A Version of the Truth

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9780385340199: A Version of the Truth

In Literacy and Longing in L.A. , hailed as “the most delightful read of the year” by Liz Smith in the New York Post, authors Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack captivated readers with a brilliantly imagined first novel. Now Kaufman and Mack return, introducing a character with a unique voice you’ll never forget: Cassie Shaw, an irrepressible young woman who reinvents herself—with unexpected consequences—in a funny, wise, and utterly original novel about friendship, love, wildlife, and other forces of nature.

In the wilds of Topanga Canyon, Cassie is right at home—with the call of birds, the sound of wind in the trees, the harmony of a world without people. But everywhere else, life is a little harder for Cassie. Her mother believes in Big Foot. Her wisecracking pet parrot is a drama queen. And at the age of thirty, newly single and without a college degree, Cassie desperately needs a decent paycheck. Which is why, against all her principles, she lies on her résumé for an office job at an elite university—and then finds herself employed in academia by two professors who are as rare as the birds she covets.

One of her new bosses is Professor William Conner, a sexy, handsome, cheerfully aristocratic expert in animal behavior. Soon, under Conner’s charismatic tutelage, Cassie carefully begins her personal transformation while meeting the kind of people who don’t flock to wildlife preserves—from impossibly brilliant academics to adorably spoiled college boys. But her future—and unlikely new career—is teetering on one unbearable untruth. And Cassie’s masquerade is about to come undone…in a chain of events that will transform her life—and the lives of those around her—forever.

A novel for late bloomers of every exotic shade and stripe , A Version of the Truth is pure entertainment—at once hilarious and wry, lyrical and uplifting.

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About the Author:

Karen Mack, a former attorney, is a Golden Globe Award–winning film and television producer. Jennifer Kaufman was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and is a two-time winner of the national Penney-Missouri Journalism Award. Their debut novel, Literacy and Longing in L.A. , was a #1 Los Angeles Times bestseller and also won the 2006 Southern California Booksellers Association Award for Fiction.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One


I didn't intend to lie on my resume. It just happened. It was after the icy reception I received at the last two employment agencies. The first time, a man with a rodent-like profile, eyes too close together, and a gnawing slash of a mouth suggested I try getting a job at a pet store. The next agent walked me to the door of her office after a quick glance at my resume and said the only thing she could possibly think of was telemarketing from my home–check the classifieds.

As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty deflated as I headed for yet another employment agency. This one had a bulletin board near the entrance, cluttered with notices such as "Accent Elimination" (as if it's some kind of disease). "Speak American, Free Consultation." I noticed no one had torn off the fringed bottom with scrawled vertical telephone numbers. I sat in a cracked vinyl armchair still warm from the last sweaty bottom, filling out forms, but even in this dump, the agent couldn't get rid of me fast enough.

So here's my situation. Considering my educational background (a graduate of the University of Nowheresville) and my age (thirty), I am now virtually unemployable. My years at the wildlife center didn't seem to matter to anyone, especially the employment agencies. They just whizzed right by it and focused on my education or lack of it. "Tell us again why you left high school?" As if I had no business even being there.

My mother was always trying to reassure me, her optimism unflinching. "They'll be sorry they didn't hire you. All the studies say that slow starters are more likely to become billionaires."

"What study was that, Mom?"

"I read it in the dentist's office."

It feels like I'm back in elementary school where I had failure written all over me. What seemed to come effortlessly for everyone else was torture for me.

"Cassie, try not to hold your pencil like a spike," the teacher would urge, breathing down my neck like a truant officer and wincing at my abominable handwriting. "And stop sucking on your lip so hard. Lord, you'll tear it to pieces. Why don't you just take a deep breath and start over later."

That was the signal I eventually waited for–she gave up and so did I. You'd think she'd put a stop to my misery but the fact was she just didn't get it and neither did anyone else. The rest of the year I was either "sick" or late on Fridays, very late. It didn't make any difference, I was the dunce in the corner with a scarlet D on my chest.

Sometimes I'd hear a friend of my mother's talking about her child, little Stacy or darling Susie. "My daughter is amazing. She just woke up one morning and could read everything."

"Is that so?" my mother would reply in a monotone. "What a marvel."

I kept thinking, "Why didn't that happen to me?" When would I "just wake up" and be able to read? And then later, with each mounting failure, "What's so great about reading anyway?"

My mother would sit with me for hours reading things she thought I'd like. Her favorite was an illustrated anthology of Greek myths. We read about gods and heroes like Athena, Diana, Aphrodite, Zeus. The stories I liked the most were the ones where humans changed into birds or beasts or flowers. But my mother liked the stories where the gods bestowed special powers on mortals. I guess that's why she named me Cassandra. After the beautiful goddess who could see the future. She loved the magic–that's what she was hoping for me when she'd hand me the book–but I still couldn't read a word.

In junior high, I made up the plots of the books I read based on the first and last chapters. As a result, my test scores on comprehension were all over the place. Sometimes I guessed right.

Sometimes I didn't. I was a whiz at basic algebra, but if I had to solve how far Mr. Smith traveled on a train from his home in Phoenix to his regional office in Albuquerque and at what velocity it collided with a freight train carrying textiles to Tucson–well, you get the picture. All through school, kids whispered "dim" or "dense" or "dumbbell." Not my friends, though. We never talked about my "problem." Mostly, they were oblivious. They'd always get rewarded with As and I'd get my usual Ds.

"God, Cassie, that test was so easy," they'd say incredulously.

"I didn't study." I'd laugh, like it meant nothing. Heathers became my favorite movie.

Eventually, I figured out the way to survive. Most kids do. I hid my tests and assignments like they were pornography. When my mother asked how I did on my spelling test, I'd say, "Great," and if she questioned me about my homework, I'd tell her, "I did it at school." "Doing it at school" meant shoving it in my desk along with a half dozen other worksheets I found impossible to complete. I'd always get found out, of course. The teacher would call my mother, who'd ask, "What's the matter with you?" We'd spend holiday weekends completing all the work that everyone else had finished during school. The threat of "special ed" loomed over me like a death sentence.

So the masquerade went on. I made small strides. But mostly I feigned boredom or talked to my neighbor. In the meantime, my imagination soared. I made up words. I invented spelling. I created wild fantasies in my mind that were ever so much more entertaining than anything I tried to read at school.

"Once upon a time, a bunch of mean, foulmouthed bullies wandered into the woods to gather berries . . ."

It was about this time my burnt-out mother hired a beautiful silver-haired tutor named Janet Monroe. She lived in a lovely little cottage with a view of the ocean. The plan was for me to go to her house once a week over the summer. But, after an initial evaluation, she recommended two-hour sessions three times a week. In the beginning, I felt like a rich kid, although I was well aware that this was a serious financial burden on my mother.

Every afternoon, Mrs. Monroe would lead me through her house to an airy, sun-drenched porch filled with leafy palms, overstuffed furniture, and faded Persian rugs. You had to take your shoes off when you walked in and then say hello to her parrot–a magnificent African gray named Sam who imitated her voice and learned my name pronto. He gave me my first whistle and screeched a flirtatious "Hi, gorgeous!"

All through that summer I struggled with the process of decoding–learning how a written word represents a sound. It's something most kids take for granted, like swimming or riding a bike. But for me, it was hard work.

"This just happens sometimes to smart kids," Mrs. Monroe told my mother in a breathy smoker's voice that trailed off into nothingness. "You have a reading disorder called dyslexia." I was trying to digest all this when she asked Sam to tell her who, besides me, had a similar problem in their youth. That bird was so damn brilliant. He shot back, "Einstein, Rockefeller, Edison, Picasso, Walt Disney, and John Lennon."

"There," she'd say when he was done. "You're in fine company."

We did a lot of workbook exercises and read out loud. Sam would imitate my labored, choppy voice when I read, memorize passages, and give me a beaky kiss when I was done. I got so I couldn't wait to see him. Then it was September and I went back to school. I never saw Mrs. Monroe again.
Sometime in the fall, she called to tell us that she was ill. A month later, my mother came home with Sam. Mrs. Monroe had died and left him to me. The note on the cage read, "Dear Cassie, next to me, you are Mrs. Monroe's favorite student."

Parrots mate for life, but somehow Sam accepted me. The South American tribes believe parrots have human souls. And I'd have to agree. He'd sidle up my arm after school and kiss me all over my mouth and ears. Sometimes he'd say, "Love you. Miss you. Did you pass?" Okay, so he was repeating my mother, but still, he meant it. Other times he'd repeat my depressing downers.

"I'm just a dumbfuck!" I'd shout.

And he'd repeat with glee, "Dumbfuck! Dumbfuck! Dumbfuck!"

"Shut up!" I'd yell.

"No!" he'd squawk back, flapping his wings and bobbing his head. Sam loved to get me all riled up. It was just a game to him, my deficiencies.

When Sam and I first moved in with Frank, they took an immediate dislike to each other. When we'd argue, that parrot would fasten his small beady eyes on Frank, morph into his aggressive pose, crouch low on his perch with his wings outspread, and peck furiously at Frank's face and hands.

Maybe it was Frank's tone of voice.

"Close the fucking door!" Frank would yell at me as he retreated from Sam's sharp-hooked beak.

"Close the fucking door! Close the fucking door!" Sam would shriek back in Frank's exact same voice as if he were mocking him. Parrots do not grow meek in the face of anger.

The two of them never did make peace, even though I tried to reason with Sam. He continued to bedevil Frank in sly little ways. He could imitate the telephone and the doorbell so perfectly that at least once a night Frank would go running to the door and Sam would cackle and scream, "Dumbfuck!"

More than once, Frank told me to give Sam away or he was going to "kill that fucking bird." It got so bad that at one point I told my mother she'd have to take him for a while till things cooled down. Sam's not mourning either.

I get back in my car and head to a small employment agency across from the university that came highly recommended . . . from the Yellow Pages. As I walk in the door, I overhear the agent tell a woman, "Sorry. That's all I have. Yo...

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