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Dissident Gardens: A Novel Hardcover – September 10, 2013

3.2 out of 5 stars 160 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Lethem extends his stylistically diverse, loosely aligned, deeply inquiring saga of New York City (Motherless Brooklyn, 1999; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003; Chronic City, 2009) with a richly saturated, multigenerational novel about a fractured family of dissidents headquartered in Queens. It’s 1955, and witty, voluble, passionate Rose Zimmer—an Eastern European Jew, worshipper of Abraham Lincoln, and street-patrolling leftist—has outraged her communist comrades by having an affair with Douglas Lookins, an African American policeman. She, in turn, is wrathful when she catches Miriam, her smart and gutsy15-year-old daughter, in bed with a college student. Lethem circles among his tempestuous narrators and darts back and forth in time, landing on historical hot spots as he traces the paths of radical Rose; Douglas’ brainy, skeptical son, Cicero, who becomes an audacious college professor; intrepid Miriam, who marries a folksinger desperately searching for authenticity, and their woebegone son, Sergius, who is led astray by a sexy Occupier. Lethem is breathtaking in this torrent of potent voices, searing ironies, pop-culture allusions, and tragicomic complexities. He shreds the folk scene, eviscerates quiz shows, pays bizarre tribute to Archie Bunker, and offers unusual perspectives on societal debacles and tragic injustices. A righteous, stupendously involving novel about the personal toll of failed political movements and the perplexing obstacles to doing good. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling Lethem will tour the country with this provocative novel in sync with numerous media appearances and lots of press coverage, all supported by print and online advertising. --Donna Seaman

From Bookforum

Lethem structures Dissident Gardens as a series of broadly chronological episodes, moving deftly from one consciousness to another, making the novel an extended family affair over three generations. The downside to this episodic approach to such a large-scale story is that we don’t get the sense of continuous immersion in the life of any one character. Dissident Gardens is—in a beautiful and unsettling way—a deeply agnostic novel, only briefly tolerant of any one parent or child’s inner Sturm und Drang. The point is the dissonance, the way in which one life, one ideology, one voice, never quite succeeds at crowding the others out—partly as a result of time and mortality, and partly because ideologues never stop being fallible human beings. The novel achieves a kind of hard-won grace and equanimity that none of its characters could imagine. —Jess Row
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (September 10, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385534930
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385534932
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (160 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #637,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on September 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
**1/2
I expected to fall in love with this book, but I was disappointed for several reasons. It's too topical, over-written, and tries to tell too many stories. And what it up with that cover? It's the ugliest book jacket ever.

As a boomer, the subject matter and the times are of great interest to me. But recently I'm finding books that try to incorporate every political and social cliché from the last 50 years. I've lived through those decades, and while most of us were influenced by the events, we were not directly touched by every single one of them. Here we meet communists, the Sandinistas, the Occupy movement, the `60's folk music craze, gay people coming out, detention by FTA authorities, East German spies, etc, etc. I had the same problem with "The Interestings" and several other books.

Despite much well-crafted writing, this is yet another book in search of a merciless editor. There are some true gems embedded within the text, and the trick is to find them. At just over 360 pages, "Dissident Gardens" gets bogged down with lots of language and feels like a much longer read.

Of the three generations of radicals whose stories are told, I was only intrigued by the first two, Rose and Miriam. I am very grateful for interesting women. Fortunately, each chapter centers around one of three, and I chose to skim lots of Sergius.

I think "Dissident Gardens" isn't sure which story it wants to tell. I wish authors would decide what they want to focus on, depicting a flavor of an era without cluttering the plot. All the elements of a great book are here. I'd like to just cut it up and paste the best parts back together.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Jonthan Lethem loves New York, ideas, words, and vivid characters in about that order. His new novel tells the story of two unusual women and their men and their times and their children in a loosely spiraling fashion. The story is definitely not told from beginning to end, though the novel does start near the beginning of the story. He conjures up a New York neighborhood of radicals, and a bunch of radicals to populate it. Their odd lives and relations are told elliptically, with information accreting over the chapters as certain mysteries become clearer.

Paragraph by paragraph he's a miracle worker, but I am not sure he achieved his aim in this novel. If you have no tolerance for radicals or of folksingers, you'll hate this. If you want your stories with a direct bang and a lot of compact drama, stop after the first few chapters and spare yourself. But if you want to understand how the legacy of an idealistic movement works on people after the movement has betrayed itself and is over, and on their children, this is for you. Maybe someday Lethem will write about what happened to the hippies and war protesters of the 60s and to their children.

Ultimately, if you have patience and like the sometimes florid narrative style Lethem uses here, and are willing to let some mysteries hang, you'll be rewarded. If you don't mind plenty of what might seem extraneous information and observation, stay the course. Otherwise stay away.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have enjoyed every novel Lethem has ever written. I was blown away when I first discovered Gun, with Occasional Music in a harvest bin at a local bookstore, and since that novel, I have made a point of getting every new Lethem novel the moment it was available. His genre-bending, his quirky plots, and his vivid prose have only grown in scope and skill over the years, and it's been a treat to watch him age as a writer.

What a disappointment, then, for the first time ever, to have to say that he's lost the plot. Literally.

DISSIDENT GARDENS (eesh, what a clunky title) tells the story of idealism (mostly of the Communist variety) as it waxes, wanes, and morphs through a family over the years. It's a character-driven novel, as very little of any note happens at all, most of the narration spent on describing emotions, hopes, beliefs, and the way life can grind away at your ideals with its stubborn real-world setbacks and provincialism. This might have worked had the characters been more interesting, but there's really not much to these people. They believe in certain things but -- although pages and pages are spent describing these beliefs -- they are rarely very clearly drawn or explained.

That's probably because -- and I can't believe I'm saying this -- the book is overwritten to the point of exhaustion. I can't believe this is the same guy who wrote Motherless Brooklyn or Chronic City.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
by saying I'm an unabashed fan of some, of some, maybe most of Jonathan Lethem's work. In the late nineties, when I came across him, Lethem was a genre busting novelist particularly busting the crime noir genre with Gun, With Occasional Music where evolved animals are commonplace and police monitor citizens' Karma.

As She Climbed Across the Table, my sentimental favorite is a send-up of academia and science fiction. The faculty Christmas party rivals anything in Richard Russo's Straight Man. Girl in Landscape, another personal favorite combined science fiction with western, (John Ford type westerns) and Amnesia Moon is Lethem's riff on post apocalyptic novels.

My overall favorite of all his novels is Motherless Brooklyn. The characters were vivid and developed, the setting is a character and the action is always moving. A main character with Tourette's Syndrome had to be a challenge but Lethem walked a fine line between believability and not allowing the disability to be a main focus. It was like detective with an alcohol problem. I have to admit that I read but was not a fan of Fortress of Solitude. I found it dense and in need of editing. I find the same is true with Dissident Gardens.

This is a hard novel to review because there just is so much packed in to it. I found the novel badly in need of editing. There are too many stories swirling around and they tend to break up the momentum.
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