Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: The Human Stain

Summary: It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.

Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of
The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America." -- Vintage

I really didn't think I was going to write a review forTHE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth. My book club read this book for February, and it wasn't a pleasant experience for me. I'm not referring to the meeting because I thought it was a terrific one. I am referring to the hours I spent reading this novel -- the tedious, frustrating (and yes, even painful) time I had trying to complete this book.

Well, I am happy to say that I did finish this novel despite setting it down numerous times and swearing that I wouldn't pick it up again. I thought I had the perfect excuse to abandon it when my husband told me that he was going to be out of town the same night as our meeting. However, a few days later (actually only a few days before our meeting), he announced that his trip was canceled. Darn....I felt as if I had to give THE HUMAN STAIN and Mr. Roth's verbose prose another try. (I don't mean darn that his trip was canceled -- I love my husband!)

I really don't want this review to be one where I trash what many consider to be an excellent novel. Just check out the reviews on Amazon, and you will quickly see that I'm in the minority. All I'm saying is that I didn't enjoy this novel -- it just wasn't for me. There were many things that I didn't appreciate about this novel -- from the sentences that went on for almost a page, to the character development (or lack thereof), to the stereotypical characters, to the misogyny (or at least what I interpreted as that), etc.; however, I can honestly say what most upset me was the idea that I'm just not intellectual enough to appreciate a Philip Roth book. And that really gets my goat!

Despite all of my misgivings about this novel, our book club meeting was a big success -- you can read more about it here. THE HUMAN STAIN, while not an easy read for me, did bring up a some great topics for discussion as you can clearly see in the reader's guide. There are lots of references to late twentieth-century American culture, including the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, as well as some jabs at academia. Some other themes you might want to explore include racism, the effects of war, revenge, attraction, deception, morality, and secrets. Believe me when I say that there is a tremendous amount to discuss about human nature and our motivations.

THE HUMAN STAIN definitely wasn't the book for me. In fact, I'm reluctant to even try another Philip Roth novel any time in the near future. (I'm still recovering from this one!) If you've read THE HUMAN STAIN or any of his books and enjoyed them, can you please enlighten me? I'm feeling rather dumb right now!


Deborah said...

i haven't read the book, but i saw the movie when it came out year ago. i remember having the hardest time getting into it bc anthony hopkins was playing the role of coleman and i just could not buy his secret bc...well it's anthony hopkins!

Anonymous said...

I understand when you say a book seems too intellectual. I had that problem with Ron Cooper's Purple Jesus not too long ago. I just felt like it was over my head in parts and I couldn't fully appreciate it because of that.

I have Roth's The Plot Against America on my shelf, but haven't read it yet. We'll see how that goes when I eventually get to it.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

I love your honesty!

bermudaonion said...

I admire you for trying the book in the first place! I'm way too intimidated to even attempt Philip Roth. Kudos to you for finishing it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm actually quite fascinated with your opinion here. In one of my book clubs, the leader, who is quite enamoured with his own literary prowess, keeps saying we need to read this book. And now I am just shaking my head and saying "it figures". The guy also loved Freedom, so what can I say. I don't care if it is classic literature, if it is painful to get through, I'm not sure if I'm interested.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I don't think I'd have attempted this, Julie, even before your review! I'm glad you and your book group had a good discussion in the end.

p.s. I just asked J "Did we watch this movie?" He said Yes. (I have no recollection of it; blocking it out may be a survival mechanism)

stacybuckeye said...

I made it to page 50 or so before I abandoned it a few years ago. I'm going to try again this year.

islander said...

Too verbose for me! I'm passed the point where I doubt my intellectual prowess; I'm old enough not to want to waste time on someone else's fascination with himself and every syllable he utters. I even tried watching the movie, and thought: who cares......You're allowed your own taste without feeling inadequate for having it.