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  • Tara Sonin 4:00 pm on 2018/04/13 Permalink
    Tags: , a wounded name, , , , , , darling beast, daughter of time, dot hutchinson, e.k. johnson, , , fool, , howard jacobson, i iago, , if we were villains, , jane smiley, josephine tey, jude morgan, juliet immortal, katharine davies, m.l. rio, , , miranda and caliban, new boy, nicole galland, one perfect rose, rebecca reisert, , , , ros barber, saving juliet, shylock is my name, , , tessa gratton, the madness of love, the marlowe papers, the princes in the tower, the queens of innis lear, the secret life of william shakespeare, the third witch, , vinegar girl, when you were mine, william shakespeare's star wars   

    25 Romances for Shakespeare Fans 

    Between fairytales, Jane Austen, and revivals of favorite TV shows from yesteryear, retellings of classic stories for today’s readers are all the rage. Shakespeare is no exception! Here are twenty-five books you’ll love if you’re a fan of the Bard.

    Miranda and Caliban, by Jacqueline Carey
    Jacqueline Carey has the unique ability to blend beautiful prose, lush world building, and lots of fascinating character development. This retelling of The Tempest stars Miranda and Caliban: the daughter of the play’s main character Prospero, who has taken them to an island for mysterious reasons…and the slave described as a monster by his master. Carey reimagines them as star-crossed lovers caught in a web of powerful people they can’t escape.

    As I Descended, by Robin Talley
    A gender-flipped, YA version of Macbeth? Sign me up! Meet Maria and Lily; inseparable, in love, and desperate to carve out a future for themselves when they feel it is in jeopardy. Maria wants to win the Cawdor Kingsley prize, but to do so, they have to get Delilah, the star student, out of the way. When Lily comes up with a plan to do so, things get bloody.

    I, Iago, by Nicole Galland
    Why did Iago insert himself into Othello’s life, causing devastation to everyone he loved? To learn the truth, you have to go back. In this clever retelling, Iago’s past is explored—as is his role in the society he exists within, as a co-conspirator in the act of convincing a man to murder the woman he loves.

    A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
    Larry Cook is retiring, and his land should go to his daughters—but his youngest, Caroline, refuses to accept his offer. King Lear is a story about pride, family, and revenge, and this retelling brings that to life. Buried family secrets are brought to the surface, and in the end, none of its members will be the same.

    The Third Witch, by Rebecca Reisert
    Macbeth begins with three witches, and this novel delves into the story of one of them. Gilly decides to do whatever necessary to ruin Macbeth’s life, including dressing like a boy, sneaking into the castle, and inserting herself into his business. But by putting Macbeth and his wife in her sights, has she unwittingly risked herself?

    Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
    A comedy, for a change of pace! The Taming of The Shrew gets the contemporary treatment when Kate, generally dissatisfied with her life, gets thrown another curveball: her father wants her to marry his assistant, Pytor, without whom his scientific research would be lost, to keep him from being deported. Hilarity ensues.

    Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood
    We return to The Tempest with a retelling from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. A meta-twist on the retelling stars an artistic director of a theater putting on a production of the namesake Shakespeare play itself…but when he is betrayed, Felix winds up alone, missing his lost daughter, wishing for the day vengeance can be his. When an opportunity to teach a theater course in a prison arises, Felix sees his chance to put on his play, and put out the people whom he thought he could trust.

    If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio
    Sometimes we forget, but Shakespeare’s plays were put on by actors…and this interesting novel combines a narrative fit for the Bard himself with the theatrical backdrop. Oliver Marks has been in jail, but no one knows the real truth of why. He was once an actor surrounded by other talented performers, but something took a turn for the dangerous in their final year at the conservatory. What is the truth? Who is the villain? Only Oliver knows, and you must decide if you believe him.

    Fool, by Christopher Moore
    The court jester always stands on the sidelines, seeing all. In this novel, Lear’s jester is named Pocket, and the story unfolds from his point of view. While their family falls apart, the fool finds a way to make you laugh despite the tragedy that inevitably approaches.

    A Wounded Name, by Dot Hutchinson
    Hamlet is about the titular character, but in this retelling, Ophelia gets the star treatment. At Elsinore Academy, Ophelia sees ghosts that even medicine cannot banish. She finds comfort in the late headmaster’s son, Dane, but together, their connection proves tragic.

    The Queens of Innis Lear, by Tessa Gratton
    This book isn’t even out yet, but I’m so excited about it I had to include it! A magical fantasy inspired by King Lear? Yes, please! Three queens battle for the rights to the throne: one, who sees revenge for her mother’s death, another determined to get an heir to secure her position, and a third who sides with her father, determined to protect him from their war.

    The Princes in the Tower, by Alison Weir
    If you’re a fan of Shakespeare’s Richard III, you will love this historical fiction novel that envisions what occurred when Richard infamously made two young princes disappear since they were a threat to his crown.

    The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber
    If you love Shakespeare, you should know his greatest frenemy: Christopher Marlowe. Some call him a competitor, others a collaborator…and in this novel, Marlowe reveals the truth about his death…or rather, the death he faked so he could escape being a convicted heretic. And of course, the greatest forgery of them all: that he continued to write plays in Shakespeare’s name. A rich, imaginative novel about a time mired in mystery.

    The Secret Life of William Shakespeare, by Jude Morgan
    For all of his works and his enduring legacy, William Shakespeare is still something of an enigma. This novel unravels the mystery behind his childhood, his marriage, the death of his son, and much more.

    Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson
    The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s slightly more obscure plays (but one of my personal favorites.) About family, betrayal, faith and revenge, this story is re-interpreted for the present day where Simon Strulovitch takes the place of Shylock. His daughter Beatrice has fallen for an athlete with anti-semitic views despite the fact that she is Jewish, and eventually, Strulovich is driven to seek revenge.

    Darling Beast, by Elizabeth Hoyt
    This romance takes place in the theater, so of course Shakespeare would approve! An actress has fallen on difficult times while trying to take care of her young son. When she meets another inhabitant of the theater, a Viscount with a violent past, they both turn to one another to bring themselves out of the darkness of the wings and into the bright light of center stage.

    One Perfect Rose, by Mary Jo Putney
    Stephen has just been diagnosed with a devastating illness. Wanting to waste no time, he decides to leave the responsibilities of his life behind and travel, meeting a theater family and falling for their daughter, Rosalind. But even as they grow to love one another, Stephen knows that his curtain call is approaching…

    Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston
    This YA retelling of The Winter’s Tale involves the aftermath of one girl’s rape while at cheerleading camp. Hermione feels that she’s doomed to fulfill the legacy of every senior class in her school: a girl ends up pregnant before graduation. But instead, with her family, friends, and the community rallying around her, she defies expectations and makes the best choices for her future.

    Saving Juliet, by Suzanne Selfors
    Traveling back to Shakespeare’s time thanks to an accident of magic, Mimi and her acting partner on Broadway, Troy Summer, find themselves in the time of the Montagues and Capulets. There, she meets the real Juliet, and finds herself tempted to intervene and save the star-crossed lovers before tragedy strikes.

    New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier
    Othello takes a trip to the 1970’s in this gripping retelling. Osei is a diplomat’s son, used to traveling and never fitting in. But here, he fits with Dee, a popular girl in school…to Ian’s dismay. Many things remain the same, such as the investigation of racism, pride, and revenge. The twist? All of the characters are eleven years old, and what happens during school will change their lives forever.

    Wiliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars, by Ian Doescher
    See the story of Star Wars through a Shakespearean lens, with the Jedis, Sith Lords, and captive princesses all told through a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play format as though it were being performed for Queen Elizabeth herself.

    Juliet Immortal, by Stacey Jay
    Here’s the truth: Juliet didn’t kill herself. Romeo murdered her to get something for himself: immortality. But in this re-imagining of the classic tragedy, Juliet may get the last word. Granted eternal life, she spends her centuries fighting back against Romeo—and that fight will become even more dangerous when she meets someone else she loves.

    Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey
    Was Richard III as evil and cunning as history remembers him? Or was he misunderstood, forced into a difficult position by the circumstances of the time? This novel stars a Scotland Yard detective determined to find out the truth behind one of history’s most enigmatic and infamous figures.

    The Madness of Love, by Katharine Davies
    Twelfth Night is part comedy, part drama, and so is this novel about a girl named Valentina who misses her twin brother after he’s abandoned her to go traveling. She decides to disguise herself as a boy and travel after him, even if it means having to help a man she may have feelings for in his plan to find happiness with the girl he’s loved since he was young. Unrequited love, mistaken identity, and more collide.

    When You Were Mine, by Rebecca Serle
    Ah! Another character gets their turn in the spotlight. Serle’s When You Were Mine is a modern take on Romeo & Juliet, but focuses on the character of Rosaline. Remember her? She’s the girl Romeo was smitten with before meeting Juliet. In Serle’s reimagining, Juliet and Rosaline (or Rose), are former BFFs, and Rob (Romeo) and Rose have finally, finally shared a kiss. But when Juliet moves back into town, she steals Rob away from Rose, who is absolutely crushed. You get to watch literature’s most famous love story through the eyes of Rosaline, the broken-hearted, jilted former flame…and then the downward spiral Juliet sets herself on.

    What are your favorite Shakespearean retellings?

    The post 25 Romances for Shakespeare Fans appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Brian Boone 2:00 pm on 2017/11/02 Permalink
    Tags: , ana of california, andi teran, , , , dorian an imitation, going bovine, , jane smiley, , , , maya lang, , , page to page, , the sixteenth of june, , will self,   

    5 Books You Didn’t Know Were Remakes 

    Many standup comedians have made the amusing joke/observation that us creative humans in the Western world don’t hesitate to remake movies or songs but we never remake books. The most famous variation on the gag—after expressing that sentiment, the comedian mentions that they’re writing a word-for-word remake of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The thing is, authors remake other authors’ material all the time. It’s just that in the world of books they’re called “adaptations” or “re-imaginings.” Here are some books that offer a brand new take on pre-existing works.

    A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a remake of Shakespeare’s King Lear
    One of big reasons why Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest author, or playwright, of all time, is because his stories and characters continue to resonate through the centuries. The Bard wrote his stuff 400 years ago, and it’s still solid, because his themes are universal and his characters are relatable. Once in a while, an author will use one of Shakespeare’s plays as a jumping-off point—they just need to update the language. And the settings. And the plots. And into prose from dialogue. Perhaps the best example of Shakespeare 2.0 is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Because a king deciding which daughter to bequeath his kingdom to is a little irrelevant to the modern United States, Smiley made it about three daughters up to inherit their aging father’s farm. Smiley won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel.

    Going Bovine by Libba Bray is a remake of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
    Miguel de Cervantes’ epic comedy Don Quixote is about a man with both mental illness and delusions of grandeur—it’s pretty modern and sophisticated for having been published four centuries ago. But hey, funny is funny, and comedy is eternal. Libba Bray deftly reworked the vast, complicated classic into a digestible modern tale set in high school. A regular guy named Cameron contracts Mad Cow Disease, as one does, and suffers from all kinds of delightful hallucinations.

    The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang is a remake of James Joyce’s Ulysses
    James Joyce’s crowning achievement is Ulysses, an astonishingly detailed, hyper-realistic look at a single day in Dublin, Ireland—June 16, 1904. Commemorations of that day are now known as Bloomsday, after one the book’s many, many characters, Leo Bloom. Almost as real as Joyce’s physical descriptions are the richly rendered characters. “A day in the life” is a repeatable formula, but difficult to do well. Author Maya Lang pulls it off with The Sixteenth of June. It’s a cutting, insightful, emotional look at the good people of Philadelphia on June 16, 2004. A couple of people even throw a Bloomsday party! (Of course, if you want to get technical, Ulysses itself is a remake of the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey.)

    Ana of California by Andi Teran is a remake of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables
    You can’t improve on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s moving story of plucky, idiosyncratic red-headed orphan Anne Shirley charming the once crusty townsfolk of Avonlea. You can only re-create it in another time and place. At its core, Anne of Green Gables is a story about how hard it is to a new place, and fit in while maintaining your identity and integrity, and Andi Teran maintains all of Montgomery’s themes in her Anne reimagining, Ana of California. And she does it quite well, telling the tale of a teenage orphan named Ana Cortez who leaves the foster care system and East L.A. for a farm work program in Northern California.

    Dorian by Will Self is a remake of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
    What if Oscar Wilde were Bret Easton Ellis? Then he’d write Dorian. Of course, Will Self already wrote this book in 2002. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray story of a fresh-faced man and his grotesquely aging portrait called out and satirized the superficial. Self logically adapted the novel to take place in the equally hollow and image-conscious world of the 1980s London art scene.

    What are your favorite literary remakes?

    The post 5 Books You Didn’t Know Were Remakes appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jenny Shank 3:30 pm on 2015/07/07 Permalink
    Tags: , festivals, , jane smiley, Jim Lynch, Nina Mcconigley, Pauls Toutonghi, Seattle, , state fairs, , Wyoming   

    Get into the American Spirit with 5 Fairbound Works of Summer Fiction 

    Summer is a splendid time to enjoy America. If you happen to be in Roswell, New Mexico, you can participate in the annual UFO Festival, where the alien-lamp-lined main street closes to traffic in favor of a big party with an alien chase run, costume contest, and light parade. Meanwhile, on Coney Island, you can witness the nation’s premier gut-busting event, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. And across the country, gourd maniacs are busy growing the biggest possible pumpkin for state fairs that are just around the corner. Here are five books that will get you into the American spirit with their depictions of fairs, contests, and community celebrations.

    Some Luck, by Jane Smiley
    The Iowa State Fair (running this year August 13–23) plays a big role in the first installment of Jane Smiley’s masterful projected Century Trilogy, following Iowa farm family the Langdons from 1920 through 2020. At the 1934 fair, eldest son Frank “was fourteen, but he looked sixteen and acted eighteen.” While Frank’s more farming-inclined twelve-year-old brother Joey shows a Southdown ewe named Emily at the fair, Frank manages to steal onto the midway and make it past second base with an older girl. And neither Frank nor Joey throw up from too much funnel cake, watermelon, and hot dogs, despite their mother’s dire predictions. (The Iowa State Fair also figures in Smiley’s second book in the trilogy, Early Warning.)

    Evel Knievel Days, by Pauls Toutonghi
    The biggest party in Butte, Montana, is Evel Knievel Days (running this year July 23–25), during which daredevil motorcycle riders celebrate all things Evel, including flaming trucks, pyrotechnics, and the “American Motordome Wall of Death.” Pauls Toutonghi, who titled his winning first novel after the annual event, tells the story of Khosi Saqur Clark, the son of an absent Egyptian father and a cuisine-obsessed mother who’s a descendant of Butte’s famous “Copper King.” Khosi works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, but a crisis forces him to leave his beloved Butte for the first time ever, to seek his father in Cairo. Madcap hilarity and emotional connections ensue.

    Truth Like the Sun, by Jim Lynch
    The Seattle 1962 World’s Fair is at the heart of Jim Lynch’s fine novel Truth Like the Sun. Planners rushed to finish the Space Needle in time for the fair, hoping it would beckon newcomers to the city. “Where better to start afresh?” Lynch writes, “A whole new way of living in a city of things to come. That’s right. A city so short on history it’s mostly all future anyway.” Lynch cuts between the events of the 1962 fair and the mayoral run, 50 years later, of Roger Morgan, the now-70 visionary who spearheaded the fair. It looks like the political winds are blowing in Morgan’s favor until an investigative journalist gets hold of his story and digs into the secrets of his past.

    Cowboys and East Indiansby Nina McConigley
    McConigley’s fantastic debut story collection, which won the PEN Open Book Award, introduces many characters who are “the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming.” In the story “Reserve Champion,” Casper woman Delia Chalk is busy sewing for a doll dressing competition at the National Bank of Wyoming. “Next to the table was her trophy case,” McConigley writes. “It was stuffed with ribbons from the county and state fair, contests, and competitions—all from her handiwork. Reserve Champion. Reserve Champion. Reserve Champion. The pale pink rosettes made a garden in her case. Reserve Champion. It was better than first place all right, but not quite the best. It was a kind of purgatory of ribbons.” Delia feels sure she can finally win first place at the bank’s contest, but she hadn’t counted on stiff competition from Mrs. Gupta, an immigrant from India who sews a mean miniature sari. A new edition of Cowboys and East Indians has just been released.

    John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead
    Colson Whitehead’s second novel remains one of my favorites out of his many books. Freelance journalist J. Sutter is a “junketeer,” surviving on freebies, buffets, and complimentary trips offered by companies that want him to write about their products. In July of 1996, a website sends Sutter to cover John Henry Days in Talcott, West Virginia. The event will commemorate the steel-driving folk hero and celebrate the release of a new John Henry postage stamp. Hilarity and deep thoughts about America follow.

  • Melissa Albert 8:50 pm on 2015/03/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , ann b. ross, ann packer, , , jane smiley, , , , ,   

    April’s Top Picks in Fiction 

    This month we’re getting long-awaited sequels, the latest from a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, an ice-cold noir thriller, and a delicious contemporary reimagining of a classic Jane Austen comedy of manners. These are the books you should be pairing with your coffee, your commute, and your late-night “just one more page” protests all month long.

    A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson
    A God in Ruins is the companion novel to Atkinson’s astonishing, award-winning Life After Life, which followed Ursula Todd from birth to death again and again, tracking the progression of her soul as she lives out her life in countless iterations. Now Atkinson turns her focus to Ursula’s beloved brother, Teddy, whose safe return from World War II was one of the first novel’s emotional high points. The focus is on his postwar life, which he, as a former RAF pilot, didn’t really expect to be granted. In telling his story, Atkinson again bends time and tests the boundaries of traditional narration; she’s a master storyteller, and A God in Ruins is not to be missed.

    Early Warning, by Jane Smiley
    Smiley’s 2014 book Some Luck, the first in her Century Trilogy, followed Iowa farm couple Walter and Rosanna Langdon from 1920, when they’re newlyweds, to the early 1950s, each chapter covering a year in their family’s life. Book two, Early Warning, opens in 1953 just after Walter’s death. Smiley follows the lives of Rosanna, her five children, and their children over the 33 years following that death, through the social tumult of midcentury and beyond. She keeps a tight hold on her fascinating, miraculously distinct cast, through whose eyes readers experience cultural touchpoints like the Vietnam War and the 1970s boom in cult activity, as well as the more intimate triumphs and disasters of family life.

    Inside the O’Briens, by Lisa Genova
    Lisa Genova, of Still Alice fame, is back with another exploration of degenerative disease’s effects on families. When respected family man and cop Joe O’Brien’s constellation of strange symptoms is diagnosed as progressive, incurable Huntington’s disease, he and his children are at a crossroads: he has to find purpose and peace despite the rapid decline of his body and mind, and they must decide whether to get tested for the genetic condition in the face of 50/50 odds. Once again O’Brien delivers an insightful, moving story of human frailty and the strength of familial ties.

    Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbø
    In the latest standalone from the acclaimed author of icy Norwegian thrillers including The Son and the Harry Hole series, complicated contract killer Olav is touched by conscience at a very inconvenient moment. He’s a “fixer” for a crime lord whose latest assignment hits close to home: he wants Olav to kill his wife. But when Olav decides the wife’s crimes against her husband are less straightforward than they appear, he begins planning a double-cross, attempting to both save the wife’s skin and keep himself out of his dangerous boss’s crosshairs. Complete with a beautiful femme fatale, a dangerous yet sympathetic hero, and a world of bad choices, Blood on Snow is pitch-black noir.

    Miss Julia Lays Down the Law, by Ann B. Ross
    In the 17th installment of Ann B. Ross’s Miss Julia series, a rude new neighbor in the steely southern belle—and sometime detective’s—beloved North Carolina town is found murdered in her home. Before her death, the victim offended a dozen members of Miss Julia’s social circle by talking trash about Abbotsville. At her pastor’s behest, Miss Julia visits in the hopes of convincing her to make peace with one of them, the pastor’s highstrung wife—and thus becomes the one to discover the body. Fans of cozy mysteries will drink up this twisty, genteel tale like sweet tea.

    Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith
    The Jane Austen project, kicked off in 2014 with Val McDermid’s retelling of Northanger Abbey, commissions selected authors to transpose Austen’s timeless stories to contemporary times. In McCall Smith’s retelling, Emma Woodhouse is an interior designer, her homebody father is a germaphobe, and protegé Harriet Smith is the naive daughter of a single mother and a sperm donor. McCall Smith brilliantly revives Austen’s talent for smart social commentary and ear for the ridiculous, with fun modern touches that will delight fans of both authors.

    The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer
    The four Blair children grew up in Portola Valley, California, under the shadow of their artist mother’s thwarted ambition, which stunted and spurred them in various ways. This epic jumps among narrators and time periods, weaving a marvelously textured family tale. The return of prodigal son James kicks off a plot thread set in the story’s present day, one that causes his siblings to reexamine what they believed to be true about their upbringing.

    At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen
    A woman who believes she’s lost all the things that matter most—her money, her wealthy father’s approval, her privileged place in East Coast society—finds her inner world changed forever when she’s stranded in a tiny village in the Scottish highlands. Madeline Hyde’s father cut off her and her husband, Ellis, after a public disgrace; in an effort to get them back in his father-in-law’s good graces, Ellis drags Madeline to Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster. Madeline is forced to reexamine the values she built her life on, against the stark beauty of an impoverished countryside near the end of World War II.

    Beauty’s Kingdom, by Anne Rice
    Twenty years after the close of Rice’s erotic Beauty trilogy, which traced the titular fairy-tale heroine from her enchanted sleep in a tower, through forced sexual imprisonment, to her eventual release, Rice delights fans with an unexpected fourth installment. As the new rulers of the kingdom of Bellavalten, Beauty and her prince make working as a pleasure slave voluntary, paving the way for more enlightened erotic adventures. A must-read for those who shelve their fairy tales right next to their copy of Fifty Shades.

    God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison
    Lula Ann is a dark-skinned girl born to a mother who can pass for white, and her mother’s physical distaste for her reverberates throughout her life, twisting her but also making her strong. As an adult she reinvents herself as Bride, a head-turning career woman. But the kernel of unloved Lula Ann remains, and Bride fears total reversion when the departure of her lover, and the return of a woman who signifies the deepest shame of her past, threaten to undo the life she’s built. It’s a thoughtful, often chilling addition to Nobel Prize winner Morrison’s canon.

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  • Ester Bloom 7:30 pm on 2014/12/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , jane smiley, ,   

    Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the First in a Trilogy, Stands on Its Own 

    Jane Smiley's Some LuckA famous American post–World War I song struck a nerve by asking parents, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres) addresses this concern in her absorbing, meditative new novel Some Luckeach chapter of which covers a year from 1920 to 1953 in the life of both the ever-expanding Langdon family and its land. Will city life, higher education, and the looming threat of another war lure Rosanna and Walter’s children from the cornfields? If so, is that a tragedy or a triumph?

    Rosanna and Walter are, in 1920, thrifty, hardworking, mind-your-own-business yet still socially conscious Midwesterners. Though God-fearing, they are the kind of people who look down on too-enthusiastic revival meetings, declaring that “you can be saved perfectly well without making a spectacle of yourself,” and who claim that “if you have to go to Texas for something, you don’t need it.” At least at first. Not conservative—sick of Hoover, Walter votes for FDR—they are still, by nature, suspicious of change. And change is what the 20th century, as well as good fiction, is all about.

    The 20th century careens forward like Santa Claus on his sleigh, tossing out electrification, tractors, the Great Depression, Communism, the Second World War, and much, much more to the good little boys and girls of America. Rosanna and Walter cope the best they can, bending without breaking, even after the Crash. They’re aware throughout, though, that their situation is precarious. Even if they survive the transition from horses and buggies to mechanization and hybrid corn, perhaps the best gift they can give their children is not the farm itself but the farm as a launching pad to something better. After all, Rosanna and Walter have no illusions about their chosen path. Eking one’s living out from the land is a tenuous choice, often a desperate one, as Smiley makes clear early on:

    If anyone remembered that rearing a child on a farm was dangerous, it was Rosanna….What she did know was that some farmers understood that the death of someone around the farm, often a child, was the price of farming.

    The menace of the farm is one of the novel’s main antagonists. Time is another. For that reason, it feels appropriate that Some Luck came out in not long after Richard Linklater’s movie Boyhoodwhich was filmed with deliberate slowness over 12 years. Audiences observe as members of a family—primarily its older son—grow and change; there’s no plot, exactly, except observations on the effects of time. In Smiley’s work, too, our main character is a son: Frank, Rosanna and Walter’s first child. Tall, handsome, shrewd, energetic, and forward-facing, he’s a perfect match for his era. Too savvy to swagger, he still makes his way with confidence through Chicago, where he lives with his radical aunt and her English Jewish émigré husband; then to college; and then to war, having more adventures than his younger siblings combined. Their quieter, though still varied and detailed, lives make a vivid counterpoint to his.

    There is some incident but not much drama, even when death swoops down and makes off with a character we care about, or another character strongly considers suicide. If there’s an exclamation point anywhere in the text, I missed it; Smiley is as low-key and matter-of-fact as her protagonists. Her point seems to be to subvert our expectations of a contemporary American novel, while at the same time exposing us to an often ignored or misunderstood part of the American experience. In many ways, this is a throwback to sprawling, agricultural European novels like Anna Karenina and Middlemarch, about which it should be said Smiley is an expert. Yet the conceit—one chapter for each year, no matter what—helps it stand out among both current novels and older ones.

    The ambiguity of the title could be read as positive, neutral, or negative, depending on your tone of voice. Say it bitterly (“Some luck…”) and it’s bitter. Say it with appreciation (“That was some luck!”) and it’s appreciative. Say it without any intonation and it’s merely descriptive: “We had some luck,” good and bad. That’s history in a nutshell. The fact that Smiley handles it so adroitly, while still telling several stories at once, is remarkable.

    Although intended as the first installment of a trilogy, Some Luck can stand alone: as an occasionally challenging but worthwhile novel, as a complete world, as a monument to American resiliency and a lost way of life that manages to never be sentimental about the way we were.

    Some Luck is on sale now.

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