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City of God by E. L. Doctorow

City of God (2000)

by E. L. Doctorow

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The City of God by E. L. Doctorow is a story told by the narrator Everett who is writing a story about Pem, an Episcopalian priest. In the telling of the story there is a lot of short little essays or philosophical musings and often it is hard to know who is the current voice. The story looks at human relationships with God, each other and with themselves. The story starts out with a missing cross that shows up at a synagogue called the Synagogue of evolutionary Judaism. Pem finds he no longer can believe in much of what he had, removes himself from the clergy and begins to explore Judaism. Mostly he believes in something that really makes no sense but amounts to a Christless Christianity and therefore Judaism is a better fit. He also happens to be in love with the rabbi, Sarah. So there is a lot of jumping around, we get quite a bit of a holocaust story. There is also a bit of Vietnam. There is a bit about film verses literature. While I enjoyed some of this book it really was an effort to read. Rating 3.14
  Kristelh | Jul 29, 2017 |
An amazingly sweeping novel, which somehow transcends all the post-modern clichés we encounter in it. A Episcopal priest with views somewhat too radical for church authorities meets two equally radical Jewish rabbis after vandalism and theft from his church. In a kaleidoscopic presentation which brings in the Creation, Wittgenstein (as characters), the holocaust, Viet Nam, the First World War, (amazingly, without ever seeming to over-reach) the plot explores issues of the place of faith in the late 20th century. A masterpiece, only slightly diminished by the happy rom-com style ending in which the right people end up married, and the even more conventional post-apocalyptic postscript. ( )
2 vote sjnorquist | Dec 20, 2014 |
I really liked this book. It is about a young boy coming of age, and coming to terms with life. I enjoyed the images and reading about life from the view of this young boy. ( )
  Dmtcer | Jun 3, 2014 |
initially somewhat confusing as the book shifts from narrator to narrator, it all works marvelously when you give up trying to figure out identities of who's speaking and just bathe in the stream-of-consciousness. once you just let it wash over you, all of a sudden, the shifts are perfectly reasonable, and each narrator has their own "voice" anyway. it should scare the hell out of me that doctorow has won a faulkner award being as how i absolutely despised the faulkner i was bashed over the head with in grade school. apparently, this stuff is better when done well.

but what is it about? well, life, NYC, and everything, pretty much. the blurb on the cover tells you it's all about a cross stolen off the top of a run-down church that somehow ends up on a newly-started synagogue, but that's really just a small starting point for a tale that rolls back into the past (and will on into the future past the events described). possibly my favorite holocaust book ever, though it's not really about the holocaust; also possibly one of my favorite discussions on loosing one's religion, though it's not completely about religion or loosing it.

not a perfect book in the least - you don't get to jump around with perception and tone and narrator so swiftly and not come off just a little gimmicky, and it doesn't help if one of those speakers is overly dull - but a lyrically beautiful one, and well worth the time. ( )
1 vote fireweaver | Mar 31, 2013 |
Finally, a Doctorow I can really like! I knew keeping at him would pay off.

Multiple plot lines and stories, and all the pieces matter. Love this kind of story. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happoenstance, to an extent that the word explosion is inadequate though the theory is known as the Big Bang,
All history has contrived to pour this beer into my glass.
"We are not so flamboyant now, we have culture, real art hangs on the office walls...We know who Wittgenstein was."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0452282098, Paperback)

You want ambition? E.L. Doctorow's City of God starts off not merely with a bang but with the big bang itself, that "great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe." It doesn't, to be sure, remain on this cosmic plane throughout. There's a mystery here, along with a romance, a chilling Holocaust narrative, and a deep-focus portrait of fin-de-siècle Manhattan--not to mention cameo appearances by that Holy Trinity of contemporary mythmaking: Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Frank Sinatra. But while the author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate is no slacker when it comes to entertainment, he has more in mind this time around. Even the title, with its Augustinian overtones, tips us off to the author's preoccupation with belief, human consciousness, and "our wrecked romance with God."

Let's return, however, to that mystery. In the early pages of the novel, an enormous brass cross is pilfered from a church on the Lower East Side. Father Thomas Pemberton of St. Timothy's promptly sets off in search of it, dubbing himself the Divinity Detective. Yet he suspects from the start that this is no ordinary theft, with no ordinary solution:

So now these people, whoever they are, have lifted our cross. It bothered me at first. But now I'm beginning to see it differently. That whoever stole the cross had to do it. And wouldn't that be blessed? Christ going where He is needed?
Where He seems to be needed is the opposite side of the ecumenical aisle. The cross turns up on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, a tiny Manhattan institution to which Pemberton has clearly been led by fate. His encounter with the synagogue's rabbinical duo--a husband-and-wife team struggling to reclaim a pre-scriptural state of "unmediated awe"--transforms his life. It also destroys what's left of his conventional Christian belief. Augustine's spin on original sin, for example, now strikes him as "a nifty little act of deconstruction--passing it on to the children, like HIV." And as his relationship with Judaism deepens, he discards the clerical collar altogether and embarks upon a penitential exploration of the Holocaust--which in turn allows Doctorow to loop his narrative back and forth between several generations of (mostly) Jew and Gentile.

Astonishingly enough, the foregoing only scratches the surface of City of God. This marvelous hybrid also includes a metafictional framework (i.e., an author-as-character with a rather Doctorovian resume), an ongoing rumination on city life, and a dozen other major strands and minor players. There are, not surprisingly, a number of misfires. For example, Doctorow has long been interested in the power of American popular song--in the way that, say, Gershwin's work has come to function as a kind of secular hymnal. Yet the author's postmodernist variations on the standards, which appear at regular intervals throughout the novel under the ominous rubric of "The Midrash Jazz Quartet Plays the Standards," are jaw-droppingly awful. One might also argue that the book is too centrifugal, too devoted to the storytelling principle of the big bang. Still, there is an undeniable power to the way Doctorow makes his fictional worlds collide, setting off all manner of historical and philosophical conflagrations. At one point he imagines "the totality of intimate human narrations / composing a hymn to enlightenment / if that were possible." A tall order, yes. But despite its occasional longueurs, City of God suggests that it's possible indeed. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:11 -0400)

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The theft and mysterious reappearance of a cross from a Manhattan church precipitates a hunt for the culprits that will soon uncover a strange prophecy about a rebirth of the United States.

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