Friday, February 3, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is this month's official book club selection.  And just how did I react when I found out this was what our host wanted to read?  Was I excited?  Interested?  Gracious?  No, of course not.  I flopped on the couch and begged, "Please.  Please!  Please don't make us read this!"  Yes, I'm a big girl.  She just looked at me like I had had a breakdown of some sort.

Before I knew anything about this book, I had heard how wonderful it is.  It kept coming up on my radar, so I added it to my 'To Read' list.  And then I found out it was about 9/11 and it was quickly removed from said list.  You see, when it comes to September 11th, 2001, I am completely nonsensical.  When I see images of that day, I actually cover my eyes and duck my head as if not seeing it will make it un-happen.  When I watch old episodes of Friends and they show the old New York skyline, I whimper and clutch my heart.  Out loud I do this.  I know, I'm a moron, but I just can't help it. 

After our host-to-be finished looking at me like I was crazy, she continued what she was saying, that we should all go see the movie after we read the book.  Well, that is where I draw the line because I just can't do that, but I was willing to read the book.  And what did I think?


Was it hard for me to read?  Absolutely, but it was worth it. 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the story of a Oskar, 9-year-old boy who loses his father in the 9/11 attacks.  Oskar's father used to send Oskar on adventures, giving him clues and things to find.  After his father's death, Oskar discovers a key and is desperate to find out what it unlocks.  He thinks this is another of his father's treasure hunts.  This search takes Oskar on an adventure that also allows him to begin to heal.  But this book wasn't just about Oskar.  It was about a whole cast of characters surrounding him:  Oskar's mother who is also grieving; Oskar's grandmother who lost her son that day, but has also lost a husband, a sister, her entire family; Oskar's grandfather who lost himself; and many of the people he encounters during his search and what each of them have lost. 

This is the first book I have read on my new Kindle, so maybe that is why I felt compelled to mark so many quotes in this book.  Or perhaps it was just so full of wonderful quotes.  Don't worry- I won't burden you with all of them, but I would like to share a few.   Oskar is so young, but he sees things and understands things that perhaps others don't.  At one point early in the novel, he says, "It's not that I believe in things that can't be observed now, because I don't.  It's that I believe that things are extremely complicated."  When things become too much, he says, "I zipped myself all the way into the sleeping bag of myself."  Haven't we all felt like doing that at some point or another? 

Foer's writing is beautifully done.  The way he molds the words into what he wants to say is touching.  "That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into." 
Later the grandmother says, "I wish I could be a girl again, with the chance to live my life again.  I have suffered so much more than I needed to.  And the joys I have felt have not always been joyous.  I could have lived differently." 
And:  "So many people enter and leave your life!  Hundreds of thousands of people!  You have to keep the door open so they can come in!  But it also means you have to let them go!"

And perhaps my favorite is this.  While Oskar is talking with an older man that he meets during his search, he discovers the man was a war correspondent.  Oskar asks about his last war.  The man tells him that cutting down a tree that he used to build a bed was his last war.  Oskar says, "I asked him who won, which I thought was a nice question because it would let him say that he won, and feel proud.  He said, 'The ax won!  It's always that way!'"  Who wins any war?  No one.  Why is that so difficult for us to understand.  It is only the ax that wins. 

Foer draws the unsettling parallel between 9/11, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and the controversial fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, during WWII.  Of course, 9/11 personally affected Oskar and most of us know what it entailed.  The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima is brought to the story through a tape that Oskar plays for a class presentation.  It is the recorded interview of a woman who survived the bombing, but lost her daughter.  The ugliness she describes is appalling.  About it she says, "That is what death is like.  It doesn't matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing.  It doesn't matter how good the weapons are.  I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore."  That is my personal hope as well.  Finally, the fire bombing of Dresden is the grandmother's story.  She and the grandfather were living in Dresden at the time and lost everyone in the bombings and subsequent fires.  I couldn't help but notice that each of these three events involves the terrifying description of death by fire and extreme heat and also the loss of family and loved ones.

Oskar's humor.  Sometimes it is intentional.  He says more than once that he knows if he can make his mother laugh that she still loves him.  Other times, it is Oskar's quirkiness that makes the reader smile.  While there were difficult parts of this book, the storytelling captured my attention enough to distract me, at least at times.  I would recommend this book with gusto.  It is beautifully written and full of bits of wisdom that often surprised me.