Sparked by Words


Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is not a realistic book though it has one big toe dipped in historical fiction and another dipped in magic realism. At least not the kind of realism that borders on incidents so close to history the reader can’t see the line of invention, and not the kind of fantasy one recognizes as a fairy tale. The plot is unlikely, the scenes improbable, and the characters resemble the broad strokes of sit-com personalities. Yet I loved this book because in all its silliness, absurdity, and exaggeration is a reflection of truth we usually find in satire. But this book isn’t a satire either.

Foer based his book on a journey he took to Ukraine shortly after graduation from college. Young and inquisitive, he went to Europe in search of the woman who allegedly saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. That he never found her didn’t stop him from writing about the doppelganger Jonathon Safran Foer who goes in search of family history. The alter Foer as writer creates the mythical story of the found shtetl in tandem to the story of the fictional journey to Europe in search of his roots.  Yes, a bit confusing, and I had to suspend my sense of reality and history to buy the whole premise. I did so willingly because Foer’s voice is so inventive and strong, he made me believe it was all possible even when I knew it wasn’t.

Guiding Foer on his quest is the young Russian translator, Alexander Perchov, whose mangled English provides sophomoric humor. Using an old dictionary, he chooses words that get close to what he means and yet are laughably far from making sense. For instance, Alexander explains his “many friend dub me Alex.” He calls his own blind grandfather retarded and while the old man displays odd prejudices and behavior, he is in fact retired, and also appears to be able to see quite well. Alex takes Foer, whom he calls “the hero,” along with his grandfather and a smelly dog, in search of the woman Augustine, who may know the location of the ruins of the shtetl Trachimbrod (an actual shtetl destroyed during World War II) and who may have saved Foer’s grandfather.

In between the meandering journey through Ukraine, both Alex and Foer are writing the history of the shtetl, with Foer correcting Alex’s version while he writes his own. Yet it is Alex’s mangled writing that gets closer to the heart of the story than Foer’s more accurate but blander version.

The parallel story of the shtetl Trachimbrod is presented as a fairy tale village with two shuls, people who live on opposite sides of a line that may or may not be imaginary, and that seems to be slipping precariously toward oblivion. A glass wall in one shul separates villagers who are connected to each other by strings, reminding us of how tenuous are all human connections.  An infant girl falls into a river and is saved from drowning, and this child may be the ancestor of Augustine whom Foer is seeking. As romantic as this version is, the real town did in fact suffer oblivion during the war. Thus the entire book drifts back and forth between two tales propelled by miscommunication and a sublime approximation of truth that can only be accomplished by events skewed as if seen in a fun house mirror.

A favorite quote is this one: We should remember. It is the act of remembering, the process of remembrance, the recognition of our past. Memories are small prayers to God, if we believed in that sort of thing.

Jonathan Safran Foer lured me into understanding our world with new insight. He kept me reading and re-reading the story, laughing, trembling, and knowing how important is our memory of who we are, so we know how far we’ve come, and how much further we must yet go. Everything is in fact illuminated but the glow may be only a reflection of something else.

Everything is Illuminated won the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lion’s Prize, among other recognition.


Other books that were serious contenders for E:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East is East by T. C. Boyle

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Eventide by Kent Haruf

Exodus by Leon Uris

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer


I look forward to learning about your favorite E fiction books.


Book cover image courtesy Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt





Comments on: "E is for Everything is Illuminated" (39)

  1. Haven’t read this, but you make me want to. It sounds like–besides all the other unique descriptions–there’s an unreliable narrator, just to keep the reader on our toes. I have heard of Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which ended up a Tom Hanks movie. Sounds like Foer’s talented.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Foer is very talented indeed, Jacqui. I read Everything is Illuminated three times and recommended it many more times than that. Please let me know what you think about it. I have Foer’s newest book – autographed! – on my shelf, waiting for me to finish the three books I’m currently reading.

      I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close before the movie was made. The book focuses on the child, the father’s role mostly being a memory in the boy’s head. But that’s Hollywood – who would have watched a movie about a very frightened child unless it was a horror movie, which the book is not and neither was the movie? Or unless they could find a way of getting a super star into the cast? Yeah, the second choice was the easiest. The book outpowers the movie by far.

      What E book would you add to the list?


  2. I always wonder about those people who don’t have many memories. How do they exist? My husband has around three memories from childhood. Are these people fooling themselves or us?

    I agree with Jacqui. This looks like a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adrienne, I really loved the book and hope you do as well.

      Unless people suffer hugely traumatic events that their minds block in order for them to survive, they are probably not fooling anyone, or even trying to. I think many people have memories that are more general than specific – the look of the town where they lived, (sidewalks broken by huge tree roots) their desk in school, (straight rows except for science class where they sat at shared tables) going to birthday parties, (the same three friends every year) and playing middle school sports (baseball, tennis, and basketball every year.)

      So while your husband may not be able to remember the particular day that his parents built a back porch, he probably recalls that the family added one during the years they lived in Mainville. He might remember that every school year began with an assembly on the playground and that he played a recorder in school recitals, birthday parties always served red punch, he was baseball short stop for two years, and only got one pair of athletic shoes for the entire time he was in middle school, though he can’t recall shopping for them.

      This is an entirely different memory loss from what my mom has. Suffering with Alzheimer’s, she cannot recall anything at all from her past, not a single incident nor a general idea of her family when she was a kid. The total loss of short term and long term memories truly horrifies me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My brother claims that most of his childhood memories are gone. I don’t believe him. I think he chooses to ignore them and refuse their entrance into his whole conscience, keeping them under wraps in his subconsciousness.

        Liked by 1 person

      • For some people this is a healthier way to live, rather than reviewing painful past experiences over and over. Nothing can be done to correct the old situations, but the aggrieved person becomes angrier and more frustrated. I think understanding this is why people, myself included, say we must learn to forgive. It isn’t for the sake of the person who has committed the injustice, but for us, the injured, so we can move forward and be constructive, even happier. If your brother chooses not to remember, perhaps it promotes a healthier mental environment for him than roiling in constant hatred, fear, or anger. I wish him well.


      • Oh yes–Alzheimer’s is truly horrifying!

        I like what you just wrote about memories–very eloquent. I think you’re right too. My husband, I think, prefers to put his pretty traumatic childhood behind him. He has given me a few good stories of sibling abuse (as a writer I can be such a user!).

        As soon as you mentioned school assemblies a flood of memories popped into my mind like magic.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Do I see another book in the distance, Adrienne?

        I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a memoir of his life as he becomes a successful writer and is always recommended for writers. You may have read it. Most people are surprised if I tell them I’d never read it. I’m not a horror or violence fan, and that’s the reason I haven’t read it until now. He writes about his school years, how the odd and outcast kids he observed there and later as a young teacher influenced his first book, Carrie.

        I’m always interested in the back stories of a writer’s books. There in King’s works is the swampy angst of high school life, the same miserable experience to which so many of us can relate. I see it also in your story about Buck and Fred, young, impetuous, men of their times. No matter how anyone may try to invent his own life, we cart our histories and cultures, along with our unique advantages and prejudices, into our life choices.

        Then we writers write.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I was slow on the uptake with SK’s book too since I don’t like horror.

        I enjoyed what I read but must confess I got distracted halfway through (who knows by what).

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have VERY few memories of childhood. Almost all of the memories I do have are from photos or stories told over and over. I Used to worry about that until a psychiatrist friend told me it was because my childhood was rather mundane! Research substantiates that – the brain remembers trauma for survival (rather than the more prosaic). Some people do repress traumatic memory but they are few and far between. The rest of us that don’t remember simply have brains that are hard-wired differently. It has nothing to do with intelligence or in some cases trauma suppression.

        The book you reviewed sounds really entertaining. Maybe I’ll read it if I can remember.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Judy, thanks for your input. I never suspected intelligence having anything to do with memory, but I appreciate the information about why and how we remember – or don’t.

        I might remind you about the book – if I can remember! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The more I read of your post, the more interested I’ve become. I put it on my wish list at Amazon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. how could I have missed that you’re back to posting? hurray! you’re feeling all better?

    hee hee – wanted to give you diet suggestion – Trader Joe’s has scratch & sniff stickers of turkey & pies…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Scratch and sniff stickers – hilarious! They would probably remind me how hungry I am for things I shouldn’t eat.

      I’m getting better every day, thank you for asking, Daal. It will be many more months before my arm is fully restored, and even then, it will never be 100%. But I work at my physical therapy every day, three times a day, for about an hour and a half each round – up to five or more hours a day. About half that time is massaging to reduce the swelling, and applying ice packs so I’m not as achy. Not strong enough yet to drive as I need my right arm to control the gear shift. Probably too much info, but I’m hoping to get back to painting soon. Unbelievable how much damage I did to my arm in one slip off a curb – yikes!

      Are you working on your book? I really think you’re proposing a crucial story.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t know if my IQ is high enough to keep up with this book, Shari. You had me believing in the beginning, then by the end I was like…umm, no. I’d leave with so many questions. I want to read it, in the end. Sooo many books smarter than I.

    I couldn’t think of an E book to share. Maybe it’s too late and my brain has shut off already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Audrey, anyone who writes poetry as you do has the intelligence to read this book. Amazon provides a service called “Look Inside,” you’re probably familiar with it. If you click on the book’s cover, it will open it and let you read about 10 – 20 pages of the story. It’s enough to know whether or not you’ll enjoy the book. Everything is Illuminated begins with Alex’s voice, and you’ll understand how he mangles English which he’s still learning from a dictionary.

      I’ve read it three times, and each reading revealed a new insight I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe I’m the one who needs to be smarter, but I loved the book. Let me know what you think if you decide to read it.


  6. This book sounds right up my alley. You know my views on the importance of the past as it gives you something on which to have the future that you want. Without a past we become lost and lose our identity, as happens with someone with dementia. As for an E book the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Elemental by Amanda Curtin. I thoroughly enjoyed this book which was set at the turn of the 20th century, spanning two world wars moving from Scotland to Western Australia. I certainly connected emotionally to the characters – a strong compelling narrative about making a life from the life that you have been given.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It sounds like a book not quite like any other. Using an old dictionary and mangling my sentences is actually the technique I generally use when traveling abroad. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. An author I haven’t heard of (and I know there are many) but this sounds very interesting and somewhat complex. One I think I will have to save for when my head has nothing else in it.


    • Jonathon Safran Foer has a devoted following here in the states and has been translated into many other languages. Everything is Illuminated doesn’t follow a traditional chronology and is a bit challenging. I recommended the book to my reading group and none of the other readers were as enthusiastic as I was. Didn’t discourage me – I still love the book.

      I didn’t know about the novels by Ruth Park until you wrote about her on your blog, and I thank you for that. I wish I had a year to do nothing but read and even then I would probably only get to a small number of the books I want to read.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is the problem with getting older – you suddenly start to find all the books you want to read, the galleries you want to visit and places you’d like to go but you know time is against you doing even half of what you want to. Sometimes I wish that I knew what I do now when I was a young adult and I would have started earlier. Had I though would I still be me and would I like myself? I think I just have to accept that I can only do what I can do and be happy with that — which mainly I am.


      • A true personal insight, Irene, that no matter what adventures you might have had, you are you at your core – and that’s a good thing. I’m still getting to know you, still finding you interesting, and still looking forward to learning more. In the back of my head, also hoping that one day I’ll travel down under and get to meet you in person. (Budget Wolf says that’s pretty unlikely – sigh…)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m enjoying getting to know you too Sharon and who knows. Strange things happen and one day……


      • I say that too – one day…One can dream.

        Liked by 1 person

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