Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thursday Thirteen - 128 - 13 Reasons to Read Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

The year is barrelling along and I've only got three months to complete my Dewey Book Challenge. Considering it's October and I'm finishing the third of six books, you can see my concern.

However, I shall persevere.

All of you avid readers out there who gobble up books like cups of coffee must wonder what it's like to find six books in one year a challenge. Well, I bump whatever I'm reading for myself when a new release comes out that I want to review. Those ones I get to in a hurry.

Also, there's the whole reading-on-the-bus thing. That's pretty much the only time I read. But reading almost always gets bumped for sleep. And during the work week, I average four hours of sleep a night, because I'm a night owl and I'm buzzing with creative energy all the way to midnight. Then I have to wind down and get ready for sleep. 2:00 am comes along and my head hits the pillow. 6:00 am comes and the alarm goes off. The only way I catch the 7:00 bus is by promising myself I can go back to sleep once I get on the bus.

I snooze for an hour with my book unopened in my purse. I blog on my break and during my lunch hour. I read while I wait for the bus on the way home. I even begin the trip reading. But my eyes quickly get heavy, the book goes back in my purse and I manufacture more ZZZs, as a character from today's book would say.

1 - Everything is Illuminated is the third book I'm reviewing for the Dewey Book Challenge.

For those who are new to this challenge, it came about as a way to honor the memory of a book blogger who passed away last December. The challenge asked readers to choose six books from her six-year archive of book reviews. I decided to pick one book from each of the six years she blogged and reviewed, from 2003 to 2008. But I didn't let the year of release decide my reading schedule for me. I began with the book I was most burning to read, which was March by Geraldine Brooks.

Next I simply had to read the other Geraldine Brooks novel I'd chosen - Year of Wonders.

2 - The yellow cover pictured above is the edition I own. It's an Olive Edition, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The original HarperCollins release cover is pictured at left. Both versions were there at the book store. I was just drawn to the smaller, thicker Olive Edition. I liked the sparse cover art.

Once I was into the story, I realized the blue and yellow text cover of the regular version echoes the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The Ukraine provides most of the setting for the book.

3 - As many of you know, I'm a certified Russophile (one who loves Russia and Russians.) That was the main draw for choosing this novel for the challenge.

So why wasn't it the first one that I read? Well, history trumps contemporary for me, so Geraldine Brooks' two historical novels had to come first. But the Ukraine-set story was hot on the heels of the first two.

4 - We meet Alex, the main first-person narrator of the book. He's in his early twenties and living at home with his parents, his grandfather and his younger brother Igor. Alex has crystal-clear plans for his future. He's saving currency in order to move himself and Little Igor to America, where he will become a first-rate accountant and buy an impressive car.

5 - Before this can materialize, however - and Alex has already stashed away a sizable amount in a cookie jar - Alex must act as the translator for Jonathan Safran Foer, a young New York Jew touring the Ukraine in order to track down the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. This fictional character carries the identical name of the book's author, but is portrayed at arms' length, either through Alex's POV, or through the account he writes of his Ukrainian-Jewish ancestors.

6 - The novel jumps back and forth through time. It begins with Alex in present-day Odessa, but alternates between the fictional Jonathan's story of his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother and the early life of the town he's come to Ukraine to find: Trachimbrod. It also leaps into the more recent past to cover Jonathan's immigrant grandfather's story before he arrived in America.

The form of the novel also alternates between Alex's direct address of the reader; his letters written to Jonathan from the not-too-distant future once Jonathan has returned to New York; examples of documentation from Trachimbrod's past such as poems, plays and journals; the normal format of a novel; a stylistic alteration of that form to include huge sections without breaks for new paragraphs; empty space on the page; and numerous self-reflexive devices which treat the characters in the story as the fictional beings they are.

7 - The journey to find Trachimbrod also belongs to Grandfather, sent by Alex's father to be the driver for Odessa Heritage Tours. Since the death of his wife, Grandfather insists he's blind, although he's not. The fourth member of the road trip crew is Sammy Davis, Junior Junior, Grandfather's seeing-eye bitch and named for his favorite Negro.

8 - An unending source of delight and many, many laughs is Alex's spastic grasp of English. Check out this conversation between Alex and Jonathan in the kooky little Russian car:

" 'Are there Negro accountants?' 'There are African-American accountants. You don't want to use that word, though, Alex.' 'And homosexual accountants?' 'There are homosexual everythings. There are homosexual garbage men.' 'How much currency would a Negro homosexual accountant receive?' 'You shouldn't use that word.' 'Which word?' 'The one before homosexual.' 'What?' 'The n-word. Well, it's not the n-word, but-' 'Negro?' 'Shh.' 'I dig Negroes.' 'You really shouldn't say that.' 'But I dig them all the way. They are premium people.' "

9 - The language in this book is all over the place, from Alex's hilarious word choices to Safran Foer's poetic gems sprinkled throughout the many narratives. Here are a few gems:

"4:513-The dream of angels dreaming of men. It was during an afternoon nap that I dreamt of a ladder. Angels were sleepwalking up and down the rungs, their eyes closed, their breath heavy and dull, their wings hanging limp at the sides. I bumped into an old angel as I passed him, waking and startling him. He looked like my grandfather did before he passed away last year, when he would pray each night to die in his sleep. Oh, the angel said to me, I was just dreaming of you."

"If we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life? It seems to me that we are making the story even inferior. We often make ourselves appear as though we are foolish people, and we make our voyage, which was an ennobled voyage, appear very normal and second rate. We could give your grandfather two arms, and could make him high-fidelity. We could give Brod what she deserves instead of what she gets. Grandfather and I could embrace, and it could be perfect and beautiful, and funny, and usefully sad, as you say."

10 - Mr. Safran Foer really knows how to end each chapter with a hook. Like this, for example:

"Grandfather and I viewed television for several hours after Father reposed. We are both people who remain conscious very tardy. We viewed an American television program that had the words in Russian at the bottom of the screen. It was about a Chinaman who was resourceful with a bazooka. We also viewed the weather report. The weatherman said that the weather would be very abnormal the next day, but that the next day after that would be normal. Amid Grandfather and I was a silence you could cut with a scimitar. The only time that either of us spoke was when he rotated to me during an advertisement for McDonald's McPorkburgers and said, 'I do not want to drive ten hours to an ugly city to attend to a very spoiled Jew.' "

11 - The tone of the book changes on a dime between laugh-out-loud funny and catch-in-your-throat poignant. There are affectionate portrayals of 18th-century shtetl life and blistering scenes lifting the lid on hushed-up wartime decimations of whole histories. Of course, my favorite sections revolved around Alex and his enthusiastic use of words like premium, the hero (referring to Jonathan,) 'I exhibited Little Igor a smutty magazine three days yore', and 'I do not have any additional luminous remarks, because I must possess more of the novel in order to lumin.'

12 - As most of you know by now, I always prefer the film version of any story. It's the film school grad in me. I asked my husband to bring the DVD home even before I'd finished the book, because I simply had to hear Alex's voice. The actor who played him said everything exactly the way I heard it in my head.

This beautifully-done indie film, directed by actor Liev Schreiber, has now instantaneously become one of my all-time favorite films.

13 - I leave you with an excerpt. Keep in mind the author plays around with form and structure. The text appears here just as it does in the novel. Enjoy!

"We became very busy talking. When I rotated back to Grandfather, I saw that he was examining Augustine again. There was a sadness amid him and the photograph, and nothing in the world frightened me more. 'We will eat,' I told him. 'Good,' he said, holding the photograph very near to his face. Sammy Davis, Junior Junior was persisting to cry. 'One thing, though,' the hero said. 'What?' 'You should know...' 'Yes?' 'I am to say this...' 'What?' 'I'm a...' 'You are very hungry, yes?' 'I'm a vegetarian.' 'I do not understand.' 'I don't eat meat.' 'Why not?' 'I just don't.' 'He does not eat meat,' I told Grandfather. 'Yes he does,' he informed me. 'Yes you do,' I likewise informed the hero. 'No. I don't.' 'Why not?' I inquired him again. 'I just don't. No meat.' 'Pork?' 'No.' 'Meat?' 'No meat.' 'Steak?' 'Nope.' 'Chickens?' 'No.' 'Do you eat veal?' 'Oh, God. Absolutely no veal.' 'What about sausage?' 'No sausage either.' I told Grandfather this, and he presented me a very bothered look. 'What is wrong with him?' he asked. 'What is wrong with you?' I asked him. 'It's just the way I am.' 'Hamburger?' 'No.' 'What did he say is wrong with him?' Grandfather asked. 'It is just the way he is.' 'Does he eat sausage?' 'No.' 'No sausage!' 'No. He says he does not eat sausage.' 'In truth?' 'That is what he says.' 'But sausage...' 'I know.' 'In truth you do not eat sausage?' 'No sausage.' 'No sausage,' I told Grandfather. He closed his eyes and tried to put his arms around his stomach, but there was not room because of the wheel. It appeared like he was becoming sick because the hero would not eat sausage. 'Well, let him deduce what he is going to eat. We will go to the most proximal restaurant.'

'What do you mean he does not eat meat?' the waitress asked, and Grandfather put his head in his hands. 'What is wrong with him?' she asked. 'It is only the way that he is.' The hero asked what we were talking about. 'They do not have anything without meat,' I informed him. 'He does not eat any meat at all?' she inquired me again. 'It is merely the way he is,' I told her. 'Sausage?' 'No sausage,' Grandfather answered to the waitress, rotating his head from here to there. 'Maybe you could eat some meat,' I suggested to the hero, 'because they do not have anything that is not meat.' 'Don't they have potatoes or something?' he asked. 'Do you have potatoes?' I asked the waitress. 'You only receive a potato with the meat,' she said. I told the hero. 'Couldn't I just get a plate of potatoes?' I asked the waitress, and she said she would go to the chef and inquire him. 'Ask him if he eats liver,' Grandfather said."

- Jonathan Safran Foer, 2002