Dissident Gardens: A Novel [NOOK Book]

Overview

A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women: Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her ...
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Dissident Gardens: A Novel

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Overview

A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women: Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist who savages neighbors, family, and political comrades with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her precocious and willful daughter, Miriam, equally passionate in her activism, flees Rose’s influence to embrace the dawning counterculture of Greenwich Village.
     These women cast spells over the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her cousin, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. Flawed and idealistic, Lethem’s characters struggle to inhabit the utopian dream in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.
     As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment—we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.
     Lethem’s characters may pursue their fates within History with a capital H, but his novel is—at its mesmerizing, beating heart—about love.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Over three generations and ever-changing historical tides, the dissident gardens of the title grow in unpredictable ways in Sunnyside, Queens. Presiding over the dissidence is Rose Zimmer, a ferocious, unrepentant American Communist Party member who terrorizes her neighbors with her citizen patrols, angry outbursts, and petitions. Her independent-minded daughter Miriam takes a different route, becoming deeply involved with the lifestyle and political revolutions of bohemian Greenwich Village. Hovering near these female powerhouses are several men, including husbands, lovers, sons, and chess hustlers. Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn; Fortress of Solitude) has produced another ensemble novel of sharp character portrayal and subtle social commentary.

Kirkus Reviews
A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations and the boroughs of New York. Having scaled the literary peaks of Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and the Chronic City (2009) of Manhattan, one of America's premier novelists sets his sights on Queens, though the title of the opening section, "Boroughphobia," suggests that this is a place to escape--or at least for a daughter to escape from her mother. The mother is Jewish, strong-willed, contrarian Rose Zimmer, a Communist booted from the cell because of her relationship with a black policeman. ("Everyone thought it was an affair between Jew and black but it wasn't. It was between cop and Commie.") Her husband had returned to Germany as a suspected spy, leaving Rose to raise Miriam, a red-diaper baby transformed by the '60s, a "Bolshevik of the five senses" who became irresistibly sexy, "not for her bodily self but for her appetite: she devoured the ripe fruit of the world." The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth, yet the book, like the end of the 20th century, takes a darker turn, as hippie naïveté leads to more dangerous activism, illusions shatter, and old age takes its toll. Following "the unashamed homosexual bacchanal that had become possible in the historical margin between Stonewall and disease," funerals would supplant parties as social gatherings. The novel's social realism finds '60s folk fixtures such as Dave Van Ronk and the Rev. Gary Davis mixing with Miriam and her eventual husband, Tommy Grogan, a musician who moves from a traditional Irish family trio to protest songs, a career eclipsed (like so many others) by the rise of Bob Dylan. But it also features Archie Bunker (if only in Rose's mind) and a devastating record review by P.K. Tooth (from Chronic City, in tribute here to the late Paul Nelson). In "a city gone berserk," pretty much every character struggles with identity, destiny and family. Not Lethem's tightest novel, but a depth of conviction underlies its narrative sprawl.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385534949
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/10/2013
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 34,763
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Jonathan  Lethem
JONATHAN LETHEM is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, and of the nonfiction collection The Ecstasy of Influence, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among other publications.

Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, Chronic City, You Don’t Love Me Yet, The Disappointment Artist, Men and Cartoons, The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, Girl in Landscape, and As She Climbed Across the Table are available in Vintage paperback.


From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

The son of artists and activists, Jonathan Lethem has always been surrounded by art and archetypes. His father, avant-garde painter Richard Brown Lethem, ensured that the household was always bustling with fellow artists, live nude models, and a creative spirit. Despite the nurturing, artistic setting, Lethem's teen years were demanding -- his mother died of cancer when he was 14, and the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood forced him to toughen up at a young age.

Lethem's Brooklyn is rich with history and stories. Much of the world knows Brooklyn through the movies and television -- as an urban maze just outside the glitter of Manhattan. But Lethem's novels deliver a more emotional and brutal reality of the streets he called home (and still does). The Brooklyn culture of his childhood became the sidewalk on which he built his critically acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lethem attended the High School for Music and Art in NYC, where he studied painting but began to hone his love of literature. An insatiable reader, he read the classic and the contemporary, including Kerouac, Mailer, Vonnegut, Chandler, Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Kafka. While still in high school, he finished a 125-page novel called Heroes. It was never published but is rumored to be the earliest form of what became The Fortress of Solitude.

After high school, Lethem attended Bennington College in Vermont but dropped out after the first semester to work on his writing. He returned to Bennington briefly, but eventually made the move to California, hitchhiking his way across the country to arrive in Berkeley in 1984. This experience, and the years he spent in San Francisco, provided the inspiration for his first three novels, Amnesia Moon(1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), and Girl in Landscape (1998).

In late 1996, Lethem moved back to Brooklyn and began writing the book that would put him on the lips of every publisher and reader in the country. When Motherless Brooklyn was released in 1999, readers fell in love with its fascinating lead characters, relentless plot, and detailed setting. It was an instant success and won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Lethem's long-awaited next novel, The Fortress of Solitude, hit the shelves four years later, in 2003. He conducted a lot of research for the book, gaining yet another perspective on his beloved hometown. The novel is again set in Brooklyn, on Dean Street, where Lethem grew up. Over three decades, the two lead characters -- Dylan and Mingus -- experience the world through the prisms of race relations, music, and pop culture in a disturbing and compelling story of loyalty and loss, vulnerability and superhero powers.

Outside of novels, Lethem has published short fiction and lent his editing talents to a number of projects. Odd and shocking, This Shape We're In (an extended short story) is about an unforgettable trip to the hospital. The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye is a collection of seven short stories about everything from clones to professional basketball. Lethem and coauthor Carter Scholz have fun with the master of the bizarre in Kafka Americana: Fiction, a book of short stories with Kafka as the main character navigating absurd situations. Lethem edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, short stories about the art of forgetting by such authors as Philip K. Dick, Martin Amis, and Shirley Jackson. He was guest editor of The Year's Best Music Writing 2002, essays by writers on music.

Good To Know

Lethem's original artistic impulse was to be a painter. While he remains a talented graphic artist, he first acknowledged his deep desire to write while at Bennington, where fellow classmates included Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt.

Before he was a published writer, Lethem's only other jobs were in bookstores. His first bookstore job was at age 13, and he supported himself this way up to 1994 when his first novel was published. In San Francisco, he worked at the well-known Moe's Books, home of rare and antique tomes.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jonathan Allan Lethem (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Left Bennington College after two years

Read an Excerpt

Two Trials

Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party
. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.

Sol Eaglin, Important Communist, had rung her telephone. A “committee” wished to see her; no, they’d be happy, delighted, to come to her home, this evening, after their own conference just across the Gardens— was ten too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Sol knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn’t stay long.

How did it happen? Easy. Routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now, after so long, Rose’s turn. She’d cracked the kitchen window to hear their approach. Brewed some coffee. Sounds of the Gardens fi ltered in, smokers, lovers, teenagers sulking in the communal lanes. Though winter’s dark had clamped itself over the neighborhood hours ago, this early November night was uncannily balmy and inviting, last pulse of the earth’s recollection of summer. Other kitchen windows were spilled to the lanes, voices mingled: Rose’s plentiful enemies, fewer friends, others, so many others, simply tolerated. Yet comrades all. According Rose their respect even through their dislike. Respect to be robbed from her by the committee now entering her kitchen.

There were fi ve, including Eaglin. They’d overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment. In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship. And the taking of dictation. Still, Rose sought to be forgiving. These men were too young, apart from Eaglin, to have survived like she had the intellectual somersaults of the thirties, the onset of European Fascism and of the Popular Front; they’d been children during the war. They were drones, men costumed in independent thought who’d become slaves of party groupspeak. None mattered in this room except the sole independent or thoughtful among them, a true and famous organizer, after all, a man of the factory fl oors, Sol Eaglin. And Rose Zimmer’s former lover. Eaglin in his bow tie, hairline now gone behind his
high cranium’s arc like the winter’s sun setting. Eaglin the only among them man enough not to meet her eye, the only to grasp anything of the shame of it.

Here was Communist habit, Communist ritual: the living- room trial, the respectable lynch mob that availed themselves of your hospitality while dropping some grenade of party policy on your commitment, lifting a butter knife to slather a piece of toast and using it in passing to sever you from that to which you’d given your life. Yet that it was Communist habit and ritual didn’t mean these boys were good at it, or comfortable: Rose was the veteran. She’d suffered one such trial eight years ago. They sweated; she felt only exhaustion at their
hemming and throat- clearing.

The oil painting made small talk. One leaned over and noodled with Rose’s Abraham Lincoln shrine, the small three- legged table bearing her original six- volume Carl Sandburg, a photograph of herself and her daughter at the memorial’s statue in D.C., propped in a little frame, and a commemorative fake cent- piece the circumference of a slice of liverwurst. The young man was fair, like Rose’s fi rst husband— her only husband, yet Rose’s brain persistently offered this slippage, as though some next life lay before her, waiting to be enumerated. The man hefted the medallion and tilted his head idiotically, as if being impressed with the weight of the thing constituted a promising avenue of discourse.

“Honest Abe, then?” he said.

“Put it down.”

He produced an injured look. “We’re aware you’re a civil rights enthusiast, Mrs. Zimmer.”

It was typical of such an evening that every remark found itself getting to the point, whether it wished to or not. Here was the crime the party had invented for Rose, then: excess zeal in the cause of Negro equality. In the thirties she’d been what would later be called, by Redbaiters, a premature anti- Fascist. Now? A too- sensuous egalitarian.

“I had a few slaves,” said Rose, “but I freed them.” At best, a poke at Sol Eaglin. Certainly lost on the young man.

Eaglin stepped in, as he’d been destined to all along, to “handle” her. “Where’s Miriam tonight?” he asked, acting as though his knowledge of her daughter’s name mitigated his incongruous presence in Rose’s life: neither friend nor foe, despite that they’d a hundred times groped at each other’s forms in the darkness. Eaglin was a mere bland operative, an automaton of party policy. Tonight was defi nite proof, like she’d needed proof. You could harbor a man in your bed or your body, play on his nervous system like Paderewski at the keyboard, and not shift his brain one inch out of the concrete of dogma.

Or, for that matter, the concrete of police work.

Nor, incidentally, had she dislodged either man from his wife.

Rose shrugged in reply. “At the age she’s reached I shouldn’t ever know her location, apparently.” Miriam, the prodigy, was fi fteen. Having skipped one grade already she was a high- school sophomore, and a virtual runaway. Miriam lived in other families’ homes and in the dining hall at Queens College, fl irting with Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual phonies, boys who’d a year or two before been scratching their nuts and slapping one another with rolled- up comic books on spinning stools in soda fountains or on the elevated trains, the kind of boys who fell silent, who even quaked, when they shared sidewalks with Rose Zimmer.

“Playing footsie with Cousin Lenny?”

“Sol, the one thing I can say with assurance is she’s anywhere but with Cousin Lenny.” It was Rose’s second cousin Lenin Angrush who’d in fact gifted Rose with the bogus giant penny. A numismatist, he called himself. Lenny, getting the time of day from fi fteen- year- old Miriam? He could dream.

“Let’s not waste any more time,” suggested the young man who’d been at her Lincoln stuff. Rose shouldn’t underestimate the brutal authority of youth: He had some. Eaglin wasn’t the sole power in the room just for being the sole power Rose chose to acknowledge. This young fellow was eager to distinguish himself, likely in the context of some jousting with others present, for status as Eaglin’s protégé. That itself, only a prelude to stabbing Eaglin in the back. Surely that was it.

Poor Sol, really. Still neck- deep in the paranoid muck.

Rose poured them coffee, this brave cohort who’d come to declare she’d picked the wrong Negro. They were talking; she really ought to listen to the verdict. Short of severing the affi liation, Rose would no longer be welcome to the privilege of acting as recording secretary at meetings with union offi cials, including the union at her own workplace, Real’s Radish & Pickle. Her last duty in the party, stripped. There at Real’s, Rose enjoyed the honor of serving in horrifi ed silence as her ham- fi sted comrades bullied workers whose daily facts, whose solidarities, forged side- by- side plunging elbow- deep in barrels of chill salt brine, put to shame the abstractions of the posturing organizers, those arrayed in their dapper suspenders and unwrinkled plaid, not knowing enough to be unashamed of these Halloween- hayride proletarian costumes.

These men in her apartment, they could needless to say go to hell.

Yet Rose’s usual fury was inadequate to the occasion. This kitchenful of moral bandits, even Eaglin, appeared to her sealed in distance, voices dim. The room’s events unspooled before her as if scripted, something happening not to her but to another. A one- act play, worthy of Sunnyside’s Socialist theater troupe, set in Rose’s kitchen and starring her body— her body’s behaviors being the matter under disputation— but no further portion. Heart, if bosom contained one anymore, not in attendance. Rose no longer here. This excommunication something that had already long ago been concluded. She warmed and refi lled coffee, gracing the lynch mob with use of her mother- in- law’s Meissen china, even while they alluded, in terms just oblique enough to salve their own shame but not hers, to Rose’s sex life. Presumed to tell her who to fuck. Who not to fuck, exactly. Or, not to fuck at all. Not to make her own bedroom solidarities with men who, unlike themselves, had the stature and self- possession to want her, to be undeferential to Rose.

For these occupiers of her kitchen, even in their executioner’s errand, were pathetically deferential: to Rose’s force, to her history, to her chest twice the circumference of theirs. She who’d marched in protest of Hitler’s New York birthday party on Fifth Avenue, while American brownshirts pelted her with rotten vegetables. She who’d marched for blacks practically before they marched for themselves. Bringing revolution to Negroes, fi ne. To have one particular black cop in her sheets, not so fi ne. Oh hypocrites! Their incessant,  ealymouthed
usage, again and again droning out of the fog of their talk, was “associations.” They were troubled by her associations. They meant, of course, the association of her rapidly aging Jew Communist vagina with the black lieutenant’s sturdy and affectionate penis.

Yet Rose took orders like a mad lobotomized waitress: A little milk, or cream? With sugar? Oh, you like it black, perhaps? So do I. Her tongue stayed stopped, wit unexpressed. A recording secretary, she recorded. Shorthanded her own tribunal as she would that of another, onto some distant mind’s tablet. Shorthand, even mental shorthand, an act of fi ngers scratching at some page barely registered by the mind itself. Here’s Rose Zimmer, née Angrush, the scourge of Sunnyside, she who ought to be punching like a boxer against the elastic shadows that fi lled her kitchen, these ghastly shades of doctrine, and she couldn’t care. This second trial was, really, only a lousy parody of the fi rst. That fi rst one, that had been something. Then, Rose was important in American Communism. Then, she’d been importantly Communistically married, about to be importantly Communistically divorced. Then, she’d been young. She wasn’t anymore. Now mental pen quit scraping mental tablet. Rose receded even further from the events before her, a present life under assault of disarrangement. “Eaglin?” she said, interrupting some droning insinuation.

“Yes, Rose?”

“Come outside.”

The nervous glances that ensued, Eaglin quelled, using his brow like an orchestra conductor would a wand, to cease his players’ tuning. And then he and Rose stepped outside, into the air of the Gardens.
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    Heard a review on NPR. Was wait-listed for the book at my libra

    Heard a review on NPR. Was wait-listed for the book at my library. Surprised at how quickly I got it. Then I started reading it. I struggled with 5 chapters before I gave up. Despite my interest in the topic and time period, I found the writing difficult and inaccessible. I have a law degree but this book was just too much work.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2013

    This book was so bad cound not imagine how any editor would publish it how did it get on the editorial review lists without anyone noticing there wasnt anyway to follow a plot

    New york times should be offering us a rebate! If it had been a food product they would have a nation wide recall of the product how did it get by or was it like the emperors new clothes? This book didnt have on its night shirt

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2014

    Very good

    A slow start but an excellent read

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2013

    I'm having trouble getting through it.

    I'll let you know when/if I finish it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    An amazing book. Lethem does it again. 

    An amazing book. Lethem does it again. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted November 5, 2013

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    Posted September 29, 2013

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    Posted September 15, 2013

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    Posted October 5, 2013

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    Posted December 2, 2013

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