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Call it Sleep by Henry Roth

Call it Sleep (1934)

by Henry Roth

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
Not a fun read, an American Jewish novel of young fearful 7-8 year old boy in a relentlessly misogynistic environment, only the mother is good, though her past is shaded, all other encounters with women are horror filled, although to be fair there aren’t many positive encounters with men or boys either - the policemen coming off the best. ( )
  quondame | Dec 31, 2017 |
A haunting story of childhood trauma and depression. Roth succeeds in recreating what it's like growing up and not always understanding everything we witness. Also vividly portrays life in New York as an immigrant. ( )
1 vote dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Growing up in an immigrant family in New York. A very good read which leads to an understanding of how our ancestors lived in an alien culture and became assimilated into the fabric of America. ( )
1 vote JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
This is a classic story of immigrants, people who take the chance of not only a new country but a new way of life. Albert has come to New York City from rural eastern Europe, and when the book opens he has been in the city for over a year, and meets his wife and toddler son David on the ship that has brought them after him.

After this first meeting, we see the story through David's childish viewpoint: his reactions to his hostile father and loving mother, his fear of dark places like the cellar, the normal cruelty of children, the terror of being lost, of not being understood, of not understanding what goes on around him. Some of this is just being a child, some the hostility that surrounds him, only alleviated by his doting mother.

And through him, we see the strains on the adults in his life: his father's uncontrollable temper and paranoia drives him from one printing house to another until he gives up the trade altogether, preferring to work alone. His view of his mother is colored by men's reactions to her (written in the thirties, the book blatantly exhales the Freudian atmosphere of the time) and his need for her. Roth uses a sort of stream of consciousness to portray David's confusion, questioning, pain and fear. Plenty of all of that.

Language plays a huge role in the story. David's parents speak Yiddish, the street kids a mix of Yiddish and English, the non-Jews in the story the dialects of English of the Polish and Irish immigrants around him. Lack of English limits his mother's domain, limits his understanding of the world beyond his few blocks of home. (One of my fellow book club readers had listened to it and found the dialects much easier to understand when spoken than when transliterated, and I'm sure that would have helped.)

David is seeking something in the light, some sort of freedom and redemption that he doesn't understand but yearns for. The ending is explosive.

So it is a deep, non-trivial story. I had expected to like it more. The middle somehow wore me out, with its stereotypical psychology, then the end, with its flashes of almost inappropriate comedy and desperate fury, flew by. Some of the descriptive writing was gorgeous, some of the dialog too beautiful to be quite believable.

I found myself wishing my father were still alive to read it with me. He was a Brownsville boy himself, although of a slightly later era, and I would have learned more about him if we could have shared this story. ( )
1 vote ffortsa | Jul 10, 2014 |
I am always amazed at the bibliofates who direct me to books. No matter how randomly I choose the books I read, these fates always seem to bring a shape to the story of my reading. I’ve been reading through stacks of books that have lingered on my shelves for some time without attention, either because they were once recommended to me or because they hold a place on a ‘best’ list. The last few stacks I’ve chosen alphabetically, grabbing title off my shelves by the author’s last name, without any regard to their topic or style. Then, I chose at random between about 13 books in the stack. The last three I read are Henry Roth’s [Call It Sleep], a book about an Jewish immigrant boy in New York City; Yann Martel’s [Life of Pi], which recounts the story of a young Indian boy trapped on a life boat with a tiger; and Charles Portis’ [True Grit], the tale of a young girl avenging her father’s murder in the Old West territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma. The books were published in different decades, separated by at least a couple of decades, by authors from vastly different ethnic and social backgrounds. But I couldn’t have chosen three books that share more in common if I’d tried.

How do we see ourselves and the events of our lives? How do they shape us into the people we are? How do the people we already are affect how we react to watershed moments? All of these books deal with such questions – reading [Call It Slepp] first, helped to focus my own thoughts on the topic. Though not told in his personal voice, [Call It Sleep] centers on David Schearl, adolescent Jewish boy growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. David is a recent immigrant, having traveled over with his doting mother, Genya, to join his father, Albert. David has to learn to navigate life in America on the lower reaches of the economic spectrum and as member of a reviled minority. Added to this, he has to deal with an explosively abusive father. There are episodes common to any young man’s life, building self-esteem and making friends. But it is the unique quality of his life, as reflected in the trials of his families struggle to make ends meet and to assimilate into such a foreign culture, that resonate more powerfully. David’s character is constructed by Roth to be such an outsider, looking in from the outside of poverty and race, that his story helps us to understand our own internal feelings of isolation and universal yearnings to belong.

Roth’s genius is present nowhere more powerfully than in David’s battle to make sense of the swirling religious powers influences around him. His father is Jewish by birth primarily but not in so much in practice and his mother is the product of very strict religious family, though she herself has lost her faith. They enlist David with a local Rabbi to develop a sense of history and solidarity with his ethnicity. While David shows a knack for learning Hebrew text, he befriends a young Catholic boy who begins to educate him on the death of Christ. David fights to make sense of the conflicting deities of Judaism and Christianity, deeply hoping to connect a unifying and guiding force that he feels without being able to understand.

Roth’s novel is deeply affecting. The streets of his New York boil with the smells and the feel of a different time and place. You can feel the diverse cultures of the Lower East Side roiling into something new and different with each day that passes on the page.

Ultimately, even though David’s voice is not the narrative force, it is his perspective that drives the story, and everything that he faces is viewed through his eyes. His choices make sense only through the filter how he battles his fears, of his father and of the foreign city around him. When he makes a stand against these forces, you see how he is baptized in his own courage to become something new, something that is related to what he was before but also related to the new things around him.

Bottom Line: Vibrant immigrant life, told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy becoming something new on the grimy streets of a New York City neighborhood.

4 ½ bones!!!!! ( )
3 vote blackdogbooks | Jun 7, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (66 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roth, Henryprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Allen, Walter ErnestAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maisel, JayCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roth, WalterAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Eda Lou Walton
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Standing before the kitchen sink and regarding the bright brass faucets that gleamed so far away, each with a bead of water at its nose, slowly swelling, falling, David again became aware that this world had been created without thought of him.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312424124, Paperback)

When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves—--and still enjoys. Having sold-to-date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the magnificent story of David Schearl, the “dangerously imaginative” child coming of age in the slums of New York.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:53 -0400)

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"When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves - and still enjoys. Having sold to date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the story of David Schearl, the "dangerously imaginative" child coming of age in the slums of New York"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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Average: (3.86)
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2 18
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3 48
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5 75

Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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