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4.4 out of 5 stars36
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 23 January 2001
The first time I read Ragtime I was pregnant and so my over zealous enthusiasm for this book was put down to hormonial overload by everyone who knew me. I have since given birth, regained hormonal stability and re-read the book. It's even better second time around. It's a true "can't put it down" classic, leaping from chapter to chapter, pulling you through the Ragtime era of American history. The characters, all famously fimilar, ranging from Henry Ford to Harry Houndi, are alive and accesable. Each character, almost juicy with the richness of the writing, interlink with each other in a (visualise here!) family tree of a story. Each branch touching another. The plot, dark, heartbreaking, original, and massive - involves a typical family, or so they think. As the story evolves you catch your breath, and find youself shouting plaintive "noooooo"'s as each chapter ends. The subject matter on the surface seems heavy, and to a less skilled writer than Doctorow, taboo (racisim, child abandonment,terrorism); but don't be put off if it's just a good read you're after.Trust me, if I could buy this book for you I would. Yes, it's been made into a film. Yes, it's been made into a musical and a very good job they did too, but the detail and the real story's in the book. Enjoy.
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on 1 December 2002
This is the modern day eqivalent of John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy. The vignettes Doctorow draws for us have a great deal in common, with Dos Passos' "I am a camera" snapshots. Doctorow depicts an era that is generally regarded in the American historical consciousness as being primarily bucolic and carefree. The nation, relatively innocent, having shaken off the aftereffects of the civil war, has recently won the spurious Spanish-American war, and is generally revelling in a sense of purpose and civility.
What Doctorow is suggesting is that this serene surface was already infected, with a host of social ills festering beneath it. A shift was occuring that would lead to labor riots, race riots, change in mores (sexual attitudes), loss of faith in institutions, etc. that would define the 20th century. If this were all of Doctorow's plan however, it would have been interesting Sociology, but a pretty boring novel.
Doctorow is above all an interesting storyteller. He knows how to keep a plot moving and how to invest it with enough intellectual hardware to make the reader feel that his/her time has been worth the effort. He can bring a scene to life with a few fresh (never shopworn) details. He doesn't spend a great deal of time elabortaing over these details, as James or Wolfe do, but he makes the reader just as cognizant of them. A few brushstrokes and we are there. His writing is cinematic, in that we can "see" the scene he is depicting, without burdening us with excess verbiage. This is the hallmark of a really good author. Ragtime is a primary example of this kind of shorthand acumen. The novel flashes by as seen in a kinescope. I, for one, was delighted I had inserted my nickle.
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There always seem to have been books called the 'American Novel', but lets face it on closer observation most of them aren't really able to conjure up a whole nation and its positiveness as well as its faults. Doctorow's novel on the other hand does so, and very skilfully, all with quite some irreverence.

Set in the early part of the Twentieth Century, this takes us up to just past the First World War. Doctorow's novel for the majority takes place in the State of New York. With fictional characters as well as real life ones this novel creates a kaleidoscopic swirl that takes in so many issues, with politics from anarchy and socialism through to capitalism, with other issues, such as racism, home grown terrorism, poverty and entrepreneurship, as well as religion and cults, and the occult. Into this seething cauldron of ideas Doctorow does give us a plot of sorts, but the best way is just to go with the flow of this energetic book. For something that is actually under three hundred pages, when you finish this it seems to have been longer, due to the range of topics covered. Packed full of incident this is never boring to read and full of humour, from more subtle to outright funny, including some of it quite dark.

First published in the mid-Seventies you can see that although this is an historical novel as such, Doctorow had his eye firmly on what was happening when he wrote this, and as you read this you can also think of the US today and its problems, meaning that this has never really dated. This is a great read, and surely the contender for the 'American Novel'.
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on 3 May 2008
Doctorow digs into the unlovely truths behind our cosy received notions of the past - and blows them up in our faces. A salutary historical lesson, but told with such human warmth and meticulously imagined scenarios that, rather than despair, the reader feels a strange optimism: that we must, and can, do better next time. And Doctorow makes sure that we know there will be a next time; the intricate links between our past and our present are his great theme. Doctorow loves humanity and hates oppression - and portrays both with such immediacy that you laugh and cry along with him. A lovely man with a deep passion for humanity. Read this book!
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on 8 March 2014
This is a clearheaded portrait of an era we've all heard so much about. Through Hollywood movies and general fiction we are lead to believe that Gangsters ruled and everyone was laughing, drinking and dancing but who swept the streets? Who baked the bread? Doctorow opens up a richer vision of an era by focusing on three families, one black, one Jewish and one white middle class. We still get a History through the headline acts, such as J.P.Morgan, Harry Houdini & Henry Ford but also of changing philosophies through feminism and emancipation as America exploded into the 20th Century. It should be read by every American teenager & adult! (if it's not already) and others besides. Now an established classic with good reason.
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on 11 August 2013
First published in the 1970s this is a brilliant, vivid, daring story of the ragtime era - a time that defines the American character with all its contradictions. Here real figures like Houdini, Freud, Ford and Emma Goldman mingle with a gallery of New Yorkers, from struggling immigrants to fifth avenue millionaires. Written in a short-sentence, rhythmic style echoing the style of the book's title, Ragtime is an unmissable classic from a giant of American contemporary literature.
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on 30 April 2014
The first half of the book just about held my interest, the second half had me frantically turning the page. A fascinating story beautifully interwoven. The character of Coalhouse was particularly engaging and reminded me of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas at times. The novel succeeds not only in entertaining, but also in asking deeper questions of race, society and class.
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on 16 September 2009
This book was a joy to read. I was sceptical because I'd heard so much about it, but the story really drew me in and I found myself really caring for the characters and rooting for Coalhouse Walker. I particularly enjoy it when an author weaves real-life characters into a fictional plot with this amount of skill, and Doctorow really nailed it.
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The following review dates from December 6, 2005. I am posting the review here on Amazon/UK in commemoration of Doctorow's death.

E.L Doctorow's highly readable novels combine history, imagination, character development, a sense of time and place and beautifully controlled and paced writing. Doctorow's relatively early novel, "Ragtime" (1974) remains his best-known work. The book is a delight to read, moves with the feel of ragtime piano, and has a light happy surface. Yet the book combines many disparate threads and stories, a wealth of historical and fictional characters thrown together, and offers an unsettling vision of the United States at the turn of the century, c.1906. There is a complex, multi-layered vision at work here.

The story is told in the first person in the words of Young Boy, whose parents are Father, a successful manufacturer of fireworks and flags in New Rochelle, New York, and Mother, an increasingly frustrated housewife. Mother has a brother, referred to as "Mother's younger brother" who is infatuated with a notorious, (and historical) beauty and femme fatale of the day, Evelyn Nesbit, and who becomes an expert in the use of explosives in Father's fireworks business.

The story of this family slowly intertwines with that of a different American family -- Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from East Europe who at the beginning of the book is struggling as a silouette artist on Hester Street New York City, has young daughter, and Mameh, who through poverty and desperation has abandoned the family for a life of prostitution.

There is a third fictitious American intertwined in the story. Sarah is a young (18 years old) black woman who has a young child that come to live with Mother while Father is away exploring the North Pole with Peary. Mid-way in the novel, we meet the baby's father and Sarah's suitor, an older black man and a pianist named Coalhouse Walker. Coalhouse has studied ragtime with Scott Joplin. The book is redolent with Joplin's music including "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Wall Street Rag." Coalhouse, in his dignity and his violent rage, quickly becomes the chief protagonist of the book. Doctorow has resurrected the character of Coalhouse Walker; and as a much younger man he plays a prominent role in his most recent novel, "The March" (2005), a fictional retelling of Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas in the Civil War.

But these characters and their interlocking stories are only a part of "Ragtime". Doctorow threads their stories in stunningly with stories of historical figures from early 20th Century America. The characters we meet include the escape artist, Harry Houdini, the anarchist Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Roosevelt, Scott Joplin, Evelyn Nesbit, her cuckolded husband, Harry Thaw, and her lover, the architect Stanford White, and several others. Some of these people have prominent roles in the stories while others have cameo parts. But their personalities in virtually every case shine through Doctorow's prose.

For all the elan, rambunctiousness, and lyricism of the story, "Ragtime" presents a picture of a United States plagued by racism, poverty, and violence. The story pivots on Coalhouse Walker's attempts to assert his dignity and manhood in the face of a racial slur in New Rochelle. These efforts lead inexorably to violence and to destruction. The excitement, flow and complexity of the stories carry the reader along but the dark undertow is never absent.

I think Doctorow is at his best in his portrayals of New York City in all its aspects. I was particularly impressed with his portraits of his life in the tenements with Tateh and his daughters, his scenes of the powerful in New York, (J.P Morgan and his meeting with Henry Ford), and the ubiquitous and lovingly-portrayed Emma Goldman. Doctorow's feel for New York City comes through in this book and in many of his later novels, including "Billy Bathgate" and "City of God".

In its musicality, lightness, and depth, "Ragtime" is the work of a great American storyteller. It, and its author, are destined to become American classics.

Robin Friedman
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on 11 March 2014
a very enjoyable and fastcinating insight into the lives and times of pre 1st world war America. This felt like several books rolled into one, focusing on various levels of society, celebrity, crime and relationships and well known moments from history.
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