Philip Roth's books have twice been awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN / Faulkner Award. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral.
"Roth's book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama."
“A perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy played out against the background of the polio epidemic that swept Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1944.”
"Like a very well-executed O. Henry story, a parable about the embrace of conscience . . . and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be."
“Roth writes a lean, vigorous prose that burns with the intensity of his purpose. It flows smoothly even when he wrestles with the knottiest of philosophical problems.”
“Roth is all about character and how we are shaped by improbably circumstances, and here he offers up insight to match his many years on the job.”
“Yet another small triumph from one of our native artists largest in spirit. And by small I mean in length of the book. . . . This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal.”
Why can’t I ever read one book at a time? Start, read, finish, and put away? Is it like this for everyone? On my desk are at least thirty-five books that I am at least two chapters into, some far more, but I cannot seem to finish any of them. Knowing that they are undone keeps them alive somehow and still in the process of deep communion. Once the cover is closed and all the words are read, there is a death.
I’m reminded that John Irving’s passion about Dickens includes an unread book. I don’t know if it’s still true, but I recall him saying that he’s saving Our Mutual Friend, the great author’s last completed novel, until his deathbed. Irving wants Dickens to ever be an ongoing pleasure that is never finished, a hunger never completely satisfied.
Of Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock I have only two stories to go, but it lingers, I think, because I want its gritty aura to spread on my other reading. I’ve recently gotten the new Van Gogh: The Life, along with the Penguin edition of his letters. After visiting this summer the house north of Paris where Van Gogh died, I could not resist the gargantuan acclaimed study. And, well, his letters are revered as any that have come down to us.
I collect short books, but they are apparently no easier to finish. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Brooklyn Is by James Agee, both beautiful little hardcover volumes of 116 and 50 pages, respectively, have been sampled, more than sampled, yet I know that when I finish them and would be free to remove them from the pile of the “living” to a shelf behind me, a loss will inhabit the desk. So I refuse to do it, and have learned to read books paragraph by paragraph.
As if I needed to add anything else to a worktable straining under the weight, I picked up at a local bookshop on a recent trip to Ohio Philip Roth’s Nemesis, his novel about a fictitious polio epidemic in Newark in the summer of 1944. I remember polio victims. There was a girl in my class in Cleveland when I was growing up a decade after Roth’s story. He is a writer I find extremely easy to read. The narrative flows like a river, and you find yourself twenty, thirty, sixty pages into it before you come up from air. This book I will probably finish, just because he rarely lets you do otherwise.
Recently -- why, oh, why? -- I’ve begun to read Bernard Malamud after decades. His biography by Philip Davis, an excellent work that did something, but apparently not enough, to raise the novelist to his former stature, is riveting and supremely intelligent. Now I find that I can’t help but dredge out the novels and stories I read so long ago. They are dense. No hope to skim and put away. They’re now taking up real estate on my desk.
The Civil War, anything on the Civil War! The Great Rebellion, the War Between the States, the War of Blue and Gray was far more my war than Korea, under which I was born, because I was eight at its centennial and my brother and I played Civil War in our backyard, in the woods across the road, in our shared bedroom, in our minds. And to truly know the war, one must know what lead to it, so now . . . The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 has taken its place in the stack -- right between Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson and Thomas W. Nason: New England Virtues Aged in Wood, a monograph on the woodcut artist by Charles Price, published by the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT, a place I was happy to visit a couple of weeks ago.
And it never ends. Which is how I prefer it.