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A novel

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



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On Sale: October 07, 2014
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35039-6
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
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Synopsis

Synopsis

From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize: a powerful, engrossing new novel—the life and times of a remarkable family over three transformative decades in America. 

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different children: from Frank, the handsome, willful first born, and Joe, whose love of animals and the land sustains him, to Claire, who earns a special place in her father’s heart.

Each chapter in Some Luck covers a single year, beginning in 1920, as American soldiers like Walter return home from World War I, and going up through the early 1950s, with the country on the cusp of enormous social and economic change. As the Langdons branch out from Iowa to both coasts of America, the personal and the historical merge seamlessly: one moment electricity is just beginning to power the farm, and the next a son is volunteering to fight the Nazis; later still, a girl you’d seen growing up now has a little girl of her own, and you discover that your laughter and your admiration for all these lives are mixing with tears.   

Some Luck delivers on everything we look for in a work of fiction. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a tour de force that stands wholly on its own. But it is also the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy—a literary adventure that will span a century in America: an astonishing feat of storytelling by a beloved writer at the height of her powers.
Jane Smiley

About Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley - Some Luck

Photo © Elena Seibert

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2006 she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.
 
Jane Smiley is available for select readings and lectures. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Random House Speakers Bureau at rhspeakers@randomhouse.com or visit www.rhspeakers.com. 
Praise

Praise

“Marvelous, a tour de force . . . Some Luck opens in 1920 with Walter Langdon on the eve of his 25th birthday, thinking about the vicissitudes of farming; his strict father; his wife; and his five-month-old son—the first of five children who grow into memorable individuals over the course of the novel. With her vivid, tactile depiction of rural Iowa farm life, Smiley has imaginatively recaptured the dangers and rewards—the play of good luck and bad luck—in a lost way of life . . . Some Luck moves swiftly and assuredly through 33 years of the Langford clan’s experiences, [becoming] an exploration of 20th-century American culture and politics. Smiley says the novel’s velocity arises from the year-by-year approach she deploys throughout the trilogy. She says she began with the concept of the trilogy but ended up being swept away by the trajectories of her characters. She writes about farm life, family life and, suggestively, near the end, national political life. There are farming scenes, sex scenes, combat scenes and table-talk scenes . . . Wherever Smiley goes in Some Luck, most readers will willingly follow. Then wait, with bated breath, for her next steps.” —Alden Mudge, BookPage
 
“Kicking off a new trilogy that follows the Langdon family for 100 years, this novel starts with their humble beginnings on an Iowa farm, and takes them from the Depression to the Red Scare. As times change, so do relationships, hearts and minds.” —Woman’s Day
 
“Epic, striking . . . The reader becomes intimately involved with the characters amid the minutiae of family life, sharing Rosanna’s anxieties over the children and Walter’s worries about his crop prices, understanding Frank’s desire to leave and Joey’s desire to stay. The cumulative effect is a story so fully immersive and absorbing that I finished the book with a sense of loss. Masterly.” —Alice O’Keeffe, The Bookseller (UK)
 
“The expansive American epic is Smiley’s métier, and she’s in top form with this multigenerational story of an Iowa farming family—sturdy sons, passionate daughters, a tough but tender existence—across the first half of the 20th century.” —Time

“Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley moves from the 1920s to the 1950s as she unfolds the life of Iowa farmers Rosanna and Walter Langdon and their five children. As the children grow up and sometimes move away, we get a wide-angle view of mid-century America. Told in beautiful, you-are-there language, the narrative lets ordinary events accumulate to give us a significant feel of life at the time, with the importance and dangers of farming particularly well portrayed. In the end, though, this is the story of parents and children, of hope and disappointment . . . Highly recommended; a lush and grounded reading experience.” —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (starred review)

“Tremendous . . . Smiley is a seductive writer in perfect command of every element of language. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a novel about a farming family in Iowa, and she returns to that fertile ground to tell the stories of the Langdons, a clan deeply in accord with the land . . . As barbed in her wit as ever, Smiley is also munificently tender. The Langdons endure the Depression, Walter agonizes over giving up his horses for a tractor, and Joe tries the new synthetic fertilizers. Then, as Frank serves in WWII and, covertly, the Cold War, the novel’s velocity, intensity, and wonder redouble. This [is a] saga of the vicissitudes of luck, and our futile efforts to control it. Smiley’s grand, assured, quietly heroic, and affecting novel is a supremely nuanced portrait of a family spanning three pivotal American decades. It will be on the top of countless to-read lists.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Exciting. . . In the first volume of a planned trilogy, Smiley returns to the Iowa of her Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres, but in a different vein. The Langdons [are] a loving family whose members, like most people, are exceptional only in their human particularity; the story covers the 1920s through the early ‘50s, years during which the family farm survives the Depression and drought, and the five children grow up and have to decide whether to stay or leave. Smiley is particularly good at depicting the world from the viewpoint of young children—all five are distinct individuals from their earliest days. The standout is the oldest son, Frank, born with an eye for opportunity. But as Smiley shifts her attention from one character to another, they all come to feel like real and relatable people. Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next. Smiley plans to extend the tale of the Langdon family well into the 21st century; she’s off to a very strong start.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Smiley follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century, [as] the Langdons raise five children to varied destinies; [there’s a] sense that we’ve simply dropped in on a continuing saga. Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft . . . Underpinning the unfolding of three decades is farm folks’ knowledge that disaster is always one bad crop away, and luck is never to be relied on; it wouldn’t be a Smiley novel without at least one cruel twist of fate. Smiley is the least sentimental of writers, but when Rosanna and Walter Langdon look at the 23 people gathered at Thanksgiving in 1948 and ‘agreed in an instant: something had created itself from nothing,’ it’s a moment of honest sentiment, honestly earned. An expansive tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.” —Kirkus (starred review)
Reader's Guide|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Some Luck, the engrossing, vividly textured new novel by beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jane Smiley.

About the Author

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

Discussion Guides

1. What do you think the title means? Whose luck does it refer to? Is it only good or bad luck, or does the word “luck” shift in connotation as the novel goes forward?

2. Each chapter in the novel takes place over the course of one year. How does Smiley use this structure to propel her story?

3. Rosanna assigns personality traits to each of her children in infancy. When those traits prove true, do you think it’s because of nurture—her and Walter’s influence—or nature—personalities fully formed at birth?

4. How does Smiley use the children’s points of view at all ages—including when they are very small—to show their development and coming-of-age in real time? What are some of the memorable traits that carry from infancy to young adulthood for each of the five children?

5.   How does Mary Elizabeth’s death affect Rosanna? How does it change her relationship with the children who follow?

6. Throughout the story, Frank is described as persistent, if not outright stubborn. How does this quality help him in his life? Does it hinder him?

7. Variations on the story of Lucky Hans appear several times in the novel, including the version told by Opa to Frank in 1924, Lillian’s version remembered by Henry in 1947, and Arthur’s tale of Frank and the golden egg in 1952. What point is Smiley making by changing the mythology?

8. Over the course of the three decades Some Luck spans, various characters embrace or resist new technology—Walter and the tractor, Rosanna and electricity, Joey’s farming techniques, Frank’s study of German warfare. How does Smiley use their reactions to deepen our understanding of these characters and to show the passage of time?

9. On page 104, Eloise says to Frank, “Almost everyone sees things, but not everyone notices them.” What does she mean, and why is it fitting that she says this to Frank, of all her nephews and nieces? How does Frank exemplify the difference between seeing and noticing, especially as he uses his keen sense of “vision” to lead him throughout his life?

10.   What does Walter think and feel during the scene at the well? What do his decisions at that moment say about his own personality and the circumstances of the times? Why doesn’t he tell Rosanna about it until many years later?

11. What are examples of the different kinds of secrets that come in the novel—from those held by individuals to those of institutions, such as banks or the government? Do you have the sense that the book suggests a hierarchy of secrecy, or are all secrets equally dangerous?

12. How do you understand Andy’s identity crises and her other internal conflicts within the context of the novel? How do they reflect her relationship with Frank as well as the political and sociological forces at work during these beginning days of the Cold War?

13. What role do faith and religion play in the early parts of the novel? What about for the subsequent generation? Would you say that religion is related to the theme of luck?

14. Joey is distraught to learn of Jake’s death on page 229. Later, on page 373, he tells Lois, “I don’t get over things.” Is this why he’s so suited to farming? And does he, eventually, learn to get over things?

15. On Walter’s forty-seventh birthday, he lets each of his children select an item from a box he’d kept locked away. Joey chooses the sprig of lavender, Lillian the oriole feather, and Henry the gold coin; Claire was given the handkerchief; and Rosanna saves the photograph of Walter during the Great War for Frank. What do these totems represent?

16. Rosanna reflects on page 264, “Well, that’s what a war did for you—it made you look around at your shabby house and your modest family and give thanks for what you had and others had lost. . . . It made you stop talking about what you wished for, because, in the end, that might bring bad luck.” Frank was lucky and survived the war, but he’s far from unscathed when he returns home. Do his experiences verify or contradict Rosanna’s claim about the effects of war? How does what happened to him in Europe ripple throughout the rest of his life, as well as the lives of his family?

17.   How do the generations of men engage differently in the wars of their times? What does their involvement show about their respective personalities, the nature of war, and America’s evolving role in world conflict?

18. How does parenting change from one generation to the next? Compare Lillian and Andy to Rosanna, and Arthur and Frank to Walter. And what about the roles of the sexes?

19.   On page 392, Walter walks near the Osage-orange hedge: “Every year, Joe said, as Walter always had, that he was going to pull it up, but he never did—the roots had probably spread everywhere, and taking the thing out would be a major pain in the neck. There was always a reason not to bother. Walter touched one of the thorns. He was used to the hedge, but the thorns still seemed menacing.” What, if anything, do you think the Osage-orange hedge stands for, in the book as a whole? What metaphors are at work here?

20. By the end of Some Luck, Henry is just becoming an adult and Claire is still a child. What do you think might be ahead for them in the next book(s) of this trilogy?

21. Did your knowledge that Some Luck is the first of a trilogy affect your reading of the novel? In what ways is the conclusion of the book definitive, full circle, and in what ways does it leave things open-ended?

Suggested Readings

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves
John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Philipp Meyer, The Son
Ruth Ozeki, All Over Creation
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
Jane Smiley

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