Short Takes

‘United States of Paranoia’ examines conspiracy theories; ‘Heart of Palm’ focuses on family in a small Florida town

August 24, 2013 

"The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory" by Jesse Walker.

Nonfiction

The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Jesse Walker; HarperCollins, 448 pages

Americans have always feared secret cabals.

In three successive decades in the mid-20th century, a “Brown Scare” swept through this country, followed by a “Red Scare,” and finally a “Lavender Scare,” Jesse Walker tells us in his bold and thought-provoking new book, “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.”

Americans heard so many stories that described Nazis, communists and homosexuals nefariously trying to take over our government, our minds and our bodies, they began to see them everywhere. In an earlier era, they feared murderous slaves and libidinous Native American kidnappers. And more recently: UFOs and satanic nursery schools.

“This is a book about America’s demons,” Walker writes. “Many of those demons are imaginary, but all of them have truths to tell us. A conspiracy story that catches on becomes a form of folklore. It says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat it.”

Walker wrote “Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America” and is an editor at Reason magazine. Giving the reader an “exhaustive” history of all conspiracy theories is not Walker’s mission. Instead, “The United States of Paranoia” is an oddly entertaining exploration of the roots of “paranoid” thinking across several centuries of American history.

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

Fiction

Heart of Palm

Laura Lee Smith, Grove Press, 496 pages

“Most people never understood why Arla went and married a Bravo,” explains the resident guide-slash-gossip in the prologue to “Heart of Palm,” Laura Lee Smith’s fine, funny first novel that unwinds from the marriage of Arla Bolton and Dean Bravo. It’s a voice reminiscent of Richard Russo’s in “Mohawk” or “Empire Falls,” a likable and knowing town historian who introduces us to Arla as a debutante, a creature so exquisite that “the world genuflected before her.”

Smith, who lives in St. Augustine, excels at bringing this north Florida hamlet to life. Her dialogue is pitch-perfect, her landscapes fragrant with jasmine and yellow pine, and she eloquently evokes the mixture of tenderness and callousness essential to small-town relationships.

In the end – which comes with a delightful twist – the guilty pleasure of “Heart of Palm” is its steadfast tangle of rage and grief and love, a heaping dose of Southern soul with a whole lot of chutzpah thrown in.

Gina Webb, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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