Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review of the Day: The Human Stain

Philip Roth's The Human Stain packs a wallop like few novels can deliver. The book opens by suggesting an interesting, but modest story:

It was the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk -- who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty -- confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.

But just when you think it is going to be a typical ivory tower novel about the late-in-life sexual adventures of a second rate academic, Roth plunges the story into never-expected depths. Colman Silk's life is built on a lie. His lover is illiterate. Her ex-husband is a whacked-out Vietnam vet. And Silk's professional nemesis throws a metaphorical hand grenade into the middle of all of it.

Roth uses the story to explore all the big, close-to-the-bone issues: sexuality, racial identity, religion, education, family affiliation, mental illness, love, and grief – all the things that leave a human stain. It's a book that leaves you gasping. You don't just finish it; you recover from it.

(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)

This would have been my "favorite book" of 2010, except that I finished the last 50 pages on New Year's Day.  It's too early to say, but it may qualify as my favorite book of 2011 as well, in which case it would deserve the double commendation. 


  1. I hate to admit this but I have never read Philip Roth. With your endorsement ringing in my ears, I think now may be the time to take the plunge. Thanks.

  2. I didn't enjoy "The Plot Against America" but have always wanted to read this one more anyway. Your review has encouraged me to get around to it already!

  3. I loved this book too; definitely one of Roth's better works. I read it years ago so no blog review.

  4. I have never read any of Roths book but this year will be the year that I rememdy that. Perhaps ill start with this one after reading your dlowing review

  5. Have you seen the movie? I was... um, unconvinced about the main character's big lie. It was an interesting idea, but a major casting problem.
    Because I didn't like the movie much, I'm reluctant to read the novel. I know I'll be picturing the characters as the actors, if I do pick it up. Know what I mean?
    I do want to read something by Phillip Roth, though. Any other recommendations?

  6. Sorry for the slow responses. I was away from my computer all day.

    Rural View: Roth is a favorite of mine. Although, because he is so prolific, there are hits and misses. I tend to enjoy them all, but some really knock my socks off. Like this one.

    Sam: Plot gets a lot of chatter, but it was a little flat to me. There are others I like a lot more, including I Married a Communist. The audio version is brilliant.

    Diane: You are right. This is Roth at the peak of his game.

    Tea: No kidding!

    Becky: Enjoy! It is always fun to "discover" a new author.

    Christina: I didn't see the movie because I was waiting to read the book (which tells you how long books sit on my TBR shelf). But now that I read the book, the casting seems bizarre to me. I think I'll skip the movie entirely.

    You can't go wrong starting with his first book -- Goodbye, Columbus. It is a novella and a couple of short stories, it won the National Book Award, and it is excellent reading.

  7. I've never read Roth, except for The Ghost writer after I found it in a bargain bin for less than a dollar. My complaint was that he used too many "copulative verbs" so to speak in his writing. But I've always wanted to find something by him that I'd enjoy. This may be it, since I trust your judgement I'll try it next time I'm in the mood for a good long story and let you know what I think.

  8. OK .. this one needs to go on my list! Thanks for the review!


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