104 of 106 people found the following review helpful
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.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
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.
37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 1999
This is the first book I've read from E.L. Doctorow. His style is initially disconcerting because it isn't tethered to a linear structure. Time can't progress without folding in on itself. Even sentences are often interrupted and excised of all punctuation. Perspectives shift between first and third person -- which a previous reviewer noted can be confusing. Yet the book is so saturated in details, the characters display so many nuanced shades of anger and pride and cruelty and love, that it brings the book to a level that everyone can understand. The people in this book are such smart asses, all of them! Daniel's grandmother, the black man in his basement, the pathetic palsied Mindish who we're never quite permitted to hate. In that sense "Daniel" is a politically sophisticated work in that it acknowledges politics and government as flawed and limited structures created by flawed and limited people (like sentences). Daniel observes that his sister died by a lack of analysis. It's evident that an abundance of such is how he hopes to keep living. I left the book feeling like I was cheating myself by not having a mind as active and relentless as Daniel's. I'm grateful for this book. And I'm sort of glad it isn't very popular. Seems to confirm its authenticity.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 1999
I would like to say that I read this book because I'd heard of it, I'd heard of the author, and I really wanted to know what was so special about it. But the truth is that I read it because I had nothing else to read.
However, from the moment I picked it up I knew that this was a special book. From the first page I knew that it would challenge and entertain and inform. From the first page I was enthralled.
As a student of the Cold War and American 20th century history from abroad, it seems as if America's novelists have a cathartic urge to understand their country, perhaps unmatched anywhere in the world. There is a burning desire to understand what it was all about that enthralls many authors: DeLillo, Roth, to name a couple. This book is perhaps the best example of that quest for meaning in a period many people still find troubling.
It is utterly human, brilliantly engaging, wonderfully drawn, and devastatingly important.
When I picked it up, I'd never heard of E.L.Doctorow, by the time I put it down I was resolved to read everything he has written. Unspeakably wonderful. A great novel.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2006
In typical Doctorow fashion, this book is extremely well researched. Much like "Ragtime", Doctorow places his finger on the pulse of an era to reproduce it beautifully. His images of 1950's America fully capture the paranoia and anger experienced by the revolutionaries of the era.
In essence, this novel is constructed as a mystery as Daniel goes on a mental journey of self-discovery, trying to discover how young Daniel Isaacson metamorphosed into the bitter, distracted man Daniel Lewin. It is not a happy or comfortable journey. In fact, it is quite disturbing and causes quite a bit of rage for the reader. I needed to remind myself that THIS IS AMERICA and these things did happen to innocent people.
I also enjoyed the connections made between the Communist movement of the post WWII period juxtaposed with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. Like all great literature, much of what is discussed rings true today where a great percentage of the people are feeling discontent over our current war. Also like today, the "revolutionaries" do nothing but prosthelytize about a coming movement that never actually materializes. As Daniel looks for solace in the ideas of those who rebel, he finds himself dissappointed in their inactivity, which ironically reflects his own inactivity.
The only flaw I found in the novel was the relationship between Daniel and his sister Susan, which seemed to take on a sexual nature over time. I found myself asking, was this a necessary plot device? If it wasn't a plot device, the overtones are definitley there.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2000
E L Doctorow's "The Book of Daniel" filled me with an indescribable sense of horror I wasn't remotely prepared for. I confess to being a novice in American history but when I finished the book, I thought perhaps I understood for the first time the political landscape that inspired Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", which I recall having studied for my A-levels English literature exams many years ago. It seems to me that madness lies latent and lurks beneath every human society, even one that professes to be the universal champion of human rights. In Doctorow's words, "the Isaacsons were confirmed in guilt because of who campaigned for their freedom, and their supporters discredited because they campaigned for the Isaacsons" - a totally circular and tautologous logic ! Yet, the novel's central concern isn't necessarily about the tragic path Paul and Rochelle Isaacson took to the electric chair, but about the permanent and devastating impact the arrest and murder of the Isaacsons had on the lives of their two small children, Daniel and Susan. How else can one explain the perfect boy, Daniel's sudden, cruel and violent turns which visits his own wife and son long after his parents' tragic death. Or the intelligent Susan's continued breakdown and descent into madness. Doctorow certainly takes wild liberties with time, jumping backwards and forwards in his narration. He also mixes first and third person narrative techniques and uses a blend of historical fact and commentary to reinforce the power of the tragedy. Reading "The Book of Daniel" was an eye-opening and harrowing experience for me. It moved me to tears and even reflecting on it sends chills down my spine. This is essential reading. Powerful and harrowing - "The Book of Daniel" is a truly collosal literary achievement. Read it !
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 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
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 1998
Well, I`ve read this book (first paperback edition) in USSR still under communists - it was semi-underground literature for us all. I was amesed by intellectual brightness and courage and by author`s skill, might, mastership. This book is not only about America - it`s about us all, about the ways of totalitarianism - and it`s impact on the whole world and every soul in it. It is very sad and yet - very optimistic book. May be - prophetic.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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.