All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

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Happy reading!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated is a moving and complex story--more accurately, it is a story within a story within a story. The author is Jonathan Safran Foer, which is also the name of one of the main characters in the novel, and referred to as "the hero" by the narrator. Foer hires Heritage Tours to escort him in Ukraine on his search to find a mysterious woman named Augustine. The book's narrator is Alexander Perchov, who serves as Foer's guide in Ukraine, and reads Foer's manuscript ("the hero" is a writer), which is a kind of history of Foer's family and their hometown of Trachimbrod.

"The hero" sends sections of the book and his journal of the trip to Alex after Foer returns to the United States, who reads them and offers edits by return mail. He also questions Foer's meanings in his letters to Foer, and sometimes suggests changes in how Foer has written the story. This is a nifty way to involve the reader in exploring what the author meant and what his motivations might have been for writing the story the way he did. Alex often asks questions the reader may also have, or express a sentiment about the outcome of the story. At one point Alex asks about a specific character that Foer has described as perpetually sad, "If I could utter a proposal, please allow Brod to be happy. Please. Is this an impossible thing?"

Foer's primary purpose for the trip was to find a woman named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from death at the hands of the Nazis. The facts of the event are unclear, and it's not certain from the photograph "the hero" has brought with him that the girl pictured is Augustine. However, the photograph is meaningful to Alex's grandfather, who serves as the tour driver during "the hero's" visit. The unraveling of this mystery absorbs Alex, changing his family and himself forever.

Despite sad and shocking elements of the story, the book's style is entertaining, frustrating, and entrancing at intervals. Once the reader realizes that Alex's command of English is best described as unique, it's easier to understand what he means when he refers to someone "spleening" him or how he is a "premium person." Alex is an endearing character. The banter between Alex and his grandfather (which is conducted in their own language, with Alex asking questions of "the hero" in English in between and translating for his grandfather) is charming. On page 65, "the hero" reveals something about himself that stuns Alex and his grandfather:

"You are very hungry, yes?" "I am a vegetarian." "I do not understand." "I don't eat meat." "Why not?" "I just don't." "How can you not eat meat?" "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," he said. "Hamburger?" "No." "Tongue?" "What did he say was 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." ( . . . ) "Well, let him deduce what he is going to eat. We will go to the most proximal restaurant." "You are a schmuck," I informed the hero. "You're not using the word correctly," he said. "Yes I am," I said.

Alex's language skills improve as Foer coaches him in their letters, but more importantly, Alex learns about his own history and sets out to change his future and make a better future for those he loves.

Everything Is Illuminated was published by HarperCollins in 2002. Froer has since written Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Eating Animals.

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