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The Time of Our Singing: A Novel [Hardcover]

Richard Powers
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 22 2003
A magnificent, multifaceted novel about a supremely gifted -- and divided -- family, set against the backdrop of postwar America

On Easter day, 1939, at Marian Anderson's epochal concert on the Washington Mall, David Strom, a German Jewish émigré scientist, meets Delia Daley, a young Philadelphia Negro studying to be a singer. Their mutual love of music draws them together, and--against all odds and better judgment--they marry. They vow to raise their children beyond time, beyond identity, steeped in song. But their three children must survive America's brutal here and now. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth grow up during the Civil Rights era, come of age in the violent 1960s, and live out adulthood in the racially retrenched late century. Jonah, the eldest, "whose voice could make heads of state repent," follows a life in his parents' beloved classical music. Ruth, the youngest, chooses a militant activism and repudiates the white culture her brother represents. Joseph, the middle child and the narrator of this generational tale, struggles to remain connected to them both.

The Time of Our Singing is a story of self-invention, allegiance, race, cultural ownership, the compromised power of music, and the tangled loops of time that rewrite all belonging.

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In some respects, Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing is just a big, absorbing drama about an American family, with the typical ingredients of an immigrant parent and some social obstacles--in this case, a biracial marriage in the Civil Rights era--to be overcome by the talented children. But Powers's lyrical gifts lift this material far above its familiar subject matter. His descriptions of music alone will transport the reader. The Strom family were raised with this common language: "Our parents' Crazed Quotations game played on the notion that every moment's tune had all history's music box for its counterpoint. On any evening in Hamilton Heights, we could jump from organum to atonality without any hint of all the centuries that had died fiery deaths between them." The central figure of this novel is the dazzling Jonah, who makes a life from singing, and who may be the only person around him who regards his racial heritage as irrelevant to his ambitions. Powers's is such a fertile writer, however, that he can't stay with any single story, but plunges into pages and pages of family and social histories. The result is a rambling, resonant, fearless novel that pulls the reader along in its wake. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

Powers (Plowing the Dark, etc.) has generated considerable excitement as a novelist of ideas, but as a creator of characters, he is on shakier ground. Here he confronts his weaknesses head-on, crafting a hefty family saga that attempts to probe generational conflicts, sibling rivalries and racial identity. The book follows the mixed-race Strom family through much of the 20th century, from 1939 when German-Jewish physicist David Strom meets Delia Daley, a black, classically trained singer from Philadelphia through the 1990s. The couple marries and has three children: eldest son Jonah, a charismatic, egotistical singing prodigy; Joseph, his self-sacrificing accompanist; and Ruth, the rebel of the family, who becomes a militant black activist. There are two separate strands to the story: one is a third-person chronicle of David and Delia's relationship through the 1940s; the other, narrated by Joseph, is about the brothers' education in the nearly all-white world of classical music and their experience of the civil rights movement as the rest of the country grudgingly catches up to the Stroms' radical experiment. Powers's premise is intriguing, and the plot's architecture is impressive, informed by the notion, from physics, of space-time wrinkles and time curves. Missing, however, are the pulse-quickening vintage-Powers moments in which his discussions of technology and science open up profound existential quandaries. Most of the book is taken up with a prolonged, overdetermined and off-key examination of family relationships and identity struggles. Narrator Joseph is supposed to be eclipsed by his brother, but Powers overshoots the mark: for half the book, Joseph is little more than a pair of eyes and ears. Powers's depiction of how public events filter into individual consciousness can also be surprisingly unimaginative; Joseph periodically runs down a list of current events, using stale, iconic imagery ("our hatless boy president plays touch football on the White House lawn"). Powers deserves credit for taking a risk, but his own experiment reveals his startling tone deafness to the subtle inflections of human experience.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing Trumps Time Jan. 5 2003
Richard Powers is an exceptional writer who follows no one, not even his own single muse, his writing is too varied. He writes like no other author I can think of, his work is unique. I have read all his published work save one, and this is by far the most ambitious in terms of its human element. His are not just characters dealing with a conflict, but people defined by, tortured, terrified and completely lost by the concept of race, and how their own racial blend or puzzle structure, define and are used to define them.
There is no peace
Black and white is not complex enough; the original couple additionally brings the paradox of differing religions to the racial mix and then let these ingredients, that become demons when let loose, to burden their children. The meeting of the couple that catalyzes the tale takes place at a concert at The Lincoln Memorial, located there, for the female singer of color cannot perform elsewhere, a First Lady must step in and do what is right, what everyone else fails to do.
Race trumps love
Classical music, white European music brings this couple together that will start a family of unique and exceptionally gifted children. Yet no amount of talent, no shade of pigmentation however light, allows them the freedom to be judged, as one man who had a dream so badly wanted. A flawless voice cannot be so considered on its own because of the music it sings, when is white not white, one-half, one drop, is there anything that can lay claim to purely white?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I love this book! April 21 2004
All right, I've previously found Richard Powers a bit too cerebral, but I am absolutely in love with this book. Read in pretty much in one sitting. It's a real page turner and a more understated contender for Great Americal novel than (for instance) Delillo's Underworld, which is impressive but not nearly as emotionally engaging as this. This is a must-read. Great NY WAshington Heights-Juilliard scenes (if you ever thought about becoming a professional musician, this is the novel for you), memorable account of Marian Anderson singing in DC, compelling characters and family life. Please get it! It's the weird twin of James Baldwin's "Just Above My Head," for one thing (a great underrated novel of the 1970s), and an interesting sequel to Rebecca West's "The Fountain Overflows." Gripping. Read it. I think it's the best novel published for some time in the USA.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Another stab at the G.A. novel Feb. 10 2004
Richard Powers has never been afraid of the big themes, from his 1985 debut, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance , onwards. In that novel, he extrapolated the first world war from the eponymous photograph in the Sander Gallery, New York; since then he has tackled - and these bare summaries do not begin to do justice to the richness of his imagination - genetics, artificial intelligence, capitalism, the whole corpus of English literature, hostages in Lebanon and virtual reality. And not necessarily in different novels. "Nothing can take place in this century without some coincident event linking it into a conspiratorial whole," he declares in Three Farmers , and although this really is a clever way of letting the novelist slip in through the back door of history before grabbing it by the vitals, he does it very well indeed. In The Time of Our Singing , this orchestration is almost seamless. It's the story of two brothers, Jonah and Joseph, the former a singer and the latter, for most of the novel, his accompanist. Joseph is a good enough accompanist, but Jonah has a voice of extraordinary, arresting beauty: "my brother sings to save the good and make the wicked take their own lives". Or: "like silk on obsidian", or quite a few other remarkable similes that would have exhausted any lesser writer. We get the point fairly early on, but it can't be repeated often enough: Jonah's voice is good to the point of unearthliness.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Homeschooling Jan. 29 2004
Joseph accompanies his brother Jonah on the piano. At age 20 Jonah is named America's next voice. Jonah has a three and a half octave voice. Joey feels he is average as a musician and his brother is outstanding, the possessor of an unearthly voice.
The father, David Strom, is a German Jewish physicist. The mother is African American. Jonah attends the Boyleston Academy of Music on a full scholarship. It is now the back story, 1939. Marian Anderson was turned away by the DAR Hall and sings at the Washington Mall. Delia, the mother, is living in her father's house in Philadelphia. She wants to go to Washington to hear Marian Anderson sing. David Strom is present, too, a guest of George Gamow. Strom wanders in the crowd, lost inside a Social Realist drawing.
Jonah went from being homeschooled to the Boyleston Academy in 1952. His brother Joey follows him there the next year. It turns out that Jonah had probably been tormented as the only child of color. Jonah and Joey had to struggle to keep up with their classmates. Jonah becomes friends with an outcast girl in the school, the daughter of professional musicians. She conveys to Jonah much musical lore and theory.
Jonah's boy soprano voice will change. His voice breaks at the Berkshire Festival in Orff's CARMINA BURANA. He ends the piece masterfully, a tenor. Delia's father trained to be a physician at Howard. The author recounts the story of Emmett Till. His body goes north by train.
Jonah's laugh at age 14 had no bitter highlights yet. The father of Jonas and Joey travels to Boston to tell them their mother is dead. The furnace in their house exploded. Later Jonah and Joey attend Julliard. When they were children their grandfather and father became estranged over the atom bomb and issues of race.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and educational
I learned a lot about segregation in the 50's and 60's and about music. It is very well written and easy to read.
Published 21 months ago by Andre Lefebvre
5.0 out of 5 stars great service
Product was in great shape, a great price and the service was fast and friendly. I had no compaints! Read more
Published on June 28 2011 by jw
5.0 out of 5 stars Music, Time Theory, Race: How does he do it?
The government should immediately construct a time-status machine and put Richard Powers in it so that he can continue writing novels for eternity. Read more
Published on May 15 2004 by sbissell3
5.0 out of 5 stars This book was written for me.
I've enjoyed several of Richard Powers' books, but this one was like reading a book written exclusively for me. Read more
Published on May 5 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the finest novels I've read in recent years
This is a hard book to review. I've been a fan of Powers' novels since first reading The Goldbug Variations about 15 years ago, and have read everything he's written since then. Read more
Published on March 27 2004 by Kirk McElhearn
5.0 out of 5 stars I was totally enraptured
I absolutely loved this book. I had never read any of Powers's previous work, and I'm not sure I would have picked this one up on my own, but a friend gave it to me. Read more
Published on Jan. 20 2004 by bookgirl3175
5.0 out of 5 stars Race, Music, and Time--A Complex Braid
This book fell off the library shelves into my hands without my having any previous knowledge of Powers' writing. Read more
Published on Jan. 12 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical, sprawling family drama
This sprawling family drama weaves together seemingly disparate elements as music, physics, and race relations in mid-20th-century America. Read more
Published on Sept. 25 2003 by debvh
4.0 out of 5 stars brilliant work, but with a hole in the center
Smart and thought-provoking history of the past sixty years from the perspective of an intermarried family, using singing as the motif for their triumphs and tragedies. Read more
Published on June 18 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The monumental gifts this book has to offer have already been ennumerated by the reviews already in place. I can only add that this book held me for all of its stupendous length. Read more
Published on June 16 2003 by K. L. Cotugno
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