Tag Archives: fiction

Everything is Illuminated

By Jonathan Safran Foer

The hero of the story, bearing the same name as the author, journeys to Ukraine in search of family history connected to his grandfather. His travels are narrated by letters from the guide he hires to help him search for long-lost connections, the guide’s personal recounting of their adventures and misadventures, and the hero’s embellished history of his family tree. The hero and the guide, with support of their blind driver and his seeing-eye dog, set out in search of a village that was decimated by the Nazis and was so small in the first place that only a handful of people remember it by name, even fewer by exact location. Their noble odyssey is full of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and all kinds of cross-cultural mishaps. Despite unpredictable schedules, lost documents (because the seeing-eye dog ate them), and a dearth of vegetarian meals for the hero, their small crew somehow stumbles upon the rich history of the hero’s grandfather. Their personal stories, as with the multiple storylines in the novel, come together in unexpected ways, revealing the deep connection of shared experience even across differences in time, geography, culture and language.

“Everything is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer is an astounding and fascinating story of all the time and distance people travel to find home. The hero’s search for his family history is complicated by his unwillingness to share his search with certain members of his family (particularly his grandmother), and simultaneously questioned by the guide’s cultural understanding of how families function. This challenges both the hero and the guide to reflect on their motivations and push their boundaries beyond what is comfortable into the area where growth happens. While these reflections and growth opportunities are steeped with the painful nudge of nostalgia and resistance to change, they are lightened by the language barrier and miscommunications during the journey, particularly when the guide narrates their adventures through his letters or in his sections telling about their travels. These interactions feel honest and raw, but without the sense of intimidation that sometimes comes with telling the real weight of experiences and emotions. (Though to be sure, the story carries a lot of weight and you will certainly feel the real emotional impact of that). The hero and the guide are relatable, which, instead of shutting down and shutting off, encourages the reader to stay open to what comes up.

I absolutely love this book because it makes me both laugh and cry (which is clearly an objective indicator of excellent writing). The use of language and wordplay throughout the book is phenomenal to the point that it is almost mind-blowing. The first time I read the book, I was utterly confused by the different storylines, but once I figured it out, it made sense. Subsequent re-readings are even more gratifying because I pick up on more nuances in the separate storylines each time. Well worth your time. Actually, it would be better to read this one sooner rather than later.

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The Dirk Gently Omnibus

By Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently, private detective, offers unique investigational services. When probing unexplained circumstances, Gently finds answers in not only the highly unlikely but also the downright impossible, for whatever cannot possibly be done must therefore be impossibly done. His bills are equally holistic, including anything and everything remotely connected to his methods of detection because at the root of it all, everything is fundamentally interconnected. Though unusual in the extreme, his antics are also extraordinarily effective. When first introduced to Gently, he picks up a case concerning a salt cellar in a Grecian pot, human suggestibility to do things one is not typically wont to do, and the unexpected death of a leading tech entrepreneur. In the second installment, Gently finds himself questioning an act of God (but which god, and why), tormented by a particularly persistent eagle, tracking down potatoes, and evading his egregiously disgusting fridge. His apparent bumbling and missteps, all of which can retroactively be deemed intentional whether they were intentional in the first place or not, lead to unbelievable conclusions that neatly explain everything and justify (almost) every charge on his bills.

The Dirk Gently Omnibus contains the first two Dirk Gently stories: “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and “The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul,” both by the unparalleled Douglas Adams (the third book in the series was unfinished at the time of Adams’ death, portions of which are published in the posthumous “Salmon of Doubt”). As with all other writings from Adams, the Dirk Gently novels are rambunctious, unpredictable, and laugh-out-loud funny. I would even go so far as to say they cause ROFL. Gently approaches his cases with such an open-minded perspective that his decisions and actions seem entirely absurd, yet also completely rational. He blatantly and directly questions behaviors that go unquestioned (and therefore unexplained), which makes his statements both unusual and completely obvious. It also forces characters (and readers) to examine their reasoning and explain unquestioned behaviors. Throughout it all is a supremely healthy sense of fun. The whims and instincts that guide Gently’s investigations are narrated by light-hearted satire that pokes fun at British (and U.S.) institutions, cultural quirks, and bureaucratic nightmares without edging into a mean or cynical tone. Gently’s internal monologue, and sometimes his conversation with others, reflect this by stating those thoughts we all have that just might be better left unsaid. Except when provoked.

The Dirk Gently novels are, in my humble opinion, highly underestimated and unfortunately sidelined by the greater prominence of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” despite being more entertaining (in my humble opinion). I have read both books multiple times, and I actually recommend starting with “The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” because “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” goes through a lot of backstory and exposition that tend to cause some drag in the early parts of the story. I cannot recommend enough reading both of these books, and then doing it again. And again!

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