Friday, July 10, 2015

A Year in the Life

Jane Smiley has undertaken a daunting task. In the course of three books she follows the lives of a Midwestern family for one hundred years. Some Luck starts in 1920 and follows an Iowa farming family, Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five children, until 1953. Then Early Warning picks up the story of Walter and Rosanna's children and their offspring until 1986. The third book of the trilogy, “Golden Age”, will be released in the fall and will complete the one hundred year cycle.

Each chapter covers a single year, with the point of view switching from character to character. Smiley clearly understands farming, as some chapters deal with the intricacies of crop rotation, corn prices, chickens, pigs and the occasional sheep. But she also captures the growth of the characters (or lack thereof). Walter remains an uncomplaining and determined farmer, while Rosanna evolves from vivacious and beautiful young mother to a somewhat crotchety old woman who nonetheless learns to drive and widens her view of the world outside the farm.  The children grow from toddlers adults, choosing very different paths.

For the most part they scatter far from the farm, marrying and starting families. They occasionally brush up against historic events (Viet Nam, Jim Jones, the AIDS crisis). Smiley does an admirable job of fleshing out the growing cast of characters. And it does help that a family tree is included, since I had some trouble remembering who's child was who's.

But I had a couple of problems with the format. Jumping forward a year with each chapter means that there's no real narrative arc, just a series of unconnected events. And as the novel expands to include both children and grandchildren of Walter and Rosanna, there are a lot of storylines to follow.

Early Warning” ends with a surprise revelation, and there are many dangling plot threads that I'm interested in following, so I will definitely read the third book. But if you're only going to read one Jane Smiley book, be sure it's “A Thousand Acres” which I consider to be her masterpiece.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading For Pleasure

Of course I read for pleasure. It's not as if I have a paper to write or test to take. And thanks to the Kindle “Try a Sample” option, I can easily start reading and then reject a book without even buying it. But that doesn't mean that all books are equally pleasurable to read. Sometimes reading a book can be hard work, but the rewards are well worth the effort (I'm looking at you, Karl Ove Knausgård). At other times a book can be just good enough to keep me going, but in the end leaves me feeling as I sometimes do in a restaurant – the meal tasted fine but I expected something a little more satisfying (Sorry, Rachel Kushner). And then sometimes a book hits me just right, Whether it's because of my state of mind, or the weather, or the phase of the moon, I'll never know, but reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House was an effortless pleasure. 

Unlike many of Cather's works, this book is not about frontier life but university life. Professor Godfrey St. Peter teaches history at a mid-western college in the 1920's and is a successful academic author. But when his family moves to a new home, he finds himself unable to abandon the shabby attic study in his old house, where he does his writing. His reluctance mirrors his unwillingness to accept the more modern and materialistic life which his wife and married daughters have embraced. He reminisces about his favorite student, Tom Outland, a brilliant scientist who was engaged to his daughter and was killed in World War I.

In middle section of the book, titled “Tom Outland's Story”, Cather leaves the professor and his comfortable life behind to let Tom tell the first person story of his life before his arrival at the college. Most memorable is his description of his discovery of an ancient abandoned city of cliff-dwellers on a mesa in New Mexico. Here Cather's love of natural beauty is reflected in the beautiful prose she uses to describe the colors, smells, textures of this idlyllic spot.

In the final section Cather returns to the professor and his struggle to come to terms with the modern world, so far removed from the natural world of the desert that Tom revered, and with a family to whom he no longer feels connected. He finds no easy answers. I expected this story to feel somewhat dated, but Cather has created a universal depiction of a man out of step with the times. Thanks, Willa – it was a pleasure.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Norwegian Angst

Surely Norway can't be as depressing as it's depicted by its fiction writers, can it? Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" paints a bleak picture, Jo Nesbø's 'Nordic noir' crime novels are dark and brooding, Per Petterson’s "Out Stealing Horses" is full of melancholy and regret. But Petterson’s newest novel I Refuse is darker still. Just look at the book cover!

It opens in 2006 with a powerful scene of the chance meeting in early morning between Jim and Tommy on a bridge outside of Oslo, where Jim, shabbily dressed, is fishing and Tommy, in a sleek new Mercedes, is on his way to work. The two have not seen each other in over thirty years. Tommy comments obliquely about “the way things can turn out”, and then drives away.

From there the story jumps back in time to 1966 in the small town of Mørk, where the two boys share a friendship forged in part by their loneliness, isolation, lost parents, and, in Tommy's case, domestic violence. The narrative continues to shift back and forth in time between their adolescent years and the day of the bridge meeting. Some passages are told in the first person by Tommy, his sister Siri and Jim; others are told in third person, in a way that is impressionistic but not confusing. Gradually these fragments fill in the events that have shaped their lives, including one that has driven a wedge between them. In some ways they have moved in opposite directions, but both have been scarred by their pasts and share an inability to fully connect with life.

The prose is sometimes taut but sometimes rambles in long sentences (could these have been better translated?). The most powerful and unforgettable scenes occur as the two teenagers are both connected and tested by their friendship. On the other hand, it was distracting to feel as if I needed a map of the Oslo area to follow the detailed driving descriptions.

This is a sad and poignant story and you will have to judge for yourself whether hope remains at the end. But I warn's Norwegian.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Recently our Book Club read “Stoner”, a wonderful 1965 novel by John Williams which had gone out of print until its success in France led to its reissue in the United States. It reminded me that one of the books on my 'Hope to Get To' list had a similar history. I had read an article in the New Yorker about Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower, whose works had been out of print for many years until, in 2012, the Australian publishing house Text reissued them and persuaded her to publish her last novel, which she had withdrawn just before it was to be released in 1971. The article declared The Watch Tower to be her greatest novel, so I decided it was time to read another forgotten work.

Although the story is set in the Australia of the 1940's, I kept being reminded of novels from earlier times. Laura and Clare Vaizey are not orphans like Jane Eyre, but they might as well be. Their heartless mother yanks Laura out of her academic high school so that she can support the family, then abandons the girls completely to return to England. Laura sacrifices her own dreams and attempts to save her sister's future by marrying Felix Shaw, her boss at the factory where she works. Harrower describes him as “a swarthy nuggety man of forty-four who looked closer to fifty”. All I could think of was poor Dorothea stuck with boring, insensitive Casaubon in "Middlemarch".

But Felix turns out to be much worse than the pompous Casaubon; in fact, he proudly compares himself to Bluebeard. What follows is a harrowing psychological tale, as Clare attempts to escape the toxic household that Felix has created around Laura and herself. If you've ever wondered why a woman stays in an abusive marriage, this novel provides a vivid case study.

Harrower's language is precise and controlled, sometimes witty, always honest. The story was terrifying, but I couldn't look away.