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Call It Sleep

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  6,735 Ratings  ·  349 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 1994 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1934)
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Gary I believe they did. Joe avoided the father and also fired him after it happened.

Community Reviews

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Paul Bryant
Nov 13, 2007 rated it it was ok
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?
May 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Vit Babenco
Jul 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Call It Sleep is a profound tale about all sorts of child’s fears. Bereft of father’s love David has no choice but to become a mummy’s boy. And he finds himself standing on the threshold of the hostile, inimical and indifferent world.
“Relieved by slight flurries in traffic from his father’s smouldering eye, David stared unhappily at the houses gliding past the doorway. He felt strange – feverish almost. Whether it was that he had been staring down into the cellar too long, or whether because his
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
I'm not sure what to make of 450+ pages told through the eyes of a 6-8 year old child, with a child's thoughts, a child's understanding and a child's limited understanding.
The story is told in 3 styles: the straightforward English style being the parts where people are speaking Yiddish, the phonetic dialect parts to supposedly show how difficult it is for immigrants to understand English and stream-of-consciousness style of David's thoughts (a child's thoughts). The phonetic sections were diffi
William Shoemaker
Apr 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
Jan 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Apr 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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!
Aug 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Aug 29, 2011 rated it did not like it
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.
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
Yair Ben-Zvi
Jul 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Memo to Saul Bellow THIS is how you write an American Jewish novel. Joking aside, and with little in the way of preamble, please allow me to say that this truly is an opus of the rarest kind. Akin to Melville's Moby Dick and Jones' From Here to Eternity, this work is the result of a soul laid bare and detailed with the heaviest, the most austere, but in the end, most telling kind of language. Though some of the dialogue (better parsed as dialect) is hard to read (probably more so for those witho ...more
Oct 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Robert Dunbar
Sep 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Re-reading -- for the nintieth time.
Apr 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Probably the best immigrant novel ever written.
May 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-stars, read-in-2013
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
Nov 24, 2007 rated it it was ok
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
Kate Levin
Aug 09, 2007 rated it really liked it
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.
Jul 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I do not award five stars to any books lightly, but this marvelous evocation of early-20th century New York through the eyes of a young immigrant boy easily earns this rating.

Davy emigrates from Eastern Europe as a child. He comes with his mother to join a father who has been in the United States for some years, saving money for their passage. His mother is strong and stalwart, while his father is bitter and suspicious. In this mix, Davy tries to make sense of life in New York City, shuttling be
May 17, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
OK, I'm going to go for it this time. First of all I started out liking the book but after about 80 pages lost interest. And in fact I stopped reading twice before finally deciding to finish it. While some of the writing is gorgeous, I found much of the book unreadable and often felt like tearing out page after page of the idiomatic dialogue which, I had to read out loud to get any sense of what was going on. And then realizing that knowing what was being said didn't really matter in the end. I ...more
Dec 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: readthisyear
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
Jan 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
revelatory when i read it, not sure now as it was so long ago, but twenty years ago it was one of the greatest novels ever written to me
Dustin Hanvey
Aug 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Takes the personal stories of Modern writers like James Joyce and brings them to an American immigrant's experience, showing how that experience colors the Bildungsroman in distinctly American ways. Some of the text rises to high poetic levels, though I think other writers of the period were better at working with stream of consciousness than Roth. Has some very difficult scenes to read, so be prepared to be disturbed, even shocked.
Milva McDonald
Sep 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not the easiest read, what with the dialects and stream of consciousness sections. Still, it's enormously compelling.
Mar 06, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
It's difficult to get through--Roth oftentimes uses phonetic spellings to showcase dialogue between non-English speakers, this slows down the reading. It's set in pre-WWI. It follows a Jewish, Austrian-born, six-year-old boy, who lives in New York. You follow the boy for the next two years; you see him trying to figure out who he is, in a world where his father doesn't like him and where his mother seems to coddle him. It's not the most thrilling read, but it's engaging to see how Roth conveys t ...more
May 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The weather for the last two days has been spectacular. Not a cloud in the rich blue sky, the temperature sitting at a perfect 72 degrees, with a gentle ten miles an hour breeze. How do I know? I looked it up on No, I did not go out this weekend. I was reading. I even had to make a ‘numbah one,’ as it is described by the young boy in this novel, for the last four hours of it. But I could not. I was reading.

I, for some very odd reason, am stuck in a period in which I never existed.
Feb 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-star, favourites
I absolutely loved this little-known book about the emigrant experience. I read it first as an undergraduate and recently re-read it, it is marvellous. The last paragraph begins with 'He might as well call it sleep' What does it refer to? Is the reader being guided to enter that twilight zone between consciousness and sleep -- that space that can seem to encompass sensations of utmost weariness on the one hand, and on the other, visions of great clarity? I think that the question that Henry Roth ...more
Kathy Kattenburg
Feb 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature, fiction
This is not an easy book to read. Unlike other novels of immigrant life -- like "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," for one -- "Call It Sleep" is less about the immigrant experience itself and more about the internal world of David Schearl, a young boy growing up in Brooklyn and then the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Much of the book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style meant to convey the fragmentary, disjointed way thoughts go through our head. There is also a lot of dialogue written in heavi ...more
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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” 5 likes
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