Month: March 2018

Book Review – Protecting New Jersey’s Environment by Thomas Belton

Environmental policy makes for a very clinical topic. History can read like a very dry subject even to those harboring a profound interest in the subject. One wouldn’t expect a combination of the two to make for an entertaining read. Enter Thomas Belton. He drew on his background in classical languages to craft an engaging book accessible to lay people. Utilizing his training as scientist for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, he crafted a technical analysis of various environmental issues that impacted the state. Applying his skill as a story teller, he crafted a work of history that made for a pleasurable read. He joined these elements together in the form of Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State.

I met Thomas Belton a few weeks ago. I attended an address he delivered based on this book at the Moorestown Library. (See my review of the lecture.) The talk impressed me so much that I purchased a copy of the book that the author signed for me. I informed him that I enjoyed his lecture and looked forward to reading his book. It didn’t disappoint.

Protecting New Jersey’s Environment encompassed a wide array of environmental topics; many of which Mr. Belton had personal involvement with during the course of his career. He reviewed topics ranging from the debate over “cancer clusters”, to the environmental justice movement, to New Jersey’s wildlife and a variety of other subjects.

I found the scope unexpectedly broad for a 230 page book. It also surprised me that the topic of environmental history in just one state could be so wide-ranging. After all, the modern environmental movement didn’t really begin until 1970. At any rate, I do credit the author for bringing together such disparate facets of New Jersey environmental history together in one tome.

As a lifelong South Jersey resident, I enjoyed reading about locations I’m personally familiar with. The author described how “brownfields initiative” provided funds to clean up moderately polluted sites. It allowed for the renovation of the old Victor Records building in Camden, NJ. It also provided the impetus for building of the Salvation Army Ray and Kroc Corps Community Center at Harrison Avenue in the same city.

The best sections of the book contained the author’s personal recollections. Mr. Belton took part in a study that discovered unhealthy quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in several species of fish. In 1982, the New Jersey Department of Health along with the NJDEP issued an advisory regarding their consumption. The author wasn’t lauded for his efforts. He recalled getting “personally” pilloried by the media as “an unprofessional Chicken Little screaming, ‘The sky is falling.’” (Page 47)

I cannot convey how gut wrenching it is to see your professional reputation slandered in the press, to see your competence called into question in the midst of a swirling national debate. However, I did not have the time to worry about it. I had to forget about personal reputation for the moment because the critical issue was that the accuracy of our study was being questioned. And more important from my perspective, the consumption advice we had given the public might be ignored. The advisories were in danger of being drowned out by media sound bites, resulting in a pregnant woman or a nursing mother making an ill-informed choice to eat contaminated fish. (Page 43)

This book contained some extraordinary writing. Mr. Belton expressed many of his ideas poetically. Here’s my favorite passage.

Looking up, I noticed the sunset was a strange reddish-green color, the dim coastline a brown smudge on the horizon. And a weird feeling came over me in my lethargy; a sense that I was hovering high above and looking down at the water’s surface, which had turned to a scrim of crystal glass and the fathoms beneath turned transparent with all the billions of creatures moving about unaware and unconcerned with our passage. And as I dreamed, our boat was flying over this translucent sea, I envisioned the shark and tuna chasing millions of tiny prey fish, which fled in huddled schools, maneuvering to avoid the serrated teeth, and current-borne jellyfish ballooning out in bulging pockets of water to eat phytoplankton, the tiny algae sunning themselves and growing larger with each packet of sunshine that fell into the nurturing water. And all along the bottom, worms slithered and crabs scuttled about, cuttlefish rocketing across the vast sandy spaces, tiny wavelet dunes on the bottom mimicking those ashore, the silent sucking of the planetary currents pulling finless cells into the mouths of filter-feeding sponges and coelenterate anemones who needed them most. (Page 212)

Mr. Belton presented a readable take on the issues effecting New Jersey’s environment. While it covered an array of topics, many of them would be of interest to any resident of the Garden State.

As beautifully as the author expressed his reflections on the sea’s inhabitants in the passage above, the paragraph that followed shifted the mood. Without explicitly doing so, he still summarized the need for books such as Protecting New Jersey’s Environment.  

But I was pulled from this reverie as we entered Barnegat Inlet and drove into the bay beyond, noticing the green and red shroud moving off the land to swallow the sunset was actually photochemical smog—a pea-green soup of particulates, ozone, nitric and sulfuric acid—all the air pollutants refracting the setting sun into its extraordinary color. And this frightened me. Knowing that smog was an airborne killer, a soup of chemicals soon to be deposited on the bay and ocean, absorbed by all the creatures swimming beneath our feet, I was frightened for them, frightened for the people ashore who would eat these poisoned fish, and frightened for the future of the seas as waves of pollutants washed off the continent, mimicking in reverse the ocean waves protecting us ashore. (Page 212)

 

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Crossing Delancey at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Vas mir. I thought I’d go meshuga when I read the glossary in the playbill. Crossing Delancey contained a host of Yiddish expressions. I felt like a schmendrik after spending my gelt to listen to dialog containing words I wouldn’t understand. Then the show started. As I heard the machers and yentas tzimis about a shadkhin the story’s zees keit moved me. Curiously, it also happened to contain the most comprehensible language I’d heard all day. F’shtast? Well, you would if you’d witnessed the show at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.

Torben Christiansen made his directorial debut March 23rd with this romantic comedy. He explained to me that he “saw the show” a couple of years ago and “loved it.” The next day he contacted Footlighters. He asked for the chance to bring this Susan Sandler piece to their stage.

A full house attended the opening night performance. Both the audience and the company were delighted with what Mr. Christiansen did with the opportunity.

Crossing Delancey presented the story of an unconventional love triangle. Isabelle (or Izzy, played by Erin Bell) developed a crush on her favorite author, Tyler Moss (Ricardo Esteves). The latter frequented the bookstore where she worked. As she found the courage to pursue him, a complication ensued.

Her Bubbie (or grandmother, played by Susan Dewey) contacted a shadkhn (a marriage broker) named Hannah (performed by Jeanne Wayman). She tried to set Izzy up with a pickle salesman named Sam (Buddy Deal). Izzy found her affections torn between the sophisticated author and the traditional Jewish boy. A series of comical and moving scenes resulted.

Erin Bell portrayed the different aspects of Izzy’s personality with equal skill. She played a bookworm overcome by infatuation in her scenes with Mr. Esteves. When performing with Ms. Dewey, she became the dutiful granddaughter. Through her interactions with Mr. Deal she developed Izzy into a mature woman.

Ms. Bell presented her lines in a genuine New York accent. Her facial expressions enhanced her dialog very well.

Susan Dewey turned in stellar performance as the grandmother, or Bubby. She also spoke in a credible accent, sounding like a true New Yorker. She conveyed the character’s love for Izzy and genuine interest in her happiness. The way she feigned not recognizing Sam at the end of the play brought the right amount of humor to a tender moment.

The playwright gave Ms. Dewey’s character the play’s best lines. I liked the conviction with which she delivered: “loneliness is a disease.”

Buddy Deal brought immense depth to the role of Sam. He delivered his lines in a soft spoken manner allowing the power of Ms. Sandler’s words their full impact. A steady stream of “awwwww”s from the house followed his attempts to woo Izzy. I’ve never witnessed a performer draw that kind of reaction from a crowd. The women in the audience swooned over his performance.

The same audience remained silent when Sam’s romantic rival performed one scene wearing nothing but a bath towel. I guess that proves it really is all in the delivery, guys.

Ricardo Esteves played a superb villain. Through both his manner of speech and gestures, he captured the essence of the character’s arrogance and egotism. I applaud his portraying the base aspects of Tyler’s personality while still keeping the role funny.

Mr. Esteves and Ms. Bell performed the most comical love scene in the history of theatre. In enacting one of Izzy’s fantasies, they expressed their feelings for one another in the book store. They did so in an exaggerated way that made it hysterical. It impressed me that they could enact the scene without laughing or even smiling.

Jeanne Wayman really got into the role of Hannah, the marriage arranger. When she made her entrance she handed out cards to the ladies in the audience. Ms. Wayman brought a lot of passion to the role. I enjoyed her first attempt to interest Izzy in Sam.

Mr. Christiansen explained that he wanted to get the best people for this show. This cast displayed great chemistry working together. They also stood out as individuals. It’s tough to find a better combination than that.

Footlighters utilizes the 2nd Stage theatre for smaller scale productions. Crossing Delancey developed into a more high tech spectacle than I expected at that venue. I credit Jim Frazer and Mr. Christiansen for their work on the set. They designed both the kitchen and the book store sections very well. Tim Sagges and Valerie Brothers managed the lights and sound flawlessly.

Some audiences may not be familiar with the Yiddish expressions, but all theatregoers will recognize Crossing Delancey’s themes. Who can’t empathize with a character torn between infatuation and a sweet person with a good heart? Not to mention receiving pressure from family to get married. We can all understand those situations. Zie ge zunt. The show runs through March 31st.

Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.

 

Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.

 

Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.

 

 

Book Review – White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum presented a fictitious account of the most heinous war crime ever committed. The book detailed one character’s ordeal with the use of rape as a weapon during the largest scale use of it in history. The story also explored the effect of this inhumane practice on those not personally victimized by it. An engrossing read that sears into one’s consciousness resulted.

The book’s title derived from the white chrysanthemum representing a symbol of mourning. It established the tone prior to reading the story.

Mary Lynn Bracht crafted a heartrending tale involving two sisters affected by Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War. The scenes set in the 1940s described Hana’s ordeal after the Japanese military abducted her. In order to protect her younger sister, she gave herself up to a group of soldiers who wandered onto her home island. They transported her into distant Manchuria to serve as a “comfort woman”; the Empire’s choice euphemism for “forced prostitution.”

The scenes that transpired during the modern era (2011) described how Hana’s sister Emi struggled to achieve peace with her past. The historical events plaguing the nascent state of South Korea impacted her on a personal level. A larger part of her emotional battle emanated from her guilt over her sister’s selfless sacrifice.

I liked the author’s choice of structure. The chapters alternated between one that depicted Hana’s suffering in the 1940s with one that told Emi’s journey in the 2010s. Ms. Bracht deftly crafted endings to each story line that kept me interested in learning more. Her suspenseful writing style made it very difficult for me to stop reading.

I also applaud the way the author returned to each character’s tale after just one chapter. Ms. Bracht built tension and engaged the reader without dragging out the story. She executed this balance exceptionally.

The author made a great decision to write in the present tense. It gave me a sense that the events occurred while I read. The story possessed a sense of immediacy that enhanced the tension. Hana’s torment took on much more impact; as did Emi’s suffering.

I found sections of this book extraordinarily well written. Here’s an excerpt from one of the best:

The doorknob squeaks as it turns, and Hana feigns sleep. The door swings open and a stream of light shines on her shut eyelids. She relaxes the muscles in her face and mimics the deep breaths of slumber, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm. The flashlight flicks off. The room falls back into darkness. Footsteps pad inside. The door clicks shut. Hana stops breathing.

A ghostly wind howls through the rafters above their heads. The brothel seems to gasp, and the wind rushes through the window. Hana opens her eyes and stares into the darkness. A black shape stands by the door. For a long time, it doesn’t move. The crickets have stopped chirping, and the mice seem to have frozen midstep. The intruder’s shallow breaths fill the void left by their silence.

He takes a step toward her, and she clutches the blanket tighter. He takes another step and before she can stop herself, she sits up and backs away from him, cowering in the corner.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispers. “It’s me.” (Location 1885)

I could stop writing this review at this point. After reading that passage I’m sure some have clicked off of this blog and are buying the book.

For those still reading, the author included some other exceptional usage of language.

His face hovers above her, cloaked in shadow, and she fills in the black void with the man in her memory. The one who raped her first and called it a kindness, before condemning her to this unimaginable life. Not life, but purgatory in the underworld. (Location 1903)

Sometimes old wounds need to be reopened to let them properly heal…(Location 1344)

People these days seem content to search for happiness in life. That is something her generation never fathomed, that happiness is a basic human right, but now it seems like a possibility. (Location 2817)

While an exceptional story and a difficult book to put down, I did disagree with the author’s approach from the denouement through the ending. While Ms. Bracht crafted a conclusion that fit with the narrative thread, I found it unbelievable. Part of that may stem from the other portions being so realistic by comparison. At any rate, I do acknowledge it as a legitimate artistic choice on the author’s part.

Ms. Bracht brought out the plight of the “comfort women” through White Chrysanthemum. Someone once observed that Japanese war criminals benefited from there being no Simon Wiesenthals in the country following the war. Let’s hope there are more Mary Lynn Brachts to continue illuminating this dark chapter of human history.

Book Review – Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in new chapters, fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages. I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. (Page 24)

Through Waiting for the Barbarians J. M. Coetzee illuminated the darker side of Empire. The author eloquently showed how the distinction between the savage and the civilized could become blurred when cultures find themselves in conflict. A timeless literary event resulted.

Mr. Coetzee’s novel told the story of an unnamed narrator living in an outpost in the “Empire.” The author never identified the country. He never provided the protagonist’s name; he only identified him as a “magistrate.”

This character possessed a much more realistic view of the society than his countrymen did.

There is a time of year, you know, when the nomads visit us to trade. Well: go to any stall in the market during that time and see who gets short-weighted and cheated and shouted at and bullied. See who is forced to leave his womenfolk behind in the camp for fear they will be insulted by the soldiers. See who lies drunk in the gutter, and see who kicks him where he lies. It is this contempt for the barbarians, contempt which is shown by the meanest ostler or peasant farmer, that I as magistrate have had to contend with for twenty years. How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid? (Page 50)

While critical of the way his people treated the barbarians, this narrator also questioned his own behavior towards them. Here’s an excerpt where his “barbarian” girlfriend confronted him about his lack of fidelity.

“You visit other girls,” she whispers. “You think I do not know.”

“I make a peremptory gesture for her to be quiet.

“Do you also treat them like this?” she whispers, and starts to sob.

Though my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can do. Yet what humiliation for her! She cannot even leave the apartment without tottering and fumbling while she dresses. She is as much a prisoner now as ever before. I pat her hand and sink deeper into gloom. (Page 54)

When he stopped sharing his bed with her, he explained:

She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself she submits because of her barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of barbarian upbringings? (Page 54)

Later in the story, he expressed the following thoughts on another one of his “barbarian” women.

Only days since I parted from that other one, and I find her face hardening over in my memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself. Plodding across the salt I catch myself in a moment of astonishment that I could have loved someone from so remote a kingdom. (Page 74)

The author chose to write the book in the present tense. Because of that, it made the narrative much more engaging. It gave the story a sense of immediacy while increasing the tension.

I thought the book very well written and without flaw…until just before the end. I didn’t like the way the author chose to insert Mai as a character. I won’t give away spoilers, but will comment that I found the introduction too abrupt. The character’s presence did contribute to the story’s progression, however.

The narrator made a curious comment towards the book’s conclusion.

Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is every anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (Page 102)

That statement made me think this book a veiled reference to the author’s take on his native South Africa at the time of its 1980 publication.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.