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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 13, 2009

Ofttimes excellent novelists make poor critics, poor assessors of books written by their peers. Ernest Hemingway and his treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald comes immediately to mind.

Such is not the case with E.L. Doctorow, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and author of wonderful books like "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate," "Welcome to Hard Times" and "The March."

His new book, "Creationists: Selected Essays" (Random House, $24.95) is a collection of his critical essays written between 1993 and 2006 about subjects as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Harpo Marx.

In graduate school, I had the misfortune of reading almost all the criticism written about Minnesota's Sinclair Lewis, as part of my master's thesis.

It's terrible stuff, much of it written by novelists who should have known better. The worst example was the fellow who wrote the most about Sinclair, Lewis, the professor/author Mark Shorer, who in 1960 published "Sinclair Lewis: An American Life."

Shorer, who grew up in Sauk City, Wis., a town similar to Lewis's Sauk Centre, Minn., took about 1,000 pages to demonstrate that Lewis was a pretty bad novelist, even though he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

In his new book, Doctorow, a very different novelist than Lewis, takes a crack at the Man from Main Street.

It's a thoroughly satisfying essay on "Arrowsmith," Lewis's novel about a doctor and his problems with the medical profession.

"Arrowsmith" won Lewis the Pulitzer Prize, which he turned down, and Doctorow limns the novel in such a way that we get Lewis's world view as no critic before Doctorow was able to satisfactorily accomplish. Here's Doctorow's conclusion:

"The critics of Lewis's time largely failed to note that the Lewisian critique of our culture was no longer restricted to the Midwestern provinces or the commercial men populating them, but bestowed now, generously, over all our geography ... Lewis, a genius of unappeasable anger and mirthless derision, wanted urgently to shine his light upon us. Who can say it is not illuminating? And who can say of life in America today that the Arrowsmiths aren't few and the Babbitts aren't many?

Lewis's fierce moral nature was the source of his greatness, and that is what we close the book on, as we do with any prophet who tells us what we don't want to hear."

Amen.

When the Amish moved into my father's community almost 50 years ago, he was anything but enthusiastic.

I asked him what he had against these plain people with their buggies pulled by trotting horses. "Oh," he said, "I've got nothing against them, but I own a business on Main Street and all these people buy is salt and black thread."

But within a year my father had grown to admire the Amish and their old-fashioned ways. Whenever he could he would drive them to funerals in faraway places like Medford, just so he could talk to them. At heart he was an old-fashioned fellow who longed for the simplicity of his past.

I think he'd really like Linda Egene's "Visits with the Amish: Impressions of the Plain Life" (University of Iowa Press, $17.95 paper), a collection of essays about her interviews with the Plain People of Southeast Iowa, woodcuts by Caldecott Medal winner Mary Azarian.

Strangely, the folks in Iowa have the same family names as the people who live outside my home town. Yoder, Mast, Borntrager.

Linda Egene visits them all, helps a 13-year-old girl with her gardening tasks, collects recipes, talks about quilting, visits an Amish country store and catalogs the customs of the Amish in regard to romance, entertainment, community gathering and church services, held not in churches but in homes of the believers.

My wife and I have always found the children to be especially charming. One summer we raised chickens on our hobby farm. When it came time to butcher, we chickened out and brought them to the farm of Joseph Mast, who specializes in chickens.

His children killed the chickens, dressed them, pulled out their pin feathers, saved the unshelled eggs they found inside ("very good for devil's food cake," said one little girl.) Another asked what we were going to do with three dozen chickens. My wife said we planned to learn how to can them in Mason jars.

"Don't you have electricity in Minneapolis?" another asked. We said we did and she rolled her eyes.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at

(715) 426-9554.

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