Category Archives: Fiction

Q&A with Jane Smiley, SOME LUCK

I attended a Q&A with Jane Smiley at Politics & Prose earlier this fall, and since I just reviewed her new book Some Luck, I thought I’d post the Q&A now.

Smiley calls Some Luck an “old person’s way of writing a novel” – with the years progressing evenly, as “happy and tragic events came and went”.

Q: A lot has happened since you started writing. Has it affected your writing or could you have written the same book 20 years ago?

A: I think so. I came up with this idea 5 years ago, decided on a setting, settled on Walter and Rosanna, gave the kids personalities, and set them on their way. The book is mostly made up of history and gossip.

Q: A lot of your books have an agricultural motif. Have you lived on a farm?

A: No, but I lived in Ames – what’s the difference? I moved to Iowa City at age 22. I was interested in farming, the ecology of farming in our lifetime. If I had gone to UVA, I would have gone down another path.

Q: You used to teach. When you taught, did it affect your writing, and did your writing affect your teaching?

A: Yes. Once I was writing a story, and teaching undergrads, and I was giving tips for storywriting and in the process came up with how to move on in the story.

Q: Do you write thinking about how the book will sound out loud? Do you ever wish you’d changed a word?

A: Yes, in fact I did tonight during my reading.

Q: A Thousand Acres had King Lear as its background. Did anything inspire Some Luck?

A: No, I just wanted to fill this title: A Hundred Years. This was much more free form. I knew where I was headed. I knew Frank would go to war and the farm would change and someone would stay on the farm. It had boundaries, but not structure like King Lear.

Q: Some Luck is the first of a trilogy. Are the other two books finished?

A: Yes. I need to fiddle with the last 5 years.

Q: Which books influenced you as a girl? Little House on the Prairie?

A: That series was read to me as a kid. The books that had the most influence on me were the ones I read as a 13-14 year old: Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield, The Web of Life.

Here is a video of the reading.

SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley

This fall, Jane Smiley released Some Luck, the first in a trilogy about a midwestern family, the Langdons. Smiley will ultimately publish three books about the family covering the years 1920-2020, with each chapter dedicated to one year. This first installment – Some Luck – covers the years 1920-1953.

The Langdons are made up of a couple – Walter and Rosanna – and their five children Frank, Joey, Lilian, Henry and Claire. They live on a farm in a rural town in Iowa called Denby. When the book opens, Walter and Rosanna are young parents, and Walter is trying to make a living as a farmer. Some Luck follows the family through the births of the five children, the Depression, World War II, and the 50s, as the kids grow up and start to have their own lives. Frank spends four years in the Army in Europe, where he escapes death many times and sees the horror of the war up close. Joey stays close to home, learning how to farm and introducing his own ideas about seeds, harvests, and machinery. Lillian marries and moves away to Washington DC, opening up the scope of the book beyond Iowa and the war.

In Some Luck, Smiley creates a memorable, diverse family, exploring each member’s inward feelings, disappointments, and hopes.    Just like in life, some years are more momentous (births, deaths, marriages) than others (Fourth of July parties, snowstorms). But each contributes important details and texture about the Langdons and their extended family. Some of the quieter and more domestic passages proved to be the ones I remembered best. I also enjoyed the historical details that gave a glimpse into daily life on a farm 100 years ago.

As it should, with 2/3 still to go, Some Luck feels unfinished. The first book covers the life arc of the family patriarch, so the closure of his story at the end is natural, but there are still many characters with many life stages ahead. The book had a slow start for me (lots of farming) but I gradually found myself getting more and more engrossed. I am looking forward to the release of books 2 and 3 so that I can pick up where I left off with the Langdons. I miss them already.

I listened to Some Luck on audio for the most part, and the performance was just OK for me. The narrator had a very particular way of talking, and it was sort of simplistic, the way you’d talk to a child. That narration was OK for the early chapters about little kids, but it felt out of sync with the more serious parts of the book. I also didn’t like some of the different tones she took on for different characters – I’d rather she had just read all the voices the same. I think I enjoyed the parts of the book that I read more than those I listened to.

Overall – strong start to what promises to be a rewarding trilogy. Tomorrow, I will post my notes from a Q&A I attended with Jane Smiley this fall.

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

Our November Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I had never read it when I was my girls’ age, so this one was new to me.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens when Kit Tyler, a 16 year-old who has grown up in Barbados, arrives in Connecticut after taking a five-week boat trip from her home. Her grandfather, with whom she lived, has passed away, and her only remaining family is an aunt living in the American colonies.

From the moment she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is aware of how different she is from her Puritan family. Her rich, colorful dresses are a stark contrast to the grey, simple muslins worn by her cousins. Kit grew up swimming and reading secular books, both of which are unheard of in her uncle’s strict household, and her lack of interest in the church sermons and readings to which she is subjected provide a constant source of tension with those around her.

After her arrival, Kit is terribly homesick until she discovers the Meadows on the outskirts of town, and an old woman named Hannah who lives in a modest house there. Hannah is wise, patient and kind, but she has been run out of town because she is a Quaker and people believe she is a witch. Kit comes to care deeply for Hannah, but she has to keep their friendship a secret because she has been prohibited by her uncle from visiting the Meadows and seeing her. When their friendship is exposed, Kit must decide how much she will risk to protect Hannah, and she has to face the consequences of her actions when the town turns on her too.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about leadership, fundamentalism, standing up for one’s beliefs, adherence to social norms, and religious freedom. (There are also some love stories threaded through the book). It kept my daughters’ attention and provided lots of fodder for discussion. The girls found several characters to admire (and a few to hate), and everyone agreed that Kit was more brave than they would have been in her shoes. I liked that most of the characters were multi-dimensional, even if they seemed closed-minded and rigid at first. There is also a lot of detail about life in Colonial America and some exploration of how the colonists broke free of England and the Royalists.

I highly recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond for middle grade readers. It is a palatable dose of history and ethics that goes down very smoothly and provides a great springboard for conversation.


THE COMFORT OF LIES by Randy Susan Meyers

The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Meyers is about three unhappy Boston women whose lives are intertwined. Juliette is married to Nathan, with two sons. Five years before the book opens, Nathan had a year-long affair with Tia, a twentysomething who fell desperately in love with him and ended up pregnant with his baby. Nathan broke up with her as soon as she told him she was pregnant, and never knew that she had the baby and gave her up for adoption. The baby was adopted by a couple – Caroline and Peter – who live in a huge, beautiful house but don’t spend much time with their adopted daughter.

So why are these women so unhappy? Juliette can’t get past her husband’s affair and the nagging feeling of mistrust that is eroding her love for him. Caroline doesn’t enjoy being a mother and resents her husband’s suggestions that she scale back her work to spend time with her daughter. And Tia regrets giving up her daughter and can’t get over Nathan, despite her anger at his abandoning her.

Tia sets the book’s triangle in motion by sending photos of her daughter (which Caroline has sent to her over the years) to Nathan, letting him know in a letter that the girl exists. Juliette intercepts the letter, learns about her husband’s daughter, and, rather than confront him, manages to meet with Caroline without letting her know the connection. Ultimately, Caroline contacts Tia, Juliette confronts Nathan, and they are all forced to deal with the consequences of how they are connected.

Meyers explores each character’s actions and motivations in great detail – so much so that it felt like the actions were unfolding in real time. She is quite adept at analyzing the often inconsistent feelings the women experienced about their predicaments, and she clearly feels compassion toward each one. But I didn’t love The Comfort of Lies. There no joy to be found anywhere in this book. Each of the characters is desperately unhappy and seems to experience nothing that comes close to enjoyment or fulfillment (other than through work). They are selfish and unlikeable, and the redemption Meyers permits them at the end of the book is rushed and implausible. I also didn’t buy that they all formed some sort of a family by the close of the book. Given the awkwardness of the origin of their relationships, I found the ending unlikely.

It was a bit of a slog to get through The Comfort of Lies. I think I was looking for a palate cleanser when I picked it up – something to remove the taste of the last read and prepare me for future courses – but instead, it has only perpetuated my curmudgeonly streak. The book has gotten many good reviews, so this may again just be me being grumpy. Hopefully I will snap out of the reading doldrums soon.

LUCKY US by Amy Bloom

While I was reading Amy Bloom’s new novel, Lucky Us, I had a few questions: How did a book like Lucky Us get published, as is? Did someone read it – really read it – before it got published? If you’re Amy Bloom, with a few great successes under your belt, does that mean that you get to bypass the editing process?

I really didn’t like Lucky Us much at all. It is supposed to be a jazzy novel set in the 40s about how an unconventional family finds each other and survives the ups and downs of a turbulent America. Eva and Iris, half-sisters with deeply flawed parents, leave their home in Ohio and head to Hollywood, only to head back East when Iris has an affair with a young actress and is then shunned by all of show business. They return to New York and make their living as a governess and a tarot card reader, and their irresponsible but charming father re-enters their lives, and some other people come in and out of it, and honestly I don’t even have the heart to summarize the rest of it.

The relationships in this book were implausible and the plot was meandering and improbable. Characters came and went with no introduction or future relevance. Terrible things happened – a main character died in a fire, a boy was separated from his brother in an orphanage, a German-American is extradited during WWII – but there was barely any emotion expressed about any of it. Iris and Eva become estranged about halfway through – but why? Eva’s anger at Iris makes no sense. Nor does her pining away for a man she believes to be dead.

Lucky Us was a chore to get through. I didn’t care about the characters at all and I was relieved when it was over. There were a few poignant moments throughout the book which were touching and showed Bloom’s potential, but they were so few and far between that I can’t recommend it. I listened to Lucky Us on audio, which I do not think made much of an impact on my enjoyment of the novel. The narration was a bit too perky and cutesy for me, especially during the more serious parts of the book.

Judging by Goodreads, a lot of readers agree with me that there was not much to like about Lucky Us. But some people loved it, so if you’re a diehard Amy Bloom fan, give it a read and then come back and tell me if you liked it. Maybe I am just cranky these days.

AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko

The October Mother -Daughter book club was Al Capone Does My Shirts, the first in a series of three by Gennifer Choldenko.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is set on Alcatraz in the 30s. Moose is a 12 year-old boy who has moved to Alcatraz so that his father can work as a prison guard and his older sister Natalie, who has autism (which wasn’t yet recognized as a disorder) can attend a special school in San Francisco. Moose has left behind good friends and a regular baseball game in Santa Monica, and he’s missing them both dearly. On Alcatraz, his friends are limited to the five children of other prison employees, and he has to take the ferry to San Francisco to attend school. Worse, his sister’s admission to the special school is revoked after two days because her condition is more severe than the school had expected. So Moose is forced to take care of his sister in the afternoons, instead of making friends and playing baseball.

My daughter read all three of the Choldenko books last year and loved them, so I included Al Capone Does My Shirts on the Mother-Daughter Book Club list for this year. I had assumed that the book would be focused on the inner workings of the prison and its famous convicts, told from a kid’s perspective. Instead, the book explored Moose’s relationship with his parents and sister, and how Natalie’s autism impacted the family. Moose was forced to take responsibility for his sister at an early age, and his mother, who was so focused on her daughter and trying to “cure” her, barely noticed the sacrifices she asked her son to make.  His father was sympathetic to Moose’s situation, but was helpless to change it because of the double shifts he took on to help the family make ends meet.

I liked Al Capone Does My Shirts. I thought it presented a realistic depiction of autism and how families are forced to adapt to accommodate children with special needs. It was depressing at times, for sure, but realistic. I also liked Moose’s friendships with other kids, particularly the warden’s daughter Piper, a great schemer and manipulator whose heart was ultimately in the right place.

The girls (age 10) and moms had a mixed reaction to the book. Most liked it a lot, while others thought it lagged in the middle and some found it too depressing. But it inspired a good dialogue about Moose and whether it was fair that he had to take so much responsibility for his sister. The girls were also intrigued by Al Capone and how he could exert so much influence even beyond the prison’s walls. There were also questions about whether it is fair to bend the rules to achieve a good end, or if obedience to rules should transcend everything else.

A few of the girls had read the other books in the trilogy (Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework), and the verdict is that they are even better than Al Capone Does My Shirts.

2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS by Marie-Helene Bertino

I am still here! Yes, it has been almost 2 weeks since I posted on EDIWTB.  That’s because I haven’t been reading. I blame baseball, which has taken over all my reading time. My team is holding on by a thread, but I am watching all their games, and then all the other games, and I just haven’t had much time left over to blog or read.

But I did finish 2 AM at the Cat’s Pajamas, so finally, a new post!

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino, is a quirky book about one night – Christmas Eve Eve – in Philadelphia. I thought it was going to be set in the 50s or 60s, based on the cover (which I love, btw) and the jazz club setting, but it’s not – it is set in the present, with references to Facebook and cell phones and dating profiles. There are basically three subplots that are threaded together in the story: 1) Madeleine, a 10 year-old whose mother died of cancer and who has a rebellious streak and a penchant for cursing, gets expelled from school and wants to sing onstage at a jazz club; 2) Sarina, a recently-divorced woman in her late 20s is invited to a party at the home of one of her old high school friends, where she encounters a man for whom she has harbored feelings for many years; and 3) Lorca, the owner of famed Philadelphia jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, risks losing the club due to several municipal violations, including musicians living in a back room at the club. Then there are a host of tertiary characters who pop up in intermittent chapters throughout the book.

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is told in an unusual style. Each chapter takes place at a different time of day, and the narration rotates among the storylines. Bertino’s writing is more poetry than prose at times, and there are some jarring non-sequiturs and bizarre stretches of dialogue and actions that kept me from really getting into the book. I enjoyed some moments of real power and insight – especially in the Sarina chapters – but there were long passages that were confusing and boring too.  I didn’t feel any connection to Lorca or to Mrs. Santiago, the woman who cares for Madeleine, and they appeared too often for my liking. There were also random characters who popped in and out, only adding to the choppy nature of the book.

I wanted to like 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, but it was kind of a chore to get through. I listened to it on audio, which didn’t help. The narrator was loud, almost shouting, and her Lorca and Madeleine accents were grating. I don’t really recommend the audio – maybe the book would have gone faster and been more enjoyable in print. I found my mind wandering a lot during some of the more random sections, which doesn’t happen often with audiobooks.

Some people love this book, so give it a chance if it sounds like your type of read.