City of God: A novel

by E. L. Doctorow

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Random House, [2000]


In his workbook, a New York City novelist records the contents of his teeming brain -- sketches for stories, accounts of his love affairs, riffs on the meanings of popular songs, ideas for movies, obsessions with cosmic processes. He is a virtual repository of the predominant ideas and historical disasters of the age. But now he has found a story he thinks may become his next novel: The large brass cross that hung behind the altar of St. Timothy's, a run-down Episcopal church in lower Manhattan, has disappeared ... and even more mysteriously reappeared on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, on the Upper West Side. The church's maverick rector and the young woman rabbi who leads the synagogue are trying to learn who committed this strange double act of desecration and why. Befriending them, the novelist finds that their struggles with their respective traditions are relevant to the case. Into his workbook go his taped interviews, insights, preliminary drafts ... and as he joins the clerics in pursuit of the mystery, it broadens to implicate a large cast of vividly drawn characters -- including scientists, war veterans, prelates, Holocaust survivors, cabinet members, theologians, New York Times reporters, filmmakers, and crooners -- in what proves to be a quest for an authentic spirituality at the end of this tortured century.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mels_71
I read City of God by E.L. Doctorow over Easter. It is one of the books on the 1001 list. So, how did I find it? Intriguing, thought-provoking, frustrating, confusing ... but I really enjoyed it. A word of warning - the plot is pretty much secondary to this book. In fact large portions of the book are tied fairly tenuously to the main plot and there are various threads. Part of the difficulty is that there are several different narrators but it is not necessarily straight forward to work out who is narrating which bits, especially in the beginning. There was a holocaust subplot which I found really interesting.Throughout the book there are references to cosmology, metaphysics, consciousness, language and of course religion. One of the major characters is a priest who is losing his religion. Doctorow brings great insight to many topics conveying both the beauty/complexity of life that is so often coupled with absurdity but it was disappointing in his treatment of faith that he didn't recognise the complexity inherent in orthodox Christianity. I'm not sure that I can recommend this book to everyone but I found it a worthwhile read.… (more)
LibraryThing member danbarrett
Emily picked this book up at the record store she worked at, couldn't quite get through it, and gave it to me. It took me quite a while as well; I read it in small chunks before bed. Being divided into shorter sections with varying points of view, it was easier to do that with this book than it is with many others. At the same time, every single passage in this book is packed with so much significance that, in many ways, it was harder to get through than many books twice it's length.

Deep stuff here. Excellently written, really, at a pretty mind-blowing level. Having tried my hand recently at some writing myself, I have a new-found appreciation for the ease with which Doctorow seems to create incredibly profound and beautiful passages. It's rare to get a book that shares such excellence on both a conceptual and purely language-aesthetic level.

So, go buy this, take your time with it, it's worth it.
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LibraryThing member Cygnus555
To be honest, I first "read" this by Audiobook. I loved the telling of it so much, that I bought the hardcover as a follow up because I plan to reread it some day! Spiritually intriguing. Brilliantly done.
LibraryThing member woolgathering
The best book I read in 2007, hands down. I enjoyed it so much and found it so inspiring that I scanned a page, printed it out, highlighted an important sentence, and mailed it to my beloved. It is now hanging on his wall. One of few books I wish had arms so that I could hug them.
LibraryThing member Amzzz
A story of love between religions, and of people struggling to define the existence of God, and what this means for them. Unfortunately I didn't really enjoy this book, it seemed to be trying too hard to be clever and postmodern.
LibraryThing member autumnesf
Several stories at once. Not sure how some were even related. Did like all the ones about the Holocaust. Would not recommend.
LibraryThing member sanddancer
can see what the author was trying to do here, but I struggled to fully engage with it. The main plot about Pem and his doubts about Christianity was interesting but I would have like more of this. The parts about Sarah's father during the war were great and I enjoyed the bits about film but the stuff about songs just went over my head and made the book too disjointed for me. A very ambitious work, but it didn't quite work for me. It struck me that the author was more concerned with writing an important novel than writing a good novel.
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LibraryThing member Dmtcer
I really liked this book. It is about a young boy coming of age, and coming to terms with life. I enjoyed the images and reading about life from the view of this young boy.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Finally, a Doctorow I can really like! I knew keeping at him would pay off.

Multiple plot lines and stories, and all the pieces matter. Love this kind of story.
LibraryThing member charlie68
Vivid descriptions of life in a Nazi labour camp and of a bomber being shot down and crash landing in World War Two are the highlights of this book. The arcane arguments for the existence of God and faith while interesting may muddy the waters rather than clearing things up.
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book is on the 1001 Books to Read Before you Die list. I try to read at least 10 books from the list each year. I'll never read all the books on the list since there are actually almost 1300 books mentioned in the different editions. This was one that I was looking forward to since I have read other books by Doctorow and I thought they were great. I wasn't quite as impressed with this book although it was mainly because of the structure, not because of the content which I thought was well-written and interesting.

It is really hard to summarize the plot of this book because there are a number of storylines some of which intersect but others just seem to be left hanging. I guess the main plot is the one involving Father Pembroke (known as Pem as I shall refer to him henceforth), a preacher in the Episcopalian (or what nonAmericans would call Anglican) church. He works out of a small rundown church in a poor part of New York City. His church is robbed and one of the things taken is the large crucifix from in front of the altar. Some time later Pem receives a call from a Jewish rabbi who has found the crucifix on the roof of the building which houses his temple and his home. This brings Pem into contact with the rabbi and his wife who is also a rabbi. The wife's grandfather had survived living in a Jewish ghetto during World War II where he was entrusted to smuggle out accounts of how the Germans treated the Jews in the ghetto. These accounts were hidden by a Catholic priest but after the war they disappeared. Pem and the two rabbis embark on a search for them.

There are many diversions from this plot. Some are about how the universe was created; some discuss the origins of the book we call The Bible; yet others are restatements of classic songs. There is also a thread about the author doing research for this book including discussions he has with Pem and other people. Overall, the theme is about different religious and non-religious beliefs and how modern life views these beliefs.

I'm not sure that all of the diversions add to the book and some, in fact, seemed downright distracting. For instance, there is a story about some unnamed man who meets a married woman at a party, has an affair with her, then takes over the identity of her husband who becomes a street person. I have no idea what that had to do with the book.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
I am not a huge fan of E.L. Doctorow's writing style -- it was employed so well in "Ragtime" but I've also seen it go awry in "Andrew's Brain." I approached "City of God" with some trepidation, which appears to have been warranted. My reaction to this book was "meh."

The is a bit of a story here, which is wrapped alongside Doctorow's metaphysical musings. I actually enjoyed portions of the story a lot -- particularly the Holocaust and heist stories.... the other threads weren't really interesting to me at all.

I went through phases with this book -- I hated it in the beginning (mostly due to writing style) and then when the stories picked up, I started to really enjoy it. The last third or so of the book really dragged as it got away from the stories I actually enjoyed. Overall, if you're a Doctorow fan, you'll probably love this book. If not, you probably won't.
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LibraryThing member pilgrimess
Apart from the passages on song and the "old standards" (which didn't really work for me), I was enthralled and mesmerized by the breadth and depth of this novel. There is some truly beautiful writing, especially in the story of Sarah Blumenthal's father's experience in the Lithuanian ghettos. But what really grabbed me was Doctorow's ability to seamlessly weave together a number of different narrative threads - Holocaust survival and the search for the perpetrators of war crimes, a crisis of religious faith, and a blossoming relationship - into a magnificent novel that is clearly more than the sum of its parts.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kristelh
The City of God by E. L. Doctorow is a story told by the narrator Everett who is writing a story about Pem, an Episcopalian priest. In the telling of the story there is a lot of short little essays or philosophical musings and often it is hard to know who is the current voice. The story looks at human relationships with God, each other and with themselves. The story starts out with a missing cross that shows up at a synagogue called the Synagogue of evolutionary Judaism. Pem finds he no longer can believe in much of what he had, removes himself from the clergy and begins to explore Judaism. Mostly he believes in something that really makes no sense but amounts to a Christless Christianity and therefore Judaism is a better fit. He also happens to be in love with the rabbi, Sarah. So there is a lot of jumping around, we get quite a bit of a holocaust story. There is also a bit of Vietnam. There is a bit about film verses literature. While I enjoyed some of this book it really was an effort to read. Rating 3.14… (more)



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