Thursday, May 24, 2018

Book Beginning: Seasons of Doubt by Jeannie Burt




The stove almost warmed the room, though damp from the last storm still sat in it. Mary Harrington stirred a dull gravy as her five-year-old son slathered lard on a biscuit.

The Seasons of Doubt by Jeannie Burt. It's the winter of 1873, and when her husband abandons Mary and their son in a sod house on the Nebraska prairie, she doesn't know if he will ever return, or even if he is still alive.

Please join me every Friday to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires. Please remember to include the title of the book and the author’s name.

EARLY BIRDS & SLOWPOKES: This weekly post goes up Thursday evening for those who like to get their posts up and linked early on. But feel free to add a link all week.

FACEBOOK: Rose City Reader has a Facebook page where I post about new and favorite books, book events, and other bookish tidbits, as well as link to blog posts. I'd love a "Like" on the page! You can go to the page here to Like it. I am happy to Like you back if you have a blog or professional Facebook page, so please leave a comment with a link and I will find you.

TWITTER, ETC: If you are on Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or other social media, please post using the hash tag #BookBeginnings. I try to follow all Book  Beginnings participants on whatever interweb sites you are on, so please let me know if I have missed any and I will catch up.

TIE IN: The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice is a natural tie in with this event and there is a lot of cross over, so many people combine the two. The idea is to post a teaser from page 56 of the book you are reading and share a link to your post. Find details and the Linky for your Friday 56 post on Freda’s Voice.


Review: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Philip Roth passed away this week at 85, having written over 30 books of fiction, autobiography, criticism, and essays over a 55-year span before announcing his retirement five years ago. He was one of my all-time favorite writers. Here is a re-post of my 2009 review of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus.

Philip Roth won the 1960 National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five short stories and the title novella. He went on to create an incredible body of work – building on many themes introduced in Goodbye, Columbus – publishing 30 books to date with another on the way.

In the main novella, hero Neil Klugman is home in Newark after two years in the army. He has finished college, is working in the library, and lives with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in the old neighborhood. When Neil falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the prototypical Jewish American Princess whose family has moved to the suburbs up the hill, Roth begins the examination of American Jewish life that continues through many of his books.

The title is a reference to Ohio State University Seniors saying goodbye to college, goodbye to Columbus, Ohio, but it also signifies growing up and leaving youth behind. Neil and Brenda’s relationship demonstrates the intensity of first love, as well as the disillusionment and emotional tempering that result.

The five short stories that follow vary in force and effect. “The Conversion of the Jews” is a clever piece in which a young student starts a theological argument with his teacher along the lines of, “If God is omnipotent, can he make a rock too big for him to move?” It is fast and crisp and more than a little audacious.

How Jews, particularly secular Jews, assimilated into mid-century American culture is a common Roth theme. In “Defender of the Faith,” he looks at Jews in the military, drawing in part on his own experience in the army. This story leaves questions unanswered for later pondering: Just who defended the faith? Was it the hero, Sergeant Nathan Marx, who fought the Germans in WWII? Or the new recruit, Sheldon Grossman, who demands to follow his religious practices in boot camp? Is Grossman really looking out for the Jews in the unit, or just trying to gain preferential treatment? What about Marx? This would be an excellent pick for a lit class or book club.

“Epstein” is a morality tale about adultery on the brink of the sexual revolution. Louis Epstein learns the hard way that his generation does not get to share in the sexual frolics of the post-war, folk-singing, “socially conscious” next one.

In “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” Roth touches on themes he comes back to over and over, including growing up in Newark, baseball, interactions among ethnic groups, and political ideology. The idea of a high school teacher falling into the net of anti-communist committee hearing is one that Roth later developed fully in I Married a Communist, one of his Zuckerman novels.

The last story, “Eli the Fanatic,” is the most powerful of the bunch. When a group of religious Jews sets up a Yeshiva for Holocaust orphans, the secular Jews in the “modern community” of Woodenton, New Jersey want the school closed down, fearing that it will upset the delicate balance they have achieved with their secular Protestant neighbors. Poor Eli Peck gets caught in the middle, trying to negotiate between his fellow townsfolk and the school. Peck’s eventual comprehension of the past suffering of the Yeshiva Jews and the shameful position of his cohorts leads to his emotional undoing. This is a story to mull over.

Roth won several more awards after this one, including another National for Sabbath Theater, the Pulitzer for American Pastoral, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Counterlife, among others. He was a true man of letters and a real American treasure.

This was my National Book Award pick for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge.


Hotchpot Cafe

(If you would like to have your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link.)

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