Friday, February 15, 2008

Pride and pretense

A Version of the Truth? authors to visit Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

?A Version of the Truth? by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. Delacorte Press. 322 pp. $24.

New voices are something to celebrate in the book world. Of course, hundreds of books are published by new writers, which fade sorrowfully into remainder racks. The idea that this could happen to the co-authors Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack seems unlikely.

Their first romantic comic novel, "Literacy and Longing in L.A.," is like Jane Austen (though they claim not to be fans) twisting in the wind of contemporary life. It has wit, fully realized characters, romantic mix-ups, and a unique story.

Their delightful new tome does not disappoint.

"A Version of the Truth" concerns a social and educational flop who's spent her entire life living under a veil of pretense. She is happiest with her wisecracking African gray parrot Sam, her hippie mother and her well-meaning best friend. But most of all, her place is in nature, a place where animals can change colors, birds can disappear and foliage can mask hidden dangers.

In the wilds of Topanga Canyon, near Los Angeles, Cassie, a newly minted widow, broke and unemployed, spins a lie in order to secure a job. Her position at an elite university leads to personal revelations intellectually as well as emotionally. There is, skirting just off center, the hope that she can create the person she wants to be.

Kaufman and Mack will be at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, for a stop on their extensive book tour during the Women, Words and Wine gathering. The pair was also hosted by Iconoclast two years ago when "Literacy and Longing" came out.

The challenge is on. Liz Smith, the gossip columnist for the New York Post, wrote:

"Can you dub such a party a success? I'll say!!! This was at the Russian Tea Room's glassy, glittering second floor with its huge transparent bear full of live fish. Caviar flowed like vodka. It was to introduce Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, whose second novel, 'A Version of the Truth,' from Delacorte Press, is already on the LA Times' best-seller list. (They made a big splash two years ago with 'Literacy and Longing in LA.' These beauties, married, with kids, get together every day and dictate fiction at high speed to one another. You'll have to become aware of them sooner or later. They're on a roll."

When asked about their entry into the New York world of literati, Mack laughed and said, "We didn't know exactly who the people were until we read her column. We were surprised."

Speaking by telephone from Portland, Ore., they discussed their unusual writing style.

"We sit at one desk with one computer and we actually act it out," Kaufman said. "It's still writing. We still have all the angst of the writing. It's definitely there. But we take it on together."

"We did six months of research and a year and half of writing," Mack said.

"She's another character, a quirky misfit," Kaufman said. "She's more comfortable in the wild than in the academic world, and an expert, innate nature lover."

"Our initial inspiration was Kurt Vonnnegut's quote, 'You are what you pretend to be,'" Mack said. "It's about reinventing yourself."

"There are so many women out there who hit rock bottom," Kaufman said. "You have to have a place where you go to get away from all the noise. This character leaves the real world and goes into nature. It's her version of the truth."

"A Version of the Truth" is rife with atmosphere and wildlife. Factoids are folded gracefully into the narrative. At one point, Cassie and her boss, the appealing professor for whom she works, tour a butterfly exhibit. She peels a banana (suggestive, no?) and tells him to hold it out.

"The butterflies, who have been so wary, start to gather near the fruit. One Painted Lady hops up and down on a nearby branch, flitting its wings. Conner raises his hand higher. A strange rush of iridescent color, and then slowly the Lady boldens, moving closer to Conner, circling, teasing, tantalizing."

So, who's the butterfly there?

At the center of the story, Cassie makes a discovery but hordes it the way she does, like Oz's Scarecrow, her own intellect.

"We got obsessed," Kaufman said. "We had a fascination with the ivory-billed woodpecker. It's maybe the only species where there's an academic argument about whether it does or it doesn't exist."

"It appealed to us in another way," Mack said. "It represented the best and the worst of our county, best because it's incredibly courageous, and at its worst, it's gone because its habitat has been taken away."

Her discovery is a metaphor for her own life. Is she real or is her life a total lie, something extinct and doubted?

What do you do when the truth just isn't good enough? What's the right version? Kaufman and Mack have found a version that works for them: Their books have simplicity in form, realistic dialogue and intriguing characters. They are a true discovery.

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