Call it Sleep
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Call it Sleep

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  4,580 ratings  ·  247 reviews
When Henry Roth published Call It Sleep, his first novel, in 1934, it was greeted with critical acclaim. But in that dark Depression year, books were hard to sell, and the novel quickly dropped out of sight, as did its twenty-eight-year-old author. Only with its paperback publication in 1964 did the novel receive the recognition it deserves. Call It Sleep was the first pap...more
Paperback, 462 pages
Published January 1st 1992 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1934)
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The Chosen by Chaim PotokThe Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael ChabonMy Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim PotokSophie's Choice by William Styron
Jews in Literature
13th out of 396 books — 221 voters
The Hobbit by J.R.R. TolkienGone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellBrave New World by Aldous HuxleyThe Grapes of Wrath by John SteinbeckOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Best Books of the Decade: 1930s
81st out of 353 books — 512 voters

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Community Reviews

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Nov 23, 2012 Paul rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: novels
If I read this in 1934 I would have thrown my socialist cap into the air and declared it to be genius. But not now, friends, not now. James Joyce's name crops up in reviews of this book all the time, but the similarities are superficial. Stream of consciousness, yep, that's about it. Don't misunderestimate me through, Henry Roth is a very remarkable writer. But reading him gave me the same feelings the coffee shop manager has towards Phoebe's singing in Friends -

"Don't you like Phoebe's singing?...more
Aug 05, 2011 Jen rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those who liked Angela's Ashes, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, stream-of-consciousness
Recommended to Jen by: Dave Russell
I fell in love with the boy in this book. Proust, pay attention. A serious child who loves his mama doesn't have to whine. And this kid faced much more adversity than having to go to bed during dinner parties.

Back when NKOTB still signed posters for squealing girls, I lived for sleeping over at a friend's house. Most of my friends attended the same church I did, but didn't live for church. They were allowed to breathe and have two piece bathing suits. I was not. My parents lived like a light...more
Apr 11, 2007 will rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
All the beauty of Joyce with none of his pretension, accessible and poetic, spiritual and religious. By far my most intense reading experience.
Mar 02, 2009 Karen rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Karen by: Steve Stern
This book is incredible - I've never read anything like it. I was expecting an immigrant experience story, a sort of "American Tail" rife with descriptions of seders and gefilte fish the way Mama used to make and so forth. This is NOT that. This book is completely original, intensely personal, and very disturbing. Disturbing not because of a specific event (e.g., rape, abuse, etc. - though those things, or at least close relatives of those things, do happen), but because, for the 400 or so pages...more
After 20 years of attempting to break open this novel (Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, I have finally finished it, thanks to a challenge. Once I finally was able to deal with the long sections written in dialect form (something I find very difficult to read), deal with the interspersed writings in Yiddish as well as other languages (also written in a dialect-a double whammy), I discovered an amazing novel.

A breathtaking, horrifying, gorgeous novel: poem, journalism, stream of conscious, realist, ps...more
Nov 11, 2007 Alex rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anybody
An elegant, pre-adolescent Bildungsroman of sorts, a sort of urban-poetic mural of artistic perception and familial love. While reading Call It Sleep, I had the feeling of being in the presence of the most unassuming literary genius I'd never heard much about. Though the linguistic characteristics are fairly interesting, it's the wholly authentic rendering of David's inner struggles and the portrayal of mother-son love that make the book great.

Thanks, Will!
To read Call It Sleep, one wouldn't automatically assume that it was published in 1934. There's a timelessness to the story, and the writing smells modern and familiar; I would have sworn it was published in the 70s or 80s and was just going to be a nice work of historical fiction. I'm think it is interesting to note that it was published during the Great Depression in America, and I wonder if that accounts for the lack of sales during its time. Perhaps readers weren't ready for it, perhaps it w...more
This sounds terribly vulgar, but I just couldn't get over Roth's ham-fisted attempts to transliterate New York street-kid English to the written page. My mental reading voice makes each sentence sound like Feivel from An American Tail.

There were some utterly lovable scenes, and some memorable characters. I'd kick it with Aunt Bertha any day of the week. But the bulk of the story was simply pleasant, honest, and unexceptional.

And then the ending, holy crap. Suddenly, Roth takes flight on this biz...more
The cover says, "One of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American." (What does that even mean.) Pero lo siento, I think that Faulkner > Henry Roth.

Call It Sleep is a lot of gorgeous writing in an incredibly drawn-out narrative with no sense of pacing. Jarringly throughout there's the frequent enthusiastic insertion of choppy streams of consciousness, which are inspired by James Joyce, which makes me not want to read James Joyce.

Some people wonder why this novel...more
With remarkable control over language and an intuitive instinct for rhythm and sound, Roth presents life through the eyes of a young Jewish immigrant. When David, the boy, is with his mother in the sanctuary of their home, the language is melodic and harmonious. When outside, interacting with others, the language becomes more chaotic, stressful, and ultimately jarring. Using voice, Roth presents all sides of a character. You know, and understand them through the eyes of David, but when another c...more
In Call It Sleep, David Schearl, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, straddles between his Yiddish background and the American culture. The dialogues in the novel—Yiddish written in prose and English in dialect—highlight the clash and synthesis of the two worlds. It is the essential immigrant experience, to straddle between two cultures, to struggle with identity, and ultimately to reconcile and integrate the two into a new creation.

Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been a microcosm of...more
Kate Levin
People like this book for all kinds of reasons. Most important to me has always been that Roth is really good at rendering what it's like to be a scared kid, especially how painful it is to become aware of things one was happier not knowing.
Jan 12, 2009 Ryan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2009
This book produces a great modernist
style, characterization, lyricality, and
expression of cultures
coming into contact with each other
with stream of conciousness
there's no reason this book shouldn't be counted
with Ulysses, Invisible Man, The Sound and the Fury
and maybe one day it will be
but if you want to be ahead of the curve
and get to know a hidden classic
you can read this book

"He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into t...more
A very simple story about an immigrant boy growing up in
New York's Jewish ghettoes in the early 20th century. The
book captures the fear of being an outcast child better
than anything else I've ever read; indeed, it gets inside
of one character's head better than most any writer.
Spectacular characterization; worth owning for that reason
This book has become my stock answer to the question "What is your favorite book?" It's very beautiful; the prose is dense, dark, internal, and terribly modernist. And extremely affecting.
Zöe Yu
It's a little bit hard to understand with all those romanization transcripts. ... from Yiddish.

there are a lot of immigrants novels, talking about their immigrants' lives, isolated, miserable, but there is no way back. However, I haven't found an immigrant novel very outstanding. Still keep looking. Maybe immigrant novel involves a close up zoom in with one's own culture, which is not yet melted by the melting pot. It's shattered, shaking and about to collapsing.

Characters in this kind of nove...more
Anybody who has ever wanted to write should read this. I mean no hyperbole by saying so. This is one of the few novels I've ever seen to use dialect and get it right. In most hands it's distracting, or patronizing to the outsiders it is usually attributed to. In Call It Sleep the broken Yiddish-English and street lingo complete the reader's immersion in young David Schearl's world.

As a recent immigrant, David's journey from innocence to experience is a vivid one. A sensitive child, he is bullied
Call it mind-numbing and uncomfortable to read. David is a frightened, bewildered nearly eight year old child of Jewish immigrants. He lives in the noisy, often brutal East Side of New York in the early 1900s. He is physically and emotionally abused by his father, peers, step cousins and even his rabbi. His relationship with his mother provides the only safe haven and even that bond borders on the Oedipal. Long passages of Yiddish, Hebrew and local dialect are hard to decipher at times. David's...more
I decided to read this book when I found it on several lists of modern classics, and I'd never heard of it before. Call It Sleep seemed to me to have three different styles of narration: first, the direct description of the boy David's experience in his home, written in plain, excellent prose that captures the depths of his love for his mother and his fear of his father. Second is the immigrant child's life on the streets, written in phonetically rendered dialect that made me want to bang my h...more
Mar 10, 2012 Adam rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: usa
It's 1907. David and his mother arrive in NYC from Austria, and receive an unfriendly welcome from his father. The story reveals, largely through David's eyes, the difficulties that a Yiddish speaking boy has settling into New York life. Gradually, the reader learns the reason for his father's anger and lack of love for David. Reading this beautiful book is made difficult and challenging by the author's amazing attempt to transcribe the way that immigrants mispronounced the English language. He...more
I enjoyed this child's-eye-view of the slums of what is now known as Alphabet City. David and his family are Jewish immigrants from Austria. I especially liked how Roth captured all the accents and languages of the immigrants in his dialogue. Sometimes the mix of Yiddish and heavily accented English makes it a challenge to read, but it was a challenge I enjoyed. I never realized that the Three Stooges spoke 1930's New York slum English until I read this book (girls=goils, etc.)! I think the chil...more
I wanted to "Love" this book, but I did not.
I think I romanticized it before reading the first word because it was written of the time that my Jewish Grandparents immigrated to New York from.Europe.
This is the story of David Schearl, a brilliant and imaginative young boy, who is also phobic and terrified of the world and people around him.
The only thing that brings him comfort and peace is his relationship with his mother. His father is cruel and rejecting of him and keeps getting into conflicts...more
Finally done with this horrendous book! It was so long, and practically nothing happened in it. The main character is a whiny, snivelling, cowardly little boy who goes around living in fear. The awful dialogue throughout the book is both excessive and confusing, and David's stream-of-consciousness internal monologues are extremely irritating. It's over 400 pages of insufferable pain, and at the end, nothing really happens. Nothing is resolved. One of the worst books I've ever read.
I first read this 1934 novel, considered to be a classic of Jewish
literature,about 20 years ago. My recollection of this book, as it turned out, was fairly incomplete. I thought it was simply a story of the Jewish immigrant experience in early
20th century New York City.
But this novel is so much more. In fact, I would consider it to be a
tremendously evocative depiction of the childhood experience.

The novel centers on young David, who first comes to the United States at age 2 with his mother and t...more
Erik Simon
I've mentioned before how much I thoroughly enjoy the immigrant, urban lit of the twenties, thirties and forties, and this book was one of the finest. Not until I read Daniel Fuchs' Brooklyn novels from the thirties did I think CALL IT SLEEP even had a rival. This is a great story of New York life for an isolated Jewish immigrant boy, and the final paragraph is sublime.
Though my overall enjoyment of this book was closer to 3 stars, it needs to be said that in terms of technique, artistry, achievement – whatever you want to call it – this is a five-star book. For me, what Roth nails most completely is how absolutely bizarre and terrifying it is to be a young child. A great view of early 20th-century Yiddish New York, as well.
Great story, though the parts written in dialect can be challenging, did find it helped to read them aloud. David our young hero, arrives with his mother from austria, Roth focuses on his relationship with his mother and father. We don't get to see him become an adult, or even a teenager. Would be interested if there was a sequel, though without the dialect please.
I read this for a Jewish Literature class in college. I found it well nigh impenetrable. The book was dark, dirty and gritty. Lots of psychology and mythology imbedded, but don't expect it to lend much to understanding.
Gorgeous prose, and an amazing portrait of a young immigrant boy's interior life; Roth does a great job of evoking spaces and sounds. In the end, however, it's a work I admired more than a work I liked.
Katie Grainger
Wow this book was tedious! It was incredibly long and to be honest nothing much happened really. The story follows David who is newly arrived in New York from Europe, he has a loving relationship with his Mother but his Father is another matter. David is troubled by his Father and this is not made better when one day he witnesses his Father beat a man nearly to death.

I am afraid this book felt way to long for what actually happened, further to this the endless pages of speech between David and...more
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The BURIED Book Club: Call It Sleep 7 32 Mar 24, 2013 02:25PM  
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“His mother called them his gems and often asked him why he liked things that were worn and old. It would have been hard to tell her. But there was something about the way in which the link of a chain was worn or the thread on a bolt or a castor-wheel that gave him a vague feeling of pain when he ran his fingers over them. They were like worn shoe-soles or very thin dimes. You never saw them wear, you only knew they were worn, obscurely aching” 0 likes
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