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3.1 out of 5 stars
The Book of Daniel: A Novel
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on April 9, 2015
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on April 25, 2004
Doctorow's compelling novel of revolutionary reminiscence is rendered through the loosely chained memories of its narrator, Daniel Issacson. Daniel recalls his parents, dignified and honest Marxist idealists seeking a way out of what they perceived, maybe rightfully so, as capitalist hegemony. Daniel's parents, Paul and Rochelle, are eventually betrayed by a fellow idealist(and dentist) who turns them in to save his own neck from federal investigators swimming in the mania of McCarthy-era extremism. His parents are honest in their ideals, never seeking revolution as a means to create anarchism, or any nefarious plots to create disorder out of unjust order.
The narrative style of the novel is particularly noteworthy. The plot of the book is a finely woven quilt recalling the history of a mysterious leftist underbelly of America in the middle of the twentieth century, admirably portrayed by its personifications in Paul and Rochelle. Daniel, the oldest of two children, is a graduate student at Columbia. He is tormented by the cloudy, romantic, and tender memories of his parents; even more so is his sister, Susan, who is intermittently hospitalized in many asylums, never having been able to overcome the incarceration and execution of her innocently martyred parents. Revolutionary sentiment and action are cast in reverie in the Book of Daniel. However, the reverie turns nightmarish in the blink of an eye. Never can genuine, spirited opposition to exploitation, as poetically embodied in Paul and Rochelle, ever be fully suppressed, since the human will always strives toward justice, no matter how twisted the manifestations seem to others around us. Remember Rochelle's execution: The electric chair failed to kill her the first time; it had to be reactivated. "The renunciation of resistance is the ratification of regression." - Theodor Adorno
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on May 16, 2003
Doctorow imagines fictional lives for children of a couple very like the Rosenbergs and so weaves a complex and engrossing tale, rich with character and ideas, leaving one exhausted, moved, enlightened. I could hardly put the book down, so engaging is the story and so intellectually stunning are his innovations in narrative form. This is a fine modern novel, dense, satisfying both emotionally and intellectually, driven by serious ideas, rivaling Dostoyevsky and Zola in its transformation of history into compelling moral fiction.
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on March 14, 2003
This book reads much like a rough draft of a grad thesis, which is part of the premise as Doctorow's protragonist Daniel (aka Rosenbergs' son) works on a research paper, trying to make sense of his past. That is to say, it is quite boring and at times, quite desultory. It took me over a year to finish this book - expect it to be boring.
The story concerns itself with the fate of the Rosenberg children ("Isaacsons"), who are seriously dysfunctional individuals - spiritually disconnected and morally confused, despite the facade of Daniel's conventional adult life. The book takes on many issues particular to the Cold War period - the New Left, activism, and the blinding of justice by reactionary ideology. None of these ideas are analyzed in a very interesting way, and Doctorow's prose is not exactly melodious. Just my reaction - many people will find this book intriguing. Its subject matter, anyway, is plenty to chew on.
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on January 22, 2003
The story of the Rosenberg trial is certainly an interesting and important topic for a novel, but I hated the way Doctorow portrayed the characters. Aside from his exasperating writing style, Doctorow's characterizations of the Isaacsons bordered on the obscene. I did not care for any of the members of this family - not even the children. Daniel's cruelty to his wife cannot be excused by his experiences, and his and Susan's arrogance and self-importance made them very unlikeable. Of course, it probably wasn't the author's intention to make the Isaacsons warm and cuddly, but he could've restrained from making them so despicable.
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on March 15, 2002
This is the first book of Doctorow's I have read. Looking at his other books, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But it certainly wasn't this. Doctorow's work has the feel of Kerouac, Burroughs, Heinein's Starship Troopers, Kesey, and Kafka. He takes an incident from one of the most turbulent and trying times in our nation's history and spins a story of a young man trying to understand the life and death of his parents (executed for treason). Doctorow takes on religion, Disney, and the political and social attitudes of America. And he does it well. Daniel is a man who is both confused and very knowing. He's a radical but not like any you've seen before. Doctorow's style is a little disconcerting the first few pages (he jumps between first and third person, both from Daniel's point-of-view, sometimes in mid-sentence), but after you adjust to it, it seems the only way this story could be told. This is a book you have to read. I didn't put it on my list of "best ever", but it was definitely short-listed for it.
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on April 24, 2001
I have read most of E.L. Doctorow's novels and take great pleasure in the smoothness of their narratives, the sense that Doctorow has not misplaced or misused a single word. This same master's quality is evident in "The Book of Daniel", where it brings great imaginative precision to the lives of the Paul and Rachel Isaacson, a couple who are executed as spies and who are modeled on the Rosenbergs. To me, the book's most moving writing has the narrator, the Isaacson's son Daniel, remembering his parents as people with friends and commonplace lives, not as the couple who became powerful political symbols. In the book's end, Doctorow puts Dr. Mindish, the government's chief witness against the Isaacsons, in Disney Land 15 years after the trial, spinning pathetically on a ride, lacking identity in a gaudy and forgetful America.
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on December 20, 2000
I first read this book in the early 1980s, shortly after reading Doctorow's other masterpiece, Ragtime. The Book of Daniel is a fictional meditation based on the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. The Isaacsons, Doctorow's fictional couple based on the Rosenbergs, have a young son named Daniel and a daughter named Susan, and the book is told from the point of view of Daniel, now grown and attending college during the radical upheavals of the 1960s.
Doctorow displays an encyclopedic and detailed knowledge of both of those political periods, capturing the tone of the rhetoric, the pop music, the posters, the idealism, the hypocrisy, and the dilemmas confronting human beings caught up in political movements that seem more powerful than the people themselves. He is as unsparing in his treatment of sixties radicals as he is in his treatment of the cold government executioners who sent the Rosenbergs to their death.
One of most remarkable things about this book is the character of Daniel himself: sharply intelligent yet confused and conflicted, someone who sees all the angles yet cannot bring himself to act -- a modern-day Hamlet. The title's allusion to the biblical Daniel is reflected throughout the text in a number of clever ways as the narrative leaps between historical reflections, allegories, and vivid evocations of moments and events in the life of Daniel, his sister, and their families. It poignantly evokes the relationship between the two children and the various guardians who are assigned to care for them after society has arrested and executed their parents.
The other remarkable thing about this book is its use of language. Doctorow is a great prose stylist. To get an idea of how great he is, you should read both this book and Ragtime, which is a very different work. Ragtime is written in a style reminiscent of an old children's primer--simple, quaint sentences, gentle imagery. The Book of Daniel, by contrast, is full of incendiary language and is a very complex narrative full of jarring transitions -- language ideal, in other words, to capturing the feel of the political periods and events that are the subject of the book.
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on May 28, 2000
I had high hopes for this novel, arriving on my doorstop with a flurry of peer-approval. However, the book does not add up the the sum of its parts--it seems slipshop at times, especially in the rendering of Daniel's change from regretful, damaged son to sixties radical. Perhaps it's dated--the metafictional techniques, especially the shifts from first to third person and back again, lack the force they may once have had--it seems quaint, and is not very effective.
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on April 24, 2000
_The Book of Daniel_ is Doctorow's best novel. It tells the story of Daniel, whose parents are executed for espionage. The book presents a deeply moving story of how a country's wrath affects its citizens. While Doctorow does not take an explicit political position (not an unsophisticated one, anyway), he does gives us a better understanding of how we react to our fates, our family, and our country.
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