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The Book of Daniel (Penguin Classics)
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 6 September 2009
It is one of the strengths of 'The Book of Daniel' that you don't need to be a student of twentieth century American politics to understand it. As Jonathan Freedland explains, "Doctorow does not use his characters to reveal his politics; he uses politics to reveal his characters." His short introduction will give you enough background to have confidence to turn the first page, after which the protagonists' life-stories provide the rest.

Daniel's communist parents, based on the real-life Rosenbergs, have been executed for passing secrets to the Soviet Union at the height of the 1950s McCarthyite fever when America seems to have lost the plot. And he has survived growing up without them. Barely. Hardly more stable than his hospitalised sister, his story-telling steers you straight into choppy waters. The stiff narrative breeze rarely slackens, veering wildly from one era to another and from Daniel in `journal' mode to a more distant third person . When you finally reach dry land, don't be hard on yourself if you feel a little disoriented, exhilarated and queasy in equal measure, much as if you have been pushed overboard after daring to question whether anyone has a firm grip on the democratic-capitalist rudder.

The book's destabilising atmosphere is undoubtedly one of its successes. The boot-strapping legal system that seems to admit circular arguments as evidence, the confusion of children so casually picked up by the state that has made their parents vanish, the inadequacy of the mental health system and the non-content of the anarchist, anti-system rhetoric: all make it harder to get one's bearings.

Daniel's eccentric philosophising is an integral part of the book and if you don't take the disjointed words as misprints - try `violin spiders' for example - you might still have to look to Doctorow elsewhere to understand. Is it Daniel's unhinged ranting or the author's cogent thinking put in the mouth of a intelligent but intellectually untamed twenty-something? You decide. But let's not dispute the stroke of genius which made Doctorow show the early cold war era through the eyes of traumatised children and then have them play out their neuroses and existential questioning as adults when America was divided over Vietnam.

I marvelled at how the prose seemed to improve yet further in the last third of the book. And if, by then, you find yourself wrestling with the meaning of it all, Doctorow has given you a direct experience of what Daniel's family and their real-life counterparts were up against.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 12 August 2010
without going into the story details, i just want to say how fine this book is.
moving in its account of the aftermath of the execution of the parents upon the children.
gripping, even though as it's based, loosely, on fact and you know what's going to happen - or some of what's going to happen.
surprising and deft in its jumping between time frames, which are never obscure or confusing.
brilliant in its writing, in the phrases, the beauty of the language and the grit of it.
there are some memorable analyses of the society in which the events unfold, and some unforgettable phrases.
on of my favourite paragraphs is when the narrator lists various "traitors" to the american ideal, putting at the top edgar allan poe who he describes as:"the master subversive who wore a hole in the parchment (of the constitution) and let the darkness pour through...."
the rest of the passage is too long to quote, but is brilliant ending:"it's poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of america."
i would read this if i were you.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 23 May 2008
E.L Doctorow's most prevalent skill as a writer, apparent in most, if not all of his novels, is to heave American History, breathing, writhing and alive, directly onto the printed page. `The Book of Daniel' demonstrates the way in which the writer achieves this remarkable feat.

Doctorow's novel is a fictionalised account of the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, an American communist couple who were found guilty of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S government by disclosing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The fictional counterparts to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. Apart from some minor differences, the events of the novel largely reflect those of the Rosenberg case. The Isaacsons, like the Rosenbergs, are put to death at the end of the novel, by means of electric chair.

Like the inevitable eruption of Vesuvius in Robert Harris's 'Pompeii', the impending doom of the Isaacsons is inevitable, and the tension is slowly elevated as the plot slowly unravels to this grisly denouement. Although we know throughout that the Isaacsons can not and will not be saved, the importance of the novel rests in how the novel's protagonist Daniel, the son of Paul and Rochelle, attempts to come to terms with the events of a case which becomes one of the most important political events of the 20th Century. The Isaacsons becomes objects in a political tug-of-war; to those on the right they are traitors to their nation, to the communists they become martyrs. Doctorow constantly reminds of this conflict between the human and the political; that the Rosenbergs were not just political symbols; they were human beings, and most importantly, parents.

Do not allow the explicitly political themes of the novel to put you off; the novel is accessible and the prose is exciting, witty, and concise. The dialogue is acceptable although not remarkable throughout, discounting occasional moments of truly superb dialogue, as shown in the eccentric hippie Artie Steinlicht's politically charged diatribes against Daniel's parents, who he believes `played the game' with the government by `wearing ties' and acquiescing. Doctorow brilliantly contrasts the ideals of the Old Left, represented by Daniel's parents, with Daniel and Steinlicht's disillusioned, disaffected generation of rebels.

While the novel does explore political issues, it is chiefly concerned with Daniel's humanity; he is a fragmented, disconnected individual, unable to love those close to him, and sometimes bordering on the sociopathic. Doctorow's characterisation is so subtlety effective, in the way the reader encounters Daniel in both his formative childhood years, and his adult years as a member of the `hippie' New Left movement, that the reader comes to feel profound concern for Daniel during his lowest moments, in the same way a parent would react to their child being sent to rehab.

The `Book of Daniel' should certainly not be limited to enthusiasts of American History; it is a vibrant, lively novel, worthy of a read by anyone with an appreciation for striking, visceral prose and excellent characterisation. The novel's political themes are particularly relevant today, as like the Cold War and the Vietnam Wars as shown in the novel, George W Bush's `War on Terror' has once more set the political Left in direct opposition to the agenda of a right-wing regime.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 1999
This book does not set out to be a history of the Rosenberg executions, and by changing the names of the couple on trial, Doctorow is free to explore the climate of Cold War and McCarthyism that killed the Rosenbergs. The novel is written from the perspective of their son, who is growing up amid the Vietnam War protests, and facing his own crisis of civil unrest. The contrast of the two periods of left wing activism, so often ignored in the USA, is masterful, but the novel neither preaches or steers clear of the issues it raises. Worth buying alone for the glorious deconstruction of Disneyland at the end.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 15 June 2006
I read The Book of Daniel by E.L Doctorow with interest. I find it so absorbing, gripping and emotionally touching. The novel concerns a boy (Daniel) and his mentally unstable sister Susan. The events surrounding their young lives is not a phleasant picture at all. The mental trauma and pain of witnessing their parents being trialled and executed for committing treason adds the shocking experience. Treason is defined as a nationalist disclosing information to other nations for harmful and unlawful purposes. In context of the novel, Daniel parents acted as spies by disclosing information to Russians during the cold war for creating an atom bomb that is capable of causing immense disasters, which I do not want to even want to comprehend in words.

The key issues underlying the novel are as follows. Firstly, old political regimes gain continued support by extremist and left wing communist parties. Daniel's parents are registered as members of the party. Their sole aim is to overthrow the socialist party and seek to promote equality in society which includes a classless society and equal distribution of income and wealth. Another issue tackled is capital punishment. Do you think people should be sentenced to death for committing serious crimes, in which it is you as an individual to judge and have the desire to live in a stable society? The purpose of the review is to offer my opinion and views on the novel, but not to discuss issues in details, just to identify. This is the general background of the novel.

The turning point of the novel is when Daniel's parents are arrested by the FBI for their involvement in a conspiracy to commit treason. Daniel's life dramatically changes. He has to accept life without parents, which is very hard and take responsibility at such a young age for taking care of his mentally unstable sister. The novel is set in 1960's America, which runs in parallel with the past and present. It is about the American society and the political extremist who want to voice their opinions and views.

If you have a passion for American history and politics, read The Book of Daniel. It is a good read, but you may find it a little heavy and disturbing.
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on 20 July 2015
This deals with the arrest and trial and subsequent execution of the Rosenburghs and the effects their incarceration had on their two children . The book is written from the perspective of Daniel and explores the Macarthy period with great insight and telling observation. If anyone needed to be convinced why the death penalty should be abolished in America, then the description of both their deaths is essential reading. Horrendous period in American history - but with the rising inequality in the USA today the book still has relevance on Americans ideas on freedom and the pursuit of happiness!
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on 23 February 2014
Although this novel is very much of its time - the 1970s, it is a superb, fictionalised account of the torments endured by the children of alleged soviet spies in the U.S.A. of the 1950s. The writing is extremely good - economical, expressive and gripping. Once read, it is impossible to forget.
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on 15 November 2013
Powerful and compelling story. Full of anger and trauma. Excellent analysis of USA and it's political system. Compassionate account of the terrible period in history.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2011
This is the best book I've read for some time, which is partly a reflection of the difficulty I've had lately of finding really good books to read. It is fiction based loosely on fact, about an American communist couple who were tried for treason, for supposedly selling secrets to the Russians, and eventually sentenced to death in 1953.
The story is told by Daniel, their son. Written in an original, almost experimental style, swapping between first and third person, past and present tense, all of which I could easily find annoying, this nevertheless had me wanting to read on.

The language is bold and gritty and very much of its time, which is the late sixties. The opening third is brilliant and if it had continued in that way I'd have given it five stars without hesitation, but it didn't quite live up to that initial promise.
In the end it became a little too repetitive and there was so much of this switching between tenses and viewpoints and time that it becomes rather tedious trying to keep up. Often the narrator will be writing about himself in the third person and then switch to first person without so much as starting a new paragraph.

One interesting point about this novel is that, although it's based on the true story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, it doesn't go into the facts of that story, possibly because the truth wasn't well known at the time Doctorow wrote this. Information that has come to light since suggests that Julius Rosenberg in particular (not his wife perhaps) was guilty of at least some of the charges against him, whereas reading this you might assume he was totally innocent.

Still a good read though, and one I'd recommend, just as long as you're prepared for a bit of work. If you just want simple, lighthearted entertainment, better look elsewhere.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2014
There is some dark, grim, violent content in this book that I found bordered on the gratuitous, so I'm afraid I opted out. I did like the story that was unravelling, but I don't like to subject myself to trauma without any hope that it might mean something in the end.
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