Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Book Review Club; Nemesis, Philip Roth



(Something of a spoiler alert)

Nemesis by Philip Roth.

Nemesis is the story of a polio epidemic in Newark in 1944 and especially about its impact on a Mr. Canter, who runs a playground program and is about to become engaged.

Roth does an excellent job of showing the effects of polio on this small neighborhood, in relaying the horrible progression of the epidemic, which cruelly was most often contracted by kids.

But at Nemesis' end and despite my interest in this polio epidemic plot, I realized it wasn't really about polio. What it was about was the way in which individuals deal with the onslaught of horror in their lives. How some people can go on fairly effectively, not let things like disease or war or economic disasters corrupt their lives. But others cannot get past their terrible luck, and the idea that this turn of events was unjust. They didn't deserve it so it completely derails them. The bitterness poisons everything.

I have read perhaps half a dozen books by Roth but apparently his last four books have dealt with this theme and I am most interested in seeing how his other characters deal with the fall of the sword. Highly recommended.

For more Book Reviews, see Barry Summie.

ADDENDUM-We went to the Salk Institute in California last year where we learned Salk never took any money for his vaccine. Can you imagine anyone doing that today?

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Patti. This one was on my radar and I was waiting to see some reviews from people I know. Ever since reading Roth's The Plot Against America he's been in my sights.

Jackie's mother told the story many times of how scary those times were with the polio epidemic. (This was about five years later of course.) She said everyone was afraid to go out in parks or public places, so when she took Jackie to the park they had it all to themselves.

They did know people (upstate) who got polio.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Story I may have told. Phil was playing with his cousin and the neighbor's girl one summer. His cousin, after two days in an iron lung, died. The girl was in leg braces forever. Phil untouched. What a strange and horrible plague.

Anonymous said...

It was three kids in the same family, Patti. The boy almost died, then recovered completely. One of his sisters was untouched and the other haas had leg braces ever since.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

When they were first testing the vaccine one of Jackie's friends' brother got polio after getting the placebo in the trials.

Jeff M.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm still a Roth Newbie. I have been wanting to read some of his work but so far I always seem to reach for something else when it's time for a new book

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think is best books is AMERICAN PASTORAL. But given your interests, which are more wide-flung than mine, you might like THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, which is an alternate history and exciting.

George said...

I run hot and cold on Philip Roth. I think you're right about AMERICAN PASTORAL being his best book. His early work seemed deliberately outrageous (PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT and THE BREAST) where is later work is deeper and more reflective.

Jenn Jilks said...

Interesting idea, Patti! I met my birth mother, who has a limp from polio.
Also, fighting a horrible rash these days. It's a challenge to deal with health issues, when you do all the right things to BE healthy. SIGH. Good job!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I did love GOODBYE COLUMBUS though. But not much of the others from that period.

Scott Parker said...

Can't help but wonder if FDR, then in the White House, makes an appearance?

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I have always wanted to read Roth. Which one would you say I start with, Ms. Abbott? Polio, sadly, is still prevalent in India and the government goes ballistic every time they hear of a new case. It's almost eradicated, though.

Linda McLaughlin said...

This sounds very interesting, Patti. I remember how excited everyone was when Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine. I was in elementary school in Pittsburgh at the time, and we were all lined up and given the shots. Happy to get that one, though. I'd seen other kids (and adults) in leg braces. It was very scary.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like AMERICAN PASTORAl the most. For a lighter one, try GOODBYE COLUMBUS.
No, FDR, this is a very localized story--in Newark area.
I remember it too, Linda.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Thanks, Ms. Abbott! Yes, I remember taking the vaccine in third standard (grade). I think it was part of a WHO-sponsored programme; I'm not sure. You often see early victims of polio going about their work without leg braces, as normal as anyone else in the 9 am crowded train. Civic health officials are regularly posted at bus and rail stations with oral vaccines, to be administered to children below five.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

This sounds interesting. Nicely reviewed. :)

Anonymous said...

Scott, FDR and Charles Lindbergh, among other real people, are in THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA.

Jeff M.

Erik Donald France said...

Roth is great!

My Dad had polio, but was pretty lucky as those things go, in that he has a serious limp but can walk and is now 77. A woman I knew also had polio as a kid, and she had to use various contraptions to help her walk.

Deb said...

I was in the first wave of kids who got the vaccine in England. As I recall, it was given to me in a sugar cube, not a shot.

I had a college professor who had two older children from her first marriage (pre-vaccine) and much later two children from a second marriage (post-vaccine) and she always said that every day she thanked God for Jonas Salk because the constant fear of polio that was always there while she raised her oldest children was eliminated by the time her younger ones were born. She felt her younger children had much happier childhoods (health-wise at least).

Barrie said...

I have loved everything I've read by Philip Roth. And I haven't read this. So, thank you for pointing me in this book's direction! Also, I did not know that about Salk.

Anonymous said...

What a beautifully written and perfect description! You have nailed the theme exactly & totally.

For some odd reason, I have only read two of his books and thought both of them great. I devoured "Our Gang" in two hours when my copy arrived in 1974 and then didn't get around to another one until this one. I'll definitely get to the rest of them.

--Brenda

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks so much and may I recommend American Pastoral if you are undecided on which one to try next. It really captures the sixties.

Sarah Laurence said...

That does sound good - great review! I like how you noticed that the substory of dealing with horror was more important than the central story. It sounds like this book has layers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It does--if only at the end when you understand what it is really about.