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69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tragic realism
I really struggled with The Corrections, repeatedly described as the most remarkable novel of our century to date. And reports of Franzen's snooty sounding behaviour to Oprah Winfrey didn't send me rushing to his other work either. Luckily I came across a reprint of Franzen's famous 1996 "Harper's Essay" when I had nothing else to read, and everything changed. That essay...
Published on 19 Nov 2004 by Hilary Jane

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a book of miscellaneous essays
A book of miscellaneous essays written betwen 1995 and 2002.

Some essays cover Franzen's life, including an excellent first essay about his father's decline and death from Alzheimer's. These are a foretaste of Franzen's excellent memoir the Discomfort Zone.

Some essays cover the themes of writing novels and reading them. About these I would say that...
Published on 4 Jan 2011 by William Jordan


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69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tragic realism, 19 Nov 2004
This review is from: How to be Alone (Paperback)
I really struggled with The Corrections, repeatedly described as the most remarkable novel of our century to date. And reports of Franzen's snooty sounding behaviour to Oprah Winfrey didn't send me rushing to his other work either. Luckily I came across a reprint of Franzen's famous 1996 "Harper's Essay" when I had nothing else to read, and everything changed. That essay is reprinted here, with fourteen others, equally provocative, densely yet lucidly written, and all with a quite unexpected layer of humour, wit and self-deprecation.
Although the essays cover a wide range of subjects, from a surprisingly gripping forty page account of the chaos facing Chicago's postal service, through to a very moving piece on his father's decline into Alzheimer's disease, Franzen underpins them all with his central concern - the status of contemporary fiction and the lives of those who need it, in a postmodern, mass media saturated world.
For those of us who immediately recognise Franzen's experience of reading and/or writing as a means of reaching inward for a way out of loneliness, the modern world can be a very hard place to inhabit. Again and again he returns to the fragility of any community of readers and writers, the decline of the social novel, the rise of what he calls the tyranny of the literal. No longer simply finding it "apocalyptically worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don't read Henry James", Franzen moves on to examine some disturbing possible reasons for the ascendance of what he calls "technological consumerism" at the expense of personal integrity and dignity.
One particularly unsettling suggestion is that "the average man or woman's entire life is increasingly structured to avoid the kinds of conflicts on which fiction . . has always thrived", with the finger being pointed at, among other targets, self-help literature, television and far too many prescriptions for anti-depressants. Well, clearly vast numbers of the world's population don't share the luxury of avoiding conflict with the average middle class white American male writer, but that just makes his point even more distressing in its implications.
His observations on the relationship between solitude, privacy, isolation and loneliness are thought provoking too. Although these are linked to his overall theme of the necessity of literature - "the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone" - they go much further than that, into the erosion of civic life and the meaninglessness of a shallow, consumerist definition of privacy which is purchased at the cost of meaningful shared human experience.
Does Franzen offer any ways forward out of this thoroughly depressing situation that he describes so exquisitely? Well, no, not really, more just a way of living with it. He calls this approach tragic realism and I find it strangely comforting to be sharing it with him.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understated erudition, 16 Sep 2009
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to be Alone (Hardcover)
A collection of essays by this writer - well worth reading for his understated erudition and empathetic insight, as well as the entertaining things he has to say. I laughed out loud as he demolished the sex book industry - Dr Ruth, Dr Betty and all - while his "state of the novel" essay is outstandingly discerning and penetrating. He also takes time to describe what happened when his novel The Corrections was chosen by Oprah Whinfrey as her book of the month and later dropped when the author didn't fit in with her schmaltzy plans for its hype. Strange also, to be enjoying a description of the Chicago postal system's breakdown and the corruption at its heart.

Quite simply, he is one of a group of very few writers in this world who can write almost anything and give the reader such a truthful, objective and entertaining insight that the subject matter is opened out like a route to understanding. This is an excellent read from one of the major writers of his generation.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Readers of the world unite, 30 Aug 2005
By A Customer
This review is from: How to be Alone (Paperback)
"Densely written" is right - you're not going to whistle through this, it's one of those books in which sentences and paragraphs have to be read and re-read to grasp their meaning, and which once understood have to be framed in the context of the argument.
But it's worth the perserverence as these essays are extraordinary inciteful, of value as much for the individual reflections they'll trigger in the reader, as for the arguments Franzen himself puts forward.
It's a call to arms for a personal, private revolution; for a quiet, polite, unobstrusive, individual, almost invisible resistance to the overwhelming invasions of contemporary life, one you may already be part of, one unlikely to gain many converts, but one that fundamentally challenges the bankruptcy of that which it opposses, and in which one's fellow travellers are instantly recognisable.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a book of miscellaneous essays, 4 Jan 2011
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This review is from: How to be Alone (Paperback)
A book of miscellaneous essays written betwen 1995 and 2002.

Some essays cover Franzen's life, including an excellent first essay about his father's decline and death from Alzheimer's. These are a foretaste of Franzen's excellent memoir the Discomfort Zone.

Some essays cover the themes of writing novels and reading them. About these I would say that Franzen only gradually sketches out an interesting and coherent position - the 2002 essay about William Gaddis is reflective, persuasive and entirely coherent. In the Foreword, Franzen says he made substantial cuts to one of the earlier essays on this theme - he could see with the benefit of hindsight that the argument wasn't clear and the tone was ranting. I would say that this remained true of that essay even it is edited form...but it does have interest, as you can see Franzen struggle towards a theoretical position that supports the kind of novel that he would like to write - and that he has certainly since written.

A third group of essays cover topics such as the Chicago Post Office and its shortcomings; and maxmimum security prisons in the US...Maximum security prisoners may need to learn how to be alone, in that they are mostly in continuous solitary confinement, but the thematic links here to the first two groups of essays are forced or obscure. And ater reading Franzen's essay Lost In the Post, I've learned that I'm just not THAT interested in the shortcoming of the Chicago Post Office in and of itself...
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars not as annoying as his novels, 29 April 2014
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This review is from: How to be Alone (Kindle Edition)
I must admit that I've only read 'The Corrections' and 'Freedom' and only an Esquire magazine sample of this book, but I preferred it to his fiction.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lit crit meets journalism meets memoir, 13 Dec 2012
By 
Simon Barrett "Il penseroso" (london, england) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: How to be Alone (Paperback)
'..discarded first wives, [like] workers displaced from a Trabant factory..'

If his fiction was of that quality! Freedom, latest from the aging wunderkind, was an ungainly, occasionally unsightly mess - the most poignant image it left me was that of the (unseen) author tearing his hair and neglecting the rest of his life - but with this engaging little volume Franzen is forgiven. The novel of ideas is dead (ideas? duh - yet poems, not cursed with the sequential spur, are positively teeming with the beggars) but when he's not doing bog standard journalism (forty pages on the Chicago postal service) Franzen shows us a mind radiant with intelligence and connectedness - I'd say engagé except that that suggests a political stance which since 1989 has hardly been possible - though given his strictures about Books in Bed I wonder why he allowed so much bad sex in Freedom (I say 'how much'; the beauty of poetry, which I mostly read, is that there is none*). But read the impassioned para on p53 about privacy (lack of). Read the chilling para on the Pennsylvania prison system (middle of p210). Then there's health, 'a topic of such importance to the culture that every book now published, including novels, could arguably be shelved there'? In his 'death of the book' lament I've marked pages 62, 68-9, 70, 71, 72, while later in the same piece we find 'the most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work of fiction is comedy' (p91) and 'the comfort of victimhood' (p96). The other highspot is his engagement with the late William Gaddis, 'Mr Difficult'. Jonson as Renaissance Gaddis? Give me more! I'm blowed, though, if I can find anywhere within this olla podrida, gallimaufry or bran tub a humble acknowledgements page indicating sources. Is that entirely legal?

Franzen now has Lethem to contend with after the latter's Ecstacy of Influence (I must confess to getting my Franzens mixed up with my Lethems and my Safran Foers - all those formerly young dudes!) and Franzen himself has put out Farther Away this year to mixed reviews, but the more such voices the merrier I'll be - they leave at the starting blocks that clown DF Wallace (admired, according to The Economist, by 'the young, affluent and similarly confused'). Concerned Franzen may be; confused he's not. Though I'm not sure why he writes extinguishment for extinction on p147. Twice. In the same sentence. No poet he (I'd have put 'not one's own extinction but the world's')

* not no sex - that would be absurd; sex and/or death are always there - but sex-by-numbers ('then he..)
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1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars havent read it yet, but now have, 9 April 2013
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This review is from: How to be Alone (Paperback)
so cos of that i cant comment but going by FREEDOM should be very good in my own opinion yes. A collection of essays some r heavy going but worth the effort. Not as enjoyable and interesting as THE DISCOMFORT ZONE. Some essays better than others but always thought-provoking and demand concentration. Best ones for me r the ones on his father's illness and the Chicago post service. His honesty and openness always shines thru. This is what i know and i will share it with u, he says. And he's bloody erudite so keep a dictionary close by and a clean nose.
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How to be Alone
How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
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