'Everything is Illuminated' by Jonathan Safran Foer

My thoughts on 'Everything is Illuminated' can be summed up quite neatly by Francine Prose, whose book I reviewed the other day:

'To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies.'
So there. This book made me feel so insignificant and talentless that I properly downed tools for a couple of days and started to wonder whether I have been completely wasting my time. I was quite overwhelmed by it because it is MIGHTY and ambitious and clever and funny, and made me feel quite stupid, actually, which is probably why it's taken me an age to get around to writing about it. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about my age and the fact that I am already two years older than Safran Foer when this was published. He was 25.

The story is lead by the narrative of a young Jewish-American, handily called Jonathan Safran Foer, and his journey back to the Ukraine to explore his familial roots there and try and find the women who saved his grandfather life when his shtetl was destroyed by the Nazis in WWII. He is accompanied on his journey by Alexander Perchov, his Ukrainian translator, Alex's father, also called Alex, and a mangy, flatulent dog called Sammy Davis Jnr Jnr.

The narrative takes multiple strands: 

1) Sections from Jonathan Safran Foer's (the character) own novel-in-progress, about past members of his family who lived in the Ukrainian shtetl a long time ago;
2) Narration from Alexander Perchov, the translator, who provides a running commentary on Jonathan Safran Foer's time in the Ukraine, in his own special brand of English;
3) Letters between Alexander and Jonathan after the event, which work well to tie all the strands together.

None of this of course describes the emotional impact of the story, but it does start to give an illustration of the meta-fictional devices that Safran Foer uses to heighten and give massive energy to his work. The writing is nimble and hilarious, and cut through with a type of knowing literary legacy that allows him to make sense of the insensible, I guess, in a very original way. I found it thrilling and fresh, but at the same time I can see how it would make this book an easy target for haters of this kind of meta-fictional audacity.

I'm not saying it is a perfect book. Alexander Perchov comes across, rather unflatteringly, as a bit 'Borat', with his unique English and wild proclamations (my husband actually dumped it after a page, called it nonsense), and preoccupation with sex and masturbation that runs through the book smacks a little of adolescent male given free rein.

However, the positive outweighed the negative for me on a larger scale than I can measure. It was so funny and then so heart-breakingly sad that I felt the tangible weight of all the horrific things that have happened to billions of people in the recent past, and specifically the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust, which is conveyed in this book. I loved also how the generations melded together in Jonathan's stories of the shtetl - there were several moments where I didn't know who we were talking about, or when, as it was so widely and sadly applicable  - and I felt that it gave a good conveyance of locality in the Ukraine. It and him remind me, funnily enough, of Tea Obreht and 'The Tiger's Wife', as they are both dazzling wunderkinds ('The Tiger's Wife' was published when Obreht was 26) who run along similar thematic lines: exploration through Eastern Europe to find specific family members or unearth family secrets, complimented by a magical realist historical narrative thread, with all parts coming together at the end. The impact and aftermath of war also features heavily in both, but that's unsurprising considering that there are few families you could go back through without encountering conflict, particularly in Eastern Europe, where both writers can trace direct links back to.

I feel a bit like something special was happening to me after reading this book and I'm intensely aware that I'm struggling to convey that in this review. I saw a review on Amazon which is basically 'THIS WAS AMAZING, OH MY GOD, I CAN'T TALK ABOUT IT', which echoes my thoughts well. Just read this book, if you haven't. I'll read it throughout my life I imagine, but maybe only when my own work is going well.

Title: Everything is Illuminated
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Perennial, and imprint of HarperCollins
Date: 2002
Format: Paperback, 276 pages, and it was very kindly given to me by Nicole at Book Lush.


'Reading Like A Writer' by Francine Prose

'Reading Like a Writer' by Francine Prose is a book I picked up on a whim in Waterstones in Oxford - I had one of those classic 'ah, this book is for me' moments, when you see something and immediately take it to the counter to pay. Bravo on both the title and the cover, whoever came up with those: 'A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them'...which includes all the book bloggers in the world, for a start, am I riiggghhttt? Great branding, and a great section of society to target for free publicity, so hats off all round.

The structure of this book is that Francine Prose, a writer with the most fortuitous name imaginable ( I hope it just happens to be her name, like Lisa Maffia), breaks down the various aspects of good writing down into manageable chunks, such as 'Close Reading', 'Words', 'Sentences' etc. She then talks about her own writing, her own teaching experiences and other books that do this particular thing really well, giving examples and then deconstructing them for the reader. 

In tone, this book reminded me, oddly, of 'Molotov's Magic Lantern' by Rachel Polonsky, which I video-reviewed earlier this year, which is kinda funny as they actually look vaguely alike, although it's likely more that they are both female academics/writers of a similar age than that they are actually the same person. What I really mean is that the style is easy to read, very informative and perhaps the teensiest bit dry if you're not really into the subject about which they are talking. I was, however, so it's fine.

Good things about this book were Prose's obvious teaching experience, which I found to be both interesting and illuminating, and her advocacy of attention to detail. Of the writing guides I've read, structural devices and the necessity of a bangin' first chapter are usually the closest areas of study, so I found it quite refreshing to read:
'The well-made sentence transcends time and genre. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, regardless of when it was written, or whether it appears in a play or a magazine article. Which is one of the many reasons why it's pleasurable and useful to read outside of one's own genre. The writer of lyrical fiction or of the quirkiest, most free-form stream-of-consciousness novel can learn by paying close attention to the sentences of the most logical author of the exactingly reasoned personal essay.'
I think that's perfect advice: read everything, don't be a snob, sweat the small stuff and endeavour to make all your writing beautiful. I was quite moved by that sentiment and have tried to apply it to all my types of writing since, including this blog (gee, thanks for noticing!). I thought the chapters on first sentences and paragraphing were great as they provided a great range of pointers to try immediately; the dialogue chapter was the weakest, as I found the examples given quite obscure and not overly declarative or compelling. But I guess a lot of that will be down to reading taste, as if I've not been moved by a paragraph before, it's inevitably less illuminating when picked out for display, so you might find different.

There's a chapter called 'Learning from Chekhov' which, whilst dallying about with teachings concludes that great writers are unknowable and flout the rules that others follow, also reminded me a little of the 'Lesser Known Chekhovian Techniques' from McSweeney's, but not to its (hilarious) detriment; this is then followed by a chapter called 'Reading from Courage', which I found useful and unique amongst writing guides. 
'When we think about how many terrifying things people are called on to do every day as they fight fires, defend their rights, perform brain surgery, give birth, drive on the freeway, and wash skyscraper windows, it seems frivolous, self-indulgent, and self-important to talk about your writing as an act that requires courage. What could be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvellous tidbit of art your brain has brought forth to amuse you?
And yet most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself  that you would just as soon not know - those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.
All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation.'
Isn't that great? And ringing a tonne of bells in your head, as it is in mine? I feel endless kindness to Francine Prose for writing that down. It also ends with a list of 'Books to be Read Immediately', which I smugly ticked off, pretending to myself that I've read more than is perhaps actually true.

This is a good addition to any writer's-guide shelf, and hopefully reading and writing about it will, someday, result in some of the good practices rubbing off and enhancing my own writing from the outside in. Fingers crossed.

Title: 'Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them'
Author: Francine Prose
Date of Publication: US, 2006; UK, 2012
Publisher: US, HarperCollins; UK, Union Books
Format: 268 pages, heavy paperback, and I bought it.


Guest Post: From Hack Blog to Hot Job

Today on Tolstoy is my Cat we have a great guest blog from Jeanna Carter, from a series entitled 'Resources for Generation Y', about how blogging can be a great way to enhance your career prospects and appeal to employers, or to replace them altogether to make blogging your full-time job.

Blogging as an employment tool is not something I talk about very often on this blog, but I perhaps should, as it has helped me get more than one job, it's something that I always talk about in interviews and it works well for me as a type of online writing portfolio. Jeanna talks about it much better than I could though, so take it away Jeanna!

 * * *
From Hack Blog to Hot Job: Blogging Your Way to Your Dreams

For many people, a blog is no more than a place to share Aunt Edna’s tamale pie recipe, post photos of your new litter of kittens, or publicly journal about the travails and blessings of parenthood. Personal blogs are increasingly popular, both as a means of sharing information and as a way to connect with others. The attention that they are garnering is forcing many who once wrote them off to begin to consider them, especially in academic. Blogs are being used everywhere from top schools in Mississippi to Oxford. This is because the blogosphere can do much more than serve as an extension of Facebook or Google+.

Blogging is first and foremost a means of showcasing your writing, something that can be difficult for students and adults alike. Many aspiring authors and journalists get their start through blogging. The medium allows them to find their voice and draw a readership. The usefulness of blogs extends far beyond simple story-telling, though. Blogs exist for almost every career path, and can be a valuable means for putting specific skills and qualifications out there. You could also get published via blog. Either your blog posts themselves might find a way to publication on a popular site, or you could post portions of a pending book and attract the attention of publishers. Either way, a blog can be more than an online diary; it can be a path to realizing your dreams.

A blog can be a place to share thoughts on any topic, but as Money-Zine.com details, a job blog is a very specific type of a blog. Recruiters in all sorts of disciplines engage in “blog reconnaissance,” often weekly if not daily. Subscribing to popular blogs allows recruiters to see what is trending online, as well as to recognize particularly talented contributors. Reading blogs familiarizes them with the major players on any given topic.

Blogs are often an asset in this respect when interviewing or even just applying for a job, especially if you have little work experience. Establishing yourself as a blogger gives potential employers some sense of your abilities and qualifications. Regular online posts can give recruiters an idea of your level of expertise, and also a sense of your writing style and communication skills. The lesson here is simple: if you want your blog to help you find a job, you need to create one the puts your best foot forward.

Your job or career blog should be professional and focus on the job you want. As such, personal antics should be kept out. Do not share recipes unless your career path is culinary arts, and avoid photos of kittens unless you want to be noticed for your photography skills. Discussions of your quirky habits or the play-by-play of your relationship difficulties should be avoided.

You will want to keep your blog interesting and create quality content, and do all you can to avoid misspellings, poor grammar, or foul language. This often means moderating comments. Comments from readers can help give your blog credibility, and demonstrate that your content is something that the public wants. Comments must be useful, appropriate, and relevant, however.

If you have specialized knowledge, or can sound like an expert in your field, you should highlight this. Another hint is to be consistent: post daily, weekly, or biweekly, not just whenever you feel like it. Including an “About Me” section which states your interests and qualifications is also usually a good idea. Depending on your goals, you can even place a downloadable resume on this page.

It’s important to advertise your blog, because if you don’t, it’s like talking to an empty room. Link to your blog from any resumes you have posted on job search bulletin boards. Submit your blog to directories such as DMoz, news feeds such as Yahoo! and NewsIsFree, and services that scan blog pages, such as Bloglines. If you are trying to get published, you can link to your blog in emails to agents. It is also important to network with other bloggers, and leave comments that will link back to your own work. It often takes a lot of networking to stand out in the blogosphere.

People like Krishnan Nair, a would-be lawyer turned professional blogger, and the writer of the popular Hipstercrite social networking and marketing blog, are only two of the many who have turned internet writing into a steady job. The possibilities are endless. Developing a niche, a readership, and a reputation take time, but the payout can be life changing. Blogging is often described as a solitary pursuit. On the one hand, yes, though posts connect to a vast network -- and have the potential to get you where you want to be in your career. 
* * *

'The internet is increasingly becoming integrated into every area of life and opportunities to cash in are constantly expanding. Today’s post, a perfect fit for a blog that talks about blogging, discusses how this activity has become a feasible way to make a living online. It was written by Jeanna Carter, who contributes to a site that will help you find the right college and make the most of the college experience.'  


'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote

Like most modern readers, I didn't come to this book uninitiated: the 1961 film version is one of my all-time faves. This is my first Truman Capote though, so that was something, although the stories and folklore surrounding his work made him feel familiar enough even before I started reading. 

The edition I read, the Penguin Modern Classics edition, published in 2000, has been superseded by 'new ed.' 2000 version, with the cover you see displayed. Like this edition though, it also featured three of Capote's short stories: 'House of Flowers', 'A Diamond Guitar' and 'A Christmas Memory', as 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' itself is a mere 100 pages. 

Breakfast at Tiffany's  


'Breakfast at Tiffany's', as I'd hoped, is a gorgeous story, with jubilantly lively writing, the irrepressible Holly Golightly and New York city,  full of glamour, potential and portent. I imagine you know the story: young writer moves into an apartment building in New York, is intrigued by his mysterious socialite neighbour, who thinks nothing of telling you what she wants to tell you, but will tell you nothing really of herself, and a relationship between them builds in which he immortalises her character, which alternatively delights and repels him, but always intrigues. She is one of the seminal character sketches, longing for both a solution to the 'mean reds' whilst abhorring the idea of ever being tied down.

The main thing that's stayed with me from it is that reading this story feels eerily like watching the film. The majority of it is the same, which never happens with adaptations. I don't mean it as a criticism, as it was actually a delight; much of the dialogue seems to have been lifted verbatim and the settings and scenes seem stunningly imagined/re-imagined in large part, down to the very last detail. There were a few structural changes made, but take this as your spoiler alert, as I'll discuss them below.

And there's Holly. Audrey Hepburn did a stunning job of making film-Holly much more likeable than book-Holly, I thought, although What. A. Character. - no wonder she's lasted. She twists and turns and contradicts herself and sits there flashing you a smile, fully formed and elusive on the page. Book-Holly seems flakier though, and less like someone you'd happily let pick you up and put you down and allow to crawl in through your bedroom window at 4am without asking too many questions. It's more realistic I suppose, and quite a bit less Hollywood: '$50 for the coat check' is rather more explicitly described, and the implication of a relationship between Holly and 'Fred'/the narrator seems paradoxically far more likely before the big reveal, and also silly in parts, as both Holly and the narrator seem to suggest throughout that he is, in fact, gay. I know that must seem kind of strange, but book-narrator seems less infatuated with an idea of her, and more in touch with the real Holly, who endlessly refuses to admit the real circumstances of her life in favour of something more hopeful and nebulous. 

And that's the big structural difference *spoiler* - she breaks her bail after the Sally Tomato scandal and goes off to Brazil. The narrator is in a limo, which substitutes for the taxi, with her just the same, as she changes her wet clothes and debates what to do, and she also lets Cat out in the street and he calls her a bad person, but then she's off, and the narrator only finds Cat some weeks later, sat, looking very content, in the window of another house.
 'She rubbed her nose and concentrated on the ceiling. 'Today's Wednesday, isn't it? So I suppose I'll sleep until Saturday, really get a good schluffen. Saturday morning I'll skip out to the bank. Then I'll stop by the apartment and pick up a nightgown or two and my Mainbocher. Following which, I'll report to Idlewild. Where, as you damn well know, I have a perfectly fine reservation on a perfectly fine plane. And since you're such a friend I'll let you wave me off. Please stop shaking your head.'
'Holly. Holly. You can't do that.'
'Et pourquoi pas? I'm not hot-footing after Jose, if that's what you suppose. According to my census, he's strictly a citizen of Limboville. It's only: why should I waste a perfectly fine ticket? Already paid for? Besides, I've never been to Brazil.'

This alters the beginning of the book too: we are introduced to the setting and to Holly when Joe Bell, who runs the bar close to the building they lived in, calls to say he's been in contact with Mr. Yunioshi, who was in Africa and found a tribesman with a wooden statue head that is the spitting image of Holly. So that's where she went when she left New York, they guess...and so he tells us how this all came into being. It's quite funny, I suppose, but apparently the likeness of the carving is so like her that there is no mistaking it, and in 1944, pre-facebook, I suppose looking for wooden carvings that resembled old friend's faces is the way you kept track of who was doing what and where in the world... Also, her husband Doc appears, just the same, but that is almost a side note, and is dropped much more quickly as a plot point than it is in the film.

I loved this story, which is a novella by definition, and devoured it in a day. I suppose the truest compliment I can pay it is that the novella is worthy of the film, and the film is worthy of it. Both are fuzzy and vibrant and wonderful. Some of the dialogue is original though; I spent the whole book looking for my favourite line,
'I'd marry you for your money in a minute'
but, alas, no. Capote is a hell of a writer though, even if this is the only story of his I ever were to read.

But, we know that not to be the case...

House of Flowers


This is another stunning story. It is about, although not narrated by, Ottilie, a teenage girl who comes down from her adoptive family in the Haitian mountains to Port-au-Prince and ends up, after dropping all of the rice that she has been entrusted to sell, as the most popular girl in the Champs-Elysee brothel. At a cockfight she meets Royal Bonaparte, a boy with a house of flowers in the mountains too. They get married and six months after her absconding with him her family and friends all presume that she must be dead.

In reality she's living in this house of flowers with Royal and his evil grandmother Old Bonaparte, who makes spells. She hates Ottilie and takes every opportunity to criticise and pinch her, and starts doing disgusting, witch-crafty things, like putting cat heads in her sewing basket and snakes in her food. Ottilie turns these spells around with effective effect, whilst Royal starts to return to his pre-wedding behaviours.

I don't want to give any more of the plot away, but this is a story about the satisfaction that can come with love, however abusive, and the challenges that a person can, frankly, take pleasure in overcoming.

Haiti is beautifully evoked - the whole story felt hot, heavy, dark and fragrant, and completely divorced from the New York which I'd been living in just a few pages before, and Ottilie is a great, three-dimensional character, as are, to a slightly lesser degree, Royal and Old Bonaparte.

This story subverted my expectations throughout, turning on a knife edge at one point, and the ending was a surprise that had me trying to suppress the shock and surprise on my face in a coffee shop, which seems a bit daft now as the rest of the country was sat elsewhere, watching the first England game.

Anyway, 'House of Flowers' is a really great short story, and a lesson in how to write them for best effect.

A Diamond Guitar 


The Diamond Guitar, the third story of four, is a story told in retrospect about a prison farm in an American forest where Mr Schaffer, one of few literate men in the prison camp and your classic old-timer, befriends Tico Feo, a young Cuban inmate with a diamond guitar, given to him by his sister, who also, incidentally, has a ruby guitar too. A relationship builds between the two men and they start to consider attempting some kind of prison break.

 I thought this was the weakest of the four stories, and I struggled to get into it before it was over, so much so that I don't remember the detail of what happened. I'm still wondering though how a man could be allowed to keep something like a diamond guitar with him in a prison - it's a working guitar with, what I imagine, are rhinestones stuck on - and why the other men wouldn't try to steal it, but nothing happens of that sort. It was quite an artificial premise and not one that I felt particularly affected by, although undoubtedly, my opinion of it was coloured by the fabulousness of the two stories before.

A Christmas Memory


'A Christmas Memory' was a touching, bitter-sweet story, somewhat incongruous on a sunny June day, about a little boy called Buddy and his cousin in her sixties, who I'm guessing is suffering from dementia or a learning difficulty as she is treated like a child also, which means Buddy, the lady and a Jack Russell called Queenie are largely free to do as they please.

This particular Christmas memory concerns the day they want to make Christmas fruitcakes to send out by post to all the 'acquaintances' they remember together, including President Roosevelt and the knife grinder who comes to town twice a year. They then want to decorate a Christmas tree, which is very sweet, although the story is kept on the bitter side of sweet by their lack of resources and ingenuity, and also the old lady's confusion about how she's treated and the fact that Buddy will soon grow up. Loss, loneliness and the sadness that many feel at Christmas are under-lying features of this story, as well as the notion of time and the inevitable passing of special moments with people you love.

''Buddy, are you awake?' It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. 'Well, I can't sleep a hoot,' she declares. 'My mind's jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?' We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. 'Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up.'

I found this story quite moving and I can see how it attained the 'classic' status that seems to have been bestowed on it, according to Wikipedia at least, but for me it pales in comparison to 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and 'House of Flowers.'

Title: 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
Author: Truman Capote
Date of Publication: 1958; this edition 2000
Publisher: 1958, Random House/Hamish Hamilton; 2000, Penguin Modern Classics
Format: 157 pages, paperback, and I bought it from a used book stall in my home town for the bargain price of £4.


The Million's Most Anticipated List

A few days ago The Millions published their Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2012 Book Preview, listing all the book they were most excited about coming out before the end of 2012. I urge you to check out the full list yourself, but these are my personal picks from the list:

'Dare Me' by Megan Abbott, which is actually already out in the UK, published by Picador, is a dark look at the competitive world of cheer-leading and the modern adolescent psyche.  Her last book, 'The End of Everything', was highly acclaimed and The Millions reckons this book could make her 'the head honcho of suburban noir', so very curious about this.

 'NW', out in September in the UK and the US, is Zadie Smith's first novel in 7 years and concerns a fictional council estate called Caldwell in north-west London and the people who live there.
'White Teeth' has always been an important book to me, and I really enjoyed 'On Beauty's treatment of Howard's End, so I hope this new one will be just as good. Fingers crossed she doesn't go all 'Autograph Man' on me - that book went way, way over my head.

'Heroines' by Kate Zambreno is my next pick, although this book will be the first of hers that I've read. It's about, interestingly, the wives and mistresses of artists who are essential muses in their heydays but often end up silenced or erased. I think I become more political by the day, if I'm honest, especially with regards to women's politics, so this is the kind of book that I need. Also, Jezebel loves her, as does The Hairpin, and seeing as those are the two places I generally hang-out online, I reckon I will too. This one's out in September.

'Sweet Tooth' by Ian McEwan is my final pick, which is out in the UK in August and the US in November, and is apparently le Carre-meets-'Atonement' which makes me very excited as I recently made my happy way through 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' and 'Atonement is one of my all-time faves.
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