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Having just finished the nearly 800 page The Goldfinch, and feeling slight withdrawals from having had to go back to reality, I’m looking for the next great read.  There are stacks of unread books in my apartment; but how do I choose among them?  How do I decide what to read next? 

There are several ways one can break this down.  Genre, fiction or non, length, subject matter.  You could even decide based on where the author is from: Italy, Japan, Ireland, etc.  You could look at eras, such as modern, postmodern, etc.  Genre is another consideration: do you want fantasy, YA, thriller, memoir? Historical romance?  Regional?  Or do you want a classic author: Tolstoy, Dickens, Woolf?  Would poetry or short stories sate you? Graphic novels? 

Currently, I’m trying to decide between 3-4 books.  James Joyce’s Ulysses is still in the mix; I’ve considered trying to read it before Bloomsday, a goal I’ve held each year but never accomplished.  But, since I just finished a rather large novel, I might opt for something shorter, like Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which I started a while back and never finished.  Then there’s Kafka on the Shore, Orfeo, and Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.  

Another option:  reading several books at once.  Or flipping a coin.  

It’s a book lover’s existential crisis.  There are at once too many books and also not enough. 


First of all, let me say that I unabashedly loved Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.  Cleverly written, great film.  I also confess that I loved the film version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  It’s tough to write about the tragedy of 9/11 and not delve into cliche, or let the novel become overwrought.  I actually liked the novel, for the most part, right up until the end.  Damn, do I have a problem with endings.  This particular ending is no exception.

Having lost a father at a rather young age myself, I can certainly relate to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  My father didn’t die in a national tragedy, but his death was still a mystery, still painful, still left me with questions.  There are lots of sons without fathers in the novel, and one grandfather without a son.  The women don’t seem to play much more than supporting roles here.  The main issue is the relationships between the fathers and the sons.  This theme takes the attention off of the 9/11 tragedy, which is good.  But you also have the Holocaust in the background, and a grandfather who doesn’t speak.  So the tragedy is everywhere, inescapable.

[Spoiler alert]  The narrator and protagonist, Oskar Schell, has a strong voice.  He’s an interesting kid, full of post 9/11 paranoia and phobias.  But his last act, that of digging up his father’s empty grave, struck me as all wrong.  Why would he do such a thing?  Why would his mother allow him to do it?  I find it implausible.  And just a bit pointless.  Everyone knows the casket is empty, so what is the point?

The last line of the novel is ambiguous;  normally this would delight me.  In this case, not so much.  “We would have been safe” (Foer, 2005). Safe from what?  Who?  Is he referring to the terrorists?  Or the thousands of other ways in which we, as humans, are not ‘safe’?  This notion of safety is not unfamiliar to me; I myself have a dozen or so phobias about being in a safe place.  I think my issue with this ending is that we all have different definitions of what we believe will keep us safe, or what constitutes that feeling of safety.  Certainly this definition has changed since 9/11.  Certainly, we have become a police state due to issues of safety.  Is it just the loss of his father that makes him feel less safe?  When he says “We” is he just referring to his family, or all of us?

I have to say, that although I didn’t like this novel as much, I do appreciate Foer’s style and editing choices.  Choosing multiple narrators and letters and some stream of consciousness works style-wise.  The so-called visual writing (photographs of doorknobs and people falling) is not so appealing; one wonders what the point is of that as well.  Regardless, I love that he pushes the boundaries of style, even if it doesn’t always work.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005.  Print.

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