May 19, 2008

Call It Sleep

by Henry Roth

This is one I picked up years ago purely on whim from a secondhand store, which has become one of the treasured books in my library. I've probably read it a dozen times, and enjoyed every one. Call It Sleep is a vividly painted experience of Jewish immigration in the early 1900's. It is told through the eyes of a child, David Schearl, who arrives from Austria-Hungary as a toddler with his parents. The book encompasses several years of David's childhood, as he navigates the streets and gangs of a poor New York neighborhood, the stifling cheder where he learns the Hebrew of his heritage, and the tumult of his family life (his father paranoid and violent, his mother meek and secretive). One of the great things about this novel is its use of language. Yiddish is the most fluid and pure language, (written as English in the book). David's awkwardness with English and the slang of the street kids are rendered phonetically. Then there are Hebrew and Polish phrases, languages David struggles to understand- Hebrew veiling the secrets of religion he yearns to own, Polish used by his parents to conceal information from his innocent ears. But David wants most of all to understand, to belong, to feel safe- and his quest soon brings him to a loss of innocence. I've never read another book that more eloquently depicts what it is like inside the mind of a child. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5            462 pages, 1934

More opinions: Living2Read
anyone else?


  1. I've heard the title of this book but never knew what it was about. Thanks for the review! I'll have to look for a copy.

  2. aaaaaaaaaaaarggghhhhh! rrrrrrraagggh! Oh, sorry...a little jealousy. I've been looking for this book (since I came to Korea, of course) and it's been spotted here, but I never seem to be able to turn it up myself. Oh well. Thrill of the hunt, right? Thanks for the review.

  3. I've also looked at this one and wondered about it. I will definitely keep my eye out for it now. I love stories set in that period!

  4. Thanks for telling me about your review... I liked it for the same reasons as you, but not with the same intensity. That father was so wicked.

    Funny that you found it at a secondhand store and now it's one of your favorites! I was like that with "Heidi" - a 1920 version that I picked up when I was nine years old.

  5. Ruined for life after reading this one, nothing compares. Dow Mossman maybe, Stones of Summer..


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