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Featured Author: Philip Roth

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American author, Philip Roth seems to be an author that people either love or hate. My feelings are more mixed. I disliked Portnoy’s complaint, liked American Pastoral, and loved Nemesis.

Born in 1933, Roth is best known for his explorations of Jewish and American identity. He graduated from Bucknell University in 1954 and has won almost every literary award out there, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Faulkner Award, National Book Critics Circle, and the Man Booker. In college he started a literary magazine where he published some of his first short stories. After graduating he served in the U.S. Army, then later returned to school to get his Master’s in English Literature. Considered controversial, he has been labeled “anti-semitic,” and “a self-hating Jew”– inaccurately because this is exactly what he fights against in his books. Over the course of his life he has published over 30 books and many more short stories. Some of his best known works include Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, Everyman, and Nemesis.

Interesting facts about Roth:

  • As a child he was subjected to violence by openly anti-Semitic students from neighboring schools and, as a result, pledged to “become a lawyer for the underdog.”
  • He once wrote a letter to Wikipedia complaining that statements about his book Human Stain were incorrect.
  • When asked in an interview about his focus on male characters, he stated that his focus “has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired.”
  • He taught literature at the University of Pennsylvania for 11 years and attributes his real education to his teaching.
  • He is the only living American novelist to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America (Penguin Random House).

For more information about Roth you can visit a Facebook page that is maintained by his U.S. publisher.

My thoughts:
There is no question that Roth is a brilliant writer and extremely intelligent. His productivity and critical acclaim are almost unprecedented. Until the last two years, I had largely avoided his writings as I associated him with books that intentionally targeted a male audience. Then in the last year, I’ve read three of his books primarily because they were on the 1001 List of Books To Read Before You Die. I still think his books will have more appeal to men, but I have enjoyed them more than I expected. Below are my shortened reviews:

American Pastoral: 4 stars. The “Swede” Levov seems to have the perfect life. The son of Jewish immigrants he is a varsity athlete, marries Miss New Jersey, and takes over the family business. The Swede represents the “perfect” example of assimilation into American culture. He is the all-American hero representing the post-World War II era in the U.S. But when his daughter becomes a radical anti-war protester and kills the local owner of their small town general store, the perfect façade starts to crumble. American Pastoral is at heart a commentary on the American Dream and the dangers of assimilation.

This book packs an emotional and intellectual punch. I enjoyed the writing style and the brilliant way in which the author was able to build up a world then slowly poke holes in it. The contrast that he creates between the idyllic “American pastoral” and the violent, crushing modern world is impressive. Roth decimates the notion of American innocence and attacks conventionality with a passion, and he does so by eliciting a roller-coaster of emotions in his readers. There are beautiful, dreamlike descriptions of Levov’s world (rolling pastures, white picket fences) contrasted with the fury infused scenes between Levov and his brother, his daughter, and Rita Cohen.

Find it here: American Pastoral

Portnoy’s Complaint: 3 stars. It’s difficult to summarize the plot of this book. It is structured as a dialogue to a therapist or psychiatrist. The novel is largely blocks of stream of consciousness of protagonist Alex Portnoy but the blocks are organized by free associations and not chronology. In many ways the dialogue is like a confession of all his sexual exploits from childhood on and as he explores the state of where he is now (unable to connect to women in a meaningful way, no children of his own), Portnoy makes connections to his early childhood experiences — there is a lot of parent blaming in the book. In addition, Portnoy explores what it means to be a Jewish man who has spent his life conflicted about this piece of his identity.

I can’t say I found the book particularly enjoyable. Alex is neurotic, guilt-ridden, sex obsessed, and unlikeable. The book was too obscene for my tastes and I could have done without the multiple detailed descriptions of his masturbation. There were moments at the beginning that I found fairly amusing. Then, once we progressed into his adolescent years, it becomes primarily centered around his masturbation and his sexuality – which I found boring and his treatment of women offensive.

I would have given this a 2-star rating but did find the style and premise interesting.

Find it here: Portnoy’s Complaint

Nemesis: 5 stars. I loved this book! Set in the summer of 1944, a Jewish town in New Jersey is hit with an outbreak of polio. Nemesis tells the story of 23 year-old Bucky Cantor, a kind and well-liked physical education teacher who gets caught up in his town’s tragedy as one by one the boys he looks after get struck by polio. At one point, Bucky makes the decision to “escape” to his girlfriend and accepts a job at a summer camp far away from the polio cases. But, escaping is not as easy as he thinks.

This is a wonderful and emotionally-provocative story about the power of guilt. Bucky is a decent man who is destroyed by his own sense of guilt about abandoning his boys (and other things I don’t want to give away). This book will have a lasting impression on me. As a psychologist, I spend a lot of time working with people around how they perceive and interpret events in the world around them. This book is a wonderful exploration of how personal interpretations can impact a person’s sense of happiness and fulfillment. A sad but thought-provoking read.

Find it here: Nemesis

We want to hear from you. What do you think about Philip Roth? Have you read any of his books? Which were your favorites or least favorites?

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