Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#21 - "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow

I had meant to write a summary of the first twenty books I'd read from The List, but haven't had a chance to finish it yet.  In the meantime, however, I was able to read Ragtime, my 21st book.  I'll post the twenty book review as soon as possible, but for now, let's talk about my most recent novel.

I suppose this novel is supposed to read like the music of it's namesake.  Musically, ragtime is described as having a syncopated rhythm, which means stressing the normally unaccented beats by the way (don't worry, I had to look it up too).  Centering around an unnamed family in New Rochelle around the turn of the century, the story passes through nearly two decades as this family encounters a series of historically famous and significant people.  Such luminaries include, Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, Robert Peary, Sigmund Freud and Theodore Dreiser.  The way this family seems to continuously run into famous people, and the way Doctorow tells each story in a short, yet exciting series of vignettes, reminds me a lot of "Quantum Leap."  Each chapter of this book was a new story, with new non-fiction characters, and the family seemingly inserted into a scenario where the their lives will cross.

At the beginning, each chapter introduces a new non-fictional character, in what is almost a series of short stories.  However, slowly, the family's plot lines begin to unfold, culminating in many of the short stories coming together in the end, as the book reaches its tragic climax.  Throughout the novel, Doctorow explores many themes and topics, almost as a way of foreshadowing, that would come to dominate the United States in the 20th century, including racism, industrialism, the growth of the military, and even the motion picture industry, which made millionaires out of nobodies.

After a slow start, Ragtime really got a hold of me, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it.  Like, I, Claudius, it combined non-fiction with fiction; something I'm always going to like.  As well, despite continuously being referred to as 'Mother', 'Father', 'Son' and 'Mother's Younger Brother', I found myself having a really good picture of the family in my mind and really understanding who they were and why they acted as they did. The story did tend to drift to the, for lack of a better word, sadder side of things, and I always found myself hoping everything worked out for them, much like I tend to do with most 'good' books.  Yet another reason the books from The List are there I suppose.

You can read Time's original review of Ragtime from July 14th, 1975, right here.


One of the 'famous' people from the novel, was Theodore Dreiser, author of An American Tragedy, which is one of the books from The List.  That makes for three references so far of The List in The List.

I currently have six books out from the library, and had brought Portney's Complaint with me to Toronto to read next.  However, the small town Inn we were staying at featured a small common area with an even smaller library.  Scanning the shelves, I found one book on The List, Falconer by John Cheever.  I decided to 'borrow' it, as I've tried to get it in Calgary from the Library and they only have one copy and it always seems to be out.  I'll read it as quickly as possible and mail it back to them with a Thank You note.  Meanwhile, I'll continue renewing the other books until I can get to them.

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