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The street sweeper by Elliot Perlman

The street sweeper (original 2012; edition 2011)

by Elliot Perlman

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2904538,756 (4.21)38
Title:The street sweeper
Authors:Elliot Perlman
Info:North Sydney, N.S.W. : Random House Australia, 2011.
Collections:Your library

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The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman (2012)



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We have tackled some big books this year and Perlman’s The Street Sweeper is the last of them. A sweeping (sorry about the pun) novel of over 500 pages, its story content is dense and at times harrowing, but was given huge praise from the majority of our group.
Some of us did find its volume too daunting and at best ‘just another holocaust story’, but of those that read to the end, it was thought unanimously a well-written, emotional story that horrified yet moved us.

We found Lamont an endearing character and quickly jumped on his bandwagon for the duration of the ride. Adam was intriguing and contained many characteristics of Perlman’s other protagonists, particularly from Three Dollars and Seven Types of Ambiguity.
And then there was the ‘memory’ theme that wove strong throughout the book …

Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know, It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.

This paragraph was sighted by a few of us as being very poignant to the storyline, as there were many aspects and views that needed to come together. And in the end history is written by memories … what they contain and what they miss.

Overall The Street Sweeper scored high with our group. An indication that this novel promises a high quality read for those looking for such. ( )
  DaptoLibrary | Dec 1, 2014 |
This book was a goodreads.com first read contest win.

WOW. this was a great book. I so enjoyed reading about how someone like Lamont was trying to turn there life around. To me the author has captured everything interesting and worthy in the characters and put that into words.

I will be recommending this book to several friends and my reading group. ( )
  kybunnies | Oct 19, 2014 |
THE STREET SWEEPER is multi-character, multi-threaded saga that combines academia, civil rights, the US justice system, and the Holocaust into one coherent story by the end.
It starts with Lamont Williams, a black probationary janitor at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Hospital. Recently released from prison, he is trying to get his life back in order and find his now eight-year-old daughter. There he meets and befriends Henryk Mandelbrot, a cancer patient who was a survivor of Auschwitz. Mandelbrot is determined to tell Williams his story, insisting that Williams remember every detail.
A second thread is about Adam Zignelik, son of a well-known civil rights activist and untenured faculty member in the History Department of Columbia University. Since he has not published anything worthwhile, he is about to lose his job. William McCray, the father of a friend of his as well as head of the History Department, is a World War II veteran. He is trying to prove that black US soldiers liberated Dachau concentration camp.
As Adam becomes interested in the subject, he discovers a treasure trove of personal interviews conducted with some of the survivors in Displaced Persons Camps right after the war. They were conducted by a psychologist, Henry Border and were possibly the first oral histories ever conducted. They were recorded on a newly invented magnetic coil process.
The book alternates between the present and the years before and during the Holocaust depending on what is being said or revealed. It works fairly well, though there is much too much repetition, including minor details. We learn a lot about the main characters and how they react to changing situations. Much of the dialogue is in the form of lectures rather than conversations.
THE STREET SWEEPER provides more detail about life in the camp, especially with how people were sent to the gas chambers and what happened to the bodies afterwards, than most other books. It also talks about an attempt by prisoners to damage the structures.
In addition, there is some important dialogue about the way the US Supreme Court has overturned Brown vs The Board of Education, a case that involved some of the characters or their family members.
The book is worth reading and does offer much insight. Many of the characters are based on real people and real events. They are listed at the end. I just wish there wasn’t so much repetition.
  Judiex | Jun 26, 2014 |
an epic work - i was totally immersed in this book - a big, sprawling story with over 600 pages- i completed the final 400 in a day - i loved that there were so many true historical references - learned a lot from the book and its many characters and all the subplots - i felt for so many of the major characters in all their strengths and vulnerabilities - so many brave people struggling against overwhelming odds - so many heroes brave enough to keep on living when that was the harder choice - there were parts of the death camp story that i had to skim as it was so graphic and horrific - this would have been a 5 star book but for the ending which went overboard with synchronicities (meaningful coincidences) -the ending seemed unsophisticated compared with the rest of the story, although i was glad that it ended on a hopeful, happy note. ( )
  njinthesun | Apr 15, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a BIG book--in more than one way. Its themes are the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's and the Holocaust, and it is in part based in historical fact. Two main characters connect all the various elements of this novel.

One is Adam, a white professor of history at Columbia University. His father was an attorney for the legal arm of the NAACP, and worked under Thurgood Marshall. Adam got his job through his connection with Charles, the black head of the History Department at Columbia. Charles is the son of William, a colleague of Adam's father at the NAACP, and the fathers and sons were life-long friends. Adam is up for tenure, but due to his lack of publication, he (and Charles) know he will be denied tenure. Adam is flailing for a good research topic when William suggests he look into the rumors that have been around for years but never confirmed that black soldiers ("the invisible men who went to war") were among those who rescued the victims at Dachau.

His search for historical proof of the presence of black soldiers at Dachau leads Adam to a university in Illinois, where he discovers a treasure trove of tape recordings made by Dr. Henry Border, a psychology professor at the university, of interviews of concentration camp survivors (displaced persons) made immediately after their liberation. These are the first, and only, contemporaneous interviews of survivors. As Adam's research progresses, we learn the history of Dr. Border and his family, as well as the stories of some of the Holocaust survivors he interviewed. Dr. Broder and his daughter were also involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Through Adam, we are connected with both the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust, as well as meditations on the nature of history and the role of a historian.

The other main character is Lamont, a black ex-convict. He also connects us with civil rights issues and the Holocaust, but with a different perspective than Adam's. Lamont is employed at Sloan-Kettering cancer hospital under a program to provide employment for ex-cons, and is the eponymous "street sweeper" of the novel's title. On his first day on the job, he helps Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly cancer patient who is a Holocaust survivor. Henryk needs someone to remember his story so that what happened to him and other Jews will never be forgotten. When Lamont notices the numbers tattooed on Henryk's wrist, they begin a conversation, and Henryk chooses Lamont as the person to whom he will tell his story. Lamont begins visiting Henryk after his shift ends, and as Henryk relates his story, including an failed revolt by the inmates at Auschwitz, Henryk presses Lamont to memorize the Polish names of people and places, and to burn their stories in his memory.

These various strands are narrated in alternating relatively short sections, which some readers have disliked. I liked following the various strands and stories, and gradually learning of the connections among ,the various elements of the stories. Through the sum of the stories, the reader becomes aware of more than what any of the individual characters know, which also provides an interesting perspective as the novel develops. I did notice that this method resulted in some repetition which I am not sure was entirely intentional.

For informational purposes, Dr. Henry Border is based on Dr. David Broder who conducted contemporaneous interviews with survivors of the camps which were lost and only discovered by chance years later. Dr. Broder wrote a book about eight of the interviewees titled I Did Not Interview the Dead, published in 1949, which remained relatively obscure until the later discovery of the tapes. Henryk Mandelbrot is also based on a real individual, as are various of the inmates whose stories are related, and the inmates who participated in the Auschwitz uprising.

There is a fascinating and comprehensive website for Dr. Border's "Voices of the Holocaust," which is well worth a visit. http://voices.iit.edu/david_boder

I highly recommend this book.

4 stars ( )
2 vote arubabookwoman | Sep 26, 2013 |
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Book description
Lamont Williams is a paroled felon looking to turn his life around, working as a street sweeper at a large city hospital and searching for his estranged daughter. Adam Zignelik is a struggling, nontenured professor, paralyzed by looming failure, his life falling apart around him. He discovers a cache of recordings of previously unheard voices reaching out from a horrific past, voices that can both save his career and bring him back to the woman he loves. At the same time, Lamont forges an unlikely friendship with a dying man, who, having lived through those horrors, has a crucially important story to tell and to preserve. The worlds surrounding these two men, their families, their pasts, their potential futures, swirl in and out of history as the forces of the Holocaust, the American civil rights movement, Chicago unions, and New York City racial politics combine in a thrilling cross- generational literary symphony.
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"From the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, an epic that reaches across generations and spans continents, revealing the interconnectedness and interdependence of humanity and the profound impact of memory on our lives"--

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