Paper dolls: Some Luck (review)

Knopf
October 7, 2014

I heard an interview with Jane Smiley the other day on NPR. You can listen to it here (link). I am someone who has loved all things Smiley–Moo, Private Life, Ordinary Love and Good Will (0kay, so how can a writer fail with an incredible title like that last one?!)  Surprisingly, her Pulitzer Prize winner Thousand Acres isn’t one of my favorites. But knowing Smiley has a new novel out is enough to make me curious. Her latest title Some Luck will be part of a trilogy–a vast family epic spanning generations in Iowa and beyond.

The novel’s patriarch’s are Rosanna and Walter Langdon who raise their five children on an oat farm in Iowa. Rosanna is a town girl who is won over by the hard-working Walter, just returned from the first World War. They weather good times and lean together with the help of family and friends. Their firstborn, Frank, is Some Lucksomething of a Golden Boy, and in many ways their life revolves around seeing that Frank fulfills his potential. Second-born Joe lives in the shadow of his brother, not coming into his own until his twenties when he introduces new farming methods and has some success. Lillian is the gorgeous child; Henry the scholar; Claire a daddy’s girl. The novel takes them all through the second World War and into the fifties.

And if you can’t tell by the description of the children, this is a novel that leans heavily on tropes. It’s one thing to turn a classic such as King Lear into a modern cautionary tale–especially if it’s done artfully and without too much of a template. But it’s another to rely on stock characters so closely, that they seem like paper dolls: flat, stiff, and cut out of the same paper stock. (Smiley allows the characters to narrate their story as infants and toddlers which I found alternately clever and irritating.)

Much of Some Luck dragged for me–the plot plodded along as slowly as the thirty-some years the novel covered. It might be that the book will come into its own when read along with its not-yet-released brother and sister. Would I read the next two in the trilogy? Probably so. At least, I’d try.

Because it is Jane Smiley, after all.

Listen to the Mockingbird

Nearly ten years ago I was captivated by Charles Shields unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird. To write Mockingbird: A portrait of Harper Lee, Shields spoke to Lee’s friends and some friends of friends, piecing together a fascinating glimpse of a writer who had became all but a recluse. But here’s the thing. Shields gives us a Harper Lee who was anything but solitary. She entertained closed friends, went out to dinner with her sister Alice Lee, visited high school students, stopped at the casino–in short, she was a woman of a certain age going about life in a quiet Southern town.

Medal of Freedom recipient: 2007

What Lee did withdraw from was the literary life and all things Mockingbird. She never published another book (her second one was supposedly stolen in a burglary) and was disillusioned after Truman Capote snubbed her contribution to In Cold Blood.  Lee reportedly told a close friend, “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”  Lee didn’t even participate in the 50th anniversary of her ground-breaking novel, nor did she condone the Disney-fication of her hometown Monroeville with its Radley Fountain grill, tote bags and tee shirts, and Calpurnia’s Cookbook. There was no Larry King or Oprah for this legend (although she did meet with Oprah once for lunch in a private suite at The Four Seasons). Some think Nelle Harper Lee eschewed the public eye because her novel was too frank, that she spilled too many family secrets and lived with that regret. Readers tend to take the novel’s young narrator, Scout, as Lee’s own voice–an irrepressible, sensitive tomboy bursting with enthusiasm for life. But she told Oprah during that lunch, “I’m really Boo”, the mysterious town lunatic (link).

Earlier this month The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee written by Marja Millsand supposedly authorized– was released to a kerfuffle. Lee’s sister Alice confirmed the book’s authenticity; her lawyer refuted that the sisters’ agreed to the interviews, insisting that when Mills moved next door to the Lees and befriended them, she did so under false pretenses. You can read the flurry of letters back-and-forth here (link). What most reviewers agree upon is that Mills’ Nelle Harper Lee is fairly close to Shield’s and we readers will probably read little that’s new. But despite the book’s controversial publicity (or perhaps because of it), The Mockingbird Next Door is sure to find its way to the top of bestseller lists just like its predecessor.

Writer Garrison Keillor said about Lee’s early aversion to public attention, “Here is a woman who knew when to get off the train” (link). Maybe we should respect that woman’s decision and let her walk away with dignity.

Stopping the story: WBN and me

I woke up this morning to the sad news that World Book Night had suspended operations because the event was too costly to continue, this despite “significant financial and time commitment from

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

publishers, writers, booksellers, librarians, printers, distributors, shippers.” It seems that the book community and individual donors had come together to support WBN, but that the organization lacked “significant, sustainable outside funding.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, it is was an incredible event. Writers and publishers agreed to donate titles that were specially printed for WBN and distributed by “Book Givers” on April 23 all over the country–over one and a half million books in since 2012. A-maz-ing.

I am a high school English teacher in a very small (traditionally) blue collar suburb outside a moderately-sized city in the Midwest. Pretty much middle America. But I feel as though every year I must dangle some sort of carrot to get my kids to read literature … and then I ask them to read some more. Sometimes it’s incredibly rewarding, but other times not so much. So when I heard about World Book Night three years ago (thank you, Denice!) I worried whether or not giving at school was really a good idea. After all, maybe the folks downtown at the soup kitchen where I volunteered would be more appreciative. Or maybe even at the bus stop at the end of my street? But books and teens and I have walked this readin’ road for over twenty years and we’ll be walkin’ it several more, so despite my hesitation, it seemed like a good fit.

WBN 2012: Glass Castle

Because everyone needs a book of their own. (Or, if you’re me a couple thousand books of my own, but that’s another story.) A book to smell and riffle through and maybe mark in and dog ear and–most important of all–write one’s own name in the front cover. I fussed and fretted over the titles, but, in the end, trusted the Universe to get the non-fiction books I chose into the right hands. And maybe the kids would read the book, and maybe they wouldn’t. At least not right now. But some day, that title might speak to them.

The over 600 comments on Facebook are down-hearted; I’m guessing most are former Givers like me.  More than a few have suggested Kickstarter. (If Lavar Burton can do it for Reading Rainbow, why not someone for WBN?!) The organization will remain staffed through the summer to continue social media, so you can still check them out here.

Frank Herbert said it perfectly (my husband will appreciate this reference!): “There’s no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” So World Book Night might be stopping the story but with over one and a half million books out there, “there’s no real ending.”

So how does the movie stack up: The Book Thief

Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. IMBD: 7.6/10. Odd discrepancy, maybe. Of course, the focus of Rotten Tomatoes is more movie critics–I read just a couple and, for the most part, they were disappointing: “Death as a tooth fairy“, “not a little dull“, “no real feeling for the catastrophe“. The blurb on the site reads, “A bit too safe in its handling of its Nazi Germany setting …” And it was–too “safe”. As I wrote about in my review (link), the novel had twelve-year-old children shouting “Heil, Hitler” and burning books and marching in Hitler Youth parades. In today’s politically correct climate, I couldn’t see any of that translating to the screen; and, quite frankly, it just might have been too inflamatory for a world that still hasn’t worked through our issues of otherness and hatred and oppression.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if the reviewers had read the book. I suppose that should be beside the point because the film should be able to stand on it’s own–and, according to many reviewers, it didn’t. My husband hadn’t read the book, but when I filled in some blanks for him, the movie worked. It was certainly beautiful–all in shades of brown and gray and taupe with a sky almost always pale, rarely blue. Geoffrey Rush was a perfect Papa and Sophie Nelisse played up the contrast between Liesel’s angelic side with her feisty approach to life’s disappointments. Rosa Huberman was perhaps a bit too soft–the reader waited nearly half the book for Mama to become sympathetic.

I was not disappointed in the movie, but it couldn’t even begin to touch the poignancy of the book. In Markus Zuzak’s Book Thief, Death was most definitely not a tooth fairy, but a character in his own right, one who dawdled and bantered, laughed and cried. And Zuzak didn’t give us Nazi Lite. He showed us life under the Third Reich through the eyes of a German citizen–sometimes burdensome, often constricting, but overall pretty routine after a while. And isn’t that, really, the horror of Nazi Germany? Or any evil empire, for that matter? It becomes unexceptional. And when we accept evil as commonplace, we’ve begun to lose our humanity.

So read the book. Then enjoy the movie.