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Everything Is Illuminated

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With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man - also named Jonathan Safran Foer - sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past. As their adventure unfolds, ...
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Everything Is Illuminated: A Novel

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Overview

With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man - also named Jonathan Safran Foer - sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past. As their adventure unfolds, Jonathan imagines the history of his grandfather's village, conjuring a magical fable of startling symmetries that unite generations across time. Lit by passion, fear, guilt, memory, and hope, the characters in Everything Is Illuminated mine the black holes of history. As the search moves back in time, the fantastical history moves forward, until reality collides with fiction in a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power. An arresting blend of high comedy and great tragedy, this is a story about searching for people and places that no longer exist, for the hidden truths that haunt every family, and for the delicate but necessary tales that link past and future. Exuberant and wise, hysterically funny and deeply moving, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an astonishing debut.

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
At once hilarious and deeply moving, Jonathan Safran Foer's brilliant debut novel juxtaposes a boastful young Ukrainian guide -- whose endearingly mangled English makes for one of the most wildly original narrations in memory -- with a self-deprecating American Jew in search of his family's roots in a long-forgotten Russian shtetl. As the seemingly mismatched pair pursues an odyssey through post-Soviet Ukraine, they discover a common ground that illuminates if not everything, then at least the resilience of the human spirit and the redemptive power of friendship. Writing for The New York Times, Francine Prose said of Everything Is Illuminated: "Not since ... A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance."
Publishers Weekly
What would it sound like if a foreigner wrote a novel in broken English? Foer answers this question to marvelous effect in his inspired though uneven first novel. Much of the book is narrated by Ukrainian student Alex Perchov, whose hilarious and, in their own way, pitch-perfect malapropisms flourish under the influence of a thesaurus. Alex works for his family's travel agency, which caters to Jews who want to explore their ancestral shtetls. Jonathan Safran Foer, the novel's other hero, is such a Jew an American college student looking for the Ukrainian woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. He, Alex, Alex's depressive grandfather and his grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch" set out to find the elusive woman. Alex's descriptions of this "very rigid search" and his accompanying letters to Jonathan are interspersed with Jonathan's own mythical history of his grandfather's shtetl. Jonathan's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Brod is the central figure in this history, which focuses mostly on the 18th and 19th centuries. Though there are some moments of demented genius here, on the whole the historical sections are less assured. There's a whiff of kitsch in Foer's jolly cast of pompous rabbis, cuckolded usurers and sharp-tongued widows, and the tone wavers between cozy ethnic humor, heady pontification and sentimental magic-realist whimsy. Nonetheless, Foer deftly handles the intricate story-within-a-story plot, and the layers of suspense build as the shtetl hurtles toward the devastation of the 20th century while Alex and Jonathan and Grandfather close in on the object of their search. An impressive, original debut. (Apr. 16) Forecast: Eagerly awaited since an excerpt was featured in the New Yorker's 2001 "Debut Fiction" issue, Everything Is Illuminated comes reasonably close to living up to the hype. Rights have so far been sold in 12 countries, the novel is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and a main selection of Traditions Book Club, and Foer will embark on an author tour expect lively sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This highly imaginative debut novel features a protagonist with the same name as the author. The fictional Jonathan Safran Foer, also a writer, travels to Eastern Europe after his junior year in college. His mission, as he ventures through the farmlands, is to find Augustine, who may have saved the grandfather he never knew from the Nazis. Accompanying Jonathan on his quixotic quest is Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks hilariously fractured English. The fabled history of his grandfather's shtetl, or village, is juxtaposed with events in the present using comedy interspersed with tragedy. Generations become united across time in this fanciful tale, as Foer, the author, gives the reader a contemporary version of 19th-century Jewish drama one that blends laughter and tears. Recommended for all libraries. Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut, a tale that depicts, with riveting intensity and originality, a young Jewish American writer's search for his family's European roots. Three stories are told therein: that of 20-year-old college student Jonathan Safran Foer's journey (in 1997) to the Ukraine in search of "Augustine," the woman rumored to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis; Jonathan's novel-in-progress, a fictional history of Trachimbrod, the Polish shtetl where his ancestors settled in the late 18th century; and letters written to Foer by his Ukrainian guide and translator Alex Perchov, an imperturbable Americanophile who boasts that he's "fluid" in English (in fact, he mangles it as memorably as Mrs. Malaprop) and blithely rearranges all his employer's plans. The seriocomic, partly surreal picture of life in Trachimbrod begins in fine magical-realist form with the story of a newborn baby who inexplicably survives when her father's wagon tumbles into the Brod River (for which she'll be named) and he drowns. Thereafter, Foer keeps the reader both hooked and pleasingly disoriented, as the narrative careens between Jonathan's sedulous exploration of "the dream that we are our fathers" and Alex's ingenuous accounts of their travels, undertaken in the company of his bilious Grandfather and an amorous canine bitch called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. The aged Augustine is (or perhaps is not) found, horrific tales of Nazi atrocities and of a bitter legacy of apostasy, betrayal, and guilt gradually unfold-and "illumination"-is ironically achieved, as these several stories fuse together. Summary would mislead, as interlocking revelations arethe story's core: suffice it to say that at its overpowering climax, the river where it all began "speaks"-before another voice adds an even more passionate, plaintive coda. Beauty from ashes. And a vibrant response to Jonathan's grim aphorism "The novel is the art form that burns most easily." Not this novel.
From the Publisher

“Not since Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” — Francine Prose, New York Times Book Review, Notable Books of 2002

“Read it, and you’ll feel altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new.” — Washington Post

“Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut . . . riveting intensity and originality.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A certified wunderkind at twenty-five . . . a funny, moving . . . deeply felt novel about the dangers of confronting the past and the redemption that comes with laughing at it, even when that seems all but impossible.” — Time

“It's wonderful to think that the very young Jonathan Safran Foer . . . can be writing so well and with such lofty aspriation. It will be wonderful if he writes many more books.” — Adam Begley, New York Observer

“A book that illuminates so much with such odd and original beauty.” — Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Magazine

“[A] dazzling literary high-wire act . . . brilliant . . . The payoff is extraordinary: a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort.” — Janet Maslin, New York Times

“[An] enormously impressive first novel . . . Everything is illuminated, indeed, by this talented artist’s furious, glorious starburst of prose.” — Dan Cryer, Newsday

“Maybe two or three times in a lifetime, a book transcends its genre to become experience. Everything Is Illuminated is an event of this order.” — Dorothea Strauss, Baltimore Sun

“A zestfully imagined novel of wonders both magical and mundane . . . He will win your admiration, and he will break your heart.” — Joyce Carol Oates

“Extraordinarily gifted . . . this young man also happens to possess something approaching wisdom. Don’t just check him out. Read him.” — Russell Banks

“It is one of the best novels I’ve ever been fortunate enough to hold in my hands.” — Dale Peck

“One of the most impressive first novels in a long time . . . this book is, as its name implies, brilliant.” — Adrienne Miller, Esquire

“Madcap virtuosity . . . takes big risks but reaps big rewards, affirming the human spirit in such profoundly triumphant fashion . . .” — Don McCleese, MSNBC.com

“J. S. Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated is a novel intricate in structure, fantastical in its story, and irreverent in a hundred different ways.” — Nathan Englander

“A writer of magnificent energy and obvious talent.” — Newark Star-Ledger

Everything Is Illuminated is often brilliant.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] stunning debut . . . So put off your plans to write the next Great American Novel—Foer’s beaten you to it.” — Maxim

“Without a doubt, Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, establishes him as one of the best young novelists around . . . A generosity of vision that is one of the true marks of a great writer.” — Time Out New York

“Have you ever found, after finishing a completely awesome book, that you have so many competing impulses about what to do next that you become frozen by excitement? That is how I feel right now. One thing I want to do . . . is tell every single one of my friends that I have just finished reading Everything Is Illuminated, an amazingly funny, adventuruous and powerful novel . . . I was dumbstruck with amazement and joy.” — Vancouver Sun

“He has given us a deeply resonant work that could only be the first great American Jewish novel of the twenty-first century.” — Jewish Daily Forward

“Foer has written a glittering first novel . . . with great humor, sympathy, charm and daring. Every page is illuminated.” — Jeffrey Eugenides

Everything is Illuminated is not only an extraordinary addition to novels about the Holocaust, but also the most impressive first novel I've read in years.” — Sanford Pinsker, Hadassah Magazine

“A rambunctious tour de force of inventive and intelligent storytelling . . . Foer can place his reader’s hand on the heart of human experience, the transcendent beauty of human connections. Read, you can feel the life beating.” — Philadelphia Inquirer

“Inventive, boisterous.” — Memphis Commercial Appeal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060792176
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/23/2005
  • Edition description: Movie Tie-In Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 967,773
  • Product dimensions: 7.98 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Safran Safran Foer

JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER is the author of the novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and a work of nonfiction, Eating Animals. His books have won numerous awards and have been translated into 36 languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Biography

Recent literary history is rife with auspicious debuts, and Jonathan Safran Foer's arrival was one of 2002's brightest and most media-friendly. After all, the backstory was publicist-ready: Everything Is Illuminated began as a thesis at Princeton under advisers Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, and Houghton Mifflin reportedly paid somewhere around half a million dollars for the rights.

Foer achieved a fresh, creative approach to the English language by viewing it through the eyes of his foreign narrator, a young Ukranian man named Alex who works in a family tour operating business targeted toward American Jews seeking their family roots. Alex's comical, dictionary-aided writing consists of not-quite-right sentences such as "He is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall." Alex's client, an American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer, wants to find a woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. The two set out -- with an old picture, and the name Augustine -- to find the woman, bringing Alex's grandfather and an odiferous seeing-eye dog.

The story unfolds both through Alex's eyes and in a later correspondence with Jonathan, who reveals chapters of a fictionalized version of Augustine's story. Despite the novel's decidedly earnest and serious themes, what's most striking about it is its strange, resonant humor. Publishers Weekly saw "demented genius" in it; and Francine Prose, who also used the adjective "demented" for Foer's writing, noted in the New York Times Book Review, "The problem [with the book] is, you keep laughing out loud, losing your place, starting again, then stopping because you're tempted to call your friends and read them long sections of Jonathan Safran Foer's assured, hilarious prose."

Since Foer admitted to doing little research (although he did take a trip similar to the fictional Foer's, inspiring the book), and the historical fiction sections earned some critical gripes for being uneven (Salon called them "dime-store García Márquez"), the chief strength of Everything Is Illuminated lies in a scope and wit that are stunning from an author who was still finishing up college at the time he began it. The paperback rights for Everything Is Illuminated later went for reportedly close to $1 million.

Foer has had an undergrad's dream experience when it comes to consorting with eminent forbears: Russell Banks -- a professor in Foer's senior year -- came to his aid when he assembled A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, which was published in 2001.

If Foer follows in the footsteps of fellow critical debut darlings Eugenides and Donna Tartt, it will be another ten years before we see a second novel. Fans will hope that instead he follows Oates's more prolific example.

Good To Know

According to a Princeton publication, Foer has been a "math tutor, archivist, ghost writer, farm sitter, advertising consultant and receptionist."

One of the many projects on Foer's "Project Museum" Web site is the Empty Page Project, a collection of blank paper from various authors -- the paper they normally use to write (anything) on. Nothing is on display yet, but according to a Guardian article, Foer has acquired pages from Paul Auster, Susan Sontag and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Both of Foer's brothers are editorial types: Franklin is an editor at the New Republic, and Joshua is a recent Yale grad and a contributor to Slate.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jonathan Safran Foer
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 21, 1977
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A. in Philosophy, Princeton University, 1999

Read an Excerpt

1 An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month. He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. It sounded boyish to me, and I have always thought of myself as very potent and generative. I have many many girls, believe me, and they all have a different name for me.
One dubs me Baby, not because I am a baby, but because she attends to me. Another dubs me All Night. Do you want to know why? I have a girl who dubs me Currency, because I disseminate so much currency around her. She licks my chops for it. I have a miniature brother who dubs me Alli. I do not dig this name very much, but I dig him very much, so OK, I permit him to dub me Alli. As for his name, it is Little Igor, but Father dubs him Clumsy One, because he is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall. If you're wondering what my bitch's name is, it is Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior.
She has this name because Sammy Davis, Junior was Grandfather's beloved singer, and the bitch is his, not mine, because I am not the one who thinks he is blind.

As for me, I was sired in 1977, the same year as the hero of thisstory. In truth, my life has been very ordinary. As I mentioned before, I do many good things with myself and others, but they are ordinary things. I dig American movies. I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa. Lamborghini Countaches are excellent, and so are cappuccinos. Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper. If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with. I am homely, and also severely funny, and these are winning things. But nonetheless, I know many people who dig rapid cars and famous discotheques. There are so many who perform the Sputnik Bosom Dalliance—which is always terminated with a slimy underface—that I cannot tally them on all of my hands. There are even many people named Alex. (Three in my house alone!) That is why I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer.
It would be unordinary.

I had performed recklessly well in my second year of English at university. This was a very majestic thing I did because my instructor was having shit between his brains. Mother was so proud of me, she said, "Alexi-stop-spleening-me! You have made me so proud of you." I inquired her to purchase me leather pants, but she said no. "Shorts?" "No." Father was also so proud. He said, "Shapka," and I said, "Do not dub me that," and he said, "Alex, you have made Mother so proud."
Mother is a humble woman. Very, very humble. She toils at a small café one hour distance from our home. She presents food and drink to customers there, and says to me, "I mount the autobus for an hour to work all day doing things I hate. You want to know why? It is for you, Alexi-stop-spleening-me! One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family." What she does not clutch is that I already do things for her that I hate. I listen to her when she talks to me. I resist complaining about my pygmy allowance. And did I mention that I do not spleen her nearly so much as I desire to? But I do not do these things because we are a family.
I do them because they are common decencies. That is an idiom that the hero taught me. I do them because I am not a big fucking asshole.
That is another idiom that the hero taught me.

Father toils for a travel agency, denominated Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people, like the hero, who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine. Father's agency scores a translator, guide, and driver for the Jews, who try to unearth places where their families once existed. OK, I had never met a Jewish person until the voyage. But this was their fault, not mine, as I had always been willing, and one might even write lukewarm, to meet one. I will be truthful again and mention that before the voyage I had the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. This is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid Father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine. But then I met Jonathan Safran Foer, and I will tell you, he is not having shit between his brains. He is an ingenious Jew.

So as for the Clumsy One, who I never ever dub the Clumsy One but always Little Igor, he is a first-rate boy. It is now evident to me that he will become a very potent and generative man, and that his brain will have many muscles. We do not speak in volumes, because he is such a silent person, but I am certain that we are friends, and I do not think I would be lying if I wrote that we are paramount friends. I have tutored Little Igor to be a man of this world. For an example, I exhibited him a smutty magazine three days yore, so that he should be appraised of the many positions in which I am carnal. "This is the sixty-nine," I told him, presenting the magazine in front of him. I put my fingers—two of them—on the action, so that he would not overlook it. "Why is it dubbed sixty-nine?" he asked, because he is a person hot on fire with curiosity. "It was invented in 1969. My friend Gregory knows a friend of the nephew of the inventor." "What did people do before 1969?" "Merely blowjobs and masticating box, but never in chorus." He will be made a VIP if I have a thing to do with it.

This is where the story begins.

But first I am burdened to recite my good appearance. I am unequivocally tall. I do not know any women who are taller than me.
The women I know who are taller than me are lesbians, for whom 1969 was a very momentous year. I have handsome hairs, which are split in the middle. This is because Mother used to split them on the side when I was a boy, and to spleen her I split them in the middle. "Alexi-stop-spleening-me!," she said, "you appear mentally unbalanced with your hairs split like that." She did not intend it, I know. Very often Mother utters things that I know she does not intend. I have an aristocratic smile and like to punch people. My stomach is very strong, although it presently lacks muscles. Father is a fat man, and Mother is also. This does not disquiet me, because my stomach is very strong, even if it appears very fat. I will describe my eyes and then begin the story. My eyes are blue and resplendent. Now I will begin the story.

Father obtained a telephone call from the American office of Heritage Touring. They required a driver, guide, and translator for a young man who would be in Lutsk at the dawn of the month of July.
This was a troublesome supplication, because at the dawn of July, Ukraine was to celebrate the first birthday of its ultramodern constitution, which makes us feel very nationalistic, and so many people would be on vacation in foreign places. It was an impossible situation, like the 1984 Olympics. But Father is an overawing man who always obtains what he desires. "Shapka," he said on the phone to me, who was at home enjoying the greatest of all documentary movies, The Making of "Thriller," "what was the language you studied this year at school?" "Do not dub me Shapka," I said. "Alex," he said, "what was the language you studied this year at school?" "The language of English," I told him. "Are you good and fine at it?" he asked me. "I am fluid," I told him, hoping I might make him proud enough to buy me the zebra-skin seat coverings of my dreams. "Excellent, Shapka," he said. "Do not dub me that," I said. "Excellent, Alex. Excellent. You must nullify any plans you possess for the first week of the month of July." "I do not possess any plans," I said to him. "Yes you do," he said.

Now is a befitting time to mention Grandfather, who is also fat, but yet more fat than my parents. OK, I will mention him. He has gold teeth and cultivates ample hairs on his face to comb by the dusk of every day. He toiled for fifty years at many employments, primarily farming, and later machine manipulating. His final employment was at Heritage Touring, where he commenced to toil in the 1950s and persevered until of late. But now he is retarded and lives on our street. My grandmother died two years yore of a cancer in her brain, and Grandfather became very melancholy, and also, he says, blind. Father does not believe him, but purchased Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior for him nonetheless, because a Seeing Eye bitch is not only for blind people but for people who pine for the negative of loneliness. (I should not have used "purchased," because in truth Father did not purchase Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, but only received her from the home for forgetful dogs. Because of this, she is not a real Seeing Eye bitch, and is also mentally deranged.) Grandfather disperses most of the day at our house, viewing television. He yells at me often. "Sasha!" he yells. "Sasha, do not be so lazy! Do not be so worthless! Do something! Do something worthy!" I never rejoinder him, and never spleen him with intentions, and never understand what worthy means. He did not have the unappetizing habit of yelling at Little Igor and me before Grandmother died. That is how we are certain that he does not intend it, and that is why we can forgive him. I discovered him crying once, in front of the television. (Jonathan, this part about Grandfather must remain amid you and me, yes?) The weather report was exhibiting, so I was certain that it was not something melancholy on the television that made him cry. I never mentioned it, because it was a common decency to not mention it.

Grandfather's name is also Alexander. Supplementally is Father's. We are all the primogenitory children in our families, which brings us tremendous honor, on the scale of the sport of baseball, which was invented in Ukraine. I will dub my first child Alexander. If you want to know what will occur if my first child is a girl, I will tell you. He will not be a girl. Grandfather was sired in Odessa in 1918. He has never departed Ukraine. The remotest he ever traveled was Kiev, and that was for when my uncle wedded The Cow. When I was a boy, Grandfather would tutor that Odessa is the most beautiful city in the world, because the vodka is cheap, and so are the women. He would manufacture funnies with Grandmother before she died about how he was in love with other women who were not her.
She knew it was only funnies because she would laugh in volumes. "Anna," he would say, "I am going to marry that one with the pink hat." And she would say, "To whom are you going to marry her?" And he would say, "To me." I would laugh very much in the back seat, and she would say to him, "But you are no priest." And he would say, "I am today." And she would say, "Today you believe in God?" And he would say, "Today I believe in love." Father commanded me never to mention Grandmother to Grandfather. "It will make him melancholy, Shapka," Father said. "Do not dub me that," I said. "It will make him melancholy, Alex, and it will make him think he is more blind. Let him forget." So I never mention her, because unless I do not want to, I do what Father tells me to do. Also, he is a first-rate puncher.

After telephoning me, Father telephoned Grandfather to inform him that he would be the driver of our journey. If you want to know who would be the guide, the answer is there would be no guide. Father said that a guide was not an indispensable thing, because Grandfather knew a beefy amount from all of his years at Heritage Touring. Father dubbed him an expert. (At the time when he said this, it seemed like a very reasonable thing to say. But how does this make you feel, Jonathan, in the luminescence of everything that occurred?)
When the three of us, the three men named Alex, gathered in Father's house that night to converse the journey, Grandfather said, "I do not want to do it. I am retarded, and I did not become a retarded person in order to have to perform shit such as this. I am done with it." "I do not care what you want," Father told him.
Grandfather punched the table with much violence and shouted, "Do not forget who is who!" I thought that that would be the end of the conversation. But Father said something queer. "Please." And then he said something even queerer. He said, "Father." I must confess that there is so much I do not understand. Grandfather returned to his chair and said, "This is the final one. I will never do it again."
So we made schemes to procure the hero at the Lvov train station on 2 July, at 1500 of the afternoon. Then we would be for two days in the area of Lutsk. "Lutsk?" Grandfather said. "You did not say it was Lutsk." "It is Lutsk," Father said. Grandfather became in thought. "He is looking for the town his grandfather came from," Father said, "and someone, Augustine he calls her, who salvaged his grandfather from the war. He desires to write a book about his grandfather's village." "Oh," I said, "so he is intelligent?" "No," Father corrected. "He has low-grade brains. The American office informs me that he telephones them every day and manufactures numerous half-witted queries about finding suitable food." "There will certainly be sausage," I said. "Of course," Father said. "He is only half-witted." Here I will repeat that the hero is a very ingenious Jew. "Where is the town?" I asked. "The name of the town is Trachimbrod." "Trachimbrod?" Grandfather asked. "It is near 50 kilometers from Lutsk," Father said. "He possesses a map and is sanguine of the coordinates. It should be simple."
Grandfather and I viewed television for several hours after Father reposed. We are both people who remain conscious very tardy.
(I was near-at-hand to writing that we both relish to remain conscious tardy, but that is not faithful.) We viewed an American television program that had the words in Russian at the bottom of the screen. It was about a Chinaman who was resourceful with a bazooka.
We also viewed the weather report. The weatherman said that the weather would be very abnormal the next day, but that the next day after that would be normal. Amid Grandfather and I was a silence you could cut with a scimitar. The only time that either of us spoke was when he rotated to me during an advertisement for McDonald's McPorkburgers and said, "I do not want to drive ten hours to an ugly city to attend to a very spoiled Jew." Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan Safran Foer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Reading Group Guide

IntroductionWith only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man - also named Jonathan Safran Foer - sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past. As their adventure unfolds, Jonathan imagines the history of his grandfather's village, conjuring a magical fable of startling symmetries that unite generations across time. Lit by passion, fear, guilt, memory, and hope, the characters in Everything Is Illuminated mine the black holes of history. As the search moves back in time, the fantastical history moves forward, until reality collides with fiction in a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power. An arresting blend of high comedy and great tragedy, this is a story about searching for people and places that no longer exist, for the hidden truths that haunt every family, and for the delicate but necessary tales that link past and future. Exuberant and wise, hysterically funny and deeply moving, Everything Is Illuminated is an astonishing debut. Discussion Questions
  1. Everything Is Illuminated is a novel written in two voices: Alex's account of the fictional character Jonathan Safran Foer's journey to Ukraine, and Jonathan's magical history of the village of his ancestors. How would you describe these two voices? How is the language different? In what ways do the two narrativesintersect or diverge? Why do you think the author chose to write the novel in this way?
  2. On page 1, Alex refers to Jonathan Safran Foer as "the hero of this story." Is he the hero? Why do you think the author Jonathan Safran Foer chose to give the protagonist of the novel his name? Does this decision affect how you read the story? Would the experience of reading Everything Is Illuminated be different if this character had another name?
  3. Why does Jonathan travel to Ukraine? What is he searching for? What are Alex and his grandfather searching for on the journey? What does each character find?
  4. On page 3, Alex says, "I had never met a Jewish person until the voyage." How would you describe Alex's view of Jewish people? What about his grandfather's? Do these views change as the journey progresses?
  5. On page 61, referring to his grandmother, Jonathan explains to Alex: "I couldn't even tell her I was coming to the Ukraine. She thinks I'm still in Prague." Why can't Jonathan tell his grandmother about his trip? Why is it a secret? Which other characters have secrets they cannot tell their families? What secrets are concealed? What secrets are revealed?
  6. Many of the chapters are titled "Falling in Love." There are many kinds of love in the novel.

    On page 83, Jonathan writes about the love between Brod and Yankel: "But each was the closest thing to a deserving recipient of love that the other would find. So they gave each other all of it." How would you describe this love?

    There is also Jonathan's love of Augustine, the woman he is searching for. Alex writes, on page 24, "I am certain that I can fathom it." In what ways do Jonathan and Alex love Augustine? How does Alex's grandfather love her?

    Brod loves the Kolker, the man she marries. And there is Safran's love for the Gypsy girl. What other kinds of love are there in the novel? How are they similar or different from each other?

  7. Many of the reviewers of the book have noted the unusual and successful use of humor in the novel, especially in light of its concern with the tragic history of the Holocaust. On page 53, Alex writes to Jonathan: "Humor is the only truthful way to tell a sad story." How would you describe the humor in the novel? How does it relate to tragedy? What are your feelings about using humor in a novel that deals with the Holocaust?
  8. On page 79, Jonathan writes that Brod "would never be happy and honest at the same time." And on page 117, Alex, frustrated by not finding Augustine, explains that "not-truths hung in front of me like fruit. Which could I pick for the hero? Which could I pick for Grandfather? Which for myself?" What roles do lies and deception play in Everything Is Illuminated? When and why are lies sometimes necessary? When do they hurt either the liar or the ones they lie to?
  9. Many things and people are split in the novel: the two narratives; the twins, Hannah and Chana; the Kolker, his head literally split by a saw blade; the Double-House in Trachimbrod. What other doubles are there? Why do you think this is such a prominent theme in the novel? What does it reflect about human nature? How does it relate to the question of how we write about historical events, as made clear by the opening sentence of the second chapter: "It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B's double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River."
  10. On page 154, following the realization that he has not found Augustine, Alex writes that "I persevered to think of her as Augustine, because like Grandfather, I could not stop thinking of her as Augustine." Why do Alex and his grandfather refuse to acknowledge that the woman they meet is not Augustine? Why do they want her to be Augustine? Who is the woman really?
  11. Guilt is a big theme in Everything Is Illuminated. On page 187, Alex's grandfather, responding to the account of the Nazis' murdering innocent Jews, tells Alex: "You would not help somebody if it signified that you would be murdered and your family would be murdered." On page 227, Alex's grandfather says, "I am not a bad person. I am a good person who has lived in a bad time." Do you think Alex's grandfather did anything wrong? Should he feel in any way guilty? If your answers to the two questions are different, how can that be? Are we responsible for the bad things that others do if we do nothing to stop them? Should we feel guilty if a family member did something bad in the past? Can we free ourselves from guilt for past deeds?
  12. On pages 265-6, Jonathan writes, "Every widow wakes one morning, perhaps after years of pure and unwavering grieving, to realize she has slept a good night's sleep, and will be able to eat breakfast, and doesn't hear her husband's ghost all the time, but only some of the time." How do the characters in Everything Is Illuminated live their lives in the wake of tragic events? How do we both move on and still remember these events? What roles do stories play in reconciling ourselves with the past?
  13. Do you consider the ending of the book hopeful or tragic? Why?
  14. What does the title of the novel, Everything Is Illuminated, mean? Does it mean one thing? What things are illuminated? What is illumination? What is gained and lost by illumination?
About the Author: Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of the anthology A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, a Boston Globe bestseller. His stories have been published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker and Conjunctions. He lives in Queens, New York.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 207 )
Rating Distribution

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(85)

4 Star

(64)

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(30)

2 Star

(11)

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(17)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 208 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 19, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Premium Work of Fiction

    One of the most original books I've ever read. The writing is ingenius and the story is hauntingly beautiful.

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2007

    Outstanding

    Once in a great while, a book comes along that changes the way you look at everything: the world, love, hate, relationships, politics. Such is the case with EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. Now, not everyone is going to warm to this novel, but keep reading: 'Everything is Illuminated' is the story of a young American (also with the name Jonathan Safran Foer, but this is a work of fiction) who travels to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the holocaust. In the process the book tells several stories: the American's trip to the Ukraine, the story of his grandfather and the town history, his Ukrainian translator's personal struggles with family and identity, and his Ukrainian translator's grandfathers experience during the war. These stories are told in different voices, in different chapters interspersed throughout the book. Some of these work better than others, as Foer seems to have a desire to stretch into literary gimmicks that are not always neccesary. But when he gets it right the passages are as moving as anything I have ever read. His variety of voices allows a reflection on certain elements of the story that reinforces their meaning. Writing about love, personal history, death, and living on allows ample opportunity to take on issues that go to the heart of what it means to be human. It also creates the possibility of falling into a bottomless pit of reflection, over-analysis, and huge failure. This book flirts with those pitfalls at times, but never falls in. It creates scenes of incredible trauma, and manages to tell the story in a way that seems real (a significant achievement for a writer born in 1977). I am struggling to even describe the book, which speaks the complexity of the story and the skill in telling it. I am sure that my enjoyment of the book was enhanced by witnessing first hand some of the absurdity of life in Ukraine, but that is only part of the story. This is a riveting book, often spoken of in the same breath as 'Bark of the Dogwood' with its odd cast of characters. A perfect companion to this book, BARK OF THE DOGWOOD, while completely different subject material, is nevertheless as entertaining. Both are great reads all 'round, but EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is like nothing else on the planet.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2009

    The best author

    This is the best book that I have ever read. No one can pull of the beauty of the context. It's deeply felt and imagined. Whoever says they didn't like the ending, they didn't understand. I recommend this to anyone and everyone willing to see things in a new light.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2012

    Annoying read...

    While other reviewers gave this a big thumbs up, I was tremendously disappointed with the whole experience. I found it very difficult to follow the story line as it jumped around in flashbacks and even in mid-conversation. Characters were not likeable or very interesting. I finished it because I believe in making a judgement on the whole experience. Normally I seek out books that deal with this subject, but I cannot in all good conscience recommend this to anyone.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2012

    A Great Story of Friendship and Discovering One's Roots

    What a read. The way Foer handles the dialogue is amazing. His brilliant use of malapropisms to characterize and his incredibly funny lines would make this book a success alone. the story is not all humor though. It is a serious tale of discovery and friendship with a terrible tragedy brooding in the background.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2012

    Excellent Read!

    Everything Is Illuminated gives a deep and intimate glimpse into the tragedy and triumph of the human spirit, well infused with humor. Each character is so richly developed and unveiled in complex layers that you feel like you know them, and laugh at their personality quirks and shed tears when they hurt. As someone who's family is from the Ukraine, and who's grandparents were of an age of some of the characters, it really hit home for me, and gave me profound insight into the strength it must have taken to love and leave behind friends and family to come to the United States.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2009

    We watched the movie too!

    Our book club chose the book and planned to watch the movie at the next meeting after we had all read the book. What fun! The movie actually made some scenes in the book make more sense, but the endings were different. Both were somewhat confusing but we really enjoyed discussing what we had read while watching the movie, and having parts we had forgotten enacted before us. We plan to do this pairing again in the future.

    As for the book, I really enjoyed the clever language usage of the translator, Borat-style. The author showed great imagination and skill in bringing the reader from a somewhat farcical, humorous beginning to serious happenings in the history of the "blind" grandfather driver. Good read.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Worth your time.

    This book isn't for everyone but if you are in the mood for something thats different and yet so familiar, then I highly recomend this book. I love the way Foer writes, it makes me want to not just read more of the book but to ask questions to find out more and more about everything.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2002

    Disturbingly over-rated

    It is difficult to comprehend the feeding frenzy surrounding this mediocre first novel. Mr. Safran Foer scores most of his points off a glaringly inaccurate portrayal of Ukrainian English. Unfortunately, he did no research (which he admits in interviews, supposedly to free him to be more inventive)so it is basically just a Mad-lib exercise, only condescending to an entire ethnicity. While good fiction doesn't necessarily need to be exhaustively researched, Mr. Safran Foer's laziness hurts the work in many places. Anachronisms are omnipresent, whether it is 18th century shtetl characters having a bathtub, or the fact that they have placed sandpaper on the floor of the bathtub to reduce slipping. Just pages later, the reader is informed that the 1940s inhabitants of the shtetl bathe only once or twice yearly. Whither the bathtubs, Mr. Safran Foer? Apparently, Shtetl swingsets were also in fashion in past centuries. When Mr. Safran Foer's apologists argue that all these anachronisms are simply the creation of the book character Safran Foer, imagining his roots, the intelligent reader will rightly question why one should care to read the uninformed, unresearched 25-year-old musings of an overprivileged kid with interesting parents. Save yourself the money, and read a book that actually has something to say.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2012

    Jhvgg

    Hi

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Everything Really Is Illuminated (after reading "Everything Is Illuminated")

    In this novel, Jonathan Safran Foer follows the journey of a young man, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, who, with the help of a Ukrainian translator, tries to find the woman who saved his grandfather's life. Foer uses magical realism to delve into Jewish history. He blends the line between fiction and nonfiction through captivating, quirky characters you're guaranteed to fall in love with, and he presents them with an original voice. Foer offers a fresh new style and is possibly one of the best modern writers out there. This book offers a fresh and innovative writing style that will truly blow your mind. I highly recommend this to anyone who is looking for a novel that will change your life.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 1, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Fictional story, real pain

    Life is better when we know what is really going on. That doesn't mean that we are happier or that finding out the truth is painless.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2008

    Awesome Storytelling

    What a weird, hilarious and heartbreaking story. I loved this book. I've never read anything quite like it. I couldn't put it down. Good work!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2008

    Foer is amazing. A true poet.....Bringing out the world's beauty

    I loved this book. It was a superb piece of literature. Jonathan Safran Foer is a beautiful poet. Both my girlfriend and I love his work. He takes words and paints you a picasso. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a foolish blowhard.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2006

    Jumbled mess with tiny flares of illumination

    I was looking forward to this book for a long time. Now that I am finished with it, I can only say that I was disappointed. The writing style was original with some very funny parts as well as deeply moving parts. However, the story jumps around so much that you never really get a good grasp of what makes up any of the characters. I found myself wanting to feel something for the characters but simply couldn't. I will hand it to the author however, because there were one or two lines in the book that really made me think in depth of how the past affects us, and how our actions can stay with us for a life time. Overall, there were some very powerful moments, but they did not have the weight to carry the rest of the story.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2005

    Not just pretentious -- boring

    If you liked A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, which was the lamest excuse for literary fiction to be put out by the major publishers since Chabon's latest hack work, you'll love this over-rated, pretentious ego-trip passing for a book. It's almost as if the publishing world is creating a genre out of literary fiction: the marketing of the author is everything, the quality of the writing is nothing. This young writer's publisher has marketed him up sufficiently to count on raking in the dough off his filthy books for decades to come, just like that dried up hack Joyce Carol Oates. But whether you're cultivated or not, that is to say, whether you enjoy this non-writer's style or not, we can all agree that he is painfully boring. This book is to Chaim Potok's The Chosen what that maudlin overrated film, The Titanic, was to the Poseidon Adventure: more hyped, better special effects, but not even as interesting as its fairly middle of the road predecessor. Boycott this betrayal of fiction, and lets hope this pseudo-writer sticks to short stories for the next decade or so, that he might learn his craft before causing further pain to the reading public.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2002

    Nothing much is illuminated.

    This is one of the most dark novels I have ever read. Although it contains humor [such as it is] it is all heaped in the first half. The second half is full of dark images and the storyline gets bogged down in extended sermons about such things as the non-exsistence of god and detailed descriptions of Nazi brutality. Which I would not have minded had the point been to remind people of the horrible injustice inflicted in the holocaust. But in truth there was NO point to the entire exercise except to air the authors personal views on everything from God to marriage to love to dogs with flatulence. This last the author see's as high comedy for as much as he dwells on it. I have no argument with his airing his opinions. Just with his dressing them up as a novel. I have heard this book described as "The rebirth of the great American novel". It that's the case it should have remained dead!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2002

    A Brilliant Book

    This ingenious novel quickly jumped to my top five favorite novels for a few reasons: the mastery of the journey/mock epic form; Mr. Foer's ability to write in two distinct yet believable voices; and also his delightful humor and ability to write phrases that made me laugh out loud and sigh audibly. To not give away any of the story, I will stop here. But check it out!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2002

    best book I've read in years!

    I LOVE this book!!! I could go on and on about how funny it is, and how tragic, and how wise, and how completely unique. It made me laugh out loud, and then cry. You have to read it for yourself!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

    Funny and thought-provoking

    Everything Is Illuminated has one of the funniest and most endearing characters I have ever read in Alex, the Ukranian translator. Alex made me laugh and made me think at the same time. The book asks the reader the question of what he would do if faced with a choice between ideals and loved ones. I know I found myself surprised at what my answer would probably be. This is a story that forces the reader to look at himself and not just the story being told and that is what some of the best books do.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 208 Customer Reviews

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