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on October 18, 2003
Foer is a pretty endearing writer, no doubt, and one who is already on my watch list. But this novel is not something I'd be seen heaping praises on, as several other reviewers have been.
The book's narrative is inventive, mildly funny (depending on your sense of humor) and occasionally even strewn with streaks of universal wisdom. But some of Foer's devices of story telling seem a little, er, affected.
The lead-in into the novel is a bit wobbly and I took time to warm up to the goings-on -- in reality, the it is a tapestry of SEVERAL stories, the prime theme being one of a young American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer (eponymous as the author, note) who travels to the Ukraine searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1941. We read of his search through the eyes of his Ukrainian guide and translator, Alex, whose imperfect English provides comic relief.
Part of the story of Jonathan's search is told in straightforward prose, but part is told through letters from Alex. Other stories are told in dreams or in plays. Concurrently, we also get the story of several of Jonathan's forbears, going as far back as 1791.
Much of the novel's humor stems from Alex's under-developed English and his posturing antics. Such comic relief is deft, but the all too frequent flights of lyricism stink of affectation to me, not of staggeringly impressive command of language or anything. Foer is no Wodehouse, not yet.
Everything Is Illuminated is ultimately more of an experience than a book, an episodic, thoughtful and rewarding work. But perhaps you may want to start with a fresh slate instead of a baggage of high expectations, a mistake I made. It is not worthy of a pedestal, but definitely worth a read if only for the sheer boldness of the narrative. Pick it up!
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on November 21, 2005
Somewhere, buried in Everything is Illuminated is a poignant, moving, original story about a man searching for the woman who saved his Grandfather from the Nazis. Aiding him in his search is the most endearing character in the novel, Alex, who writes English by always searching for a thesaurus term to replace the plain original word - resulting in a highly entertaining brand of comically prolix English. This device is the best narration technique in the novel (although not, as many critics in the blurb claim, a linguistic achievement on a par with Burgess in A Clockwork Orange).

The rest of the novel, however, is taken up with an aggressive array of flashy modern narrative devices - magic realism, hysterical realism, Jewish confession etc., all of which blast the reader with great 'look at me' demonstrations of the writer's virtuosity, but lack any sense of pacing, rhythm, balance and poise.

The principal gripe I have with modern novels such as this, is that in such a competitive, overcrowded market, young writers feel pressured to burst out with something dazzling and innovative, often invoking a range of literary techniques (as Foer does) without really understanding how they can be used most effectively. If the New York publishing scene was less preoccupied with hyping up flashy new bestsellers, and let talented young writers develop slowly, modern novels might have a chance to display some of the quiet literary inspiration that is the hallmark of past masterpieces.
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The eccentric and attention-seeking graphics of the bookjacket convey the idea that this book is fresh, daring, kooky, and inventive--and the book is all these things! But it is also serious and thoughtful, touching on universal themes and the essence of what makes us human. With young "heroes" who are sometimes both earnest and sweetly vulnerable, the book contains moments of profound melancholy, as well as deep sadness, behind its bravado and its finger-snapping brio.

Jonathan Safran Foer, a character bearing the same name as the author, is looking for the woman he believes saved his grandfather Safran from the Nazis. Traveling to the Ukraine, he meets Alex Perchov, a young man representing a Ukrainian travel agency which specializes in taking tourists to the sites of vanished shetls. Alex, a not-quite-fluent translator, and his "blind" grandfather, who serves as the driver, travel with Jonathan to the site of Trachimbrod, his family's village, collecting stories and legends which will help Jonathan learn about his family and his Ukrainian Jewish heritage.

Parts of the book are a bit sophomoric. (How many farting dog jokes does one need? And do we really need to know the details of Grandfather Safran's 132 mistresses?) The fictional Jonathan's letters and comments as he writes a novel about his trip are an artificial device for dealing, perhaps, with the author's uncertainties and/or heading off criticism, while the chapters he includes for Alex's review, are, of course, the actual chapters of this book. And Alex's misuse of language, while often very funny, begins to pall after numerous repetitions.

But these are minor criticisms in view of the author's immense achievement in dynamically presenting two young men as they explore who they are, where they come from, and how they fit in the world. As the sought-after story of each boy's grandfather emerges, the depth and breadth of family relationships and cultural history become clearer to character and reader alike. The dramatic and moving conclusion clearly establishes Foer's credentials as a brilliant new talent. Mary Whipple
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on April 23, 2002
This is in many ways a brilliant book, brimming with energy and invention. Foer is blessed with enormous talent and I have no trouble at all imagining him becoming, in time, one of the major writers of the dawning century. This book, however, is not an unqualified success.
In a way Foer was betrayed by the very reviewers who were somersaulting backwards in order to help him. I was expecting the book to be utterly hilarious but the effect fizzled because the reviewers had already related the best jokes. He was betrayed by them also in the sense that they built such unreasonable expectations into the minds of readers that it would be difficult not to disappoint. Foer only adds to the trouble through his hyper-ambitious title. No, everything is NOT illuminated by reading this book. The themes are a recycling of things I've heard before, very often in places like Hollywood movies. To praise the virtues of love and compassion is not illuminating: it may be true, but it is not new. Foer has his heart in the right place, but that may be part of the problem. I get the sense that he is trying too hard to please. There is nothing wrong with giving your reader pleasure (God knows so few writers even know how) but in order truly to illuminate, in order to allow the reader to walk away with his world in some way changed, one must be ready to challenge, and perhaps even, to insult. Perhaps the success of this novel will embolden Foer to take off the kid gloves and hit us hard the way that, say, Philip Roth does.
I don't agree with the reviewers who complained that Alex's English is either unrealistic ("no Ukranian would speak English that way") or offensive. Yes, it is true that after a while the shtick begins to seem like one long Yakov Smirnoff routine, but the REAL butt of the joke here is not Ukranians or foreigners in general, but the English language itself. Every writer is perfectly entitled to play these games with his tools, with language, and this was one game which could only be played through the mouth of a hypothetical learner of the language. Here there is authentic light. Anybody who argues that it is unrealistic or offensive is missing the point completely. The Trachimbrod sections, on the other hand, read a bit too much like Garcia Marquez Lite. This is not surprising because I read in an interview that Foer adores Marquez, but he may well be advised that, as a writer, it is dangerous to love what you love too much, or too openly. He may learn more by reading more of the authors he DISLIKES.
For all of that, though, he still has the potential to do great things.
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Jonathan Safran Foer takes literary risks and entertaining leaps in his debut novel, "Everything is Illuminated," an amusing chunk of magical realism. It's a tragicomic experience, centering on the devastation of the Holocaust, and a modern-day quest for the past.

A young Jewish American man -- same name as the author, Jonathan Safran Foer -- travels to the Ukraine. His reason: to locate Augustine, a woman who apparently saved his grandfather from the Nazis... only he just has a photo to guide him. He's accompanied by an annoying, flatulent dog, and an old man haunted by war memories.

He also corresponds with the old man's quirky grandson Alex, and new revelations are made about both young men through their letters. And in the third story-line, we are treated to the history of Trachimbrod, an endearing shtetl full of peculiar people... which was destroyed by the Nazis long ago.

"Everything is Illuminated" seems to be primarily about the past and present, and how those two things connect. To twentysomethings now, World War II seems as distant in some ways as the Trojan War, unless brought to life by someone else's words. Foer may not have been there during the Holocaust, but his unique novel will leave you thinking and wondering about the past.

It's certainly an unconventional story. Foer has a quirky, offbeat style that gets a little off-kilter. And he bends everything from his narrative to the characters to the English language ("spleening"?). Not to mention reality -- by naming his alter ego Jonathan Safran Foer, he blurs the line between fiction and reality. Is this based on anything real? Does Alex exist? Is there a Trachimbrod? At the end of the day, none of it matters. Even if these things don't actually exist, they certainly do have real counterparts.

Foer's book is not quite a work of genius. Sometimes the fragmented, topsy-turvy narrative runs away from him. Not to mention that the in-jokes -- the flatulent dog, the Russo-American dialect -- do not age terribly well. But the humor and magical realism tinges start to fade as the Holocaust looms overhead. While the opening chapters may make you laugh, it becomes far deeper and more intricate later on.

"Everything" may not be totally illuminated, but it is a quirky, sometimes saddening book that stumbles and takes a few risks. A flawed but excellent debut.
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on May 1, 2002
...with a little Sholom Aleichem on the side?
There are two kinds of people who should avoid this book. For the rest, I would definitely recommend it.
1) This is a VERY funny book in some parts (there is a dog named "Sammy Davis Junior Junior" who is the seeing-eye dog for the hero's chauffeaur). It is a moving and sad book in other parts, as the characters revisit Foer's grandfather's village after the Holocaust. The tone changes from chapter to chapter like a roller coaster. If you would be disturbed by a funny chapter following a Holocaust chapter, you should avoid this book.
2) This is a very post-modern, self-referential, aren't-I-clever sort of book. The two main characters, Jonathan (the author) and his translater Alex, send each other the chapters of the book each has written, make comments on the chapters they have been sent, and even make comments on the COMMENTS on the chapters. This is the part that reminded me of Dave Eggers' "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" but if you don't like that sort of thing, you should avoid this book.
Who should actually read this book: Everyone else. It really IS funny where it's funny, and tremendously sad where it's sad. Foer really does have a wonderful imagination and a flair for language. Although I found the navel-gazing comments-on-comments-on-comments a littly annoying, I have to admit that days after finishing it the images are still with me, making me think. So many books are disposable today, so many books leave your brain the minute you set them down, this is not one of them.
So I forgive him for being too clever, and suggest that you do too.
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The eccentric and attention-seeking graphics of the bookjacket convey the idea that this book is fresh, daring, kooky, and inventive-and the book is all these things! But it is also serious and thoughtful, touching on universal themes and the essence of what makes us human. With young "heroes" who are sometimes both earnest and sweetly vulnerable, the book contains moments of profound melancholy, as well as deep sadness, behind its bravado and its finger-snapping brio.

Jonathan Safran Foer, a character bearing the same name as the author, is looking for the woman he believes saved his grandfather Safran from the Nazis. Traveling to the Ukraine, he meets Alex Perchov, a young man representing a Ukrainian travel agency which specializes in taking tourists to the sites of vanished shetls. Alex, a not-quite-fluent translator, and his "blind" grandfather, who serves as the driver, travel with Jonathan to the site of Trachimbrod, his family's village, collecting stories and legends which will help Jonathan learn about his family and his Ukrainian Jewish heritage.

I agree with some other reviewers that parts of the book are a bit sophomoric. (How many farting dog jokes does one need? And do we really need to know the details of Grandfather Safran's 132 mistresses?) The fictional Jonathan's letters and comments as he writes a novel about his trip are an artificial device for dealing, perhaps, with the author's uncertainties and/or heading off criticism, while the chapters he includes for Alex's review, are, of course, the actual chapters of this book. And Alex's misuse of language, while often very funny, begins to pall after numerous repetitions.

But these are minor criticisms in view of the author's immense achievement in dynamically presenting two young men as they explore who they are, where they come from, and how they fit in the world. As the sought-after story of each boy's grandfather emerges, the depth and breadth of family relationships and cultural history become clearer to character and reader alike. The dramatic and moving conclusion should establish, once and for all, Foer's credentials as a new talent to watch. Mary Whipple
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on May 5, 2002
I know JSF is supposed to be the new "wunderkind," but I have to break away from the pack and say that "Everything is Exaggerated."
The best things that can be said for Foer are that he is clearly both well-read and well-connected. First, part of this book is virtually lifted from the far-superior (and less-well-known in the US) _See Under: Love_ by David Grossman (an Israeli writer); it is virtually literary plagiarism. Second, with a brother who writes for The New Republic, Joyce Carol Oates as his writing teacher in college, and Dale Peck as a family friend, JSF starts with the benefit of being extraordinarily well-connected for his age in the world of the literati, which cannot help but play into his success. I don't begrudge him the latter, but think this is a clear playing out of the Yiddish aphorism, "you'd always rather have mazel (luck) than sechel (wisdom)."
While JSF has clear potential to be a terrific writer, that potential is infrequently realized within the context of this book. He prostitutes the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe for his own gain by writing an account of a shtetl based on little research and much sarcasm. To someone who doesn't know anything about Jewish history in Eastern Europe, I am sure that JSF's rendering has the resonance of a Chagall painting. To anyone who does, it's a virtual Jewish minstrel show and degrades the history of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. JSF, the satirical portrait of shtetl life has been done. The writer's name is Shalom Aleichem, and what made him so great was not only his language, but that even the most bitter elements of his portrayal were infused not by self-loathing, but by love.
My favorite moment in the book does not rest on Alex's butchering of the English language, but rather on a passage in which one character recounts a massacre to Alex, who translates for JSF's character. This slow, unfolding portrayal of how history is created is terrific to read and watch. Unfortunately, it stands out amidst the rest of a book (and, truthfully, a writer) which takes itself far too seriously for what it has to offer.
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on May 27, 2003
This is not a bad novel -- it has plenty of charming and clever moments, and the author's talents with language and structure are undeniable -- but it is terribly uneven and vastly overrated.
What bothered me more than anything else was the way the novel played fast and loose with history and culture -- the modern Ukranians are held up as ridiculous, comic caricatures, barely one step removed from the "Wild and Crazy Guys" of Saturday Night Live fame. That Alex, who narrates half the book, can at one time hold such an incredible English vocabulary and yet have no knowledge whatsoever of how English is actually spoken never rings the slightest bit true, and compromises his character to the point where it becomes difficult to think of him as anything but a vehicle for the author to show off his linguistic inventiveness. I can't help but think that actual Ukranians might feel somewhat insulted or patronized by the way their country and its people are portrayed in this book.
The tales of old Trachimbrod likewise come off as false, where the author has foregone research and authenticity in favor of a sort of warmed-over magical realism in which every character is either a little too ridiculous or a little too sublime. It's rather like a tragically hip, sexually awakened, postmodern version of "Fiddler on the Roof."
For all its faults, this is an enjoyable novel, and I would recommend it -- with the understanding that the reader is not to feel lost or inadequate if he or she does not have the transcendental, life-affirming, mind-blowing experience most reviewers seem to insist "Everything is Illuminated" will provide.
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Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated (Dutton, 2002)
My, what a clever novel!
In any case, that, I imagine, is what Jonathan Safran Foer kept saying as he was writing this. And really, much about it is clever. The comparisons to A Clockwork Orange are completely unwarranted, as Alex, Foer's Ukrainian hero, destroys the English language in a quite different way than does Burgess' Alex. (A less politically correct but more conceptually accurate comparison would be Charlie Chan, as written by Earl Derr Biggers.) Foer's intertwining of stories is also quite clever, and his use of the two narrators to tell the main storylines.
However, with all the cleverness going on, Foer seems to have forgotten in many places to actually insert a novel. Threads pick up in odd places and then die with no fanfare, never to be resurrected again; the story has holes without being told an enough of an impressionist way to allow the reader to fill in enough blanks; the characters are obviously there as vehicles to carry off the cleverness, instead of being fully-realized human beings. In other words, this is a linguistic roller coaster, not a novel.
Not to say Foer doesn't write well when he forgets about the tricks and applies himself. Especially in the novel's last eighty pages, there are scenes of great beauty and tragedy that are conveyed in powerful manner that make the reader sit up and take notice. (The emotionl impact of every last one of them is dramatically undercut by Foer's following each with a needlessly scatological and/or pornographic piece of attempted humor, each of which fails because of its positioning, but the tragic pieces themselves are extremely well-written.) Unfortunately, these scenes are all too few. One of them is going along swimmingly until he decides to interject a Rick Moody-esque three-page unpunctuated sentence. Horrid. (And a trick he repeats a couple of times afterwards, also throwing in run-on words. Even more horrid.)
The book is billed as a comedy, and Foer tries to carry it off as such, but when the finest-written scenes are those of tragedy, it's hard to call it a success as attempted. Foer has the makings of a fine dramatic writer, once he gets away from being so consciously clever. **
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