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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Other Great American Novels: Franzen Readalikes

Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom comes out today and everyone is talking about how it is the perfect example of the Great American Novel. I will let you know what I think soon, as it is sitting in front of me as I type this.

The holds lists are long and, being a good RA librarian, I am prepared with readalikes to hold you over while you wait. Back in 2006 I made a list entitled "Great American Novels...With a Twist." Reprinted below, these are 10 great options for those of you to read while you wait. All should be available at your local library. Enjoy.


Take Ten:
 “Great American Novels”…With a Twist

The following 10 novels tackle large issues of recent American history as their stories unfold.  What makes these books different is the twist, or hook, which the author uses to provide a unique glimpse at the American Experience.  These books offer a little something for everyone and all are critically acclaimed.


Chabon, Michael.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
It is 1939 in New York City and young Sammy Klayman convinces his immigrant cousin, Joe Kavalier, to work with him to create a new comic book hero.  Joe draws upon his experiences in Nazi Prague and together they create phenomenally successful “The Escapist.”  However, not even fame and fortune can help both men defeat their inner demons.  With a detailed back drop including the growth of the comic book industry, mid-century NYC, WWII, and the Jewish American experience, Kavalier and Clay’s story unfolds over the course of almost 30 years, illustrating many major historical events and issues, such as the creation of the suburbs, gay rights, and censorship.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Cunningham, Michael.  The Hours
In an homage to Virginia Woolf, Cunningham tells the tale of the lives of three women at three different times in history.  These interconnected novellas are told in alternating chapters.  The reader is introduced first to Clarissa, a present day NYC publisher, dubbed “Mrs. Dalloway” by her friends.  Clarissa is planning a party for her friend, a poet who is dying of AIDS.  We then see Virginia Woolf as she is struggling to write her masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, and contemplating suicide.  Finally Laura, a 1949 LA housewife enters the story.  She is an overwhelmed, pregnant mother of a young child, struggling to find meaning in her life.  Cunningham’s complex style is rewarding in that it reveals the three separate stories in a way that highlights the connections between the women while commenting on the place of women in society over the course of the 20th Century.  His writing style also consciously echoes that of Woolf’s.  The Hours won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award

DeLillo, Don.  Underworld
It is October 3, 1951 and at the Polo Grounds, Bobby Thomson hits “the shot heard round the world,” while half way around the world, the Soviets test their first atomic bomb.  The story then jumps to 1992 in the American desert where Nick Shay, a waste analyst who now owns that famous baseball, reunites with a former lover, Kara Sax.  DeLillo uses the two stories that of the fate of the ball, told from beginning to end and that of Shay and Sax, told from the end to the beginning, interweaving real historical characters, to create a web of interconnected experiences that recounts the shared experience of all Americans in Cold War America.

Doctrow, E.L.  Ragtime
In this classic novel of America at the turn of the 20th Century, Doctrow captures a young country coming into its own.  The story follows the events of this exciting time as the reader is introduced to three New York families as they become literally caught up in history when their lives intersect with the likes of Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Theodore Dreiser, Sigmund Freud, and Booker T. Washington among others.  Ragtime explores the serious issues of racism, immigration, and oppression of the lower classes without being didactic; it is a popular work of highly enjoyable fiction.  Ragtime won the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award.


Franzen, Jonathan.  The Corrections
The Corrections comments on the state of the American family at the end of the twentieth century by describing the lives of the various members of the Lambert family.  Albert, the patriarch is battling Parkinson’s disease in a Midwestern town, living in the family home and being cared for by his wife, Enid.  Gary, the oldest, is financially successful but battling depression.  Denise is a successful chef in Philadelphia who begins an ill advised affair with her boss’ wife.  And Chip, the baby, is in Eastern Europe involved in an Internet fraud.  The story follows the family as they deal with Albert’s worsening health and struggle to stay physically and emotionally linked in a fast paced and self involved world.  Franzen frequently employs the use of flashback to tell the tale of the Lambert’s in their younger years to serve as a contrast to the present day.  The Corrections won the 2001 National Book Award.

Gaiman, NeilAmerican Gods
When Shadow is released from prison, he accepts a job from an odd, omnipresent man named Wednesday who claims to be a God from the “old country” living in America.  Wednesday is trying to organize his fellow immigrant gods to battle the new gods of today (gods of the Internet, TV, Automobiles, etc…) and needs a driver/bodyguard/ assistant.  Reluctantly, Shadow accepts and is made privy to an underground world where long forgotten gods are disguised as regular people and strange things happen on a regular basis.  As Shadow travels across the country helping Wednesday, he is also on his own personal journey to figure out his place in the world as a free man.  American Gods won the 2001 Bram Stoker Award and the 2002 Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards

Lethem, JonathanThe Fortress of Solitude
It is the 1970s and Dylan Ebdus is the only white kid in a Brooklyn neighborhood of black and brown families.  When his hippie mother insists on sending Dylan to public school, he becomes the target of every bully.  Dylan’s unlikely friendship with his neighbor Mingus, the black son of a once famous singer who is now a cocaine addict, forms the backbone of the story.  The two boys’ paths diverge over time as Dylan grows up to be a music journalist, and Mingus ends up behind bars.  Dylan’s story allows the reader to follow the fate on one neighborhood over a thirty year period, leading to commentary on the larger issues of gentrification, the development of soul music, the beginnings of graffiti, and the crack epidemic. 

McCracken, Elizabeth.  Niagara Falls All Over Again
In this fiction memoir, Mose Sharp, recounts his life: a childhood in Des Moines, a career in vaudeville, his transition into a movie star, finally ending with his old age in Hollywood.  While this is a chronicle of one man’s life (his partnership with Rocky Carter, his family life, and his fame, with all of its ups and downs), it is also about a maturing America, coming into its own.  Niagara Falls All Over Again may have its focus in the Hollywood glare, but it is also a novel about friendship, family, and popular culture in 20th century America.

Millhauser, Stephen.  Martin Dressler:  The Tale of an American Dreamer
In this macabre tale, Millhauser follows the life of entrepreneur Martin Dressler as he rises from cigar shop clerk to hotel magnate in the waning years of the 19th Century in New York City.  Dressler’s outrageous imagination and desire to create a hotel that thinks will become “a world within the world, rivaling the world,” and ultimately replacing the real world, is doomed for failure.  The descriptions of the floors Dressler creates in his Grand Cosmo hotel are jawdropping; floors contain entire forests, amusement parks, rugged mountainsides, etc…  However, in recounting this outrageous historical story, MIllhauser is making very grounded statements about contemporary America’s over consumption, decadence, and obsession with possessing newest gadgets.  Martin Dressler won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Roth, Philip.  The Plot Against America
Imagine a world where American hero and known anti-Semite, Charles Lindberg, easily defeats FDR in the 1940 Presidential election with a platform of making peace with Hitler.  In this alternate history, Roth follows a Jewish family (the Roth’s of Newark, NJ) through their struggles of living in an America where Jews are forced into exile.  Throughout the novel Roth uses historical figures, at times even employing their own words, to enhance the chilly reality of his “what if” novel.  The Plot Against America is the story of the struggles of one family, the destruction of the ideals that created a free America, and a cautionary tale of what can happen if we choose not to risk the lives of our soldiers in a war to protect humanity beyond our borders.

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