The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. Almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.
A rich tapestry, Ragtime captures the spirit of America in a unique historic context.
Time magazine included the novel in its Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005.
©1997 E. L. Doctorow; (P)1997 E. L. Doctorow
"Doctorow does a fairly nice job reading his justly celebrated portrait of 1906 America. He has a sandy, pleasant, lightly accented voice and a fine sense of the dramatic." (AudioFile)
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"too good for words"
Too good for my words, anyway! I downloaded this because it was cheap and I was dimly aware that was supposed to be a good novel (but must confess that I am a Can Lit and Brit Lit fan and not so much interested in Americana - so I didn't approach the listen with great expectations.) I think it one of the most fascinating novels I've ever come across! I can't believe I was given a degree in literature and history without being advised to read this imaginative cross pollination somewhere along the way.
Doctorow begins by telling us that he is going to "say" us a novel. So -- he is not a professional narrator with stage voices- but in this case author narration works wonderfully. I felt like I was sitting at his feet listening as he invented the tale. I am going to buy a paper copy, and I know that I will listen to the audio again. Though it was written before folks began to think of how a book would "Play" in audio, it is one of the few novels that I will have enjoyed more in audio than paper format I think.
I am motivated to see Milos Foreman's film version, too, though that seems to represent only a small part of the novel as a whole from what I've read..
"Good book, passable narration"
I like the novel. It is written in a rather newspaper-ish/history book type style and blends in fictional people with historical, most notably Houdini, and still delivers a good story with people you care about revolving around racism in NY. I would say that Doctorow isn't quite the stylist I thought he was, and like many authors reading their own work, not a good narrator. He does have the virtue of reading quickly and moving along so that it never drags. He does not do voices very well at all, to the point there is no differentiation between characters, but again this can be overlooked as the story moves briskly and is filled with historical tidbits that never let my interest flag. Compared to the Pynchon Bleeding Edge narration debacle, this is a masterpiece of voice work. It would be nice to see it redone some day by a better reader, but until then this will work.
"Syncopated, tight, urgent historical novel"
So my first book of 2014 isn't even on my to-read list. Must be good. Yes, in fact it is the killer historical novel of the Ragtime era. It is the big uncle to late 90s Philip Roth ('I Married a Communist', 'American Pastoral') , Don DeLillo ('Libra', 'Underworld'), Gore Vidal ('Empire, Hollywood') & Norman Mailer* (Executioner's Song & Harlot's Ghost) novels which seem to all bend a little to the wind that blew out of this syncopated, tight, urgent historical novel. Doctorow captures a swift and direct channel of New York's energy, contradiction, growth, insecurity, isolation as America transformed between the late 1800s and early 1900s. It captured the race, immigrant, monied, and cultural changes that griped New York as cars were beginning to roll down the streets and planes and Houdini were both beginning to float, briefly, in the air.
* Doctorow actually edited Norman Mailer's 'An American Dream' so it might seem odd to call Doctorow a literary uncle to Mailer since 'Ragitme' was originally published in 1974, but as most large families invariably find some nephews ARE actually older than their biological uncles. But I still hold that 'Ragtime' was influential on Mailer's later historical novels and even nonfiction. OK, so, perhaps Mailer and Doctorow are more like kissing cousins. Fine. I'll call them cousins.
"Fiction or Non-fiction?"
I liked this book much better than I ever thought I would when I started it. At first, I was really confused as to whether it was fiction or non-fiction because of the style E. L. Doctorow uses in his writing. I have never read or listened to anything quite like it. But I soon realized it was a combination of fact and fiction, pulled together in a way that was compelling and interesting from the outset. I found myself looking people up on Wikipedia to see if they were real, and what their real stories were. I learned a lot. Most of the characters with names were real people. Maybe some of the nameless characters were too, but I couldn't check them out. It is a rather dark story, but it does have its light and happy moments, and has a great ending. It is a great commentary on real life.
After a fiasco with a certain author's books (I bought five but I could not stand the first one so I never read the rest of them), I decided not to read more than one book per author unless the one I read was really life-changing, but in the end, I promised myself to try another E. L. Doctorow novel in the future. I would like to hear it read by someone besides the author, though, or just physically read it. Not that E. L. was bad, but it is a rare author who can really read like a professional narrator.
I can highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, especially early 20th century, or anyone who wants a well written, interesting, but definitely different kind of book.
"Why couldn't it all be as good as its best?"
Moments of greatness
Yes. He's a suburb writer and can spin a great story. Parts of Ragtime were so good I couldn't get them out of my mind for days. But seeing his best then makes the less successful chapters seem a little lazy.
The early chapter walking through the horrors of industrial America on the working class was as good as Leaves of Grass -- powerful, lyrical, and fast paced.
"Ragtime Still in Sync"
As I revisit some of the landmark works from my younger days, in literature, film, music, whatever, I discover that some remain as fresh as ever, the very definition of classic, while others do not withstand the test of time -- time may have passed them by, or maybe so much time has passed me by that I am no longer able to see in them what I saw back then.
Ragtime holds its own forty years later. I read the book when it was originally published, found the movie version just OK, and stayed away from the musical version because I stay away from all musicals as much as possible. I had no particular plans to re-read it, but being immersed this past year in the world of audiobooks, I could not resist listening to it because of one reason -- E.L. Doctorow himself is the narrator.
It's just about a truism that one will always get more out of a book when an author reads his own work. But this is a step beyond. Ragtime was hailed, rightly so, for its lyrical writing style, so hearing Doctorow read it in (what I assume) is the way he wrote it, that's a real treat. Surprisingly, after quoting Scott Joplin in his epigraph, saying that ragtime is meant to be played slowly, Doctorow narrates rather quickly, but this is no complaint -- the pace is perfect.
Ragtime music is noted for is syncopated rhythm. Doctorow clearly was inspired to apply that syncopated style to what would normally be called historical fiction, although that term does not do him enough justice. He masterfully interweaves the tales of three fictional families with a stream of true historical characters from the early years of the 20th century, taking on issues of social, racial, and economic justice that still resonate today, and the rhythm is perfectly timed.
Many works of historical fiction are described using a visual metaphor -- as tapestries. Ragtime is all of that, but it also appeals your another sense, with the musical metaphor of the title.
"Hot times in the nineteen-o’s"
This is one of those books I had to read for class in high school, but which was somewhat wasted on me at the time. I didn’t know enough about history and adult psychology to really appreciate Doctorow’s portrait of the roiling, chaotic, ever unsatisfied nature of turn-of-the-20th century America, with its class struggles, expanding immigrant population, media celebrities and their sordid scandals, racism, squalor, and energetic search for something better.
This is a novel where the author’s technique shines as much as his story or characters. Assuming an omniscient, godlike point of view that seems to pay homage to John Dos Passo’s America Trilogy, Doctorow swoops above the day, taking in the events of the newspaper headlines, then zooming down into dining rooms, meeting halls, and bedrooms, for a closer look into his characters lives, then diving into their thoughts and emotions, before flying away again. This approach creates a sense of urgency and burgeoning unrest, not surprising in a novel written soon after the late 1960s.
The story blends history with the lives of a fictional middle-class white family in a New York City suburb, who are named only as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and The Boy. The bourgeois Father owns a business that sells patriotic supplies, and joins Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, which seems to mark an apex of Father’s life. Younger Brother is a troubled young man who obsesses over an equally troubled young starlet, the real Evelyn Nesbit, and loses himself in designing fireworks, then in radicalism. When Mother takes in a young, unwed black women and her infant, the family becomes involved with a successful, cultured black pianist named Coalhouse Walker, who refuses to back down from his demands for redress after his car is vandalized by a racist fire chief. Things escalate, and the Family finds itself connected to a righteous terrorist, who acts out a fantasy that many blacks at the time probably had.
This central plot, though absorbing, is only an eye of the storm for the rest of the book. Doctorow spends as much time with other figures, fictional or historical, whose energies intersect and rise into the same sublime madness. An immigrant Jew living in the slums of New Yorks, who struggles after a better life for his daughter and is pulled towards a new industry. Anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman, who gives a scathing critique of capitalist society and its moral hypocrisies. Plutocrat J.P. Morgan, who searches for higher purpose, now that he’s achieved the pinnacle of success and found it wanting, and fellow capitalist Henry Ford, who gives a folksy comeuppance. Escapist artist Harry Houdini, who pushes back against his own inner emptiness with ever more dangerous and unreal stunts.
This is a brilliant book, swirling with color and energy, but also wit and insight into the psyche of America at a significant moment. There’s a strong whiff of counterculture and the kind of creative, what-if reimagining of hidden moments of history that I enjoyed in Doctorow’s Civil War novel The March. Readers who dislike the cinematic, somewhat fanciful staging of such scenes, or prefer a more conventional, grounded plot might not enjoy this book, but I’d recommend Ragtime to anyone who wants to better understand the US, or this time period in particular.
Doctorow, who obviously isn’t a trained voice actor, narrates his own audiobook. The recording isn’t of great quality, being a little muffled in places and making him sound like he has a cold. Still, I appreciated knowing that all the verbal emphasis in the reading was just as the author intended.
"Ragtime and Doctorow are compelling"
I already love the musical so I had wanted to read the book for a while. As usual the book is even better. The perfect combination of history and fiction. I did not want to
I also just listened to Caleb's Crossing on Audible. Another good mix of fact and fiction.
Doctorow's reading is excellent. Fast-paced when the story needed, more tender when needed. Not all authors make good readers, but Doctorow was perfect.
Mother. She was a modern woman at the turn of the century, realizing her life did not have to depend on a man. And that her compassion for Sarah, Coalhouse, and the baby were what drove her decisions.
Some of the audio books I have purchased on Audible seem to have a very muffled audio quality, including Ragtime.
This was a required reading book for one of my college courses and it was one the first times I'd actually really enjoyed a required book! It's a wonderfully told story that has many adult elements, but the writing style makes it a light and easy read. The only complaint I have is the narrator (who's the author of the book). He does an okay job but I really wish there was more emotion. His voice was so calm and peaceful that I almost wanted to fall asleep!
Great story wonderfully read
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