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Jane Smiley

On September 26, 1949, Jane Smiley was born in Los Angeles.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and she was raised by her mother, Frances, a working journalist, in St. Louis, Missouri.  She grew up surrounded by her mother's close family, and Smiley has been working the stories of her family members into her own writing ever since.

After attending grammar and high school in St. Louis, Smiley moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where she entered Vassar College.  Afterwards, she took a year off to travel to Europe, where she worked on an archeological dig.  When she returned to the states, she married John Whiston, a student at Yale University, in 1970.  After graduation, the couple moved to Iowa City, where Smiley began graduate work in English literature at the University of Iowa.  She received her PhD at Iowa with a dissertation on Old Norse and taught until 1996 at Iowa State University in Ames.

She wrote Age of Grief (1988), Greenlanders (1993), and A Thousand Acres (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.  It's the story of a man who owns some Iowa farmland that he plans to divide between his three daughters.

A southern-gothic novel played through the eyes of an innocent woman who slowly comes to see the evil in the world, the novel is well written and performed, like an opera, although the plot is at times limp and populated with stereotypes (child abuse being one of America's most abused themes of the time).  The book relies on a conventional structure. 

The limit of Smiley's style, like the limits of many American writers of her generation, is that half of her novel looks and feels more like a set of interlocking short stories than a novel.  The second half, once the plot has had a chance to develop, feels more like the epic novel that it aims to be.  On the positive side, Smiley offers a true-to-life look at life on the farm.

Her most recent book is A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (2004), a memoir about horses' lives and people whose lives are about horses.

Smiley has also written numerous essays for magazines such as Vogue, The New Yorker, Practical Horseman, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, Victoria, Mirabella, Allure, The Nation, and others.  She has written on farming, horse training, child rearing, literature, impulse buying, getting dressed, politics, Barbie, marriage, and the craftspeople of the Catskill Mountains.

Jane Smiley said, "I think a lot of things are hilariously funny, and that's kind of the way I live my life.  And I also believe that it's only possible to live if you can detach yourself and detach your sort of sense of what's going on a little bit and take a kind of  observational position on everything... Being detached is the first step to being comic."

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