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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A breath of fresh air
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...
Published on November 3, 2006 by Bookreporter

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Introspective look into the author's life
Well written, even interesting, and ultimately depressing.
If you are a Jonathan Franzen fan, this might be the look into his life you were waiting for. If not, I don't recommend this book.
He comes across as a depressed lonely guy who hasn't found meaning in his life. He seems like a sweet person, and very thoughtful. The book is filled with a discontent and...
Published on November 17, 2008 by tumbleweed


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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A breath of fresh air, November 3, 2006
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
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. A bit of a departure from his previous works (THE CORRECTIONS, HOW TO BE ALONE and others) but nonetheless written with the same fervor, these six vignettes are intensely personal and explore with microscopic acuity the relationships and experiences that made him the man he is today.

In the opening story, "House for Sale," Franzen describes his final visit back to the house in which he grew up (in Webster Groves, Missouri) after his mother's death. As one is apt to do when going through old papers, drawers and closets, he uncovers vivid childhood memories and forgotten feelings associated with the tchotchkes still in the house. It is a moving experience, as one might imagine, and in his attempt to ready the house for eventual sale, so to must he grasp the passing of time and come to terms with the changes both in his own life and in the world around him.

Of course, Franzen is nothing if not painfully honest, even when directing his critical eye inward. The most entertaining stories to read in this collection are those in which he dissects his perception of himself as a puny, somewhat nerdy adolescent, with a silent need to be perceived as cool while also giving off a blasé, I-don't-really-care-what-others-think-of-me attitude. As he so aptly puts it, "adolescence is best enjoyed without self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom...this cruel mixture of consciousness and irrelevance, this built-in hollowness, is enough to account for how pissed off you are. You're miserable and ashamed if you don't believe your adolescent troubles matter, but you're stupid if you do."

In probably the most enjoyable story of the collection, "Then Joy Breaks Through," Franzen describes himself as a boy afraid of "spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances...urinals, puberty, music teachers...boomerangs, popular girls, the high dive," and most of all, his parents. He then goes on to relay with hilarious, often laugh-out-loud detail his involvement in a cult-like Christian youth fellowship group (read: hippie/radical counterculture group) where his urge to be accepted often rivaled his equally present disdain for appearing like he was trying too hard. In the equally witty "Centrally Located," he explores a (seemingly) more confident period wherein he and a group of friends form a club of their own. Throughout high school, they perform a series of hilarious pranks on the administration, and it becomes clear that Franzen's signature ingenuity is finding its niche.

In an especially telling summation, Franzen says of himself, "At forty-five, I feel grateful almost daily to be the adult I wished I could be when I was seventeen...At the same time, almost daily, I lose battles with the seventeen-year-old who's still inside me." Ever humble and righteously self-aware, Franzen highlights the individual yet universal experience of what it means to be human. Yes, he might come off as overly snide, petulant and at times quite pompous. But it's his right to be that way when writing his memoirs for it's his experience and his alone.

If picking up THE DISCOMFORT ZONE means mulling over an entire book of supposedly self-indulgent moments such as this one and linking it to the broader experience of growing older and coming to terms with what it all could mean, then I'll gladly take the risk.

--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
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75 of 83 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Mixed Bag, September 7, 2006
By 
Michelaneous by Michele (Sandy Point Resort, Northwoods Wisconsin) - See all my reviews
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. Long passages about a Fellowship church camp and its youth minister, "Mutton" . . . a tale about his high school "gang" attempting acts of vandalism, and too much German (translations included) during a semester abroad, seem to be written more for himself and the characters he portrays than the general public.

Finally, with "My Bird Problem," Franzen is back on track. He offers political and personal takes on global warming, our country's energy policy, along with intimate revelations about his marriage and an ensuing relationship, and ultimately his passion for birding and what it has taught him about himself . . . and his mother.

Readable in one day.

Michele Cozzens, Author of A Line Between Friends and The Things I Wish I'd Said.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bittersweet memories, January 25, 2011
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. People that emerge from his past sound like seed of his fiction - but, of course, in his novels he has changed them somehow, appropriated of them and made them his characters in a different fashion.

As Franzen writes about Kafka, he himself in his fiction and non-fiction books is a person trying to figure out - and that's exactly what this book is about. Some readers who seem him as snob and pompous will find a striped and sincere person, writing about his life and the difficulties of growing up, entering the adult world. Memoirs with a honesty are rarely these days, when the object of appreciation are, in many cases, people famous, but with no interesting lives, or that want to sound really cool, smart and nice. Here, what we find is a man trying to understand his past in order to live a better present.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Discomforts Of Everyday Life, January 9, 2007
By 
Jon Linden (Warren, N.J. United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
In this book, Franzen harnesses his powers of articulation around his own life experiences. His effort is to put into words the feelings of creeping discomfort that follow us through all phases of our life. In this "personal history" Franzen relates through 6 short stories these personal experiences in wonderfully descriptive and sensitive prose. His ability to capture these feelings and convey them to the reader is the true genius of the book.

His stories cover various life events that most people either live through or are at least touched by. He talks about the feelings associated with the sale of his childhood home and how that made him feel about his parents, particularly his mother. He writes another story about how the "Peanuts" cartoon related to his life growing up and how he read it with apt enthusiasm.

One of particular interest and intensity is his story about his Church "Fellowship" group as he was growing up. This one truly is a gem of a story. His story "The Foreign Language" talks about his college major in German and his experiences; especially as they relate to his quest to lose his virginity. And his final story, talks about his separation from his wife and the feelings that accompanied that decision.

Franzen uses his great talent to interleave his stories with his feelings. He chooses the difficult feeling of "discomfort" to describe and elucidate. In this book, he does an extraordinary job of giving the reader a handle on those feelings. The book is recommended to all serious readers who are interested in describing internal feelings.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Introspective look into the author's life, November 17, 2008
By 
Well written, even interesting, and ultimately depressing.
If you are a Jonathan Franzen fan, this might be the look into his life you were waiting for. If not, I don't recommend this book.
He comes across as a depressed lonely guy who hasn't found meaning in his life. He seems like a sweet person, and very thoughtful. The book is filled with a discontent and over-analyzation of the minutia of his life.
There is no resolution ~ no joyful fulfillment, no inspiring turn around. In reading it, I wanted him to succeed, to find true joy, to finally feel at peace and at home in himself and the world. This didn't happen - and I felt flat and sad for him at the end. I've never read his other books, and now I don't want to.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disarming and Reassuring, December 18, 2009
By 
Richard R. Powell (Nanaimo, British Columbia Canada) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
While the bulk of the book is a reflective look backward at what the author identified with during his time growing up (peanuts cartoon characters for example) and other events and influences that shape who he became, the most interesting part for me was towards the end when he talks about becoming a birder.

He says that this, the love of birds, was what motivated him to become a real environmentalist - that in a sense it gave his flagging efforts to be green the jolt needed to keep going. It was the transition from action motivated by guilt and social pressure, to action motivated by the love of something outside himself - a love of beautiful impoverished birds. It is a powerful moment in the book.

The title is very enticing for us shy types, but only represents the book's early focus. The themes move deeper and the armchair style is disarming and reassuring.

The message I heard went something like, "I muddled through, and there were some really luminous moments. Reflection on those moments has given me insight. Contentment has come from unexpected places, and my life is good even if I didn't get everything I wanted. I got other better things."

Something like that...
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Discomfort and Revelation, April 15, 2008
A Kid's Review
These autobiographical essays teeter between personal revelation and keeping the reader at arm's length and the discussion at an intellectual level. Franzen describes in unforgiving detail how he chose the wrong realtor to sell his mother's house. We see him fall for the flirtatious sales pitch of the woman in tight jeans but not the reaction of his brothers once the error is discovered. He describes his attraction to his future wife because she is a precise, brilliant reader, but he seems incapable of explaining why that's not enough to make the marriage work. The failure of the marriage and reaction of his brothers remain just off stage. Franzen as an adult isn't far removed from the child who told his mother that he didn't hear the fight between his brother and father the night before -- everyone is safer if we carry on as if nothing happened.

The result is carefully crafted tension between Franzen's reticence to talk about intense messy feelings (except perhaps by allusion to Kafka) and meticulous cataloguing of everything incidental to those feelings. Trapped between the contradictory desires to be known and to remain distant, Franzen is at his thoughtful, ambivalent best.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Mixture of Great, Okay and Yawn, August 12, 2008
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Mr. Franzen clearly is a gifted writer. His ruminations about his parents, friends, interests and silly pranks were highly entertaining and his psychoanalytical observations were thought-provoking. This helped tremendously in convincing me to wade through a few small sections of the book which I found about as compelling as watching paint dry. I could have done without most of the chapter about his learning German. But, heh, it's his life. Who am I to tell him what to highlight from his past? The memoir gives you a good idea of what makes Mr. Franzen tick. An intelligent, honest and somewhat enjoyable read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Memoir As An Essay Collection from Jonathan Franzen, August 3, 2012
"The Discomfort Zone" is an autobiographical essay collection - and memoir - from Jonathan Franzen that is among the most impressive examples of memoir writing that I've stumbled upon lately. Readers will get a most vivid and compelling portrait of Franzen - the person and the writer - and one that may illuminate their subsequent reading of his great novels. But this is an essay collection that is somewhat nonlinear with respect to time, opening and closing with important events in his adulthood. Surprisingly for me, given the realism of his current fiction, Franzen expresses ample admiration for the fantasy novels of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, invoking them repeatedly in his essay collection. Franzen renders a most affectionate portrait of his late mother and his family's former residence in Webster Groves, a financially elite suburb of Saint Louis, in the opening essay "House for Sale". He recounts his childhood love for comics, and especially, "The Peanuts" comic strip, in "Two Ponies", touching upon his childhood relationship with his older brother Tom and their father. "Then Joy Breaks Through" describes his membership in a youth Christian fellowship, fondly recalling it as a sanctuary in an otherwise difficult adolescence that will resonate with many readers. Among the most memorable essays is the concluding one, "My Bird Problem", in which he compares and contrasts his love of birding with his efforts at saving his marriage and then, later, finally finding romantic bliss with a much younger woman from California. Franzen's simple, unadorned, prose shines through in each of the essays, reminding readers of his greatest works in fiction. Without question, "The Discomfort Zone" is an important addition to the memoir of genre, worthy of recognition as among its best.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars mostly autobiographical, May 24, 2011
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This review is from: The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (Paperback)
Ok, I'll start with the disclaimer that I am a Franzen fan.
This is quite different from his earlier collection "How to be alone". The essays in this one are apparently autobiographical and more or less go from his high school years till when his mother dies fifteen or so years later. The later essays, especially the last one, seem to have been written about the time he was either writing Freedom or outlining it as all the themes of Freedom are present. The essay on his participation in Fellowship (no "the") gets to Franzen's attraction to groups and other folks as well as his more or less constant running away from the same. There is also a lot on birds and bird watching and many ruminations on the fate of the earth. Lots of curmudgeonly rants along the way. If you liked Freedom and/or The Corrections you'll like this.
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The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History
The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen (Paperback - August 21, 2007)
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