8 June 2018

Author Spotlight: Jonathan Safran Foer




   
I feel like there are a lot of strong opposing opinions about Jonathan Safran Foer. I fall sort of in the middle. I love, love, love his books, but he drives me INSANE as a human being. Foer is a very talented writer and became pretty famous pretty quickly, but there is such an air of pretentiousness that surrounds him, and it's hard to ignore.

Foer is extremely well educated and from a pretty well-off family. He went straight to Princeton after graduating high school and worked very closely with JOYCE CAROL OATES. Imagine being in your early twenties and having fucking Joyce Carol Oates telling you you're a very talented writer and should consider it as a career??? My head would explode.

ANYWAYS, the most damning evidence that makes me cringe is his relationship with Natalie Portman ... it makes me ALMOST dislike Portman. The two of them had been emailing each other for years, and for some unknown reason decided to let the New York Times publish their correspondence. This is easily the most douchey, "auteur"-correspondence where they spend most of their emails patting each other on the back ... it is painful to read.

But a lot of people don't like the authors they love to read, and I am no different. So let's start this author spotlight like we do with most: reviewing each book in chronological order. (I should note that I am excluding Tree of Codes because it isn't really a book).


1. Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

Foer was only 25 when this book was published which I think is a huge accomplishment. I read this book a LONG time ago, but the main things I remember are the heartbreaking fictionalized scenes of the destruction of a Jewish community in Poland before the Holocaust. This is always Foer's strong suit. In university he wrote his thesis about his maternal grandmother - a Holocaust survivor. He is very in touch with his Jewish heritage and writes really beautifully about it.

She was a genius of sadness, immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum."

I should also say this book is very weird, and it's a good example of what's to come in Foer's career. His narrative structures are usually complicated, with multiple narratives and storylines, as well as strange literary devices. Often times he'll rely on manipulations of the actual text itself ... jumbling sentences together until it is essentially unreadable.

Again, I read this book a long time ago (and also watched the movie adaptation with Elijah Wood) and can't really remember too much about it. I just remember thinking it wasn't really for me, and that I probably would never read it again. BUT I really do think that I read this book too young and that if I was to go back through it I would actually really enjoy it.

One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be family."

You can read Meg's full review of the book here.


2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)

On the other hand, I feel like I read this book at the perfect age. I was still in high school when I picked it up and I remember being really moved by it. I always said the takeaway message is simple: tell people how you feel about them because you never know when you'll lose that opportunity.

It's been so many years since I've read this and I worry that if I were to revisit it I would find the whole 9/11 plotline to be disgusting.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has two storylines: one from the perspective of a young New York boy whose father dies in 9/11, and the second from an older man living in New York who thinks back to his life in Dresden and the death of the love of his life. The link between these two characters is that the old man marries the young boy's grandmother.

Time was passing like a hand waving from a train I wanted to be on. I hope you never think about anything as much as I think about you."

The stuff about Dresden and the unhappy marriage back in New York were beautifully written, and painful to read. Again, this storyline fits with Foer's background in the history of the Holocaust, and he uses his knowledge to paint a strong portrait of the Second World War.

What did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think. I've thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it."

There are even more weird literary devices used in this book than in his first one.


3. Eating Animals (2009)

This is my second favourite Foer book, but is definitely one of the top ten books I think about the most. I remember I read this in like three days, and then spent the next two weeks telling anyone who would listen to me about it. I talked to Meg and Chelsea in an ice cream shop about it, I told Chelsea about it while on the elliptical machine, and I Skyped my parents for an hour and a half about it. And yet, I am still a meat-eating asshole.

We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, 'What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?'"

I love the beginning of this book. Foer starts off describing how important food is to us as individual people but also as a family unit. He talks about how his grandmother was obsessed and meticulous about food because of how she lived without it while hiding during the Second World War. She would pick up her grandchildren and tell them they were too thin, that they needed to eat more. She would also make use of every single scrap of food on her plate or in her pantry.

From there he tackles a bunch of different subject matter in relation to conscious eating: terminology, factory farming, harvesting mammals vs. fish vs. shellfish, whether to be vegetarian or vegan, dairy products, environmental impact, etc. I really, really liked how the book was organized and how the information was presented.

Nothing - not a conversation, not a handshake or even a hug - establishes friendship so forcefully as eating together. Maybe it's cultural. Maybe it's an echo from the communal feasts of our ancestors."

The heart of this book is Foer discussing his on-again-off-again relationship with veganism, and his determination to commit to being vegan. It is also about his, and his then-wife (and fellow author) Nicole Krauss', decision to raise their son vegan.

You can read Meg's (an actual vegetarian) full review here.


4. Here I Am (2016)

This was my favourite read of 2017, and easily my favourite Foer book. As I said in my full review (which you can find here), this is Foer's most mature book - both in style and in subject matter.

Here I Am is a family drama that centres on the end of the two main characters' marriage. This is particularly heart-wrenching because Foer and Krauss divorced in 2014, and it always makes me sad to see two writers separate.

Because I reviewed this book so recently I'll leave it at this, my favourite passage:

'In sickness and in sickness,' Jacob's mother had said at his wedding. 'That is what I wish for you. Don't seek or expect miracles. There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other's pain, and being present for it."


If you're an adventurous reader I would recommend any of Foer's books, but if you are more in to traditional writing, then I would suggest you lean towards Eating Animals or Here I Am. What's better than getting an author's work of non-fiction AND fiction? And if you are a lover of all Jonathan's and also enjoy picking up a Franzen novel, then check out our friend and collaborator Laura Frey's blog Reading in Bed, where she wrote a post comparing the two Jonathans!

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