobiography and in part is due to the author's own experiences, although he changed the names and locale. I thoroughly enjoyed the imagery provoked by the detail and the characters' daily lives. It moves from Germany to Missouri, via New Orleans and covers WWI, racial unrest, and a family's struggle to survive and thrive in a new country. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2013

    Twists and Turns

    This novel is not just a list of someone's lifetime. It holds
    some twists and turns you don't expect. The writing is good.
    The main characters and settings are described so well that you
    can picture them. I like the variety of ages too. Well done!
    Alex George captured the Midwest, small town atmosphere.

    My only dissapointment was a few phrases used were really too modern
    for the period of time in the setting of the family early history.
    Otherwise. I would have given this book 5 stars.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2013

    What a marvelous story! A real page turner - I could not put it

    What a marvelous story! A real page turner - I could not put it down. Being a german immigrant myself....it made me think a lot about my countrymen who came here long before me and why...........I look forward to more books from this author!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2013

    Good sweeping story

    Enjoyable read but it is one of the books that it appear the author got tired after a while and just finished it up.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 18, 2012

    I enjoyed, but I was left wanting more.

    I grew up listening to the family stories of my German ancestors, so I was immediately attracted to this book. Although I found the sections and chapters a bit episodic, they present a lot of themes akin to many immigrants from all over. I only wish it would have explored these themes a little deeper. At some points it felt like George was trying to squeeze in too many details, and the jumps in time between chapters were unpredictable, making it hard to know exactly what year or where I was at in the timeline of their lives.

    Overall though, I found this to be a good, enjoyable read. I live in Missouri, in the same town as the author, so it felt local to me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2012

    What a wonderful story. I have had in my Nook for several months

    What a wonderful story. I have had in my Nook for several months but just finished it today. I honestly thought this story was nonfiction until I read the notes at the end. It is so well written and just a really heartwarming story

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2012

    A touching, dramatic saga.

    One of the best books I have read in many years. From Germany to Missouri via New Orleans, spanning four generations; the author weaves a tale that is hard to put down. Would make an epic motion picture!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A different view of immigration

    Being from Missouri, I was intrigued with a book which told the story of immigration to somewhere other than New York City. The plot line holds your interest over several generations and the development of the characters is good, you will be rooting for them. My only problem with this book is a certain revelation at the end (don't worry I'm not going to reveal anything) which I just coudln't buy. That said, still an enjoyable read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 23, 2013

    Good Read

    I really enjoyed reading The Good American.It follows a couple who emigrates from Germany because of her parents not accepting their love. It includes the story of their ship traveling to America, how they land in New Orleans, then travel to Missouri, make their home there, raise their children, and then follows the next generation. It was interesting, happy and sad at times, and tells about life at that time in America. Good read!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2013

    A Good American is a good read

    Very heart-warming, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Constantly surprised me.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 59 Customer Reviews

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