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Nemesis by Philip Roth

Nemesis (original 2010; edition 2010)

by Philip Roth

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857None10,374 (3.81)48
Authors:Philip Roth
Info:Houghton MIfflin Harcourt (2010), Paperback
Collections:Your library, To read, 1001 Books List

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Nemesis by Philip Roth (2010)

1940s (12) 1944 (8) 2010 (11) 2011 (6) 21st century (11) America (8) American (12) American literature (27) audiobook (6) disease (6) epidemic (8) fiction (102) historical fiction (17) Jewish (12) Jews (8) literature (23) New Jersey (25) Newark (14) novel (29) polio (55) read (10) read in 2011 (7) responsibility (5) Roman (16) summer camp (9) to-read (9) US (5) USA (14) war (5) WWII (23)



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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
"Nemesis" was my first time reading anything by Philip Roth... I enjoyed the book though I'm not sure why it is on the list of 1,001 books to read before you die.

The story centers on Bucky Cantor, a playground director when a polio epidemic hits Newark, N.J. I found the story was told well, but somewhat predictable... I could see fairly early on where it was going. That said, I thought Roth did a masterful job at peeling back the layers of Cantor's character.

Overall, this was an interesting and quick read. ( )
  amerynth | Dec 3, 2013 |
with this book, i'm starting to understand roth's narrative sense. here, he unwraps the narrator a chapter at a time. ( )
  applemcg | May 26, 2013 |
Summer in the city

Bucky Cantor is a mensch—a good man. During the summer of 1944, when the bulk of this brief novel takes place, 24-year-old Bucky is working as the playground director of the Chancellor Avenue Playground in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. It’s the city’s Jewish neighborhood, and that summer it’s been hit brutally hard by a polio epidemic. Kids are scared and parents downright are terrified. Bucky’s own grief and fear are balanced by a sense of duty equal to that of any Gilbert & Sullivan protagonist. Conflict arises when his girlfriend begs him to leave the disease-stricken city and join her as a counselor at a bucolic summer camp in the Poconos. The situation in Newark is volatile. Says the girlfriend’s father, a doctor:

“The anti-Semites are saying that it’s because they’re Jews that polio spreads there. Because of all the Jews, that’s why Weequahic is the center of the paralysis and why the Jews should be isolated. Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it. There is a lot of bad feeling because of the crazy things people are saying out of their fear. Out of their fear and their hatred. I was born in the city, and I’ve never known anything like this in my life. It’s as if everything everywhere is collapsing.”

Meanwhile, the stress of what was happening in Newark and elsewhere around the country was playing out against the backdrop of a country at war. It was a terrible, terrible time.

My mother contracted polio a few years after the events depicted in this novel. We’ve discussed this frightening period of her life many times over the years, but strangely, hearing her personal account couldn’t touch the reality of what Mr. Roth has depicted with such immediacy. Reading Nemesis made me feel like I’d taken a time machine back for a visit. It gave me fresh insight into my mother’s experience. And it also served as a reminder of just how forgotten this terrible disease is. In 1944, both scientists and the public were so appallingly ignorant about the cause and transmission of polio it was hard to believe. And yet… I don’t know anything about polio. Despite my mother’s history, I’m not sure I could have told you it was a virus. Is transmission airborne? I have no idea. Polio has never been a part of my lifetime, and after reading this novel, I pray that it never is. More than anything, Nemesis is completely evocative of the time and place in which it is set. As glad as I am to have had a window into the past, I’m even gladder to have moved on from that time. ( )
  suetu | Apr 5, 2013 |
An attempt at the great American plague novel. If Roth finally discusses something other than girl problems, he does pretty well. An old-fashioned reminiscence with all too relevant problems. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
This novel is a trip down memory lane for anyone of a certain age. Two wars are being fought at the same time; one is in Europe and the Pacific where World War II is raging and the other is in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, in Newark, New Jersey, where a polio epidemic is raging. Neither war will end well. Is the story ultimately about how we face a crisis and go forward into our future? Is it about control, who does and who does not have it in the face of tragedy? Is it about unfounded, unrealistic guilt and shame? Is it about the Jewish experience or the experience of everyman?
Two characters, the narrator and the protagonist, each were afflicted with polio and its after effects, but both face their futures in different ways. One character takes control of his life and masters it; one relinquishes control, wallows in self recrimination, railing at G-d about the life he has been given, somehow always feeling like he has missed out and always wanting more. He is too short, his eyesight is too poor, his background is wanting, and when he was rejected from the armed forces, branded 4F, he was devastated. He is not easily satisfied, and in fact, always finds the negative and disappointment in a given situation, rather than the silver lining.
During the summer of 1944, Eugene Cantor is the Director of Playgrounds; he loves his job. He is a Physical Education teacher and he really enjoys being with the children. He wants to mentor them, to help them become strong and principled. He is in love with a teacher from a wonderful family and life is going well for him, even though he feels a bit like he is always behind the eight ball, a bit short changed in the game of life.
He was raised by his grandparents; his mother died in childbirth and his father was a thief. He carried the shame of his crime within himself. Did he also carry the guilt for the death of his mother? His grandfather always emphasized hard work, strength of character and always doing the right thing. Although devoted to them both, his grandfather became his role model. Perhaps he also instilled that feeling of guilt within him, that he carried his entire life. Growing up, he always missed the atmosphere of what he considered a normal family, one with both parents offering encouragement and love. Even though he acknowledged the great love his grandparents shared with him, he hungered for what he did not have. This becomes a pattern for him. He always sees the dark side. Does he transfer that feeling of guilt onto every other aspect of his life, always making his burden a bit heavier?
The story proceeds along innocently enough, at first, but the pace picks up as you realize the fear the community is living with on a daily basis because of the war and the polio epidemic. Who will get a telegram about their son, whose child will come down with polio? No one knows, and furthermore, no one has any control over either which makes them even more impotent and afraid. There was a good deal of irrational fear as they waited for the next shoe to drop, the next victim to fall, always anticipating the next tragedy.
The book is narrated by Arnold Mesnikoff who is more than a decade younger than Eugene. He plays in the playground’s baseball games which Eugene (Bucky Cantor) organizes during that fateful summer of 1944. At the end of the book, the effect of those early dual wars is illuminated by the chance meeting of the two men, about three decades later. Each of them reacted to the events of that summer in their own unique way. The different roads they chose determined the lives they led and the obstacles they faced. Each had to face a challenge. Would they meet it with courage and strength or surrender to a different destiny?
Although the book is about a small Jewish enclave in New Jersey, anyone growing up in that time can't help but feel nostalgic. Although it was more than a decade later, I remember the same atmosphere: the air raid drills, air raid siren tests, polio scares, anti-Semitism, rivalry between Jews and Italians. Who doesn't recall the stoops in front of their attached homes, each with a narrow driveway separating them from their nearest neighbor and a postage stamp piece of property with a tree in front, newly planted? It could be a number of other Jewish communities in any urban center, not necessarily Newark. Roth has captured the true spirit and persona of the Jewish families of that time, their expectations, their hopes and their pressures. The relationship between parent and child, adult and minor was one of authority vs. powerlessness. Improper behavior, disobedience, weakness, was cause for guilt and shame, not only heaped upon the wayward one but also upon the entire family.
So many in that era lived in just such a house, in just such a neighborhood, hung laundry from the window, attaching it with clothespins to a line attached to a tree, some distance away, which was on a pulley system. (Who doesn’t remember the times the clothes that fell had to be retrieved by running down flights of stairs and then rewashing them by hand?). We hung out at the corner candy store, had ice cream sundaes with abandon, never thinking about calories. Who doesn't remember the shoemaker or the "druggist" who had as much respect as the doctor and whose advice you often sought first, before even calling a doctor? Times may have been different, even more dangerous, with the cold war and diseases with no vaccines, but the people seemed more connected, happier to communicate with each other then. Perhaps it was the invention of Air Conditioners or television that forced people inside and away from the communal gatherings in the street, in order to escape the heat or to simply socialize. Soon windows were closed, doors were shut, people sat alone in their homes, more isolated, entertained by a box with pictures and sound, and they no longer participated with each other to the same extent. They escaped from the real world into a world of fantasy. Perhaps that escape is necessary in the real world, in order to survive and not let life get you down. Is it the ability to find a silver lining inside of every cloud or the doom and gloom, sky is falling attitude that should prevail?
Mr. Roth captures the prevailing atmosphere of the times, the terrible fear of the disease for which their was no treatment or cure, not even a known cause that could be blamed, though they tried to find one; the Italians, the Board of Health, and even Mr. Cantor, the Playground Director was accused. He accurately describes the over-anxious Jewish mothers, their over arching need to protect and provide for their families, the culture of learning, the desire for education that is ever-present in the Jewish neighborhoods along with the ever-present shadow always lurking, of anti-Semitism. It was a time for Jews to gather their courage, stand tall and squash their image of meekness; they must face their difficulties, their trials with courage and fortitude, and this means Polio, as well. Ignorance was the main problem. No one knew how to stop the disease just as no one knew how to end the war quickly. There were so many deaths, untimely and unnecessary. Was anyone at fault? Should anyone feel guilty? Should someone be punished? Was everyone blameless? Who or what was the real enemy? Why did some fare better than others? Why did some handle their burdens more satisfactorily?
In the end, doesn’t this story have a larger meaning? Couldn’t the community be anywhere and the people be of any race or religion? Wouldn’t any neighborhood have reacted in similar fashion? Or, wouldn’t they? This brief book will make you wonder about all these questions, but it will not give you the answers. Those you must find for yourself. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Mar 7, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
It’s all a bit by the numbers, though Mr. Roth executes Bucky’s story with professionalism and lots of granular period detail.

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The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0547318359, Hardcover)

In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos—whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants"—Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood.

Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:19 -0400)

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Roth's "Nemesis" is the story of a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

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