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Wednesday, August 24,2011

'Extremely' challenging and 'Incredibly' appealing

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel left critics cold, but it seems to speak to One Book, One Community readers

by Bill Castanier

Jonathan Safran Foer has a writing
pedigree that can be traced back to his freshman year at Princeton
University when his professor, the venerable Joyce Carol Oates, told him
he could be a writer.


Foer took her advice and by the time he
turned 25 had published his first novel, “Everything is Illuminated,” to
critical acclaim. Oh, and one of his other professors just happened to
be Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides. Foer is following in their
footsteps as a professor at New York University.


Foer visits East Lansing High School
Sunday, and Michigan State University’s Breslin Center Monday, as part
of One Book, One Community program, which is celebrating its 10th year.
His second book (and this year’s selection), “Extremely Loud and
Incredibly Close,” a fictional account of one person’s response to the
events of Sept. 11, is likely to be different than any book the 7,000
incoming college freshmen have previously read — that is, unless they’ve
delved into Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,”
or the work of Franz Kafka or Herman Hesse.


The book deserves its own Cliff Notes.


During the first nine years of the
community reading program, the book selections skewed to much safer and
more traditional literary ventures, such as heartwarming memoirs
represented by Steve Lopez’s “The Soloist” and Jeanette Walls’ “The
Glass Castle.”  


Foer should be ready for his mostly
college-aged audience: He’ll be coming off another One Book, One
Community program at the universities of North Carolina and Duke where
the students were asked to read “Eating Animals,” Foer’s personal
account of vegetarianism.


In “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
the author follows the precocious 9-year-old Oskar, who is trying to
make sense of his post 9-11 world after his father was killed in the
attacks.


There are some incredible coincidences, for which the book was heartily criticized,  as
Oskar, who is just a little obsessive, goes in search of a lock that
fits a key he found in his father’s belongings. His quest, mostly on
foot since he is afraid of closed spaces and public transportation,
takes him around New York’s five boroughs, where he meets some amazing
people.


His journey parallels Oskar’s evolving
relationships with his mother and his grandmother (she lives across the
street), which by the end of the book will be severely challenged.


On a Facebook page created for the One
Book program, students have posted some candid reactions to the book,
which often include the word “confusing.”


There is no doubt the book is confusing,
especially in the early pages, which set the stage for the quest and the
ultimate discovery, which, like a good thriller or a fairy tale, has a
switchback you won’t see coming. By the end, Foer wraps the book up in a
nice package that may not make everyone happy. Along the way he
includes cryptic photos, odd literary divergences and, finally, his own
flip-book.


Oskar is one strange kid, working
overtime to use his genius level skills and abilities. Certainly he is
obsessive, spouting fact after fact about topics that don’t interest
most 9-year-olds, such as how many birds die each year flying into the
Empire State Building. He is a showoff, only wears white clothes and
heavy black boots and is constantly inventing things, like “I could
train my anus to talk when I farted.”


With lines like that it’s no wonder the book is popular with 18-year-olds.


Speaking from his home in Brooklyn,
Safran Foer said that although people want to see Oskar as a real
person, he only “exists in the book.”


“I don’t think about him as a real person,” he said.


Oskar may not be a real person, but he
delves deeply into things real people care about. which in Foer’s case
include “dreams never fulfilled.”


The book is filled with dreams unfulfilled, dreams delayed and dreams that will never come true. 


Foer is adamant that his book is developed as he writes it, with the plot, characters and voice emerging as he goes.


Ginny Haas, director of community
relations for MSU and a longtime One Book, One Community selection
committee member, said that “Extremely” is a very different book, “but
that is one reason students like the book.”


“The book, which often comes close to
stream-of-consciousness, seems to be the way younger people think,” she
said. “They are used to multitasking.” Of course, there are just enough
“boob” and bodily function mentions to keep the guys interested.


She said Foer was recommended by Dave Eggers, last year’s One Book, One Community author. 


This book seems to have something for
everyone: long-lost relatives, clever writing, some slapstick, a
fairy-tale world, dirty words and a perky 9-year-old who is never
deterred from his mission. It gives readers a lot to talk about, and
that’s what Haas said was the original goal of the program.


Jonathan Safran Foer
7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28
East Lansing High School Auditorium,
509 Burcham Drive
Free, but seats available on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors will open at 6:15 p.m.
Foer also speaks at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29
at Breslin Student Events Center, Michigan State University
Free
www.onebookeastlansing.com

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