Jane Smiley has never been a novelist who lacked ambition, but her new project might be her biggest yet. She's embarked on a trilogy that covers the last century of American life—and the first volume, Some Luck, will be published on October 7.
The action begins in 1920s Iowa, where the Langdon family—Rosanna, Walter and their five children—live on a farm, and each chapter covers roughly a year. As the children grow up and move away (or not), Smiley takes a panoramic look at the first half of the century, encompassing the Depression, World War II and the early 1950s. Early buzz is that this one is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.
Smiley has already completed the next two novels in the trilogy (or "cycle," as her publisher has dubbed it), and they're tentatively scheduled for publication in the spring and fall of next year. Like Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, which concludes this fall, the Langdon books take a look at some of this century's most epic events—although with a smaller, more intimate cast of one everyday family.
Check out the opening lines:
Walter Langdon hadn’t walked out to check the fence along the creek for a couple of months—now that the cows were up by the barn for easier milking in the winter, he’d been putting off fence-mending—so he hadn’t seen the pair of owls nesting in the big elm. . . . Right then, he saw one of the owls fly out of a big cavity maybe ten to twelve feet up, either a big female or a very big male—at any rate, the biggest horned owl Walter had ever seen—and he paused and stood there a minute, still in the afternoon breeze, listening, but there was nothing. He saw why in a moment. The owl floated out for maybe twenty yards, dropped toward the snowy pasture. Then came a high screaming, and the owl rose again, this time with a full-grown rabbit in its talons, writhing, then hanging limp, probably deadened by fear. Walter shook himself.
Will you read it? What books are you looking forward to this fall? Click here for more news on 2014 releases.
Today is your first chance to pick up A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. And that's something you want to do! In a fall filled with fiction heavyweights (including the new J.K. Rowling, which also goes on sale today), Forgiven holds its own, keeping the reader glued to the pages as the darkly humorous and oddly hopeful tale of Harold Silver unfolds.
Homes is brilliant at depicting the absurdity of modern life—and then turning it up 10 notches, without losing the emotional resonance that a good novel needs. We asked her about the significance of forgiveness and what she means by the title in an email Q&A:
Redemption is a concept that appears very early in the novel, but doesn’t become realized until the very end. From whom do you think Harry—or for that matter anybody—is seeking forgiveness? How do we know when we have, in fact, been forgiven?
That’s a very good question, and I’ll answer it by saying that in the Jewish religion every year at Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—we fast and ask for forgiveness. We begin by saying, “ For the sin we committed before you”—by being ignorant—or for the sin of envy or speaking poorly about others. We literally beat our breast and go over a litany of possible sins and whether or not we have committed them and we ask to be forgiven.
I find it deeply satisfying to confess, even for things I have not done—to repent for ideas, to repent for transgressions of the mind—to raise the bar for the coming year and hope to do better.
Importantly it is also at this time that we forgive others—as much as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves.
OK, so I’m getting a bit lofty here, but the idea is that we should accept responsibility for our transgressions and importantly go beyond that and make an effort to do better in the future.
Today is the on-sale date for one of my favorite books so far this year: Christopher Coake's You Came Back (Grand Central). This wrenching story of grief, love and ghosts captivated our reviewer, who said the book "reads like a suspense novel and will keep you turning pages longer than is good for you. Afterward, it will leave you lying in bed in the dark, contemplating its surfeit of pain and beauty."
What we don't mention in our review is that Coake's story was inspired by personal experience with loss. Not the loss of a child, which is the tragedy that befalls his protagonist, but the loss of a wife to cancer at only 27. In a moving behind-the-book essay, he talks about the parallel lives people are forced to lead after moving on from loss.
I'm happy. Maybe I can say I wrote my novel because I falter whenever I say this sentence. Not because it’s untrue—I am married to a marvelous woman, and I have a job I love in a city and region I love. I do not want for anything. But it is with utmost respect for my wife and for my job and my place that I say this: My happiness is often upsetting to me, because of the way it came to me. Because it’s a product of my first life being destroyed, and giving way to this one. These two lives—both of which, past and present, I’d have died to protect—will always exist in me, side by side.
Capital by John Lanchester
Norton • $26.95 • ISBN 9780393082074
on sale June 11, 2012
Novelist John Lanchester has been best known recently for his incisive, clear commentary on the fiscal follies of the last few years, some of which was distilled in the 2010 bestseller I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (S&S).
Now, in his first novel since 2002, Lanchester explores the real estate bubble and the banking crisis through fiction that is as enrapturing as it is psychologically acute. Capturing a vast swath of Londoners among the residents of the gentrified Pepys Road, Capital portrays an authentic slice of contemporary life on the eve of change in a way that recalls Franzen—with a welcome touch of wry humor.
Banker Roger Yount and his wife Arabella reside in a constantly upgraded and updated home on Pepys Road. The Younts, with their extensive household help, luxury cars and country estate, exemplify the one-percenter—but times are changing.
Luxury meant something that was by definition overpriced, but was so nice, so lovely, in itself that you did not mind, in fact was so lovely that the expensiveness became part of the point, part of the distinction between the people who could not afford a thing and the select few who not only could, but also understood the desirability of paying so much for it. Arabella knew that there were thoughtlessly rich people who could afford everything; she didn't see herself as one of them, but instead as one of an elite who both knew what money meant and could afford the things they wanted. . . . She loved expensive things because she knew what their expensiveness meant. She had a complete understanding of the signifiers.
What are you reading this week?
I can't be the only reader who learned a lot about World War II through the engrossing, epic novels of Herman Wouk. The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), read furtively beneath my desk in seventh-grade math class, decades after they were first published, set the personal dramas of two families—the American Henrys, a military family, and the Italian-Jewish Jastrows—against a richly detailed chronicle of World War II. (Wouk himself served in WWII, in the Pacific.)
Well, at 96, Herman Wouk has sold a new novel—his first since 2004—about a group of filmmakers who are working on a life of Moses. The Lawgiver is told through "letters, memos, emails, journals, news articles, recorded talk, tweets, Skype transcripts, and text messages," according to a press release from Simon & Schuster, who bought the book (their current publisher, Jonathan Karp, is a huge Wouk fan).
Karp says in the press release:
"Within just a few pages I was captivated, once again in the thrall of Wouk's sharply conceived characters, amusing narration, irresistible command of story, and the wisdom of a lifetime. I found myself marveling at the verve and wit of this great American storyteller, now 96. The insights into Moses have remarkable vitality and depth. His heroine, Margo (‘Mashie’) is a twenty-first century incarnation of one of my favorite literary characters of all time, Marjorie Morningstar."
Does anyone write about contemporary London better than Zadie Smith? The brilliant writer's new novel, NW (Penguin Press), follows four siblings who made it out of the grim housing estate they were born into, only to be sucked back in when a stranger comes knocking. Reports have Smith describing it as a "very, very small book" but it sounds like big news to us.
Smith herself grew up in northwest London—she was born in Brent in 1975—and still lives there. We are counting the days until this September 4 release, which "brilliantly depicts the modern urban zone—familiar to city dwellers everywhere—in a tragicomic novel as mercurial as the city itself." It's Smith's first novel since 2005's On Beauty. Will you be reading?
Word of a new Isabel Allende novel is always cause for celebration, so last week I was delighted to learn about Maya's Notebook, "the story of a 19-year old girl who falls into a life of drugs and crime, and takes refuge on a remote island off the coast of southern Chile."
According to Publishers Marketplace, this novel will come out in October 2012 and is set in contemporary Berkeley and Chile. (Allende lives in the Bay Area now, although she is most associated with Chile, where many of her books take place.)
Allende is best known for her memoirs, historical fiction and magical realism, so this novel sounds like a departure—if only because of its contemporary setting. You can bet I'll be snagging the review copy when it comes to our office (a year from now . . . boo-hoo).
What's your favorite of Allende's books? She has been quite prolific since The House of the Spirits came out in 1982 . . . are you still excited by her work?
Also in BookPage: I gushed about a new Allende novel back in December of 2009 on this blog, then reviewed the novel (Island Beneath the Sea) for BookPage a few months later. Also, read an interview with Allende about My Invented Country, her memoir of Chile.
Author photo: Lori Barra © 2009
Here in Nashville, we're still mourning the loss of the RWA 2010 convention, but the RITA and Golden Heart winners have a lot to celebrate. We were especially pleased to see Kristan Higgins' Too Good to Be True get the nod for Best Contemporary Romance (read our interview with Higgins for The Next Best Thing). Former BookPage columnist Barbara O'Neal's The Lost Recipe for Happiness (read our review) took home the trophy for Best Novel with Strong Romantic Element.
Click on over to the RWA site for the full list of winners.
My pop-culture and literary credentials have taken a beating: my aunt, who lives in Hawaii, had to be the one to tell me that George Clooney was in the state filming an adaptation of one of my fave books of 2007—Kaui Hart Hemmings' The Descendants. (Read our review of The Descendants)
Clooney has been running around Oahu and the North Shore of Kauai this month filming the movie, which follows Matt King, a wealthy and detached father (Clooney) who is forced to become hands-on when his wife is gravely injured in a boating accident. While Joanie lies in a coma, Matt discovers she's been having an affair and takes his daughters on a trip to Kauai in pursuit of the other man.
Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) is directing the film, and seems like a perfect fit to bring this nuanced novel to the big screen without turning it into a soap opera.
Newcomer Amara Miller and "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" star Shailene Woodley will play Clooney's daughters, Scottie and Alex. The film will be released sometime in 2011. Interested?
Though she made her name with the historical Slammerkin, Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue is also known for her contemporary fiction. After last year's historical, The Sealed Letter, Donoghue has plans to publish a ripped-from-the-headlines story with Little, Brown. As she describes it on her site, Room is a "dark contemporary novel in the voice of a five-year-old boy," who happens to have been held captive in a garden shed (with his mother) most of his life. Shades of Jaycee Dugard, but, eerily, Donoghue had been working on the novel for months when Dugard was discovered in the Garridos' backyard.
Don't miss our interview with Donoghue for her 2004 historical, Life Mask.