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Everything Is Illuminated

August 7, 2011

There’s an awkward fact that I feel I must finally acknowledge two years into this reading challenge – Some of the books on the 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read list are lame. Some are mildly lame, while others (e.g. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett) are mind-bogglingly, I’d-rather-wear-a-hairshirt-than-read-any-more-of-this-thing lame. (I bet you can’t wait for that review!)

I half expected Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer to be lame. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading it, but the copy I have is a BookCrossing book and I picked it to read so that I could move the book along on its journey.

Red flags of potential lameness:

  • Blurbs on steroids – The largest and loudest signal of potential lameness was the blurbs on the cover tripping over themselHuge Red Flagves in effusive praise, declaring the book “Brilliant!” and “a book that transcends genre to become experience.” This was troubling because I find that reviewers sometimes mistake impenetrability, and even incoherence, for brilliance. It’s as though they can’t be seen to admit that they didn’t understand a work, so they declare it brilliant to save face and seem cool.
  • Kind of a big deal –Perhaps I’m just a stubborn contrarian, but I am automatically somewhat suspicious of things that receive a lot of hype and are very popular. There’s nothing wrong with being popular, but I’ve often been disappointed by many books that people told me were amazing.
  • We have issuesEverything is Illuminated purports to be about a young traveller who sets out to find a women from a photograph who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of potential for the work to have an agenda and/or be incredibly depressing. Neither of these are marks of lameness. I like it when people have something to say, and some of the most moving books are depressing, but if not handled skilfully by the author, the potential for lameness is huge.
  • It’s my first time – It’s the debut novel by a young author, prominently featuring a very heavy subject in an edgy style. Look at the author picture – Foer makes baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg look like an aged sage. Looking at that photo, I knew that the book would either be a work of genius or utter crap.
  • WTF kind of language is that? – The novel begins in the voice of one of the main characters, a grossly under-qualified Ukrainian “translator” whose English is so full of malapropisms it’s as though it were run back and forth through a digital thesaurus or translation program several times. Playing the Telephone Game with my elderly, hearing-impaired, slightly inebriated aunties doesn’t even come close to yielding phrases this messed up.  I really wondered what I was getting myself into.

Now that I have discussed my apprehensions ad nauseam, let’s see what I thought once I actually read it.

Why Everything is Illuminated is not lame:

  • Jack WebbJust the fiction, Ma’am –To me, the best thing about this novel is that it’s concise. It would have been easy for the author to get carried away with the imaginative flights of fancy that he takes, with different subplots meandering through various periods in history – but he either has amazing instincts, or an awesome editor (or both) because there is nothing in it that doesn’t need to be.
  • Weird, in a good way – There are certain kinds of contemporary fiction that get on my nerves. I don’t know that there is a particular genre to label it with, but the characteristic that stands out for me is that they try very hard to be original, novel, and clever. Painfully clever. Impenetrably clever. Convolutedly clever. Pointlessly clever. I feared that Everything Is Illuminated would fall into this category, that it would be full of gimmicks and novelty for novelty’s sake –especially when it begins with the bizarre version of English that Alex speaks. I was pleasantly surprised.  Foer uses some very unconventional ways and interesting devices to tell the story, but that’s the thing – they serve the story, rather than the story becoming a platform for showcasing how clever and original the author is.
  • LMAO – I never expected a book about the Holocaust to be this funny. Then again, Everything Is Illuminated isn’t really about the Holocaust, despite what the jacket description led me to believe. It’s about a lot of things, some of which are tragic, but many of which are downright knee-slappingly hilarious. Most amusing to me is how he satirizes the process through which traditions and folklore form and morph over time. It takes a lot of skill to deftly mix humour with tragedy and contentious subjects, but he nailed it.

So this has been a rather long-winded way of saying that I didn’t expect to like Everything is Illuminated, but I did. A lot.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2011 20:37

    I quite liked Everything Is Illuminated..for the same reasons you listed. I don’t think his 2nd book is on the 1,000 books to read before you die list but, will you be giving it a try?

  2. August 7, 2011 21:11

    Thanks for commenting. I’m tempted to read his other works, though it will probably take me a while to get around to it. There’s a gal in my local BookCrossing group with whom I share similar reading tastes, and she adores Jonathan Safran Foer, so it seems like a good bet.

  3. August 8, 2011 03:39

    I’ve been inspired to create my own list…of 1,000 sentences that I plan to read before I die…baby steps…

    • August 8, 2011 21:55

      Good for you! It’s important that one have a goal to keep them busy at least until lunchtime.

  4. August 8, 2011 04:16

    Yes, he’s entertaining enough. You won’t have to read much…aside from Everything is Illuminated, he has one more work of fiction (Incredibly Close and Extremely Loud…? or something like that), which I also quite enjoyed, and a non-fiction book about being a vegetarian, I think, which I haven’t read.

    Good luck with your reading goal! 🙂

  5. August 8, 2011 23:03

    By the way, I looked at the list and I’ve only read 71 books from the list 😦

    • August 8, 2011 23:08

      Careful, that’s how I got hooked! Hmm, I’ll just browse this list and see how many I’ve read. Now look at me.

      I started out somewhere in the 70s too. That was back in 2009. Now I’ve read 142

      • August 8, 2011 23:57

        Haha, I know what you mean…There’s another 1000 Books To Read Before You Die list which is different from the list you are following. I think it’s the one that came out in book form and lists books according to the century it was published. That is the list I am more familiar with…or is this the same list?

      • August 10, 2011 14:52

        This list is similar, but from a different source. In January 2009 British newspaper The Guardian published a list titled “1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read” and that’s the one I’m following. I’ve seen the book before and this list has many of the same titles.

  6. August 11, 2011 09:48

    Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I’ll check this book out. It sounds pretty interesting.

    • August 12, 2011 17:37

      My pleasure. I hope you liked my blog as much as I enjoyed checking out yours. Good to see all of that typewritten stuff. I used to own a typewriter, but I sold it a few years ago in a clutter-busting spree. Kinda wish I hadn’t.

  7. August 12, 2011 13:43

    It does seem likely you’ll run into some lame books if you’re trying to get through 1,000. I’m not sure there are 1,000 great books out there.

    • August 12, 2011 17:47

      You’re right. Statistically there is a fairly high probability of lameness, despite the list having been compiled by the eminent book people at The Guardian. In fact, considering my contrarian tendencies, that might even increase the likelihood that there will be books on the list that I won’t like. I’d never thought about it that way. What if I don’t like any of the remaining 857 novels? And maybe there really aren’t 1,000 great books out there in the whole of readingdom. OMG, what I have I got myself into?!?! Maybe I should just rename this blog One Hundred and Forty Three Novels and call it a day. 😉

  8. Patti permalink
    August 18, 2011 16:26

    Nice review – I’d never heard of this book before. I can very much relate to your initial reservations about this one and might have avoided it for the same reasons. Now I’ll have to check it out.

    I checked the looonng list of books last night – if I counted correctly (I may have lost track somewhere along the way – and some I actually couldn’t remember if I’d actually read or not) I’ve read 117 of them.

    • August 18, 2011 21:18

      Thanks Patti! I’m quite impressed at your having read 117 of them. When I started this ridiculous exercise I’d only read about 70.

  9. Anabelle permalink
    August 18, 2011 23:44

    I tried to read this novel several times and failed miserably. There’s a point at which it becomes annoying and really hard to follow. I saw the movie and was impressed, but even after seeing the movie I couldn’t go through the book.

    And I’m someone who goes through books even if she doesn’t like it–undergrad promise with myself. I don’t know why this one bummed me out.

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