Jonathan is a Jewish college student searching Europe for the one person he believes can explain his roots. Alex, a lover of all things American and unsurpassed butcher of the English language, is his lovable Ukrainian guide. On their quixotic quest, the two young men look for Augustine, a woman who might have saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Nazis. As past and present merge, hysterically funny moments collide with episodes of great tragedy -- and an unforgettable story of one family's extraordinary history unfolds.
I staggered through this, waiting for the promised brilliance, getting increasingly bitter as it failed to
Safran Foer has potential as a writer, but with the publication of this and its acclaim I worry that he has no incentive to grow as an author, as he's been told his adolescent efforts are perfect. Perhaps I will check out what he's writing in a couple decades. Then again, perhaps not.
For those who have not heard about it, it is couched as the story of a man in search of the woman
Once it caught me, I couldn't put it down.
I enjoyed this story, not just because of Alex's laugh-out-loud way of expressing himself in English, but because of its element of magico-realism. There is a dream-like quality to the events and the characters who lived in the village before the war destroyed it forever. The novel evokes a haunting, nostalgic feeling, but there is an underlying sadness in the recurrent themes of love, desire, happiness, destruction, and loss. The novel, in fact, turns out not to be a funny and light one.
As critically acclaimed as it is, I just could not get into this novel at all. It has three interweaving stories: one about a Jewish village in the late 18th and early 19th century, one about the same village in the lead-up to World War II, and one in the late
Every single one of these stories is dull and tedious. It's heavily Jewish, and reminded me of all the worst and most sentimental aspects of Michael Chabon. In fact, this may be the most perfect example I have ever found of Chabon's Epiphanic Dew Theory. Virtually every chapter in the story is overflowing with ham-fisted life and love and loss. Foer cannot restrain himself from trying to instill a deep profundity into almost everything that exists, and it's an absolute drag to read. The final revelation about Alex's grandfather was bleedingly obvious from the early chapters, and I wasn't exactly astounded to discover that - shock horror - the Nazis were really evil and some atrocious things happened during World War II.
Thumbs down, won't be reading any of his other books.
The novel conveys a sense of autobiography and indeed it reportedly
It makes heavy-handed use of modernist narrative devices, playing with chronology and switching narrative perspective frequently throughout. The result is an often confusing tale about a young man exploring significant events in his family history. In order to do so, he travels to the Ukraine, hiring some local people to assist him, and they become central to unfolding events. Interestingly, at no point is the story told directly from the perspective of ‘the hero’ (Foer himself). We see the hero only through the eyes of his driver/interpreter Alex, in either letter form or first-person narrative, or more indirectly through Foer’s novelised account of historical events in the Ukrainian town of Trachimbrod.
The novel interleaves the present day account of Foer’s quest with significant events in the village of his ancestors. This (presumably) fictionalised family history, from the year 1791 to World War II, is quite hilarious. The bizarre antics of the inhabitants, their idiosyncrasies and strange relationships, are a source of regular mirth.
Foer also has fun with Alex’s imprecise use of English, which at times is quaintly amusing: “Soon I will possess enough currency to purchase a plane voucher to America”. But it becomes rather cumbersome and irritating. Nevertheless, Alex’s youthful exuberance and commitment to the hero’s quest provide the driving force behind the tale, which leads inevitably to dark revelations and painful truths.
Eventually the hero’s journey leads to a horrifying discovery: the execution of Trachimbrod’s Jewish citizens by German soldiers in 1942, and its repercussions through to the present day. Those events contrast sharply with the whimsical nature of much of the novel, suggesting intent by the author to shock and sadden the reader. Again, I felt toyed with. Perhaps it was important for Foer to write about the brutal impact of the final solution on his personal heritage, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh, another holocaust story”.
Unfortunately, I felt more irritated by this novel than ‘illuminated’. As an experiment in modernist narrative styles it is interesting, but confusing; a little too self-consciously clever, rather than great story-telling. There are many hilarious moments and reflections on the human condition, and a reminder of Nazi brutality, but it is a book I would only conditionally recommend to others.
Jonathan Safran Foer, the author not the protagonist navigates multiple story threads through time in a sometimes dizzying fashion, and leaves us breathless for more. We find the Jonathan Safran Foer in the book, writing about the history of Trachimbrod and the life of his great great great great great grandmother, while receiving letters from Alex in his fractured English in the present, all interspersed with the adventure to locate a woman in a photograph. While it does require close reading, it is well worth the effort.
This is a laugh out loud, belly aching book, but is also a heartbreaking story, and in a sense a coming to terms with the search for self. I adored this novel. Having also watched the movie three times I must also add that I loved that too! This should be in your TBR pile.
The story of this unlikely group's journey begins to become not just Jonathan's story, but Alex and his grandfather's as well. While Foer searches for his family and the mysterious Augustine, Alex unexpectedly confronts his own family history and his grandfather faces his past. It becomes a story of two families that parallel each other in strange and surprising ways.
On the reader's tour of the Ukraine, Foer takes the time to treat us to humorous interludes from the road, as well as fleshing out the quirky history of the hero's family. His creative use of language amazed, as well as drew me further into the story and connected me to his character's emotions. This novel is highly recommended, but a warning to readers looking for a funny book about a road trip: look elsewhere.
* The narration by Ukrainian translator Alexander Perchov. Alex is a young man who has a troubled home life but is
* Excerpts from the novel that Jonathan Safran Foer is writing about his family's history in the Ukrainian shetl (village) of Trachimbrod. The "novel" ranges from 1791 to 1971 and is told in a magical realism style that defies coherent description. Ranging from broadly comical to fanciful to what can only be called "experimental" (there are flowcharts! fragments of dreams written by villagers! two pages of dots with fragmented words mixed in! a snippet of a play!), these parts of the book can be delightful, irritating, confusing and profound—sometimes all on the same page.
* Letters written by Alex to Jonathan commenting on the novel that Jonathan is writing and Alex's own narrations. In these letters, Alex offers critiques of Jonathan's novel, commentary on the changes that Jonathan suggested for Alex's narration, and increasingly revealing information about Alex's home life. I believe the term for this type of fiction is called metafiction and, let me tell you, it messes with your mind.
Somewhere in all of this is a story about family, friendship, the meaning of love, Nazis, the Holocaust, betrayal, mental illness, the power of the past, what is means to be Jewish, and the nature of truth—but you have to work hard to get it. I was often unsure about what was happening or happened or might have happened. This book is not for the faint-hearted. You're going to have to keep your wits about you while you read. "But is it worth it," you ask. And my answer is....I don't know.
I was very conflicted while reading this book. At times, I was literally laughing out loud at some of Alex's broken English. (You have to be a master of the English language before you can butcher it this amazingly and creatively and artfully.) At other times, I was fighting off a headache from trying to figure out what was happening. I tend to be somewhat of a lazy reader, and this book pushed me to my limits. Honestly, if it weren't for the parts narrated by Alex and Alex's letters to Jonathan, I don't know that I would have made it through the entire book. These parts were an respite for me—an oasis amid the craziness of the "Jonathan's novel" sections.
In the end, though, I'm glad I read this book. It felt like an accomplishment of some sort. This book is very highly regarded and considered a modern classic, which is why I gave it a go in the first place. Foer was only in his early 20s when he wrote this, and I find that impressive. Yet, at the same time, I wonder if his precociousness was detrimental. There were many many times I felt like Foer was showing off: "Hey, look what I can do, Reader! Can you do this? Have you seen this before? I bet you haven't! Can you believe I'm only in my early 20s?" Yet, the more magnanimous part of me says "Congrats to you, Jonathan, for pulling off such a high-wire act. You've got talent, and I'm curious to see what you'll do next."
So, I'm giving this my "special" rating for books that I have mixed feelings about: 3.5 stars. This rating is reserved for books I think are worth reading and have flashes of brilliance but something about them kept me from falling love or being able to give a wholehearted recommendation.
Everything is Illuminated is sometimes a quirky book and sometimes not. Sometimes serious and sometimes more sly than serious. Jonathan Safran Foer himself is a main character on a visit to the Ukraine to find
Running parallel to the contemporary story is another story--a kind of fictionalized history of the small Eastern European town mentioned above that the character Safran Foer's family originally came from--this history which Safran Foer is writing as they search for clues to the past. A third thread which kind of glues the present and past threads together are the letters Alex writes to Jonathan after Jonathan returns to the United States which comment on everything from Alex's hopes and dreams to the chapters of the book that Jonathan has let Alex see to the trials and tribulations of Alex's own family life.
What happens to Foer's fictional town during WWII is very tragic but not all that unusual for the place and the time. It doesn't make it less disturbing. The pseudo-scientific Nazi ideology made of evil a normal thing for everyday ordinary Germans--or what Curzio Malaparte would describe them as in his 'Kaputt'--'kranken volk'--sick people. Though it does go farther than the Germans--as Eastern and Slavic Europe has always been a powder keg for religious and cultural animosity.
Anyway Foer's book is a search for what little remains of that past. It's also a meditation on guilt and forgiveness--on the nature of living in harmony with each other with at least the show of tolerance and respect and quite often it can even be laugh out loud funny. Sometimes we have to wake up from our own history--even here in the United States being that we are not necessarily beyond the reach of an ideology anymore than those ordinary Germans were back in the 30's and 40's--and thinking that we are is dangerous ground to be walking on. The invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 should be enough to say on that subject. Everything is Illuminated is certainly worthwhile reading and I'll note a past association of Foer with one Robert Coover--a writer who has been neglected in this country much more than he deserves. Recommended.
I was extremely disappointed with this book, especially in comparison to my previous Foer experience, Extremely Loud and Incredibly
The destination was not worth the journey. The saving grace was the oddity of the characters in the back story. This novel should have been better presented as two books with the two stories separated. Neither would have been great, but separately they would have been better than this one volume was.
I never understood who Augustine was supposed to be, I didn't like or understand Safran, and what I really wanted to know was how Jonathan knew all of these stories about Trachimbrod and what made him go searching for Augustine in the first place. Jonathan Safran Foer was on the edges of the story, but he wasn't really in it. We never understood any of his motives or learn anything about him. I think he needs to be either in or out, because his half-involvement only added more confusion to the already puzzling novel.
The reader is thrown back and forth through time, from the 1790s to the 1940s to whenever the present day of the book is. Also, one is tossed between Alex's letters to Jonathan and Jonathan's book, with forays into other sources from time to time. All of that was fine, although some sections are tedious.
The part that was mostly difficult for me was the smug and self-satisfied voice of Jonathan (the author, as distinct from the character). I'll give you an example: In the first section from Alex, he says that his mother told him, "One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family." In the next letter we read from Alex, he tells Jonathan, "It makes me happy that you relished the sentence 'One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family' I must inquire you, however, what is a truism?" It just seems like the trick of a condescending writer to simultaneously single out a great line and call it essentially meaningless. And you can call it postmodern playing with the concept of the novel, the role of characters in it, the relationship between the reader, writer and characters, etc., but it damaged my trust in Foer by making me suspect he thinks he's always the smartest one in the room.
Recommended for: special snowflakes.
Quote: "A map such as that one is worth many hundreds, and as luck will have it, thousands of dollars. But more than this, it is a remembrance of that time before our planet was so small. When this map was made, I thought, you could live without knowing where you were not living."
I am generally very rarely completely disappointed with a book, but this is one of the few occasions when it happened.
Very sad & lyrical. After finishing, I spent the rest of the day moping around the house and looking at the Ukraine map. I think it was wonderfully written, specially due to the change of points of view & the
The fable-like history of the shtetl is fantastic (in all senses). And, just like Alex, I wish Brod had a happy ending too. It's uncanny how Jonathan and Alex are alike.