This summer I’m revisiting Sinclair Lewis, whom despite being the first American writer awarded the Nobel, along with the first to refuse the Pulitzer, seems to have fallen out of vogue in recent decades, but appears to be making a comeback, along with Thomas Wolfe. For my money, Lewis is the quintessential Great American Novelist. One by one, the dude captured the American foibles—capitalism, religion, science, politics, medicine, industry, provincialism, you name it. Lewis was among the first to put the American dream beneath the critical lens of a microscope. While he wasn’t quite the satirist or the stylist as, say, Mark Twain, Lewis has arguably has no equal among American novelists as a commentator. Though Main Street is generally held to be his most enduring work, I find it to be his dullest novel of the 1920s. Elmer Gantry is probably my favorite of the era, though I’m looking forward to taking another run at Babbit, Dodsworth, and Arrowsmith before summer is out, along with a couple later novels, including It Can’t Happen Here, and Kingsblood Royal, the former a cutting edge political satire, and the later an early contribution to the civil rights movement.
My Lewis renaissance has also included a visit to his boyhood home in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, site of the real “Main Street” which launched his career, along with a visit to the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Museum, which featured everything from manuscript pages full of marginalia, to his actual Nobel commendation, not to mention dozens of unflattering photos, a video presentation, and Lewis’s writing desk–well worth the price of admission (free!). Additionally worth noting to potential tourists: you fill find no shortage of feed corn in Sauk Center, Minnesota, and the liquor store is only four blocks from the museum. Oh, and if you wanna have cheese fries at the “Sauk Hop” diner, make sure you tell them to melt the cheese.
Expect a few updates on my Summer of Lewis at Three Guys, One Book.
– Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here
When I was asked to name my all-time favorite summer read, I immediately went blank on when I’d read my favorite books. So I’m going to cop out a little here and name my favorite reading experience of this summer. It is Stoner, by John Williams. This wonderful novel was recently reissued by the invaluable NYRB press. It tells the story of how one man, raised on a hardscrabble farm, is awakened to the life of the mind. Things don’t proceed so well from there–but the novel is so exquisitely written and so particular, sharp and compassionate in its observations that it made me happy to have read it, even though many sad things happen. Winter, summer, spring or fall, it’s a book I will long treasure.
–Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt
My favorite all-time summer book is The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, which I read on a long car ride to the Delaware shore when I was maybe ten or eleven. My little sister was reading it too, but we only had one copy between us, and I remember being stuck in Jersey Turnpike traffic tussling over that single paperback while our little brother slept and our parents warned us to stop bickering or else. Or else! I think it’s the only book I’ve ever read that was worth getting pinched over, or yelled at in the parking lot of the Molly Pitcher rest stop. Give it to a kid you love before the summer’s through.
– Lauren Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family
I can’t get enough of stories about extended families who reunite in their summer homes along the Atlantic coast. I am reassured by their familiar patterns — the matriarch arriving early to stock the pantry and pull fresh sheets, the middle child, sensible and good, who picks up a pie from a farm stand on the way, the black sheep who never calls, arrives late, and still finds her favorite cereal in the cupboard the next morning despite years of bad behavior – returning to each other again and again unbroken.
This summer it was Stewart O’ Nan’s Wish You Were Here where at first I was the prowler staying at the motel in town, not yet tied up in their history. At dusk, I was poised outside their crowded screened front porch watching them lean back in their chairs with their cocktails, eating wheat thins with shrimp dip, knowing that I’ll take that step inside soon but hanging back anyway. And by the last one hundred pages, I’m the uninvited guest, sitting in the parlor sipping tea, with everything I know about them between us.
– Donia Bijan, Author of Maman’s Homesick Pie
Sabrina and I hiked through France this summer, where we were assaulted from all sides by dazzling landscapes and storybook villages. Seeking shelter from this bombardment of the picturesque, I ducked into Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, only to find myself equally besieged by beauty. This dark but lively, vast multi-generational saga is a world unto itself. The book broke and mended and broke my heart a thousand times. I have a frail constitution and a low tolerance for such an embarrassment of riches. As battered by the wonders of Mann’s book as I was by the French countryside, unable to escape either, I went mad. But for those with a greater capacity for splendor than I, I recommend (caveat notwithstanding) the alternative universe of Buddenbrooks.
– Steve Stern, Author of The Frozen Rabbi