Posts Tagged ‘Jews’

Book #113: Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those books that will punch you in the gut and knock all the air out of you.

It has two main plots. In the first, a young American Jew – Also named Jonathan Safran Foer – goes to Ukraine to find the woman who he thinks may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by his translator Alex – who butchers English amazingly – and Alex’s grandfather. Together they try to find the village Jonathan’s grandfather fled.

The second plot takes place largely in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod, known on maps as Sofiowka. Trachimbrod is a largely Jewish shtetl, and it’s filled to the brim with neurotic, quirky people. At the center of the story is Brod, Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who was found mysteriously by a river one day. From Brod’s strange origins and childhood, the narratives moves through life in the shtetl to Brod’s adulthood an marriage, continues through the years until it reaches Jonathan’s grandfather.

As Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather search for the now-nonexistent Trachimbrod, they are drawn closer to a painful, tragic truth and a past that they could never have expected.

When I read Everything Is Illuminated in college, it totally shattered me. I loved everything about it and immediately placed it on my list of top-ten books I’ve ever read. At the time I was really interested in Jews and World War II, and the tragic nature of the book and the fact that it was an interesting spin on the “Jews in World War II” narrative (it’s about Jews, and World War II plays a minor role, but it’s not a Holocaust book) were bound to make me love it.

I’ll be honest – this time around I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. It could be that in the four years since I’ve read the book I’ve built it up in my mind to be this great literary masterpiece or that my interests have shifted a bit, I don’t know. For some reason, for the first third of the book I kept thinking, “I fell in love with this book? Really?” It wasn’t that it was bad. It was still very good, it just wasn’t the earth-shattering read I remembered.

But then I started to get more invested. The plot moved along and things like Alex’s bad English started to feel less gimmicky and I found myself getting sucked in. By the end as we approached the terrible thing my heart was racing and I kept telling myself not to be so invested because I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to be crushed.

But crushed I was.

It’s hard to say where I come down on Everything Is Illuminated. I still loved it. As a whole it had much the same effect on me this time as it did four years ago. But at the same time, I was more aware of some of the flaws and parts that felt gimmicky or didn’t seem necessary. It’s not a perfect book. It’s far from it. But in the end I felt so shattered that I’m inclined to be forgiving of the flaws, because damn, this books makes you feel.

So I still loved it. It’s still a book I’ll readily recommend to anyone who asks. If I see someone reading it or it comes up in conversation, I’ll still say, “Man. That is a good book. It’s one of my favorites.” But is it still in my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list?

I don’t know…

Either way, read it. It’s beautiful and haunting and it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Victim

Book #90: Call It Sleep

Growing up and trying to understand the world around you is hard enough. In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, the young narrator has it even harder as he tries to adjust to life in a new city, in a country he doesn’t understand. The story opens with the young boy and his mother meeting the father in New York City, where he has been working to save up to send for them.

The Jewish family settles into the slums and young David has to adjust to, and attempt to understand, life in the big new city. In a lot of ways, it’s a typical coming-of-age story. Growing up is tough stuff, and David has to do it in two languages. In doing so, he provides a very interesting filter to view the strange, terrifying, and remarkably foreign New York City.

Overall, Call It Sleep is a pretty interesting read. I especially liked the way Roth deals with language in the book. David’s mother never learns English, and Yiddish dialogue is woven throughout the novel. It added an interesting dimension and never let you get too comfortable in the setting. Just when you thought you were adjusting to the narrative and landscape the narrator was living in, the Yiddish would remind you that something about this is still foreign. It never lets you get too at home.

Rating: ***

Book #32: Fatelessness

I’ve just started Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertész book cover

It’s a Holocaust book, which means I’ll be pretty absorbed by it. I’ve mentioned this on here before, I think, but I’m really interested in the Holocaust.

Basically, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew who winds up in Auschwitz. He’s really only a Jew by heritage. He doesn’t exactly believe in God and he doesn’t speak Yiddish. This leads other Jews in the concentration camp to shun him and claim that he isn’t really a Jew.

I’m wondering if this will be a big part of the book. It sounds like it could wind up being a great commentary on the randomness and senselessness of the persecution of the Jews. The boy is, for some reason, identified as a Jew by outsiders, but actual Jews don’t completely consider him one. What, then, is identity and what makes a person who they are?

Hopefully this book will reflect on that a little. But otherwise, I’m just going to enjoy (in the way that one usually “enjoys” Holocaust literature) reading about the Holocaust again. I haven’t really done that since my senior project in college.

Book #10: Ben-Hur

This book ends the decade! Woot!

I’m reading Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace. It’s about a Jew named Judah Ben-Hur and his journey from Jerusalem to, eventually, Rome. The novel deals with spirituality, love, and identity.

Oxford World Classics edition of "Ben-Hur" by "Lew Wallace"

I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. I really like studying religion and I’m especially interested in Jews and Judaism. I love reading books – both fiction and nonfiction – about Judaism. I don’t know why, it’s just what I’m interested. I kind of want to learn Hebrew.

I think I like the Jews because they have such a long, epic history. They’re an ancient group of people. They’ve been through so much and their culture and religion are still pretty distinct. There’s still a strong sense of heritage and identity there. Judaism the religion also has a rich history and culture. All those philosophers, artists, and the tradition of MIDRASH…man, it’s cool. And don’t forget Kabbalah. Judaism is, to me, THE coolest religion/lifestyle/philosophy. I’m excited.

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I wrote a draft of this post, forgot to post it, and started reading. I’m about a third of the way in. It’s interesting, but, MAN is it slow going. I kind of forgot that American writers in the 1800s LOVED detail. It’s about 70% descriptions and 30% plot advancement.

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