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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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From Amazon

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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In some empty hall, my brother is still singing. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and educational Jan. 27 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
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.
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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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5.0 out of 5 stars great service June 28 2011
By jw
Product was in great shape, a great price and the service was fast and friendly. I had no compaints! Even despite a Canadian Mail strike, the shipping was fast and the book arrived in good shape.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Music, Time Theory, Race: How does he do it? May 15 2004
The government should immediately construct a time-status machine and put Richard Powers in it so that he can continue writing novels for eternity. Every time I read one of his novels I come away almost speechless. As a result I limit myself to one of them every 3 or 4 years; otherwise I'd be mute.
Powers takes on the issue of race in the United States in his novel. He uses music and time theory as two ways to advance the plot. If you think the three issues are unrelated, just hold on, Powers makes the case and seals it shut.
The enigmatic message of the white, Jewish father to his black, estranged daughter says a lot about this novel: "No matter where you point your telescope, there is a different wavelength." (I hope I got that right, I gave my copy of the book to a friend).
I can't say how much I admire this novel. Read it at your own risk; it will change the way you think.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This book was written for me. May 5 2004
By A Customer
I've enjoyed several of Richard Powers' books, but this one was like reading a book written exclusively for me. The interweaving of social justice issues (race, economic justice, etc.), music, contemplation on time, and pragmatic religion resonates. This book is beautiful and moving in many ways. Read it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the finest novels I've read in recent years March 27 2004
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. While I have been disappointed by a couple of his books, I've nevertheless continued buying them.
I won't talk about the story, nor will I talk about the characters; others have done so in reviews here. But the one thing that moved me deeply was Powers' ability to write about music like no one else. Never have I read a novel where music was important, and where the author truly understands music enough to describe its inner emotions.
Another magnificent element is the science fictionish ending that ties back to an event near the beginning of the story. I had a chill in my spine as I read the ending of this book, and I look forward to reading it again in the future.
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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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