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  • Written by Jane Smiley
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  • Written by Jane Smiley
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Written by Jane SmileyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jane Smiley

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On Sale: August 24, 2011
Pages: 432 | ISBN: 978-0-307-80529-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Nestled in the heart of the Midwest, amid cow pastures and waving fields of grain, lies Moo University, a distinguished institution devoted to the art and science of agriculture. Here, among an atmosphere rife with devious plots, mischievous intrigue, lusty liaisons, and academic one-upmanship, Chairman X of the Horticulture Department harbors a secret fantasy to kill the dean; Mrs. Walker, the provost's right hand and campus information queen, knows where all the bodies are buried; Timothy Nonahan, associate professor of English, advocates eavesdropping for his creative writing assignments; and Bob Carlson, a sophomore, feeds and maintains his only friend: a hog named earl Butz. In this wonderfully written and masterfully plotted novel, Jane Smiley offers us a wickedly funny comedy that is also a darkly poignant slice of life.

Excerpt

1Old MeatsFROM THE OUTSIDE it was clear that the building known generally as "Old Meats" had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department. Its southern approach, once a featureless slope of green lawn, was now an undulating perennial border whose two arms embraced a small formal garden defined by a carefully clipped and fragrant boxwood hedge. In front of that, an expanse of annuals flowed down the hillside and spilled across flat ground in a tide of August reds, golds, and yellows. Here and there, discreetly placed experimentals tested the climate. Right up against the long windowless southem wall of Old Meats, someone, sometime, without benefit of application, grant, permission from administration or grounds crew, without even the passing back and forth of a memo, someone had planted, then espaliered, a row of apricot and peach trees. In midsummer, just at the end of summer session, they were seen to bear fruit--heavy burnished apricots and big peaches swollen with juice that later disappeared and never seemed to reappear on the salad bars or the dessert bars in any of the dorms or fraternity houses. Nor were they sold at any hort department fund-raising sale, the way apples, Christmas trees, and bedding plants were. They just appeared and disappeared, unnoticed by most though legendary to the few who had stolen fruit, who kept an eye on the seed catalogues, wondering when these cultivars, the Moo U. cultivars, might be introduced to the open market.In fact, though it stood much in the way of foot traffic from the Bovine Confinement Complex, the Business College, the Chemistry building, the foreign travel office, and graduate student housing, and though, as generations of freshman geographers had found, it stood on the exact geographical center of the campus (unless you included the recently constructed Vet School two miles to the south, which threw everything off), and though it was large and blocky, Old Meats had disappeared from the perceptions of the university population at large. This was fine with the horticulture department, for certain unnamed members and their student cadres had just this summer laid out an extension of the perennial border to the east, curving in wanton floral revelry toward Old Meats' unused loading dock and Ames Road. So much, said the Chairman in private meetings with the rest of his faculty, for their assigned garden site, out by the physical plant and the bus barn, on a dead-end road that no one travelled unless lost. Guerrilla action, as he often remarked to the woman everyone including their children thought was his wife and whom he had met in SDS at the Chicago convention in 1969, was as protean and changeable as the needs of the people.It was also true, however, that Bob Carlson, sophomore workstudy student, was as invisible to the horticulturists, though he passed them every day, as Old Meats was to the rest of the campus. No busy digger or mulcher ever noticed him unlock the door beside the loading dock and enter, though he did it openly and in full view, often carrying bulky sacks. To them, Old Meats was a hillock in the center of the campus, a field for covering with vines and flowers; to Bob, it was a convenient job, an extension of his life on the farm, but instead of helping his dad feed and care for a thousand sows and their offspring, Bob tended to only one hog, a Landrace boar named Earl Butz. Right on Earl's pen, Bob had taped up a sign that read, "Get big or get out." Every time Bob saw that sign it gave him a chuckle. It was just the sort of joke his dad would appreciate, even though, of course, he had agreed to tell no one, not even his dad, about Earl, Earl's venue, a sparkling new, clean, air-conditioned, and profoundly well-ventilated Ritz-Carlton of a room, or Earl's business, which was eating, only eating, and forever eating.Just now, as Bob entered, Earl Butz was at the trough, but he noted Bob's arrival, acknowledging the young man with a flick of his ears and a switch of his little tail. Earl Butz was a good worker, who applied himself to his assigned task with both will and enjoyment. Already today he had cleaned the back end of his trough, and now he was working industriously toward the front, offering the lowpitched hog noises that expressed his suitability to his lot in life. Earl Butz had been eating for eighteen months, which was just exactly how old he was. He was white, white as cream cheese or sugar, and fastidious. Bob had noticed that every day, during his breaks from eating, he liked to nose and kick clean straw into a nice nest near the trough and far from the toileting area. Earl Butz also liked a bath, and had no objection to the lifting and cleaning of his trotters. He was an agreeable hog, and Bob liked him. At Christmas, Bob had purchased some large, sturdy red toys (a big ball, a hoop that hung from a ceiling beam, and a blanket) from a kennel catalogue. They had been Earl Butz' first toys, and he played with them when he could fit the time into his work schedule.Bob filled his trough, emptied and refilled his water reservoir, and scratched his back with a stick. He had been tending Earl Butz since November. He visited him five times every day, and Dr. Bo Jones, Earl's owner, said that he was the best caretaker they'd found. Bob took the compliment for what it was, a testament to the fact that he felt more comfortable with Earl than he did with anyone else he had met since coming to the university. He had his own reasons for not telling his dad about Earl Butz, and they all revolved around the worry his family would experience when they found out that although he was doing fine in his classes, and eating and sleeping well, he had made no friends among the twenty-four thousand other students on the campus, and spent the time he should have spent at parties and bars in his room writing letters to kids from his high school, five letters to girls for every one to a guy, since girls liked to get them and always wrote back, and guys, well, it was hard to tell about guys. They all, at their jobs and colleges, seemed to be partying hearty and getting lucky on a regular schedule.It was this very knowledge, that all his old friends were having the time of their lives, wherever they were, that had finally kept Bob on the campus all summer. His dad, though he missed the help with the farmwork, couldn't sneer at the money--more than Bob would make at the A & W at home, and a real bite in the tuition bill. And, of course, it had never occurred to Dr. Bo Jones that Bob would even think of abandoning Earl Butz. The rapidity with which the two had become associated, even twinned, in Dr. Bo Jones' mind would have astounded him, had he thought about it. But he was not in the habit of introspection."Hog," he said, "is a mysterious creature, not much studied in the wild, owing to viciousness and elusiveness. Can't get the papers, you know, to take yourself to Uzbekistan, even if you had the funding. Never been a hog that lived a natural lifespan. Never been an old hog. Hog too useful. Hog too useful to be known on his own terms, you know. What can I do with this hog, when can I eat it, what can I make of this hog, how does this hog profiteth me, always intervenes between man and hog. When I die, they're going to say that Dr. Bo Jones found out something about hog."What the doctor was busy finding out about Earl Butz was how big he might grow if allowed to eat at will for all of his natural lifespan. To that end, he was fed corn, alfalfa, middlings, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, barley, a taste of molasses, and skim milk powder on a schedule devised by Dr. Bo Jones and contained in a secret file labelled "i6TONS.Doc" on his home computer. Its companion file, into which he entered, late at night, the results of Earl Butz' weigh-ins and other tests, was labelled "WHTYUGT. Doe." Bob had never seen a printout of either file. He just received weekly instructions and turned in weekly test scores. It was a job. Dr. Bo Jones wasn't unlike some of the eccentric farmers you might meet back home. Bob considered that reassuring.He spent about half an hour with Earl Butz. This time of day, Earl was pretty busy. Mornings he was more playful. By ten, when Bob always returned for a last check, Earl would have turned in, sleeping soundly, his mounded bulk rolled up against the orange metal slats of his pen as if for comfort.Outside of Earl's pen, Old Meats was dim and empty. The classes in slaughtering and meat cutting that had once been held there were long removed to the purview of the junior college forty miles away, along with hotel cooking, barbering, auto mechanics, cosmetology, and everything else that Bob's dad and uncles would have considered respectable work. These days, no parade of animals marched to the holding pen and then, one by one, to the slaughtering floor. The meat locker was just a room now, its heavy door removed. The white enamel demonstration tables, still bolted to the cement in the stage area of the teaching amphitheater, canted dustily toward the center drain. No water ran from either spigot at the back of the area, nor from the faucets into the long, enamelled washing basin, nor had any use been found around the university for this equipment. Possibly it was not inventoried on any computer in any office, and had, therefore, ceased to exist.Out in the twilight, Bob saw that the horticulturists had retreated for the day. Shadows lengthened across the lawns toward a warm August dusk. Where a woman was walking alone from the Ames Road parking lot, within days thousands of students and hundreds of faculty would be traversing the paths and sidewalks. Bob was looking forward to getting to know the new apartment-mates he had found in May, but maybe he preferred this sight. The woman's dark, thick hair was piled in a loose bun. She wore a vibrant orange and yellow skirt, long and fluid, a crisp white sleeveless blouse with a sharply pointed collar, and orange shoes tied around slender ankles. Her summer tan stood out against the white of her blouse, and she didn't look like any T-shirted undergraduate or crisply permed sorority girl Bob had ever seen on the campus. He wondered if she knew how she looked, if she had planned to look that way, or if, as often happened to him, she might come upon a mirror or a plate glass window and surprise herself with the way her dressing effort for the day had turned out. At least she would be pleasantly surprised. Bob's usual experience ran quite the other way. She opened the door to Stillwater Hall, and disappeared inside. 2More Than Seven ThousandNew Customers Every AugustUNDERGRADUATE CATALOGUE, 1970-71: The experimental dormitory, Dubuque House, offers freshman students new and enlightening responsibilities for living, studying, and socializing in an unusually well-integrated and modern living situation. At Dubuque House, white students and Afro-American students plan meals together, share housekeeping duties, and largely govern themselves, free of the more customary houseparents. Most importantly, these students learn to respect each other, and to find common ground for lasting friendships. Because students prepare their own meals and maintain their own grounds and living quarters, the college is able to offer a 5 percent rebate on tuition and room and board expenses.UNDERGRADUATE CATALOGUE, 1989-90: Unique to universities of this size and type, Dubuque House offers undergraduate women the opportunity to experience multicultural diversity on a daily basis. Activities and house governance promote debate and self-determination--no rules are imposed by the university administration except basic rules of conformity to campus-wide standards of upkeep. Originally a beautifully maintained and elegant mansion that predates the university itself, Dubuque House is a uniquely homey and noninstitutional place for undergraduate women to live, but more importantly, it is a place for women of all ethnicities and backgrounds to come together in cooperation and respect. Physically challenged students will find that Dubuque House is well suited to their special needs. Because students prepare their own meals and maintain their own grounds and living quarters, and because the university is deeply committed to the ideals of multicultural diversity that Dubuque House represents, a 20 percent rebate on tuition and room and board is offered to Dubuque House students. Assignment is on a first come, first served basis.IN SPITE OF the detailed Let's Get to Know each Other booklet that the university had sent to each student on the fifteenth of July, the only thing Mary Jackson really knew about her roommates and the other Dubuque House students was that they probably couldn't have afforded the university if they didn't live in Dubuque House. Certainly, she could not have. Living in Dubuque House lowered her expenses below even what they would have been at the University of Illinois, where she would have had in-state tuition, and so she was here, sitting on her bunk with her suitcases, watching her roommates arrive and smiling every time one of them or one of their parents looked her way. Her bus from Chicago had gotten in at seven a.m. but she tried hard not to show the effects of her long night--four hours in the bus station because her sister had to drop her off before going to work, then ten hours on the bus next to a very small white man in dark blue Keds who stared at the ceiling with his eyes open and kept his hands folded in his lap the whole time, even when they stopped for a snack and a rest-room break. His likeness to a corpse had been contradicted only by his occasional giggles, unaccompanied by movement or change of any kind, and toward the middle of the night, Mary had begun to wonder if he were some sort of a robot or mechanical man being sent secretly from one lab to another, more cheaply on the bus than by UPS Next Day Air.Without seeming to, disguised by apparent perusal of the catalogue, Mary was glancing at Keri, Sherri, and Diane, who bustled back and forth as if they owned the place already, and knew each other already. In fact, Sherri's mother unconsciously claimed all three of them as her daughters, because she called each of them "honey." To Mary, she had said, "Oh, you're Mary. From Chicago. Hello, dear."
Jane Smiley|Author Q&A

About Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley - Moo

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as four works of nonfiction. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature in 2006. She lives in Northern California.


Jane Smiley is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Jane Smiley
(From Publishers Weekly's "Children's Bookshelf," 8/13/09)
By Joy Bean
  
  
You obviously love horses. Is this the kind of book that you would have liked to have read as a child?

JS: Well, it's more or less the kind of book I did read. When I was a child in 1960 – I was 10 and 11 that year – there were plenty of horse book series. I loved them all and read them all. I read the Black Stallion series, and other Walter Farley books. There were others more geared to girls, like Silver Birch, about a troop of Girl Scouts in Wisconsin. I ate them up. I also read Nancy Drew and other series. That was what kids' literature was back then.

Did you have or ride horses while growing up?

JS: When I was really little in suburban St. Louis, there was a pony riding area. The people there would stick me on a pony and make it move. I started doing that when I was five and then after that I made my mom take me to a particular stable and we would ride there. When I was 11, I started taking lessons. I was always doing something horsey.

What made you want to write for a younger audience?

JS: My editor, Joan Slattery, pointed out to me that there were no horse books for girls anymore. As soon as she said it, it opened up this whole world to me. It was time to return to my roots.


I thought of the fact that where I live in California, it is the center of a different type of horse training that is going on. I had recently seen the film My Friend Flicka, in which they break the horse the old-fashioned way. They wear the horse down until it can't fight anymore. They consider the horse "broke" then. But where I live, it is the center of a different kind of training that was started by two men, Bill and Tom Dorrance. Starting in the 1960s, they were observing horses and they saw how they relate to one another. They inferred what the horse's body language was saying to each other. They are hierarchical and they saw how one might bring himself to be the boss of the group. The two of them, especially Tom, took these lessons they learned from horses and applied it to horse training.


This type of training, the encouraging of horses to cooperate, hasn't been portrayed in a book for girls before. I also read a wonderful book about the domestication of animals called The Covenant of the Wild by Stephen Budiansky and the author talks about how domesticated animals retain their play instincts. You can train them to do a job that's fun, not just do a job. Horses will jump jumps because it's play for them.

The character of Jem Jarrow is based on Tom Dorrance. I met him once. He was a small, modest guy who was a genius with horses.

Abby has to deal with a strong-willed father as well as a strong-willed horse. Did you set out to write the book with these two relationships changing side-by-side throughout the novel?


The book is part of a series of three or more books. The horses come and go and it just happened that I wanted to talk about the Tom Dorrance way of training in the first book. I wanted to talk about the contrast between the old way of training and the new way. I've already written volume two and working on volume three now. Other aspects of Abby's life are in future books. A new trainer comes in. Abby has to learn how to jump, but I did want to get Jem Jarrow in there so that his ideas could influence the way the readers would see horses.

Abby has a tense relationship with her father. She continually stands up for herself, even though she is scared to do so. The father seems to be a little more lenient with Abby than he was with her older brother. Is that because she is a daughter, or because she has proved herself as being smart and level-headed with the horses?

It's because she's the daughter. The father relies on Abby to get the job done and she does get the job done. When challenged by his son, the father isn't able to handle it. At some point in the book, I mention that the son and father get along, that they're cut from the same cloth. Then it's no surprise that when the son decides to be his own boss, the father can't handle it. All those men—the father, the son, the uncle who comes to visit—their relationship is uneasy. With all of them, no one is going to be told what to do. We all know families like that, where the girls get a pass.

You add a lot of horse care information into the book, without it reading like a how-to book. Was this intentional? Did you want readers to come away from the book knowing about the dynamics between a horse and a person?

JS: One of the things that the father and Uncle Luke epitomized was that a horse was mechanical. If you said back in the 1960s that a horse had thoughts or could be like a person, people would just laugh at you. When I was a child, my parents bought me the World Book Encyclopedia set. The article on the horse had a chart of animal intelligence, and horses' intelligence was on the bottom and I really resented that. Pigs were at the top. My experience with horses is that they're really smart and they're thinking all the time. What I want to do throughout the whole series was to have Abby see the horses as individuals and not machines and that the world they live in is interesting and the way they see the world is interesting.

Did you know all of the horse information you wrote about from your experience with horses, or did you have to do research for the book?

JS: I knew most of it because I've been working with trainers for 15 years or so. Since I moved to California in 1996, I've had these trainers that were trained by Tom Dorrance himself. In writing the book, I asked them to do what Tom would have done. They were able to help me by telling me certain lessons I should write about.

I found it impressive that Abby has a lot of work to do every day and she seems to do her work without any fuss.

JS: She does! I set the book in the 1960s because things have changed a bit. I don't know if a child today would do so much work. Maybe they would, but I felt like this was normal for a child back then. I don't think living on ranches is so much a part of our world anymore and that's why I set it in the 1960s.

Have you ever had a horse like Ornery George? How did you deal with him?

JS: Yes, and I did not deal with it very well. I had made quite a sophisticated analysis of him, but that didn't protect me from being dumped by him. I worked with him for four years. It was like living with a man who had an abusive childhood. He loves you and was attentive to you, but there is always the moment when he could betray you because he has to protect himself. A horse can have a bad childhood, but fortunately their childhoods are much shorter than ours.

Do you plan on writing any more books for younger readers? Any ideas about what you might like to write about?

JS: This series has got my interest now, so I'm not really thinking of that. But I did try to sell a book to my editor about yawning, and it would put kids to sleep all over the world. She thought it was boring.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Delectably entertaining.... An uproariously funny and at the same time hauntingly melancholy portrait of a college community in the Midwest.” —The New York Times“Fast, hilarious, and heartbreaking...Not for a minute does Moo lose its perfect satiric pitch or its pacing. . . . Don't skip a page, don't skip a paragraph. It's going to be on the final.” —People“Smart, irreverent, and wickedly tender.... Moo suggests a mix of Tom Wolfe's wit and John Updike's satiny reach.... Engaging.” —The Boston Globe
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  • Moo by Jane Smiley
  • February 24, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary
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