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The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History Paperback – August 21, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. National Book Award–winner Franzen's first foray into memoir begins and ends with his mother's death in Franzen's adulthood. In between, he takes a sarcastic, humorous and intimate look at the painful awkwardness of adolescence. As a young observer rather than a participant, Franzen offers a fresh take on the sometimes tumultuous, sometimes uneventful America of the 1960s and '70s. A not very popular, bookish kid, Franzen (The Corrections) and his high school buddies, in one of the book's most memorable episodes, attempt to loop a tire, ring-toss–style, over their school's 40-foot flag pole as part of a series of flailing pranks. Franzen watches his older brother storm out of the house toward a wayward hippe life, while he ultimately follows along his father's straight-and-narrow path. Franzen traces back to his teenage years the roots of his enduring trouble with women, his pursuit of a precarious career as a writer and his recent life-affirming obsession with bird-watching. While Franzen's family was unmarked by significant tragedy, the common yet painful contradictions of growing up are at the heart of this wonderful book (parts of which appeared in the New Yorker): "You're miserable and ashamed if you don't believe your adolescent troubles matter, but you're stupid if you do." (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—In this entertaining portrait of the artist as a young geek, Franzen is as offhand about his geekdom and failures as he is about his talents and successes. He retraces his childhood resistance to his parents' way of life as he became a rebel in his own cause. He confesses that he has become a bird-watcher as an adult; he is like an interesting variety of one of the birds that he enjoys finding. Even while describing his personal oddities and those in the people around him, he finds awkward beauty in their quirks and imperfections. The book begins and ends with the death of his mother. Their difficult relationship is one of many he examines. He is a human watcher willing to report in detail on behavior, whether that of his parents, loved ones, or himself. As he studies who he has been and who he is now, Franzen discovers truths about the world around him. This is a world in which many teens find themselves, and seeing the ways the author navigates and survives can entertain and comfort while offering assistance in the process of self-discovery.—Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (August 21, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312426402
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312426408
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #647,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Franzen is the author of five novels--Purity, Freedom, The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, and Strong Motion--and five works of nonfiction and translation, including Farther Away, How to Be Alone, and The Discomfort Zone, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the German Akademie der Kunste, and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Admittedly, I did read some of the reviews that were published about THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, Jonathan Franzen's latest, before picking it up for myself. The Christian Science Monitor called the writing "exhaustingly and blindly self-involved." Esquire thought the book might "inspire a cringe or two." In an especially scathing review, The New York Times called it "solipsistic" and "incredibly annoying," before commenting "just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship [with his then wife] or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen's mind remains something of a mystery." After reading these reviews, I was thoroughly prepared to hate the book.

Thus, it came as a big surprise to me when, shockingly, I loved the entire thing.

Yes, Franzen is a bit of a narcissist. And, yes, some of his views or perceptions might be slightly strong for some readers. But isn't that the goal of a memoirist --- to hold nothing back when telling his or her own story? Isn't a memoir --- any memoir --- an exercise in self-absorption? Of selfishness? What rule states that memoirs must be filled only with agreeable and easily digestible topics and that their authors can only talk about themselves 45% of the time?

Arguably, THE DISCOMFORT ZONE could be viewed as a breath of fresh air. Here, readers can dive into a series of six stand-alone essays (many of which have been previously published in The New Yorker) that, when read consecutively (or even out of order), flow together and paint a retrospective of Franzen's life thus far.
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75 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Michelaneous by Michele on September 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I believe Jonathan Franzen fans will be both delighted and disappointed with this collection, The Discomfort Zone. It starts out very strong, showing off Franzen's remarkable vocabulary, storytelling ability, and his disregard for political-correctness. In a piece called, "House for Sale," Franzen tells what it feels like to take on the chore of emptying and selling what was his childhood home. Anyone who has faced the death of a parent and has undergone this emotional task will relate to his musings, admissions, and actions. We get to know his mother in this opening tale and soon learn she is a central figure throughout the collection. At first her controlling nature seems relatively benign, when we learn she's written the classified ad meant to showoff her home--her most successful investment--in the best light. Having done extensive research on her St. Louis-area neighborhood prior to her death, she even suggests an asking price. Franzen uses this story to kick-off a theme, where he comes off as a continual disappointment to his strict, provincial parents and shows how his mother's "strong opinions" have deeply affected his life.

The second entry, "Two Ponies," focuses on "Peanuts" cartoon creator Charles Schulz, and how Franzen related (or didn't relate) to the characters. He also relates to Schulz himself, particularly because of Schulz's feelings as an outsider while growing up. Additionally, I believe he admired Schulz for holding a grudge regarding his disdain for the label "Peanuts" placed upon his life's work. What I liked about "Two Ponies," is that I grew up reading this comic strip and could therefore relate to Franzen's story, and I liked the way the writing comes full circle.

Unfortunately, for me the collection goes downhill from there.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A. T. A. Oliveira on January 25, 2011
Format: Paperback
In his memoirs "The discomfort zone", Jonathan Franzen blurs a line when he writes about Kafka and his novel "The trial". Who is he actually writing about: the author of "The metamorphosis", or himself?:

"All of these writers, they were human beings trying to make sense of their lives. Kafka was afraid of death, he had problems with sex, he had problems with women, he had problems with his job, he had problem with his parents. He was writing fiction to try to figure out. That's what this book is about".

While reading "The discomfort zone", readers will learn about how many parallels there are between Franzen's life, and Kafka's - despite many differences. The author of "Freedom" and "The corrections", among other novels, however, is smart enough not to point out the similarities - and they are not, in fact, that important, but make both writers' personality quite interesting.

Reading this memoirs - whose second title is "A personal history" - helps to understand and appreciate better Franzen's novel. Much of his characters and situations they face are here, that is in his life. In this book, the writer focus on his childhood and adolescence, but we have some glimpse of his adult life. It is an rewarding journey to take along Franzen in the train of his memory. His narrative voice is assured, funny and ironic.

Despite the sad tone in some passages - such as when he recollects his mother death and selling the house some time after that event -, "The discomfort zone" rarely has an elegiac tone. Most of the time it is funny and sarcastic - specially when Franzen remembers his hard luck with girls.
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