Reviews > Published on September 10th, 2013

Bookshots: "Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Dissident Gardens

Who wrote it?

If you think your family's fucked up, a few hours spent with Rose and Miriam and Communist Cousin Lennie will let you don't have it anywhere near as bad as the members of the Zimmer family.

Jonathan Lethem, the brilliant, wonderful author of Motherless Brooklyn, one of my favorite books.

Plot in a Box:

A communist Jewish family in all its fucked up glory endures through the 20th Century.

Invent a new title for this book :

Holy Hell, Is THIS What Communism Was Like?

Read this if you liked:

Anything by the Three Jonathans (Lethem, Franzen, Safran Foer).

Meet the book’s lead:

Rose Zimmer, who once hoped to lead the American Communists to a fruitful reign; now she’s a sad caricature of her own former glory.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:  

Dame Judi Dench

Setting: Would you want to live there?

Ah, New York. I miss New York. I love New York. Seriously, if I had an I Love New York t-shirt, I would wear it. That said, Rose lives in Queens…and Queens? Well, I once bought some seriously sketchy wine in Queens. So maybe I don’t want to live there.

What was your favorite sentence?

God himself had gone inside her to die: Rose’s disbelief, her secularism, wasn’t a freedom from superstition but the tragic burden of her intelligence. God existed just to the puny extent he could disappoint her by his nonexistence, and while he was puny, her anger at him was immense, almost Godlike. Finally, if you dared argue, if you needed proof of Godlessness in this vale of outrage, the Holocaust. Each of the six million was a personal injury nursed within the volcano, too.

The Verdict:

Jonatham Lethem is one of the most brilliant writers of our generation - in my humble opinion anyway. His prose is thick, heady, like a fine wine at the end of a big meal. He writes sentences that make you poke your partner (who is obviously reading in bed beside you - we are a reading community, no?) and read them out loud, letting the music of the words drip from your tongue like honey. For that reason, and that reason primarily, you should read Dissident Gardens.

The added benefit to reading Dissident Gardens is this: if you think your family's fucked up, a few hours spent with Rose and Miriam and Communist Cousin Lennie will let you know you're not alone, and likely you don't have it anywhere near as bad as the members of the Zimmer family. Because in the Zimmer family, cousins occasionally seduce cousins, before sending them out to their deaths at the hands of Irish mobsters. Yeah. Trust me. Your family's not that bad.

That said, if you're the type who likes action and adventure, this is probably not the book for you. Dissident Gardens spans only as far as central Pennsylvania, and focuses on characters' inner struggles, often to the extent that major plot points are presented with barely a passing mention. "Wait, what? So-and-so is dead? When did that happen?" The book definitely requires a laser-focus in order to follow its sprawling, meandering timeline.

Still, Lethem is Brilliant-with-a-capital-B. I'm not lying. So pick it up. Give it a shot. Immerse yourself in the New York City countercultures of the 40s, 50s, and beyond. Go on. I dare you.

Get Dissident Gardens at Amazon

About the author

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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