To know the truth, we must read lies. Fiction, rather. This may sound like a contradiction, but an eternal verity it is. I have two for you.
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. Although not as funny as his Babbitt, it is an interesting look into small town, and very Midwestern, America, and not a complimentary one at that. If you ever found small town life suffocating, this is your book. In it, college educated Carol Milford moves to the big city, gets married to a somewhat dull doctor, Will Kennecott. They then move to his hometown, Gopher Prairie, MN, and she has great plans to enliven the place up a bit, in a pursuit of beauty, civic-mindedness, culture, but… It’s a typical small town story. If you’re not from there, well, forget it. You’ll never be accepted. But, it’s an interesting story, mainly for the details of life in the early 20th century, which from the book make it sound as if it were barely out of the 19th century. I.e. travel becomes all but impossible in the winter, people die of diseases we don’t think about, the shocking levels of poverty (It was written in 1919, a period of high income disparity, much like our own.), details of men in WWI. If you want to know what life was like in your great grandparents’ age, and how much it’s the same as your own, read Main Street. Sinclair Lewis. He was one of the greatest authors of the mid-twentieth century, a satirist. However, his career was destroyed when he no longer had a middle class to make fun of. The Crash of 1929 took care of that.
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Does naming a book The Adventures of (fill in the blank) guarantee greatness? Well, it’s a good start. Perhaps it’s such an innocent sounding three words that lull the reader for the shock to come. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this is a picaresque novel, and like Huck Finn, young Augie must make his way through the world, in this instance, Depression era Chicago. He’s very poor, Jewish, smart, and has a near magical ability to extricate himself for the situations he finds himself in, which come in steady succession. His dad is “who knows where?” Mom? Not much help either. His friends and acquaintances are a mix of oddballs, grifters, schemers, losers. Says author Martin Amis: “The Adventures of Augie March is the great American novel. Search no further.” Well, it’s certainly in the running. And Bellow’s writing! He was so good. And even though Augie is describing scenes and people from the very lowest rungs of society, Bellow’s language is so high-flown, so high-culture, so off into near flights of poetry you’ll find yourself, mid-paragraph, wondering, “How does he write this stuff!?!?!?!?”
YRs – John Elliott, Librarian
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