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Books 119 & 120: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Color Purple

Book 119: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer, 2005.
Genre: Contemporary. Coming-of-Age. Post-modern.
Other Details: Hardback. 368 pages

The main narrator of this outstanding novel is Oskar Schell, a precocious nine-year old New Yorker. His father died in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and he is naturally struggling to make some sense of the tragedy and to discover how his father actually died given that his body was never recovered. Whilst he is going through his father's things after the funeral, he accidentally smashes a vase and finds hidden inside an envelope with the name 'Black'' written on it. Inside the envelope is a key. Sure that the key holds a secret linked to his father, Oskar attempts to search for which of the 162 million locks in New York the key will open.

Alongside Oskar's engaging voice, Foer also utilises letters written by Oskar's paternal grandparents to tell the story of their childhoods, courtship and marriage as well as their separation before the birth of Oskar's father. Like Oskar their lives had also been devastated, though in their time it was by the fire bombing of Dresden during WWII.

Foer's post-modern style uses varied type settings, inserts spaces, photographs and blank pages to give the book a visual dimension beyond the normal prose narrative. It either works for you or doesn't. I was fine with it having been exposed to this style in other recent works. This is one of the first American novels to incorporate the events of 9/11 as a pivotal plot point and to my mind Foer managed to approach this sensitive subject with great skill and compassion. The novel is quite sad and yet also contains a great deal of humour and warmth as well as the reminder that history contains other tragedies besides those that have impacted upon recent times. Highly recommended.

The Project Museum - Jonathan Safran Foer's Website

Book 120: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker, 1982.
Genre: Feminist Period Fiction. Family Saga. GLBT themes.
Other Details: Paperback. 272 pages.

"I'm poor, I'm black, I may be ugly... but I'm here" - Celie, The Color Purple

This acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel was the October selection for one of my reading groups. Although I had read it in the 80s when first published, I only recalled the plot vaguely. As I began to read, more and more came back to me.

It is an epistolary novel, using letters to tell the story of Celie, an uneducated young black woman living in rural Georgia during the first half of the 20th century. It spans about 30 years, opening when she is 14 years old and has been told by her father that she “better not never tell nobody but God” about his sexual abuse of her. So it is to God that she begin to pour out her heart; at first in a rather muddled fashion though with more confidence as the years pass.

It is a work that has had many thousands of words written about it and its importance. It also is one of those novels frequently 'challenged' in the USA for its content. It tackles issues such as relationships, sexism and racism with a deceptive simplicity. It is a novel also about transformation, the power of love and finding one's place in the world and is a profoundly spiritual work. There is great pain and tragedy within its pages yet also hope and redemption. Certainly it is one of the great works of the 20th Century and I was so pleased to become reacquainted with it.

In terms of the group's response, it was generally positive though a couple remarked that they found some of the issues specific to the USA hard to relate to. However, two of us had grown up Stateside and had experienced the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and studied American history, and so we were able to facilitate a quite fruitful discussion about its historical and cultural context.
Tags: 1001 books to read before you die, africa, african-american lit, glbt, human spirit, modern classic, modern lit, pulitzer winner, race
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