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on 17 November 2010
I found this books wholly enjoyable and not nearly long enough - except for the last chapter which major on birding.

This memoir in fact covers: the death of Franzen's mother and sale of the family home (Franzen gets this wrong); quarrels in the Franzen household and the career of Schulz, creator of Peanuts; the religious and personal development scene at Franzen's school; practical jokes at Franzen's school; Franzen's experience of German (in which he majored) and love life; Franzen's love life (continued) and his interest in the environment and in birding.

The most thought provoking section is about Schulz. Franzen thinks Schulz suffered because he was an artist, ie he was not an artist because he suffered. He could have toughed out a normal life, just as he did his military service. This is well worth pondering - as is the question how the impulse comes to people (like Franzen) to make other people laugh.

This memoir is both touching and comic. Strongly recommended.
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on 14 September 2009
In his book How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen wrote about many things, including himself. In this new book, Franzen concentrates almost entirely on himself. While a lot of what he says is worth saying, the general trajectory is a kind of memoir - specifically a writer's memoir and since writers spend most of their time sitting in a room alone, writing, they don't have much of a claim to being unique, unusual or especially entertaining. Unfortunately, when he is writing about his upbringing, his friendships, his hobbies, etc., Franzen falls into the mildly interesting category.

In How To Be Alone Franzen wrote about things, people, cities, lives, in a way that made everything he told us about interesting - and often in a way that went beyond that and on into fascination. His piece about the Chicago postal service was a case in point. Who would have thought he could make it come alive, could make it absolutely riveting? Well he did. In this book he is interesting, full-stop. It just doesn't take off into the brilliance I had come to expect from How To Be Alone, unfortunately. Inevitably this is disappointing and makes me wish he'd written The Discomfort Zone first, I would definitely have read more of his work and would thus be just discovering How To Be Alone, and I'd be a lot happier. He is a brilliant writer - especially as a novelist. Let's hope this book means he's got intense self-absorption out of his system.
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on 1 April 2007
The Discomfort Zone follows naturally from Jonathan Franzen's 2001 bestseller The Corrections. Sure, that was fiction and this is autobiography, but many of the themes and settings of everyday life remain the same. It chronicles the author's growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person" to the confidently insecure writer he has become. He casts his scope both inwards and out, linking his own life to the socio-political history of the last fifty years. His story is both personal and universal.

It is a good read, and what we are left with is a picture of everyday life in all its fabulous banality: a life which Franzen loves and hates in alternating measure but which is an inextricable part of himself and his fiction.
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on 10 September 2015
Beautiful Dreamer

Jonathan Franzen is one of America's best novelists and its easy to see why here. This memoir is written with great skill and poignancy, and it is personal in the best way: you really learn about author. Franzen turns out to be an exceptional everyman, gifted yet grounded, profound yet humble and mundane.

It is mainly focused on his youth but takes a sudden lurch to the present at the end, when he confesses to be a birdwatcher! I never knew that was coming. The earlier sections cover his boyhood and adolescence. He reveals himself as a virgin till late in University, a Christian in his associations and a very straight mid-westerner.
He writes with great charm and skill, and makes himself extremely likeable. Not a lot happens, much is mundane, but you read it for his great skill and insight.

Its slight and disjointed structure put me off a little. But he can write about anything, and I will read it.
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on 29 September 2010
I was disappointed with this memoir because Jonathan Franzen spent too long on teenage escapades which gave no insight into his development, they were just hi-jink events. Compare JM Coetzee's 'Youth' and 'Boyhood' which superbly set out HIS mental torment and changes while growing up. The best part in this book was the description of his marriage and perhaps it's worth buying just for that.
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on 12 January 2014
Jonathan Franzen became my favourite author after I read "The Corrections" - and read it again and again. The book is so deeply layered and each section so valuable and intertwined with the others that it is a pleasure to reread, but what appeals before all else is Franzen's breathtaking style. In "The Discomfort Zone" he is playful, self-deprecating; he solicits our compassion and makes us cringe and laugh along with his younger self. There were so many great lines and great passages that I took to reading it with a pen in hand to underline things. I would definitely recommend this to any fan of Franzen's work.
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on 18 November 2007
For many readers who enjoyed the dark comedy of the award-winning `Corrections', this curious amalgam of memoir and social commentary is the necessary literary appetizer to alleviate the long wait before the next Franzen novel hits the market. Fans of his most popular novel will recognize many familiar themes re-emerge from their original autobiographical source - failed marriages, middle-age alienation, difficult, disapproving parents.

Franzen's lively, witty style is as sharp and perceptive as ever; he is the master of the tragic-comic set-piece whether he is recounting the contradictions and trials of the bookish, awkward teenager he was or his recent flirtation with the geeky, withdrawn world of bridwatching, a pursuit which distracts him from his failed relationships and manifests his desire to reconnect with nature in a time where urban sprawl and climate change (two big Franzen themes) threaten the lush unpopulated wilderness.

Franzen's short memoirs work best, though, in the universal appeal they achieve and the overall humanity of his approach to the past and his formative influences. The only reservation is that at 180 pages, I was left hungry for more...surely that can't be a bad thing.
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on 7 March 2015
I think that if you are a fan of his fiction you will get a lot out of this. He opens up to us but not at the risk of getting too cosy, he still keeps plenty to himself but still manages to fill these pages with plenty of interesting and funny moments. I especially enjoyed his conversion to birding and there were definitely a few moments where I was laughing aloud. Overall a really enjoyable read and nice to find out a bit more about the man and how he got to where he is etc.
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on 18 September 2015
I read this author on impulse, as I had heard that he had been described as a 'great' American writer. May be I selected the wrong book to determine whether he is or isn't a great writer, but I found him pretentious, unfocused and overly verbose. I do not consider it good writing, to describe something in a way that the reader needs to be constantly referring to a dictionary, in order to understand it. The book was erratic and skipped from one uninteresting subject to another, without any real understanding of what he was trying to achieve. It seemed like a scrapbook of memories, that he thought the reader might be interested in. I was not. The book depicted him as spoiled, wealthy with a puerile sense of humour. A writer, I guess so but, Great, surely not.
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on 1 April 2007
The Discomfort Zone follows naturally from Jonathan Franzen's 2001 bestseller The Corrections. Sure, that was fiction and this is autobiography, but many of the themes and settings of everyday life remain the same. It chronicles the author's growth from a "small and fundamentally ridiculous person" to the confidently insecure writer he has become. He casts his scope both inwards and out, linking his own life to the socio-political history of the last fifty years. His story is both personal and universal.

It is a good read, and what we are left with is a picture of everyday life in all its fabulous banality: a life which Franzen loves and hates in alternating measure but which is an inextricable part of himself and his fiction.
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