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By Blood

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  2,592 ratings  ·  441 reviews
The award-winning writer returns with a major, absorbing, atmospheric novel that takes on the most dramatic and profoundly personal subject matter.

San Francisco in the 1970s. Free love has given way to radical feminism, psychedelic ecstasy to hard-edged gloom. The Zodiac Killer stalks the streets. A disgraced professor takes an office in a downtown tower to plot his return
Paperback, 378 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published February 24th 2012)
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Average rating 3.58  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,592 ratings  ·  441 reviews

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Please don't judge your reception of this book by my rating. It is a product of the dashing of too many expectations, trends of hope that either concluded too soon or fizzled out after too long a run, and a particular pet peeve. Despite all that, I am keen on seeing more from Ullman, as it is clear from this work that she is not a mediocre writer fulfilling the mediocre, but an author of great potential operating through some caveats.

First off, my loves: the care with which Ullman set up th
Greg Brown
Feb 21, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: idle-thumbs
very, very frustrated with the book as a whole. It felt like a good 150-page novella wrapped in a boring therapist plot wrapped in a bad narrator plot, all working to drag the book out as long as she could. The numerous chapter-breaks didn't help things at all, making it very easy to walk away from the book, and padding out the page-length further.

A large part of the frustration is that it felt like Ullman decided how the plot had to be punched up at certain points, and use the most transparent
Feb 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2015
This book is so very well-written, such compulsive reading, that at times I found it hard to put down. But it isn't a book that I can say that I enjoyed.
We, The reader, have the story related to us by an unnamed man, who himself overhears the sessions between a therapist and her patient.
So immediately I felt a little, well, dirty, as if I was reading something that I wasn't supposed to be, because it should be private.
As the story progressed it did become very interesting. The whole nature versu
switterbug (Betsey)
Dec 14, 2011 rated it liked it
In 1970's San Francisco, a troubled Classics professor is on mandatory leave from his university position. He rents office space in a building that has period architecture accented by gargoyles and cherubs that appear more sepulchral as the professor's state of mind becomes more questionable. Although he intends to study the scholarly writings of Aeschylus, he spends his days and nights alone, ruminating on his self-worth and taking long walks through the city, recalling his long-ago suicide att ...more
Mar 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The premise is simple and surprisingly not considered in more fiction: A man rents a work space in an old building and ends up next door to a psychiatrist. While most of her clients are muted by the doctor’s white noise machine, one patient cannot stand the whooshing unorganized sound and asks that she turn it off.

The man listening in -- and the patient -- in Ellen Ullman’s novel “By Blood” is nameless. But he latches on to the woman’s story as though the sessions are his own personal reality p
Larry H
May 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a fantastically written, weighty book, different than almost anything I've ever read. Taking place in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, the country is gripped by Vietnam, the energy crisis, fear of nuclear war, and the panic generated by the Zodiac killer. The book's unnamed narrator is a disgraced college professor suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, who is trying to pull his life back together as he is being investigated for an inappropriate relationship with a student. Determi ...more
Jan 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Narrative as poison working in the veins, seductive and benumbing. Reader as addict, greedy and self-interested. History as spectre, prismatic and unsettling. Memory as pathology, compulsive and circular. Family as Stockholm syndrome, insulated and perverse. Therapy as midwifery, hasty and imperilled.

Nabakov and De Palma had a baby.

Martin McClellan
Feb 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Martin by: Robin Sloan
Stepping into the language of this book is like entering a warm familiar room. Ullman astutely captures the voice of her narrator from the very first page. For me, the effect was not unlike reading London or Conrad, by a voice unmarked by overt modernism. And yet, it's not antique or unaware of its time. Her control and astute deliberation with language, her comfort in the telling voice, her overall conceptual daring with this story speaks only to her mastery of her craft and art. Simply said, I ...more
Marty Selnick
Mar 29, 2012 rated it it was ok
This book got a lot of good reviews but I'm afraid I just didn't like it at all. I found the narrative device to be way too contrived. I found the narrator to be so creepy as to be repulsive to me. Each of the main characters was filled with so much self-loathing that I could not muster up any degree of concern for them. But, I did read the whole thing, so something about it was compelling. It's just that when I finished I was left feeling like I had wasted my time.
John Pappas
Jun 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Maybe it is the setting of this book (San Francisco in the mid-1970s) or maybe it is the novels's exquisite use of aural imagery that reminds me of the film "The Conversation". Like the film, this book expertly dangles bits of a woman's life to the reader, as the narrator eavesdrops through the all-too-thin adjoining door between his office and a psychiatrists office. The narrator (a mentally-ill college professor on leave during an ethics investigation into his behavior) becomes increasing engr ...more
Darcia Helle
I have mixed feelings on this book. If I eliminate the narrator, the story of the nameless patient in search of her birth parents and her origins is a powerful one. The journey is rich in information on Europe during the Second World War, the Nazis and the Jewish people's battle to survive, and what it would feel like to find out you'd been born in this environment.

That being said, that part of the story was far too removed for me. We learn all this through the eavesdropping of the narrator, a
Bonnie Brody
Aug 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
During the year of 1974, a strange and mysterious professor travels to San Francisco and rents a small office in order to continue his research on the third part of Aeschylus's trilogy. He has run into some trouble at his academic job (never made very clear) and is most likely on academic leave or has the possibility of losing tenure lying over his head. Ironically, his small rented office gives him just the fuel to fire off his academic flames.

He doesn't realize it at first, but he can hear the
Oct 02, 2013 rated it it was ok
Man is suspended from a university for some nameless reason. Man rents an office in a building in San Francisco. Man overhears a therapist's session with a patient. Man becomes obsessed with patient and her story, even though he never sees her or the therapist.
This book does one thing well, and that is building mystery. The patient is adopted, and we learn a little bit about her birth mother, and then a little bit more. Then a little bit more. Then the Man begins to act on the information. One
Dec 12, 2012 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: No one
I could not put this very unusual book down and then was terribly disappointed by the end. The author presented three characters, each with a boatload of mystery, but left two of them as mystifying as ever. We learn a lot about the patient, a Holocaust survivor who initially starts therapy to deal with the fact that she was adopted and felt as if she belonged to no one. The narrator is a college professor on leave for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. He rents an office next door to the therapis ...more
Katie/Doing Dewey
Mar 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Summary: This was a beautiful, thoughtful book, but also kind of strange.

During a dark period in his life, a disgraced professor flees to San Francisco and rents a small office in which to work. He finds himself located next to a therapist working with a woman who is trying to track down her birth mother. The professor becomes so obsessed with her quest that he decides to assist her when the trail goes cold. "Through the wall, he hears how his dear patient is energized by the news, and so is he.
Aug 06, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars

This is such a well done and carefully constructed book. I’m dying to know what happens next, but I can understand that that wasn’t the focus of the story. The story is about the patient and not the narrator, but one can’t help wondering his fate.

I would recommend this book for people with very specific tastes. I don’t think I’d have read the book if I knew the entire story like I know it now, but I’m not disappointed I did, not do I feel like it was a waste of time to read. It’s so wel
Apr 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
It is the 1970's and a disgraced professor has come to San Francisco, awaiting the judgement of his college. A tenured professor, there is an allegation of improper student contact, and now he must wait for the wheels of collegial justice to grind out his fate. Knowing that it will take months, he has fled to another city where he is to work on research and papers. It is an unsettled time in San Francisco. The peace and love generation has given way to terrorists similar to those who kidnapped P ...more
This is a wonderful novel - great story, a fascinating aesthetic challenge, and a provocative dip into real history.

Set in the late 1970s, The story is about a disgraced academic who, while on hiatus from his university, takes an office in San Francisco to work on a research project. While there, he discovers that he can hear the therapy sessions being conducted by the analyst next door. He becomes fascinated and obsessed with the sessions for a young woman who is excavating her past. The protag
Feb 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
what a twisty, gnarly tale. if you're going to read it, start it on a friday and don't make any weekend plans. your life will be on hold til you're done with it.

we have two unnamed protagonists (one i shall call "the snoop", the other is generally referred to as "the patient") and one psychiatrist in the mix here, as well as some dark history, some of which is illuminated and some left in the shadows. all three, in different ways, have significant issues with their parental units.

so the question
Mar 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
By Blood by Ellen Ullman

A fascinating human study on so many levels. The narrator, a disgraced professor, flees to San Francisco, trying to put some form back into his life. We only receive dribs and drabs of reasons for his disgrace throughout the novel, but it is of a stalking nature. He rents an office space in a rather run down section of town, that turns out to be next-door to a psychotherapist's office. With paper thin walls our narrator is able to hear every word that is said in the adjoi
Tadzio Koelb
May 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
From my review for the Jewish Quarterly:

"One thing that makes By Blood so engaging is how often the narrator’s relationship to the story reflects and exposes the reading experience: he, too, is having an encounter reduced to words and the ideas they provoke in the imagination. There is something arresting about the way he reminds us, half-way through the novel, that he has no idea what the main characters look like – for if he hasn’t, then of course neither can we, who are at his mercy. Whatever
Mar 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
There's no way my review can compare to Derek Jenkins's.

But I will say that, even though 2013 is yet young, it's hard for me to imagine I'll read many other books this year to top By Blood.

I defy anyone to read the first chapter and not fall utterly under its spell.

Ullman gives us a study in the relation between obliquity and suspense: the novel is driven by a psychoanalytic treatment that the narrator overhears; the patient in that session is eavesdropping on her own past, as it were, and we fo
Feb 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Ellen Ullman's "By Blood" is a slow starter, and I must confess that I almost abandoned the book. However, once it got going, the book had me enthralled.

The first-person narrator, an unnamed male professor, is under investigation at his university during the early 1970s. He rents an office in which to do some writing, on the premise that he will function better by leaving his home for a certain number of hours each day. The office turns out to be next door to a psychiatrist's practice. The walls
Apr 22, 2013 rated it liked it
A fascinating and unusual novel which plays out with only three central characters, a psychiatrist, her patient, and an unhinged ex-professor listening in on their sessions, each of which are at some critical point of struggle with their own past and identity. The backdrop of mid 70's San Francisco is a nice move, and though only sparsely drawn in a few key scenes, it infuses the novel with the paranoia and darkness of that time and place. I found it to be quite a cold novel though, crammed with ...more
Feb 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I couldn't put this book down. I mean, I have been making waffles and trying to keep reading to get to the end without getting burnt. I can't say whether I liked it, because I admire it so much as a work of art and yet I don't know how to feel about the content. The unreliable narrator is perfect--I can't decide whether he was a maniacal stalker or a kind person. The author exploits his distorted POV so beautifully. I loved the protagonist. I can't decide how I feel about how the author brought ...more
Jul 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
I have wanted to read this since it came out two years ago. It got picked from my list of suggestions by one of my reading groups and most of us liked the intricate plot, though a couple readers found too many improbabilities and one took issue with some of the Holocaust facts.

The setting is San Francisco in the 1970s. The subject matter is closed adoption, identity due to family influence vs lack of identity due to being adopted. Psychiatry, lesbian relationships, the Holocaust and Israel, and
Jul 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
I'd maybe even rate this with another half or whole star. Compelling plot points,: sicko voyeruristic expelled college professor trying to rid himself of his demons not only spies on a patient in her therapy sessions with her psychiatrist but becomes so obsessed with the patient's life that he does what he thinks will help her in finding her birth mother. Good read!
Aug 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Amazing! The frames within frames of one unreliable narrator after another. She is two out of two for novels!
Apr 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Then all at once I was frightened. How quickly I could come to hate her—she who was moments ago my icon of self-creation. I must be careful, I thought. I have traveled this path before. I must not go there. I therefore forced down my anger; sat still as my annoyance ebbed. It took all my self-control, but I succeeded, congratulating myself that I had changed, that I could be otherwise than I’d been. I turned my ear to the lovely pitch of the patient’s voice, her beautiful whiskey alto, and once ...more
Eleanor O'Keeffe
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The opening of the book is superb. Let's walk through WHY it's so superb.

"I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name."

Reason #1:
It's fascinating, isn't it? How on earth did a person whose name he ever knew have such an effect on him? And what on earth is wrong with him? Why was he so tempted to cause her harm (or is it that he views himself as so twisted t
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Ellen Ullman is the author of By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.
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“But you can't stop knowing something, can you?” 5 likes
“But now what? Is this a ticket to a new understanding of my life, or a bomb that's going to blow up everything?

Consider one more possibility: that you remain essentially the same person you were, neither new nor destroyed.”
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