Thursday, April 22, 2010

With Reverent Hands: Call it Sleep

With Reverent Hands

I bring you with reverent hands / the books of my numberless dreams.
-WB Yeats, "A Poet To His Beloved"

WB Yeats, I'm sure, gave books to his beloved that he valued highly himself, and that he handled with reverence.  If you had to recommend a book you revered to someone, what would it be?
I'm asking you to highlight one book.  One book that you adore, that you prize, that changed your life, that you would save from a burning building, that you found serendipitously on a library shelf or at a used bookstore, looking lonely and ignored.  A book that thrills you but that, you have come to realize, no one else has really ever heard of, much less read.  With Reverent Hands is all about those books- the ones that deserve a wider audience than they are given and that you want everyone to go out and read, even if they are out of print.

EDITED:  Eek!  I forgot my entire paragraph about this week's guest poster!  Massive apologies to Laura, who writes at Reading & Rooibos!  Like many of the blogs I follow, I am not sure when I started reading Laura's blog, or how I first came upon it.  But when I started making folder assignments in Google Reader recently (a thankless job), I didn't even hesitate to put her on the "A-List" because she reads such a variety of books!  Everything from Louis L'Amour to Sapphire!  I really enjoy her blog and I hope my lapse in the guest poster description paragraph doesn't mean you all won't go visit her blog!

What book are you highlighting?
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, first published in 1934.

When did you first read it?
I'd never even heard of Call It Sleep before it appeared on the syllabus of an American Lit course I took during undergrad. My professor made a conscious choice to include books we may not have encountered in other literature courses and this was one of the selections my classmates and I read with fresh eyes. I still have the copy I purchased for that class with all of my underlining and other notations in it. The pages are almost ready to start falling out at this point!
Call it Sleep

What is it about?  Please give a brief summary.
David Schearl is the child of Jewish parents who journeyed to New York City from Austria in 1907. The storyline follows an often alienated David from early childhood through adolescence, shedding light on his familial, sexual, and religious awakenings. The core emotion of the novel is David's intense love for his mother and pervasive anxiety at even the merest possibility of being separated from her.

What makes the book stand out to you?  Why do you love it?
Call It Sleep is one of the richest tales of immigrant life I've ever read. Roth is particularly masterful at showing us the multilingual nature of David's daily experiences, incorporating hints of the Yiddish spoken by the Schearl family at home as well as the broken English of the kids he encounters on the street and the Hebrew used at his school. Roth's writing makes even the smallest details pop from the page; the sights, sounds, and smells wafting through David's world were almost palpable as I read.

Please finish this analogy:  If you liked _____________, you'll probably enjoy this book.
The two books I associate with Call It Sleep are The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I read Faulkner's classic novel shortly before Call It Sleep and while the books are very different overall--Roth's work certainly has a more easily definable narrative arc-- the glimpses into David's thoughts sometimes reminded me of Faulkner's use of stream-of-consciousness. My mental link between Irving and Roth is the role of religion in the lives of their protagonists as they grow and come into their own.

What sort of person would you recommend to read this book?
Readers of historical fiction with an interest in immigrant experiences in the early twentieth century or Jewish literature will find much to treasure in Call It Sleep. If you happen to get a copy with an introduction by Alfred Kazin in it, please don't read that until after you've finished the book. It gives away many of the major events!

Do you have any quotes you would like to share?
Call it Sleep

"He went out into the hallway. Behind him, like an eyelid shutting, the soft closing of the door winked out the light. He assayed the stairs, lapsing below him into darkness, and grasping one by one each slender upright to the banister, went down. David never found himself alone on these stairs, but he wished there were no carpet covering them. How could you hear the sound of your own feet in the dark if a carpet muffled every step you took? And if you couldn't hear the sound of your own feet and couldn't see anything either, how you be sure you were actually there and not dreaming?"


  1. I haven't read any of the 'read-alikes' listed, but wow, that quote is amazing!

  2. I once read a fantastic review of this book by Joan Acocella, and at the time I thought I'd like to read this. Thank you for reminding me about it. Aarti and the idea of 'reverent hands' is a lovely one!

  3. Anonymous4/22/2010

    This sounds right up my street - I'm off to see how much copies cost and whether they are available here! I've never read a book about the Jewish immigrant experience in America and I'm fascinated by the premise of this.

  4. Sounds great. I love 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' by the way. It's such a great book!

  5. This sounds fascinating. I haven't read it or the other books you mention, I've added to the wish list though!

  6. Anonymous4/22/2010

    "Readers of historical fiction with an interest in immigrant experiences in the early twentieth century or Jewish literature will find much to treasure in Call It Sleep." That made me add it to my wishlist instantly. I had never heard of this book, but it sounds really interesting.

  7. Anonymous4/22/2010

    Good morning, Aarti! Thanks for posting, but you forgot to mention me as the guest poster this week. ;-) I'm just glad readers are getting interested in Call It Sleep, though!

  8. Anonymous4/22/2010

    I read Call it Sleep several years ago and absolutely loved it. One of the most vivid books I've ever read. I never would have thought of comparing it to Owen Meany (which I am NOT a fan of), but now you've got me thinking...

  9. The name..may sound familiar, but not that title. And it sounds good

  10. Eek, I'm so sorry, Laura! I remedied that above now. I KNEW it took me far too short a time to write this up...

    Everyone else, glad you like this week's book and I hope you visit Reading & Rooibos!

  11. Since I love historical fiction, and immigrant stories, I bet that I would love this book. Also the quote provided is wonderful as well. Another one for the top of the wish list. I am going to have to try this one very soon. Thanks Laura!

  12. I read this twice. I remember the first time I was awestruck at its brilliance. The second time was much later and I was more disturbed by it than I remember being the first time. I was also more struck by the parallels to the Joycean stream of consciousness he employs. (Henry Roth famously rejected Joyce as the dominant influence on Call It Sleep but critics disagree!) I definitely agree that it is a rich portrayal of immigrant life.

  13. Wow! What a great quote!I definitely need to see if my library has a copy of this! Thanks Laura for sharing this with us.

  14. Oh really this might be good for people who liked Owen Meany? I liked that book a lot, so will add this to the list.

  15. I think I remember reading this book when I was in elementary school, for a paper I was writing about Jewish immigration to the US. I forgot about, but I'm now tempted to give the book another read,

  16. Anonymous4/23/2010

    What a fun meme. I have always heard wonderful things about Call It Sleep, and it has long languished on my TBR. I'm taking a break from the library after I return my current stack to focus on my own unread books, but I may move this to the top of my list for my return.

  17. I first heard of this book on one of those Top 100 book lists, can't remember which one. I was intrigued because I'd never heard of Henry Roth (at first I thought they meant Philip Roth. Not the same!). Anyway, yours is the first review I've read and it sounds wonderful. I'll have to move it up on my to-read list. Thanks for posting about it!


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