Thursday, October 21, 2010

Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (audio)




Have you ever watched shows on television about the hoarders? We don't watch alot of TV, but when the hoarders find their way onto one of the channels, it is physically impossible for me to turn it off. It is fascinating and horrifying all at once, and in a sick way it makes me feel good about the few measly piles of books in my bedroom.

I am certain this is why there has been so much morbid curiosity about Homer and Langley Collyer, who gained notoriety as two eccentric hoarding brothers who lived, and ultimately died, in their 5th Avenue brownstone apartment in the first half of the 20th century. Much has been written about the 50 years worth of newspapers, the Model T Ford, the numerous pianos, typewriters, televisions, irons, chandeliers and junk that was hauled out of their home, or how it took ten days to actually locate one dead brother under the detritus. But what of their lives? E. L. Doctorow gently reveals not only the brothers' descent into madness, but lives intertwined with the unfolding of the growth of our nation.

Synopsis: The colorful story of the Collyer brothers' lives is narrated by 62-year-old Homer, who has been blind since his teens and has recently gone deaf. In a pleasant, humorous voice he tells of his incredible history through his sightless impressions: Emotionally-distant parents that were struck down by the Spanish Flu. The younger Langley who fought in WWI and came home damaged and primed for what was to become four decades of an obsessive interest in junk. Their hosting of speakeasy-like tea dances during Prohibition. Their Japanese-American housekeepers who were hauled off to an internment camp upon the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Homer's infatuation with a piano student-turned-nun who is murdered on a mission in El Salvador. Their friendship with a mobster who uses their apartment as a hideout. The beatniks that "crash their pad" and share their pot and women. It is a charming microcosm of American history.

And while history is occurring, so is the Collyer's refusal to play by the rules. The telephone is the first to go, followed by electricity and water, after their failure to pay their bills. They board up their windows to ward off gawkers. They cook their meals with propane and haul in water from a spigot in Central Park. No way you could make this stuff up.

Boiled down though, after you get past the bizarre behavior and the history lesson, you are left with the loyalty, dedication and love between the brothers. Left with only his brother's touch to save him from loneliness and starvation, Homer endearingly forgives Langley of his foibles and just loves him for being.

My thoughts: I couldn't help but be reminded of my beloved Middlesex when listening to Homer and Langley's antics...an enchanting mixture of oddity and historical events, whimsy and gravity. Except this is the real deal. The prose may not be as beautiful as what Eugenides provides, but nothing can quite compete with pictures, can it?

I thoroughly enjoyed this story from beginning to end. Instead of portraying the reclusive brothers as societal rejects doomed to die in their own filth, Doctorow depicts them as sympathetic, full of wonder and living large. Is this an accurate reflection of the men behind the boarded-up windows and dead-bolted doors? I'd like to think so. After all, Doctorow does have Homer's diary as evidence of their humanity. I like to believe that everyone has a story, and everyone is inherently good.

A word about the audio production: Our narrator for this audiobook is Arthur Morey, who has had extensive experience in the field. (He is the narrator for Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving, which I just uploaded on my iPod). Initially, he seemed just average...he sounded alot like the guy that introduces the title and plot of many of the audios (who knows, maybe he is). But I began to appreciate his gentle, grandfatherly voice and various vocal inflections, and by the end of the book, he embodied Homer.

4.5 out of 5 stars


21 comments:

S. Krishna said...

This sounds like a good one! I'm not sure whether I'll consume it in audio or print, but it's definitely on my list.

JoAnn said...

Sounds fascinating, Sandy.. one that I would not have even considered without your review. Thanks!

farmlanebooks said...

I'm drawn towards those programmes about hoarders too. I'm a bit of a hoarder myself so it is good for me to watch those sort of things to remind myself that it isn't good to keep everything and the odd clearout is a very good thing! This one does sound very interesting. I hadn't heard of it before, but I've now added it to the list. Thank you!

Alice Teh said...

Hey Sandy, you have made me want to read this book. I hoard too but mostly books. I have just bought another pile at the Singapore Changi Airport. Sigh...

Kerry said...

I've had my eye on this since it first came out. Maybe it will be my next audio choice from the library!

Zibilee said...

I just bought this at the used bookstore a few weeks ago. I am totally fascinated by this story and can't wait to read it. I always wonder if my book collection reaches into the level of hoarding, and agree that when those shows come on the television, I can't help but watch in awe and shock. Great review! I am going to have to move this one up on the pile!

Meg said...

I knew nothing of the Collyer brothers until I stumbled across a blog post on them sometime recently, and wow is that a wild, tragic story! There is something strangely fascinating about hoarders and that sort of psychosis (I'm definitely in the "it's a mental illness" camp)... I think I'd be intrigued by this one.

Teacher/Learner said...

I had never heard of this story but hoarding has received lots of media attention lately. Tonight's CSI episode is about a hoarder's death. Interesting book--will add it to TBR list. Thanks!

Anna said...

I received a surprise ARC of this book awhile back, and I was unsure what to make of it. I'll have to dust it off and read it sooner than I'd planned. It sounds fascinating.

Alyce said...

I think this is a story that I would probably prefer to read as straight nonfiction, but it does still sound like a fascinating read.

Nymeth said...

Okay, I can't resist a book that you compared to Middlesex. As for the prose not being quite as beautiful, well, what is?

Julie P. said...

This does sound really interesting. I didn't even know anything about it...Adding another one to the ever-growing list.

bermudaonion said...

I'm somewhat fascinated with hoarding too - like you, I think it makes me feel good about the stuff I choose not to keep. This book sounds like one I'd like.

Ti said...

This story fascinates me. I am addicted to that show Hoarders too. Although the people they choose to cover are way, way over the top as far as their illness goes, I can also relate to them a bit.

I've been known to hoard a thing or two, but I guess I do have my limits because there's no way in heck I'd ever get to the breaking point.

Gavin said...

This is a book I had out from the library had had to return. I will take it out again. I'm still trying to get into audio books, just loaded The Graveyard Book onto my MP3 player.

Erin said...

I'm not sure I knew what this book was about, but it sounds really interesting! Always on the lookout for well-done audiobooks, too, so onto the list Homer & Langley goes.

Beth F said...

I love Doctorow's writing and I've been dying to read this one. I hadn't thought about trying the audio, but now I am.

And now you have me looking around my house at the stacks of books. Hoarder? Nah.....

Iliana said...

I'm glad to hear you liked this one Sandy! I've got this on the bookshelf and am looking forward to it. I had heard a story about the brothers on NPR a while back and was fascinated by that so I hope I'll enjoy the ficitonalized account.

Jenners said...

I remember adding this to my list but had forgotten why. Now I'm even more excited about it.

You do such a good job with your reviews, you know. You are slowly becoming responsible for a good portion of my wish list!

Serena said...

I've heard so much about Homer and Langley Collyer and I would love to read this book or listen to the audio. I'll have to check out the library.

Kathleen said...

I too am fascinated with Hoarders. I've heard a lot about this one and already have it on my list.