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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great in parts, not so great in others
An unusual and ambitious book, I found 'Everything is Illumniated' easier to read and more enjoyable than I first expected. The story is narrated by two young men living the 1990s, both struggling to understand the past of their grandparents during World War II and the effect that it has on their own present lives.

Jonathan is an American Jew who travels to...
Published on 5 Nov. 2007 by BookWorm

versus
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Outrageously ambitious, linguistically brilliant
But that's where it stops.

Before I begin, I just want to make it clear that I do think Jonathan Safran Foer is an incredibly talented writer. His use of the language is phenomenal, and he is so adept at it that he can play around with it as is fitting for his story and still make it sound clever. However, when something becomes overly clever, it ends up taking...
Published on 19 Mar. 2013 by S. Shamma


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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great in parts, not so great in others, 5 Nov. 2007
By 
BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
An unusual and ambitious book, I found 'Everything is Illumniated' easier to read and more enjoyable than I first expected. The story is narrated by two young men living the 1990s, both struggling to understand the past of their grandparents during World War II and the effect that it has on their own present lives.

Jonathan is an American Jew who travels to the Ukraine in search of his family history. His sections of the story are a novel he is writing about his family in Ukraine from the 18th century up until 1942. These sections are strange and a little disjointed, and rather surreal - think Garcia Marquez or Rushdie. I found these sections harder to read and sometimes annoying as I felt they distracted attention from the 'real' story.

The other narrator is Alex, a Ukrainian youth who acts as Jonathan's translator and guide. Alex dreams of emigrating to America and escaping his unhappy family life. Alex's sections consist of letters he writes to Jonathan after the latter has returned home, and of the story of their trip together in search of Jonathan's past. These are written in a rather amusing broken English. A device that elsewhere I often find annoying and hard to read is here used to great comic and narrative effect. I found it readable and it added humour to what is ultimately a rather bleak story.

The humourous nature of Alex's earlier sections lull the reader into a false sense of security. The story unfolds to tell of the horrors committed in Ukraine by the Nazis, affecting both Jews and non-Jews. As the tale progresses the humour becomes lesser and the contrast between the amusing early chapters and the later ones heightens the emotional impact of the ending.

Overall, 'Everything is Illuminated' is refreshingly different and ambitious. Although it doesn't always come off perfectly, it is always good to read a book where the writer tries to innovate. I enjoyed the sections narrated by Alex and found these both moving and amusing. The only downside is the habit of writing dialogue continuously, rather than breaking up into new paragraphs for each speaker. This makes it at times harder to follow and I got confused between who was saying what. The sections narrated by Jonathan I found less enjoyable and I skimmed through them to get the next 'Alex' section. However, those who enjoy magical realism and surrealist writers may well enjoy these more.

On the whole, I would certainly recommend this to anyone who likes surrealist writing and anyone who likes to try original, innovative books. It is well written and although not always a particularly easy read, I would certainly try another by the same author.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Outrageously ambitious, linguistically brilliant, 19 Mar. 2013
By 
S. Shamma "Suad" (Abu Dhabi, UAE) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
But that's where it stops.

Before I begin, I just want to make it clear that I do think Jonathan Safran Foer is an incredibly talented writer. His use of the language is phenomenal, and he is so adept at it that he can play around with it as is fitting for his story and still make it sound clever. However, when something becomes overly clever, it ends up taking away from the story, because you're sitting there trying to make sense of what he's saying and trying to keep up with his play on words.

I can't say I was overly impressed with this book. Plot-wise, it's a story that's been told and retold about a hundred million times in a hundred million different ways, and only the most creative, the most original, stand out. Starting from something as old as Anne Frank's diary, to something like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, to the Book Thief. I wasn't sure whether this was a fiction or a non-fiction, wasn't sure if the events in the book really did happen or if Jonathan just chose to use himself as the protagonist. It doesn't say anywhere, and I've checked.

That being said, the story follows Jonathan Safran Foer - the authour of this book - as he journeys to Ukraine to find out more about his family history and what happened to a particular woman, Augustine, who helped his father escape during the Second World War. He uses this information to write a novel on his family history dating back to 1791. This is how the book is divided, we have the sections that Jonathan writes (which make up parts of the novel he is researching and writing about his family), then there are sections that Alex writes, Alex is the translator Jonathan meets in Ukraine and these sections involve a. letters written from Alex to Jonathan after Jonathan's return to the US, and b. a recount of what occurred during Jonathan's stay in Ukraine. Alex's sections are written in broken English, which are sort of endearing, and not as annoying as I thought they would be - and again, this reveals Jonathan's adept use of the English language.

The story goes on to reveal the horrors committed by the Nazis to the Jews living in Ukraine at the time. My favourite part of this entire book was in the chapter titled "Illumination" where Alex's grandfather confesses everything. A few pages written in very disjointed English, with barely any punctuation, just a whole block of constant dialogue, with words going over one another at times, and it must have been the most emotional speech I've read. Right then and there, I was very impressed, and found myself putting the book down after the chapter was over to take a deep breath.

I found Jonathan's sections really hard to read as he employs magical realism into his writing and all the events seem very disjointed and lack any sort of transitional flow. I admit I skimmed through a lot of his sections as I was more interested in reading Alex's parts. Near the end, I was getting really tired of both their parts in the story, as even Alex lost his charm and appeal, I didn't know what they were getting at anymore, or what the point of this story was. I couldn't wait to get to the end and just willed it to finish. It felt like at one point, Jonathan just went on and on and on, enjoying his own play on words, enjoying his constant rambling and doing it merely for his own pleasure. Sure, I was impressed by the cleverness of it all, but that slowly began to wear off.

As one reviewer put it: "Safran Foer seems to take great pleasure in twisting up syntax and grammar, idiom, turn of phrase, and turning it on its head. Sometimes his sentences are so inward looking they seem palindromic. You read it and think, 'Well that's a smart bit of linguistic contortion, but I hate you for putting me through it, page after page, chapter after chapter'." And I completely, absolutely, wholly agree.

I finally finished this book, and I am happy to be able to move on to a different one. This was definitely an experience, and I am glad I read it, but I can't say I found it to be a brilliant piece of work. I did find out that Jonathan Safran Foer also wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has been adapted into a very successful film, so I'm still not sure if I will go on to give that a chance.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quirky In The Right Ways, 24 July 2008
By 
T. Watson "tobyjwatson" (Saltburn, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
I bought this book on the strength of reading on the back cover that there was a dog in it called Sammy Davis Jr, Jr.

After reading the first page and wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes, I gleefully launched into the book walking down the pavement upon leaving the book store. To my initial disappointment the hilarity didn't continue unabated, and the book's structure took some getting used to - it is effectively a series of letters between two young men (one from the US and one from Ukraine who is armed with a thesaurus and has no fear of using it); interspersed with the narration of the two men's journey through Ukraine in search of the village of the American's forbears, which was wiped out by the Nazis; alongside a story based in the village, but from a much earlier time.

The humour does continue to thread its way through the story, but a human tenderness, and a great deal of pain also figure prominently as the story evolves.

Upon finishing the book I had been strongly moved, and had laughed out loud several times. I will enjoy reading it again.

As a word of caution though, if you don't enjoy word play, and weren't the type of kid who sat writing out their sentences including the words from their primary school weekly spelling list armed with a thesaurus and a determination to use the fanciest words possible at all times, then you may not find the humour quite so humorous!
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Everything is Unbearablely Smart, 30 Mar. 2008
By 
W. R. Saunders "Plainview" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
Everything is Unbearably Smart.

This novel I picked up with out any preconceptions, and without anything to colour my interpretations. But there was a lot of praise printed in and on the covers, and Elijah Wood looked out at me from front image, so as I started I anticipated an interesting read, worthy of not scant praise, and a film interpretation, and that it was, in places.

I'll be honest when I say that by the end I was willing it to finish. I was tired of Safran Foer's typographic gymnastics, and the rambling narrative. There are moments of cutting poignancy, and occasions when I was charmed by the clever prose. But the charm of the character Alex's broken English wears off - it just becomes labourious, a critisicm that could be levied against the whole book. Safran Foer seems to take great pleasure in twisting up syntax and grammar, idiom, turn of phrase, and turning it on its head. Sometimes his sentences are so inward looking they seem palindromic. You read it and think, 'Well that's a smart bit of linguistic contortion, but I hate you for putting my through it, page after page, chapter after chapter'. By the end of this book, I was blinded from the posthumously evident sadness and power of the narrative because of the tortuous language use. Don't get me wrong, I'm no prescriptivist when it comes to language use, but I get the feeling with this book that Safran Foer isn't playing with language for the good of the story, but for his own cryptic pleasure.

So this morning I finished the book, and I sighed with relief. I think this author is a brave one, and perhaps greatness will follow, but this was not a masterwork.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Everything is overdone, 28 Feb. 2010
By 
Mingo Bingo "Mingobingo" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
There is no doubt that this is a very clever book. It's clever in concept, clever in structure, clever in use of language and clever in composition. There are reams of congratulatory quotes all over the cover that announce it's cleverness. The question I'm left with having finished it is, is being clever enough?

The basic story follows Jonathan Safran Foer as he visits Ukraine to try and find the woman, Augustine, who saved his grandfather during the war and to research for a novel he is planning to write on his family history. He is helped in this search by a translator, Alex, driven about the country by Alex's "blind" grandfather and is repeatedly dry humped by their dog Sammy Davis Jr, Jr.

Immediately here lies one of the major problems with this book. Alex's grandfather isn't really blind, he just pretends to be, but continues to act as a driver. The dog is called Sammy Davis Jr, Jr as the original dog, Sammy Davis Jr, has died. As far as I can tell neither of these facts mean anything or serve any purpose other than being a little bit quirky and to me proved a distraction rather than an enhancement.

The story is told in a cleverly (that word again) fractured way. Alex narrates events from his viewpoint, in broken English. This strand is well crafted, but is essentially just one joke, which, since this book was released, has been firmly claimed by Borat. Then we see Alex's half of a letter conversation in which he discusses with Jonathan the accuracy of his narration and the finer points of his command of the English language. The third strand is the text of the novel which Jonathan is writing. This is written in a faux-high-literary style and concerns itself with the history of the town, Trachimbrod, from which his family originated.

So far, so clever. The problem is, that at the centre of this book is a really important and poignant moment in history, when the Nazi's massacred huge numbers of Ukranian Jews, and because of all the self-conscious cleverness which surrounds it, the impact of these events are totally lost. Rather than framing the horrors and drawing attention to the human loss, which I'm sure is what he intended to do, Safran Foer's linguistic flourishes instead only trivalise them.

Which is a real shame, because the scenes when the Nazi's roll into the Ukranian villages and we see the effects the resulting crimes have on the people there are superb.

Equally the way in which Alex matures throughout the novel, loses his awe of America and begins to address the problems in his own family rather than run from them, is beautifully handled.

Where this novel fails is a lack of restraint. The scenes from Jonathan's novel are lurid to the point of almost becoming magic-realism, and whilst there are some magnificent images you get the impression of a writer who is in love with his ideas, more than the constraints of form of the novel. There are so many wonderful thoughts in this book that I found myself wishing that he would show a little discipline and explore each one more fully rather than rushing headlong into the next exposition. The house full of boxes of items buried by the escaping Jews, each one fastidiously labelled and filed, is one example. The book of dreams another, the diving for the fake gold, the gold plated Dial statue another. In the end there are just too many of these ideas and they become a gimmick and muddy the story rather than build it.

There is a good tale in here, there are some fantastic uses of language, there are some memorable images, but it is all just a little bit too clever for it's own good and the end result unfortunately is a self-congratulatory muddle.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars insight into Jewish life before WW2 in the Ukraine, 23 Mar. 2014
By 
Ms. Riane Revah "book croc" (london uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
Brilliant book, with 3 parallel narratives: the American writer's search for the small village or,shtetl, (Trachimbrod) in what is now the Ukraine that his grandparents came from; the Ukrainian grandson and grandfather double act - calling themselves Heritage Tours and driving the protagonist around the Ukraine with Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, the grandad's 'seeing eye bitch;' and the colourful
characters who used to live in the shtetl.

Very funny and moving, flitting seamlessly between magical-realism (scenes in the shtetl) to farce (the tour guide's mangling of the
English language) and high drama (when they find the woman who they believe is the one who saved Jonathan's grandfathers life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Foer's Pyrotechnics and Razzmatazz, 29 April 2009
By 
Herman Norford "Keen Reader" (Birmingham, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
Jonathan Safran Foer debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, is a novel that one could easily love to hate. This is because Foer tells a fairly straight forward story about family and atrocity but he uses an elaborate, complex and difficult way of telling his tale. In other words, Foer's approach is a Joycean one.

By means of a brief summary, let me try to untangle Foer's story and method. He appears to place himself in the story and sets out on a journey in search of a town, Trachimbrod, in the Ukraine, where his grandfather came from, and also someone called Augustine who is said to have saved his grandfather from the effects of the second world war. Foer is escorted on this journey by Alex, a translator, Alex's grandfather and a dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior - named after the late singer and actor Sammy Davis Junior. The search is somewhat futile but Foer discovers important things about his family, Trachimbrod and its people and what happened to the Jews of Trachimbrod during the second world war. The journey and the discoveries are told in two narratives. Foer effectively writes a novel about his family - that has a time span 1791 - 1969. Alex writes a memoir about the journey undertaken in search of Augustine and Trachimbrod. In addition to this Alex write letters, between July 1997 and January 1998, to Foer which comments on the stories both of them are writing and perhaps unintentionally clarifies some of the issues about the journey and Foer's story. Effectively, the letters function as a metatext overarching both Foer's and Alex's stories.

It would be useful to comment on the structure of this novel because this is an important aspect to grasp as it enables an understanding of the novel. The novel's basic structure is one in which the three narratives mentioned above alternate with each other in no particular clear or consistent pattern. However, on another level, much more complex and therefore not easily grasped until well into the novel, is also a structure that is symphonic. Foer presents us with subjects and themes that reoccur in various guises and developmental stages.

So what are the substantial issues that are to be found within the story and structure? Much has been said that this novel is about Nazi atrocities during the second world war. Yes, the issue of atrocities perpetrated against Jews is raised and the two significant passages that dwell upon these issues are touching. However, of much more significance for me are the themes about family connectedness, history, belonging to a people and place and how these shape individuals. Foer traces family history and in so doing makes discoveries about place and culture.

It would appear that part of Foer's aim is to tease and test the reader to get him or her to think about the process of writing a piece of fiction. In a letter from Alex to Foer, Alex says: "If I am sounding like a thinker this is an homage to your writing". Moreover, Foer renders his novel in a style that could be described as pyrotechnics and razzmatazz. He uses different typographical styles to express various emotions and responses. He bends the rules of syntax and grammar to extremes. The text is littered with malapropisms and the coining of new nouns and verbs almost as if to express in a new way familiar experiences. All this is innovative and dare I say exciting to some but I found it distracting from the story rather than enhancing it.

Foer's novel is a rag-bag of style and approach to writing a novel. Along with its modernist tendencies with some justification a claim has been made that Foer writes in the tradition of magic realism. Arguably, it could be said that Foer also writes in the absurdist tradition. He presents bizarre characters in ridiculous situations where Foer's comedy of life is grim, and involves extreme language and violence. If like me any reader gets a sense of alienation then don't be too surprised.

It seems to me that to get a grip of this novel an enjoy it one must be taken in by its humour, which was not to my taste, and enjoy the challenge of Foer's use of language, narrators and shifts in time.

Of course the novelist should aim to make his or her material new. By definition this is a key aspect of the novel. Foer's writing and method if not completely new is certainly refreshing. However, the question has to be asked: did Foer's elaborate method enhance the novel as a whole? For me the answer is no. That is not to suggest that the novel is not worthy of reading. It is worth reading especially if you like writers who play with the language and the structure of a novel.

I struggled with deciding on what star rating to give Everything is Illuminated. In the end I decided to give it three stars not so much because I liked it but because Foer dares to be bold with a debut novel and make it new and fresh like the early twentieth century novelist and artist he seeks to emulate.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating, Tragicomic First Novel!, 1 Nov. 2005
This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
"Everything Is Illuminated," author Jonathan Safran Foer's prize-winning first novel, is comprised of three intertwining century-spanning stories, all combined to tell a hilarious tale filled with laughter, as well as one depicting the horror of unimaginable loss.
Not necessarily in the consecutive order of the novel, (which may not have a consecutive order), but in the order it most makes sense for my review, here is my summary:
One narrative is penned by a young writer coincidently named Jonathan Safran Foer. He takes the reader back to the 18th century and the early days of Trachimbrod, the shtetl town of his ancestors. The magically realistic fictional account, (reminds me of a Jewish Garcia Marquez), begins in 1791 and ends with the Nazi's entry into this tiny Ukrainian village. Some of the book's most poignant passages describe the impact of the Holocaust on survivors' memory. "Men set up flow charts, (which were themselves memories of family trees), in an attempt to make sense of their memories." "Women had it worse. Unable to share their tinglings of memory in the synagogue or at the workplace, they were forced to suffer over laundry piles and baking pans, alone." "But children had it worst of all, for although it would seem that they had fewer memories to haunt them, they still had the itch of memory as strong as the elders of the shtetl.
Alex Perchov, 21st century Ukrainian Heritage Tour guide and translator, narrates another part of the story. Perchov lives in the former Soviet republic and has vivid dreams of "transplanting" himself and his "premium" younger brother, Little Igor, to America. He loves American culture. "I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa." When prospective author Foer makes a journey to the Ukraine in order to find an elderly woman called Augustine, (if she still lives), he hires Alex as his translator and companion through the cultural minefield that is the Ukrainian countryside. Augustine was/is originally from the small village of Trachimbrod and helped his grandfather escape from the Nazis long ago. Armed with his grandfather's memories plus some well worn photographs, Jonathan, Alex, Alex's unhappy grandfather who acts as chauffeur, and Alex's bizarre dog Sammy Davis Junior, Jr., (named for Grandfather's "beloved singer"), begin their quest.
Part three of this saga is told through a series of letters Alex writes to Jonathan after the trip has concluded. I must say that I have never read, or heard, anyone bludgeon the English language quite like Perchov does, thanks to his misuse of the English Thesaurus. Some of the novel's funniest moments are caused by Alex's communiques, which sound like direct translations from very the formal Russian to pop-cultured English. In these letters Alex, who now fancies himself a novelist, trades manuscripts with Jonathan for the purposes of mutual editing and commentary.
The three stories converge when they arrive at 1940's Trachimbrod and the tragic man-made disaster which wiped-out Jewish villages and populations all over Europe. The revelations made here are as extraordinary as the tales themselves.
I enjoyed sections of "Everything Is Illuminated," although I found some parts to be extremely tedious. I have read and listened to so many folkloric, Tevya-type stories of life in the shtetl, including my own family's, that it is difficult to come up with a version that would hold my interest. I have been to Mr. Foer's Trachimbrod, or in the neighborhood, untold times. On the other hand, Alex is a gem of a character. And, although at times his statements sound like something one would hear in a high school locker room, Alexander Perchov is an original who is well worth meeting. Also, as I wrote above, there are some absolutely poignant, haunting passages, beautifully written, that caused my eyes to tear more than a few times.
Jonathan Safran Foer has matured tremendously as a writer since he wrote this - I believe it was while he was an undergraduate. I recently read "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," (his latest offering), and it is evident that he has grown in his craft. I do recommend this, Foer's first novel, despite its length, and occasional ramblings, because he says so much that is worthwhile and in such a wonderful way. Just be prepared for rough spots. (So, 4 Stars with a qualifier).
JANA
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Quirky and Moving, 18 April 2008
By 
Mrs. K. A. Wheatley "katywheatley" (Leicester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
I read Safran Foer's books back to front. Absolutely loving his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which was my favourite read of last year. I was expecting great things from this novel, and was slightly disappointed. It still has many of the same quirky qualities of the second novel, with unusual layout, type changes and text patterns, but seems more disjointed than the second novel, more raw.

The story is of a young American man's travels to the Ukraine to search for the woman he thinks rescued his grandfather from the Nazis in WW2. It is a split narrative, ricocheting between the man's fictionalised account of his findings and the writing of his Ukrainian guide Sasha, who writes letters to him in America about their travels.

It is funny in places but also terribly sad, not just because of the Holocaust material, but also because of Sasha's poignant self awakening and move into manhood throughout the duration of the novel. If I had read this first I would probably have given it five stars, but Safran Foer gets better as a writer, so if you like this you must read the follow up.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful story, 2 Sept. 2006
By 
Mike J. Wheeler (Kingswinford, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Everything is Illuminated (Paperback)
I picked this up last year and I must admit it took me two goes before I could get into it. Jonathan Safran Foer's writing style can be a bit intimidating at first but the message is persist, this book is definitely worth it. It's basically in three parts.

First there is the story of Jonathan Safran Foer travelling through the Ukraine to find out what happened to his family during the Nazi occupation - this narrative veers from the hilariously funny to the sublimely sad and is told through the eyes of Alex, Safran Foer's guide in a comedy Ukrainian's pidgin English. The turn of phrase is what I must admit put me off the first time I attempted to read this but actually once you realise what it's about it becomes extremely funny.

The second theme of the book is the tale of the Shtetl over a couple of hundred years to its destruction. This is written in magical realist style similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'. This contains beautiful imagery and would be worth reading alone without the other strands.

Thirdly, the book takes on a correspondence between Alex and Safran Foer regarding the magical realist novel that Safran Foer is writing about the Shtetl - again this is at times very poignant but often hilariously funny.

Altogether the book is truly magical. At turns it is sad, depressingly sad and horrifying yet at the same time manages to get you in stitches laughing at the interaction between Alex, Safran Foer, Alex's grandad and a flatulent dog. A wonderful story.
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Everything is Illuminated
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Paperback - 5 Jun. 2003)
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