Wednesday, January 21, 2015

1. Everything is Illuminated

Alright…so when I said “Tuesday, January 13th”…I guess I really meant 8 days later. But you’re going to forgive me for 8 days late, right? I was a little too optimistic about how long it would take me to finish reading Everything Is Illuminated. The next book I finished just fine, but this one was tough for me.

But it’s done, I can finally comment on it, and I think we should get to this review before I let anything else get in my way!

With that in mind, Book 1 (eeeeee!!!!) of Project 84 is:

Everything is

Everything is Illuminated
By Jonathan Safran Foer

This book, for lack of a better way to put it, was a slow start for me. Heck, it was a slow read for me. I don’t do great with non-linear narratives. I got about 500 pages into Infinite Jest before throwing it across the room and yelling “never again!” at my Oscar Wilde action figure. (It takes a lot of geeky, bookwormy knowledge to fully appreciate that last sentence…). All the same, Everything is Illuminated was one I wanted to try.

It might have helped that it was only 276 pages as opposed to Infinite Jest’s 1,000+.

But, yeah, I didn’t know it was going to be so non-linear, and it was tough for me to get through. Sometimes I feel like I’m not smart enough to follow books that skip around in time. This one also had the added challenge of a more free-form, poetic structure that can often lose me.

We’ll start with the plot, as it were. The novel contains two intersecting narratives. One is the story of Jonathan Safran Foer – a young, Jewish American who travels to the Ukraine in search of a woman he believed saved his Grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. That story is told through the eyes of Alex – a young Ukrainian “translator” who serves as a tour guide for Jonathan along with his own grandfather and a blind dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. The narrative of the journey is told in Alex’s broken English, peppered with synonyms he found in an English thesaurus.

An example of this style:
“I have given abnormally many thoughts to altering residences to America when I am more aged.” – page 28
The second story is the fictional history of “Trachimbrod” – based on an actual Jewish shtetl in Poland that was eradicated during WWII. This part of the story is told in Jonathan’s more poetic prose.

About 24 hours after completing Everything is Illuminated, I’m finding it hard to decide exactly where I stand on the novel. I know that it was hard to get through. Alex’s narrative style is understandably confusing, and tough to read. But Jonathan’s style had challenges of its own. The poetic word play – while beautiful – could make the story tough to follow. In fact, my issues with both sections of the narrative can be boiled down to “tough to follow”.

But, like other non-linear books I’ve encountered, I’m struck by one question:

Does it matter?

At the end of the day, I felt an emotional connection to the book. There is a passage in the novel – from when Alex reads part of Jonathan’s diary – that sums up my own feelings about the narrative quite well:
“I had read several pages in his diary. Some scenes were like this. Some were very different. Some happened early in history and some had not even happened yet. I understood what he was doing when he wrote like this. At first it made me angry, but then it made me sad, and then it made me so grateful, and then it made me angry again, and I went through these feelings hundreds of times, stopping on each for only a moment and then moving to the next.” – page 160
This is a book about love and loss. About personal responsibility, and about how what is right at the time might not feel right in hindsight. About doing what you can to survive, and altering your moral code to get to that point.

The only thing is…I can’t tell you exactly how all of that happens. I just know that it does, and that I felt it, and in the way I experience books, that’s all that really matters.

It also has the benefit of being hilarious. It’s rare for me to laugh out loud while reading…and it happened more than once with Everything is Illuminated.

Would I recommend this book? That’s a tough question. I think, ultimately, the answer is yes. For one thing, just because I found the book hard to follow doesn’t mean that everyone will. People love this novel, so there must be something there. And even if you find it as tough to follow as I did, the prose is still beautiful, and the emotion is real.


So that’s Book 1! A good book, a 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die book, and one that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I’ve given it 20 pages time and time again, but never made it all the way through. It wasn’t easy, but I finally got there!

I have another book completed and on tap, so I can guarantee a post within the next couple of days. I’m also aiming for another #ThrowbackThursday post tomorrow, so the blog should be very busy! Make sure you like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe up there on the right hand side to make sure you don’t miss a post.

Next Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Austen (Expected Posting Date: Friday, January 23rd)

**All quotes and annotations refer to this version of Everything is Illuminated, published by Harper Perennial in 2003**

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